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The Fastest Way to be a Better Artist

"The American School", oil on canvas by Matthew Pratt, 1765. From The Met public domain collection.

For the first month after starting my blog, I didn’t ask for feedback from anyone. The spectres of past critics kept drifting through my mind, and their words made me want to crawl into a shell:

  • “Your poems are juvenile.”
  • “No one would ever publish this.”
  • “It needs work … I don’t know what kind of work. It just … needs work.”

My personal favourite piece of destructive feedback refers to my first and only attempt at sports reporting. Back when I was in journalism school, I helped produce a TV story about the failure to build a baseball team in Ottawa. It was supposed to be heartbreaking. When our professor’s assistant saw it, she said, “You know what this story makes me think? It makes me think, Fuck you and your baseball.”

Ouch.

I took all those people’s words to heart, and, after leaving journalism school, I generally shunned feedback of any kind.

Angry geese on a beach in Saranda.

Some geese Kevin and I met in Saranda, Albania. They disapproved of us and everything we stood for. Photo by Kevin Urbanski.

Eventually, though, I realised if I was serious about writing professionally, I’d have to learn to seek and deal with criticism. I sought it first from my partner Kevin. It took practise to stop rewarding his helpful and precise comments with sighs and excuses, but, once I got the hang of it, the quality of my work increased immediately.

Then, I branched out, sharing drafts of my short stories and chapters of my upcoming non-fiction book with friends, fellow writers, and other people in my creative communities.

Everything I wrote got better, and it got better fast.

Seeking and implementing constructive criticism is the quickest way to elevate our work.

Click to Tweet: Seeking and implementing constructive criticism is the quickest way to elevate our work. 

Constructive criticism has the following characteristics:

  • It’s not uniformly negative; it highlights both what’s good and what needs improving.
  • It’s specific. “I didn’t like that story” is not constructive; “I thought your heroine was too passive” is.
  • While it’s occasionally uncomfortable to receive, it’s always helpful and compassionately delivered.

That said, when we’re in the middle of generating the very first version of our work, all criticism is destructive. We should avoid it until we’ve at least got something rough, because we create and evaluate with different parts of the brain. When we enter “critique mode,” we exit “idea generation mode.”

“Critique mode” is a great place to be, though, once we’ve got something that actually exists. We should still avoid destructive criticism — at least until we’ve released our work.

Here’s how to spot destructive criticism:

  • It tears a piece apart without acknowledging its redeeming qualities.
  • Its tone is mean and judgemental.
  • It’s not specific. “Your poems are juvenile” is destructive criticism; “I think you could deepen the metaphors in the third stanza of the third poem” isn’t.

The best thing to do with destructive criticism is chuck it out the window. I’m reminded again of what Henry, my favourite yoga teacher in Edmonton, said: “Is it true? Who cares? If it doesn’t serve you, let it go.”

Adolf de Mayer's

I imagine anyone taking a picture like this in 1912 would’ve had his share of haters. “Dance Study,” platinum print by Adolf de Meyer, 1912, from The Met public domain collection.

How to seek and handle feedback

  1. Seek it from kind people who like you and want you to succeed. Nothing is more toxic to a newborn piece of art than premature exposure to jealous, insecure critics.
  2. Seek it from more than one person. I was glad I asked for feedback from several people on my most recent round of short stories, because, while one person said I should completely re-write all my endings, the general consensus was that I shouldn’t change them. My three earliest readers for Creative Unblocking: How to Bypass Self-Doubt and Complete Your Best Work each had different suggestions for improving the book, and I implemented almost all of them.
  3. Seek feedback from people who’ll ask you to return the favour. They’ll often be more mindful of your feelings, more aware of the sorts of comments that’ll help you, and more likely to provide them in a timely fashion.
  4. Ask specific questions:
    • What do you think of the lines in this drawing?
    • Does the apple wreck the foreground of this painting?
    • Is my essay too long?
    • Did anything in the story confuse you?
    • What, if anything, in my performance made you uncomfortable?
  5. Don’t argue. Assuming you’ve chosen the right kind of people, they’re trying to help you, not hurt you, and if you get touchy about what they say, they won’t want to help you again.
  6. Understand that flaws in your work don’t make you a bad artist or a bad person. In most cases, we won’t get it right the first time, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to.
  7. Consider each piece of criticism carefully before accepting or rejecting it. Will it really make the work better, or will it tear out a piece of its soul? Most of the time, our gut knows the answer.

When we’re early in the creative process, an obsession with quality can derail us. Perfectionism is our enemy at every stage. Still, most of us want to create something with the power to affect other people, and for that, quality is important. Seeking feedback is the most efficient way to get it.

Featured image: “The American School,” oil on canvas by Matthew Pratt, 1765. From The Met public domain collection.

What about you, reader? How do you deal with criticism? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.


If you’d like a sneak peek at my upcoming book, Creative Unblocking: How to Bypass Self-Doubt and Complete Your Best Worksubscribe for free to my “no spam” email list. You’ll get fresh inspiration and creative insights delivered monthly to your inbox, and I’ll remind you when the full book is released on August 1st, 2017.

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