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?

The Reality of Unreality

I believe that inspiration for writing can be found anywhere and everywhere… I just have to keep my eyes and ears open.  If I’m not paying attention, I might miss things.

I like to read and write because I love to immerse myself in a story.  I can be anyone, go anywhere, do anything.  The constraints of real life can float away, almost as if they don’t exist at all.  In books and novels, we get to skip the boring parts. Unless it’s integral to the plot line, we never have to cook meals, go to the bathroom, have a bad hair day, stock up on shampoo, or gain any weight.

People can fall in love and get married within 200 pages, and it seems just fine.  The FBI or CIA can take over your computer and blow up your house, and you don’t have to worry about filing insurance claims.  You can get shot and say, “It’s only a scratch.”

That’s why I laugh when people tell me that a story was “unrealistic.”  It’s all unrealistic!  It’s not a webcam of someone’s life, it’s a story.  I believe that as readers and watchers, we get the best experience when we suspend disbelief.  I’ll believe anything, as long as it makes sense in the context of the story.  If the story’s poorly put together, then it strains the limits of even my imagination. But a well-told story about something fantastic can be… well… fantastic.  (Okay, bad pun.  Sorry.)

All this may be one of the best arguments to have others read and critique.  Maybe the story makes perfect sense to the writer, but that’s because you’ve connected the dots in your head.  Writing at its best will connect (or imply a connect) those dots for readers.  We all mess up sometimes though and miss those vital connections.

Just keep writing, keep reading, stay open minded, and it will all come together.

Learning How To Write

My writing career started in third grade with a story called, “The Cream Colored Pony.”  It was good enough that my teacher had me re-copy it to give a copy to our principal.  From there, I went on to write several novels and more short stories and partial stories than I can count.  I wrote my first decent novel in 2004, and my husband changed my life when he asked me, “Why don’t you try to get any of this stuff published?”

I’ll be honest; it had never occurred to me before then.  Writing was fun.  It was a hobby, but to be published?  Who really did that?

Of course, it was a blonde moment.  I read tons of novels, so I know that people write for publication, but it seemed to be in the way of famous actors and people who keep their house clean.  Those are things for other people, not me.

So began a long journey.  I started by reading books and buying the Writer’s market books, blindly sending letters to editors.  I learned a little more when I went to my first Writer’s Conference, and learned how woefully unprepared I was for my new experience.  In 2007, I moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona, and my experiment in being published fell by the wayside.

I’m not sure how I discovered http://www.reviewfuse.com, but it was sometime in fall of 2009.  It was through the reviewfuse community that I learned I have several shameful vices.  I love adverbs.  I love to start sentences with an unnecessary “so.”  I love to put “that” where it doesn’t belong.  And I am enamored of passive voice.  I could go on and on.  I felt kind of ashamed that I’d ever considered myself a pretty good writer.

After I got over my own ego (it took longer than it should have, BTW), I realized that my choices were to cling to the way I wanted to write, or try something new and maybe get better.  I decided to soak up all the wisdom I could, separating the truly helpful tips from the ones that make me go, “huh?”

Today, I’m proud to say that I’m still improving as a writer.  I try to take advice gracefully, even when it isn’t offered gracefully.  I try to pay attention to other writer’s styles.  There was a time when I couldn’t read a book without automatically correcting passive voice in my head, even if it resulted in something ridiculous.  I’ve learned to take a step back now.  Not every bit of advice has to be followed to the letter.

For a while, I think I strayed from the path of writing being fun and kept looking forward to the destination of publication.  Now, I’m trying to just enjoy the journey again.  Would it be great to have my novel published?  Uh, yeah.  Will it make writing less fun if it never happens?  Nope.  Not one bit.