Being Perfect, Accepting Criticism, and Generally Getting Over Myself

IMG_2703I was in elementary school when I got my first C on a test. It was probably math, because back then I thought I hated math. I got home from school, and sobbed because a C was clearly the end of the world. And my mom sat me down and explained that I didn’t have to be perfect.

I can’t count the number of times she told me that, but it never quite sank in.

I used to be a poor sport, throwing a quiet temper tantrum if I lost a game. Oh, I thought I was holding in my temper quite well, but everyone else knew I was being a big baby. (This was in my 20s.) Still, I’m generally good at everything, so people kept playing with me because I didn’t lose all that often.

Any criticism, even the mild kind, could make me fume for weeks. Because if someone criticized me, clearly they hated me and everything about me, right? The flip side of that is that if I said or did something I perceived as “wrong,” I could obsess over it for weeks as well.

One day, I was getting ready to go play games with my friends, and I thought back to the last time we played. I remembered eating and drinking, making silly jokes and laughing a lot. I remembered who was there and what we played. But no matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t remember who won.

And that was eye-opening for me.

I didn’t get over myself overnight, but that realization started the slow process. Whenever I started to take something too seriously or get upset about it, I’d just ask myself, “Will I even remember this in a month?” If the answer was no, I made myself move on.

Then I started participating in online critiques of my writing, and the old feelings resurfaced. I made myself put the critiques aside for a day or two before responding. And I found that as long as I didn’t respond right away, I could get over my hurt and see that much of the critique was helpful. Not all of it, of course. Sometimes criticism is just a difference of opinion, and I didn’t have to go with it. But if I assumed that everyone who criticized me was coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help me, it made the criticism easier to take.

I know that not everyone wants to help, and that criticism can be malicious. But it’s not my job to sort out other people’s emotions. I just assume everyone has my best interests at heart, and move on. Other people’s negativity doesn’t have to affect me, unless I let it.

It wasn’t until I was in grad school to be a counselor that I realized how much progress I’d made. We all had to tape ourselves doing “counseling sessions” with other students, and then get feedback from our professor in front of the whole class. I really respected this professor, and desperately wanted her praise. But when she saw my video, she picked out all the areas where I could improve.

I felt myself turning red, and those old feelings of having to be perfect wanted to come to the surface. But I told myself to pay attention to what she was saying, really listen, and think about it later when I had time to decide how to feel, and if it was helpful.

When she was done ripping my counseling session to shreds (that’s how it felt, though it probably wasn’t reality because she is a genuinely good human being), one of the other students said, “Wow, that was really amazing. How could you just sit there and take all that criticism? I’d be in tears.”

I took a deep breath and said, “Well, this is where we’re supposed to mess up, right? I’ll learn more from my mistakes than my successes. This way, when I get into the real world, I won’t hurt anyone, and I’ll do it right.” And that tight ball of tension inside me dissolved, because I realized that I meant it.

Criticism is still hard to handle sometimes. And of course, I love praise for a job well done. But regularly attending a writer’s group and having consistent critiques has been a wonderful asset to working on this aspect of myself.  That criticism doesn’t hurt, most of the time. Sure, once in awhile, if I’m having a bad day and feeling emotional, those old feelings try to struggle to the surface.

But I mostly tell them to shut up.

If I’m really having a bad day, I know who I can text to rescue me from negative thoughts. And I also try to write compliments and positive feedback into my journal, so if I’m struggling with negative thoughts, I read over the things people said to me that made me feel good.

And I remind myself not to take it all so seriously. It’s just life, right?

How do you handle criticism?

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Open Letter to The Writer Who Left My Group

IMG_8652Dear Writer Who Left My Writer’s Group,

I was sad when you dropped out of our writer’s group. You had good input, and I really liked your story.

I felt bad about it, like it might be partly my fault. See, at our last group, you got a tough review from another writer. And you also got a tough review from me. I don’t think I remembered to tell you how much I liked your story, and I should have. Maybe that would have helped.

See, I’ve been there. Two months into my writer’s group, I got a tough review from the same person. I fought tears during group, trying to put on a brave face, like it didn’t bother me. I thought I did a good job, but other people could probably tell how upset I was. I know I could tell how upset you were.

After that group, I thought about just giving up. Not writing anymore. It seemed pointless. I mean, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and if I’m not where I want to be, then why bother? I almost dropped out of group.

Then, I got together with a friend, who said all the things I needed to hear at that moment. That the critiquer was just trashing my work because he was jealous of how awesome I am. That he didn’t know what he was talking about. That obviously he was just an idiot with no taste. I mean, my friend was wrong. But it got me out of that funk I was in.

See, the problem was that my critiquer was right, and I knew he was right. That’s why it stung so badly. He wasn’t right about everything, of course. But he was right about enough that I knew I needed to take a good hard look at my writing.

I’m going to confess; I’ve been a lazy writer. I haven’t always worked as hard on a piece as I could. And should. My anger inspired me to be a better writer.

My critiquer is now a good friend. And I really count on his input, because I know he won’t sugar-coat anything. It still stings from time to time, but I don’t take it personally anymore.

So back to you, writer who left. I was going to tell you all this. I wanted to contact you after group and let you know that we’ve all been there, that I like your story, and encourage you to keep going.

But your profile on Meetup didn’t allow me to send you a message, or give me any way to contact you. And then you left our group, so now I really can’t get in touch.

I’m sad you left, but I have to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Maybe it really went down the way I think it did, or maybe you had to leave for a completely unrelated reason.

Either way, know that I’m thinking of you, and I’m hoping I see the best version of your story out there someday.

