#ArtistTherapy: On CPs and Sensitivity

"I can take criticism." Even I've convinced myself that I can totally take whatever is thrown at me after a dozen years of participating in workshops/critique groups. After a classmate in undergrad said "Shame on you for writing this! You're better than that!" made me break down and cry at age 21, I swore I'd hardened up.

After getting comments from critique partners (CPs) that was racist "I assumed everyone in your story was from the Bronx because they're Black" or "I don't believe the cleaning lady should be White, maybe Hispanic?" to unhelpful "I don't read literary but I like this" to the person giving feedback looping around to their own work "See, what I'd do in this type of story is..." to the silence in my MFA fiction workshop being so abundant I swore I heard crickets, I'd thought I was pretty much okay to take whatever was thrown my way. After dealing with CPs for months if not years who gave me what I didn't need I learned how to give others what they did need. BUT, that doesn't mean something won't jump out and hit me in a tender spot every once in awhile.

When you find the right group of people who enjoy your work and get what you're trying to do you have a sense of security in knowing you are good, beyond good even! I consider this on par with being a Big Deal in high school and once you get into college you are no longer the top of your class but may even be struggling to meet the demands of a new environment. This feeling does not leave you. You may be the prized writer in undergrad or grad school but once you start submitting your work to agents you may find the consistency of rejections shocking.

This is not to deter you but to provide the tough love component/educational moment we artists should accept. There are A LOT of artists in the world. I live in NYC. This is one of the epicenters of where people come to be artists. I think once you take this into account it can be a bit easier to take critique because what you're doing may not be the most original but that doesn't make it bad and it doesn't mean what you're creating isn't unique.

Back to sensitivity. You acknowledge that you are one of many. You understand that the art you make is good, you are passionate about it, and you will continue to create. Fantastic! You have your group of people to help you improve and maintain. Another check mark. However, maybe in your most recent group meeting the group you have felt so comfortable with was not enthused about what you submitted.

Deep breath. Okay. Remember, this is helpful. You want to improve. You want to know what's wrong so you can fix it. Another breath, slow nod. Brief smile. "Alright, hit me with what to fix." And then you see it, the boredom in the face. You hear it. The terseness in the voice of someone unimpressed and wanting to get it over with. What you are perceiving is someone who is mad. You have made someone mad! You feel yourself shrink and wither in your seat. You're taking in what's being said and others may be countering what one person thinks with their own observations giving you a push to work on this because there's something to be salvaged! Yet, once all is said and done what have you heard? The bad.

So, you have your thoughts and they're running the gamut. You have a lot to consider but you are overwhelmed and let's be honest a tad bit upset if not really upset. Understandable. Your art is personal, it is an extension of you. You created this and want others to appreciate it as much as you do. So, if you are upset, peeved, emotional, what do you do? Do you curse your CPs out? Do you go fetal and not create anymore? Do you suck it up, invest in lots of chocolate, and binge on Game of Thrones? Do you take a few days to wallow and then suck it up and move forward with edits?

I would suggest, if you were hit in that tender spot you didn't realize you had, you contemplate how you feel and what you need from your CPs. I left several workshop groups because I was not getting what I needed. I broke off relationships with CPs because I was giving and not getting, and I was not the right partner for others because they did not like my work. While at the same time realizing how I could be a better CP and also reeling it back to me more thoughtful if/when I said something hurtful to a fellow writer. Like any relationship it has to be filled with mutual respect and understanding. And there has to be communication. If, after this particular critique session, you're a bit shaken about your craft that is normal. Not everything you create will be a hit. Junot Diaz has said he still gets a bit of trepidation when releasing a new book because he doesn't know if those who loved his last book will even like his new one.

However, if you note that your CPs are not giving you what you need then this isn't you being overly sensitive. And if someone says you're "being sensitive" because you're a woman then you definitely shouldn't associate with them anymore. If you find that your CP's terseness was unacceptable then let him/her know. Let your group know that what you need is not to be handled like a stray, but to be get feedback with less 'tude. "What I need is...." There's no shame in admitting this. It'll help you and won't strain relations. But if someone is yelling at you like that lady in undergrad did to me (and I can understand passion but sometimes that gets confused with straight up anger) or simply NOT giving you feedback or constantly noting things they'd prefer to see than what they do see in your work, then, oh well, this ain't working. And again, it's not you being too sensitive. This is just what you need.

I'm not even delving into agents, publishers, lit mags, and so on. I'm focusing on your peers. Those people who you trust to see your work at its most raw stage and help you polish it off and shine. If the respect isn't there it needs to be established or you have to find new CPs. If every critique hits you hard than that's something to explore. I've met writers who after someone said something like, "I really like what you did here and would totally read this story because the world you created is so fun, but maybe the character can a bit younger because kids at this age don't believe in fairy tale characters" has lead to that person seeing ONLY the bad part of that statement. Zoning in on the bad is not good and this is what adds to sensitivity. If you only see the negative you may get stuck and it's easy to be stuck. Remember the last post on non-forward movement? It's very easy to not be creative.

I can't promise you'll be less sensitive the more you get feedback. I can't say that the wording will always be what you need it to be or that you'll meet fantastic, caring CPs from the start. What I can say is that if you find the right ones you'll improve by leaps and bounds. If you find people who give you what you need and you give it back you can enter into a relationship that can last longer than most marriages these days. And that, after a while, you may notice the feedback doesn't hit you as hard as it used to.

Side note: Back in 2010 (yup 2010), I wrote a post on writing groups & workshops. Here I listed workshop etiquette as well as links for places to find workshops (free & paid). While some links may be defunct now I'm sure a few are still around.