Cover Photo: Listening and Using Criticism: by Barbara Ellingson

Listening and Using Criticism:

What matters and what doesn't?

By the end of  my time at UNC's MFA program, the artistic director had taken to just putting his head in his hands and  kind of wobbling his big skull to and fro, as if it was going to fall right off his neck from the weight of my terrible performance. "Why are you so bad?" he'd ask. (In fairness, he wasn't wrong.) By that point, we'd been taught to stand still and listen.  We were not allowed to interject, not to argue back, especially not cry or get angry, and then incorporate all his notes into the next try at the scene or face doing this all over again. The man had a weak heart. I was slowly killing him. It happens. 

Classmates, also, were able to critique. They were usually more gentle, but knew me better, and were also subject to my endless striving and anxiety.  Twenty years after school let out, I sat at dinner with a dear friend and asked what he remembered about me. "You were difficult," he said. "You never let down."  I was a terrible actor. It happens. 

When I started writing, I was ready to find critique everywhere. Whoever wanted to give it could give it and I'd listen. Some people, whatever their field, take pride in being the tough critic, the "If-I-don't-make-you-cry-and-vomit-and-wonder-why-you're-living-I-haven't-done-my-job" critic.  But cruelty and flippancy as a sport are easy. And why  bother with someone who gets off on  doing that?  It's not especially helpful. Not everything has to be hard. Not everything has to leave a bitter taste.  That's easy.  Let that go.

Some white writers are also coming to find that we can't do it alone.  Maybe if we're trying to reflect the world around us we need a writer of color to take a look and say "oh my, why would you ever do that?"  But here's the thing about that kind of critique. It doesn't cost us. It costs our critics. The other writer who reads along with your story and points out what made her cringe.  That's the most personal kind of  criticism, to ask someone to read something  ham-handed, something faltering, and try to make sense of it for you. 

That's the critique that does the real work. There's a person on the other end, not offering it as sport or game or intellectual exercise, but as a look into their mind. And it should cost us. We should pay for it. We can't ask writers of color, Black women writers, to give away their thoughts and time for free. We can, but we'd be assholes. 

Finding what kind of criticism works for you is a long road. But when you find it, listen and use it as best you can. And be ready to pay. Because the careful thinking and rhythm and heartbeat of another woman's mind are worth it.  Recognize that. Line your heartbeat up and pay, listen, and work.

Very Busy and Extremely Important.