And know that next time, I’ll make sure I tell other writers that I like their work, try to end on a positive note. Because maybe you would have left anyway. But if I had said that it was good work, and then you left, I wouldn’t feel bad.

I’d just figure you weren’t ready.

Best of luck, wherever you are.

Doree

P.S. This comic has been stuck in my mind, so I thought I’d share it.

Opinions

Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Photo Credit: Doree Weller

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I recently witnessed an argument in my writer’s group between two people I respect tremendously.  They got into an argument because the critiquer was absolutely sure that they were right about their opinion on what they were critiquing.  The critiquee got understandably upset and insulted.  Unkind words were exchanged.

It’s important to keep perspective on things and remember that your truth is not everyone’s truth.  And while you’re entitled to your opinion, it’s best not to jam it down someone else’s throat.  Strong opinions make the world a more interesting and diverse place.  Being sure that your version of the truth is the “right” version does not add to the world; it subtracts.

Go forth and be kind this week.

“Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.”
-Robert Brault

Life Lessons

On Wellness Wednesdays, I post about a topic related to wellness.

“I have learned silence form the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind, yet strange, I am ungrateful for those teachers.”

-Khalil Gibran

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona Photo Credit: Doree Weller

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

I believe that we’re all presented with the same lesson in life, over and over, until we learn it.  People and situations may annoy or upset us, but the truth is that everything can be a learning experience.

It’s difficult because we don’t get letter grades for these experiences.  No one marks up our experience with a red pen, showing us exactly what we need to improve.  Instead, we have to figure it out.

The best way to figure out how you’re doing in learning about something in particular is by how it makes you feel.  If it upsets, angers, frustrates, or makes you afraid, you may have more to learn from it.  The more intensely you feel, the more important the lesson.

People who won’t shut up irritate me.  They talk and talk, repeating themselves, and usually end up saying very little.  I recently had yet another encounter with one of these individuals.  He was a member of my writer’s critique group, and he gave good feedback, but it was buried within a speech to rival the length of War and Peace.  I tried to let him know, gently, that it was difficult for me to hear what he was trying to tell me when he repeated the same thing over and over.  I think I hurt his feelings, and soon after, he dropped out of the group.  I still feel bad about that, wondering if what I said made him want to leave.

I have two lessons to learn here.  I’m honestly not sure what the first lesson is; I’m still trying to figure it out.  Perhaps that I need to listen, even when I don’t want to?  Or perhaps how to give better feedback?  The second lesson is most definitely that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and if he chose to drop out of group, that was his choice, and I didn’t “cause” it.

If I insulted him, he could have spoken to me about it.  He could have ignored me or told me to go to hell.  I’m not responsible for the choices he made, and likely his choice to leave group didn’t have anything to do with me at all.

What lessons are you still working through?

A Little Encouragement

Vancouver, BC; Photo credit: Doree Weller

Vancouver, BC; Photo credit: Doree Weller

Most of the people in my life aren’t readers, and they mostly aren’t interested in reading my stories or talking sticky plot points through with me.  I’ve come to terms with it, and since I mostly write for myself anyway, it’s okay.

When I submit something for critique, I ask for honest, unbiased feedback because my goal is to be published, not to get a pat on the back or get compliments.  My skin is thick, so I can take the negative and channel it into something positive and constructive.

I recently submitted Chapter 2 of the novel I’m editing.  Again.  I love this story of mine.  I love the characters.  I love the dialog.  And I love the plot.  I love everything about it.  I recently got three critiques on the story, two of which were helpful.  The third person who critiqued me gushed about my story.  But it wasn’t just, “Hey, I loved this chapter.”  He got specific about what he loved, quoted dialog he particularly liked and told me that my descriptions were great.  I struggle with descriptions, so this was so nice to hear!  He asked good questions about the story that will help me make it better.

It re-energized me.  I’ve started to feel a bit apathetic about writing, and I wasn’t sure why.  I think that in part, it was because I’ve lacked any kind of encouragement for so long.  I really didn’t even know I was missing it.  A little encouragement goes a long way.  I guess I need to remember that.

Revising, Critiquing, Passive Voice… Oh my!

DSCN2539

Jerome, AZ… Photo credit Doree Weller

I know passive voice slows down the pace of the story.  I know it.  I watch for the dreaded “was.”  But I swear that a word thief who wants all the good verbs for himself sneaks into my writing and puts them there.  Unlikely?  Yes.  But all good conspiracies are built from unlikely beginnings.

I used to use Reviewfuse for critiques, and I met a lot of good people there.  Many of my works I put up for critique ended up getting published, so I’m a huge fan of writers helping writers.  I’m not into the whole meeting people in person thing.  I’d be expected to socialize and have manners, and if I can avoid those things, I prefer to.

Anyway, toward the end, I wasn’t getting much valuable feedback off Reviewfuse anymore, and after “good job” one too many times, I drifted away.  I recently found Scribophile, and so far, it seems really good.  I’ve gotten three quality reviews on a novel first chapter, which I used to mercilessly revise it, cutting parts I’d grown to love.  They needed to go, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love them.

Scribophile works on “karma points,” so the more you review, the more you can submit your work for review.  One thing I like is that I can pick and choose what works I want to review.  That way, I can read stuff I’m actually interested in, instead of getting stuck critiquing a memoir I hate just because, as a rule, I don’t like non-fiction.  The user interface isn’t as easy and intuitive on Scribophile as it was on Reviewfuse, but that’s a little thing, since I’m getting good, constructive reviews.

If you’re an author, check it out.