Humility in Writing, or: How to Take Criticism with a Grain of Salt (and a stiff drink)
"You've got to be the biggest idiot ever; I pity your parents."
That phrase, along with many other ignorant (and frankly insulting) comments, was sent to me as an anonymous letter a few years ago, in response to a blog I had published in a local weekly newspaper. The blog in question dealt with choosing a political party as a newbie; 18 years old and freshly registered, I pondered why I was being forced to choose a political party, when in fact I shared views with both major parties. At the time, I didn't realize that I could register Independent and I didn't have to answer to anybody's shenanigans.
Innocently, I posted this blog to a site that favored posts by teens from my town and if they liked them, the blogs would be printed up in the Thursday serials. Imagine my delight and surprise when my teeny blog was chosen for publication! Hooray! I cut it out, put it on the fridge, posted about it on every social media website you can name, and called my grandmother. Imagine my horror and disgust when I received a NASTY anonymous letter the following Friday. I'd quote it directly, but it's long been filed in the circular can.
Essentially, the letter berated me for my ignorance about government spending, the GDP, abortion, capital punishment, and war. The cowardly author sprinkled the paper with crass language and bad grammar. I was absolutely mortified. I'm 18! Some anonymous person is sending me hate mail; it's practically a death threat! Okay, overreaction, but I sure didn't take it well. I had done my research about my views for at least a week before I ever touched that letter and read it aloud at least five times before I posted it. I knew what I was saying in that blog, and this person had the gall to tell me that I was an idiot for thinking those things. I didn't submit another blog for at least six months after; I was terrified that Haters Anonymous would send a lynch mob after me for liking The Lion King.
Needless to say, I have had to learn how to let the horrific criticism roll right off my shoulders, or sometimes off my cheeks in tear form, and then let it go. Not all criticism is bad! The word 'criticism' comes from the word 'critic', or someone who judges the artistic/literary merit of the piece in question. That doesn't make it any easier to take, regardless.
Several years and hundreds of blogs later, I found myself in a playwriting class. I thought I was the wittiest thing that class had ever read, for the first few character exercises at least. I'm confident enough in my writing at this point to say that I've always been good with words and I've always struggled with structure; my professor picked up on this quickly. His favorite phrase became "it's funny, but the ending isn't logical." This stabbed like a knife, but what did I want him to say? If he didn't tell me, somebody else sure would have! Somebody would send me an anonymous letter telling me that Julie would never kiss Paul after coming out of a Coma and finding out she was pregnant with somebody else's baby. If I was ever going to succeed as a playwright, my plays had to make sense. It doesn't get much clearer than that. I'm happy to say I've completed six plays since, but I'm never completely satisfied. I'm never done writing them.
Criticism can be painful, agonizing even; I have friends who have stopped writing creatively altogether because of one person's bad review and that is a tragedy. How do you survive the barrage of rejection and bad reviews that you'll face if you chose a career in writing? I have one essential rule: Have a sense of humor.
My Dad secretly dug my very first terrible anonymous hate letter out of the trash and read it aloud to me with a certain tone and the person sounded like a psychopath. It was hilarious! Not only was this person ignorant of their own HEINOUS grammatical errors, they seemed to agree with some of the points I had made in my blog and simply misunderstood the point. This person wasn't a villain anymore; my enemy became my inspiration.
Laugh, always laugh. Through the bad critiques and the good, through your self doubt, just laugh. Grab a celebratory margarita and toast to your career that won't fail because you are able to laugh at yourself, the situation, and the terrible review. Humor will allow you to sift the helpful comments from the flaming poo. That disgusting metaphor is absolutely my best friend as a writer... well, not the 'poo' part. "This writer resorted to bathroom humor for a cheap laugh." Ooh, boy. I can see the reviews now.