A few days ago, I wrote about Roy Peter Clark’s Learning Tools for Writing. Since then, I’ve found Clark’s list makes for fascinating reading and re-reading. I’ll likely add my thoughts on several of Clark’s tools in the future, but one in particular caught my attention. Learning Tool #49: Learn From Criticism is how I wish all feedback was accepted in both live and online writing workshops. Part of what draws me to Clark’s tools is his articles are both clear and fun to read. Clark explains both the seeming impossibility of such a task and the importance of it, plus he gives a humorous example of how a journalist / editor may disagree on the matter, as well as a bullet-point summary of his already-brief article (make the concise even more concise, I like it).
Clark has a simple credo: “I never defend my story against criticism.” I’m proud to say this has been a staple of my workshop behavior for some time. I never understood the point of explaining why a story I wrote is actually wonderful when the people I asked to read it and give me their honest opinions tell me the story is less-than-stellar. Whatever fodder I have to defend my story with should already be in the story. Staying true to this idea has helped me develop my “all-listening ear.”
The all-listening ear takes in all praise and all criticism without discrimination. The all-listening ear leaves no bit of feedback behind. When I have a story workshopped, I take in all the feedback, jotting down the oral notes and almost never look up as I continue writing whatever my peers have for me. Sometimes, I write down who said what, sometimes I don’t (more on that in a future post). I’ll hear notes I agree with, and am almost guaranteed to hear a few I’ll think are doggerel, but that doesn’t stop me from taking them all in. If I were to pick-and-choose notes I thought had merit in the moment, I would likely lose notes which might make sense to me upon a second look. Instead, I save those recorded oral notes, along with the written manuscript notes, for another day. I return to my asked-for criticisms another day, fresh, ready to weigh each one equally. It’s not easy, as Clark says, but it’s worth it.
I think of the would-be contestants on talent-based “reality” tv shows who don’t make the cut, who have judges tell them what rubbish their act is or how if only they tried a little harder they might have something, someday. The camera invariably shows these folks who want to appear honest and good-hearted doing anything but be honest with themselves. “Those judges just don’t get my act,” one may say. “I don’t care. I do what I do and I’m proud of it and I’ll make it, anyway, so we’ll see who has the last laugh.” If the determination they show in that type of proclamation is genuine, I wish them the best of luck. But if it’s only emerging as a knee-jerk reaction to tough criticism, their time spent in the mire of mediocrity is only bound to get longer.