Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor Part 2: Why It’s Difficult to Take Criticism of Your Writing

I understand how hard it is to absorb criticism in a world that is often indifferent to, hostile to, or resentful of your work as a writer. There are so many coworkers, relatives, and failed-writer English teachers who seem to feel it is their purpose in life to distance you from your creative self. To defend yourself from those who advise you against your creativity, you may sometimes build a bunker that you retreat into when you hear criticism.

Let me give you an example of how that sort of bunker can sometimes work to defeat you. When I was a much younger writer, I had the good fortune to have a book accepted by a great editor at a major press. I had written a poem called “Oranges” about the many people and languages that went into growing and bringing to market a single orange. The celebrated children’s author Marilyn Sachs advised me to edit the poem and send it out as the text of a picture book. I did, and to my amazement, it was accepted by Richard Jackson, who then had his own imprint at Orchard Books. If you’re a book editor at a major press, having your own imprint is like getting on Top Chef if you’re a cook. Dick Jackson had edited many writers who had written much better and more successfully for children than I had, including Judy Blume.
I first met with Dick Jackson in his office high up in a Manhattan skyscraper, with a view of expensive water. I was armed with all my defenses about what it meant to deal with a major press. I was sure he was going to try to censor the political content of my text. I also had in mind a politically correct poster artist I wanted to do the illustrations. Of course that artist had never illustrated a children’s book in his life. Dick Jackson politely informed me that he already had an illustrator in mind, a fantastic artist named Mary Szilagyi who, it turned out, was infinitely better known in the world of children’s books than I was. This was an incredible advantage for a novice writer, since it would bring the book to the attention of reviewers. I didn’t realize that at the time, though, so I resented that Dick Jackson didn’t take my naive suggestion about choosing an illustrator. My dander was up even higher at this point in our meeting.
Then Dick Jackson asked me to change a line that appeared many times in the poem. With each new person who helped to grow or ship or market this orange, I had added a line about the language that the person spoke: “Probably he spoke Spanish,” “Probably she spoke Creole,” etc. My aim was to show the multicultural sources of even the most familiar object. Dick suggested I change that repeating phrase to “Maybe he spoke Spanish,” etc. How did I know, after all, what language a certain individual spoke, and wasn’t that very stereotypical to assume that a farm worker spoke Spanish? Immediately I got defensive and retreated into my tortoise shell. No, I wasn’t going to let the multinational publishing industry tell me how to write poetry. I stood my ground and refused, despite his entreaties. How much I regret now not listening to him—the book was printed with the line as I wrote it, and it has never been reprinted as a children’s book since that first year, when it did sell quite well, thanks in large part to Mary Szilagyi’s wonderful illustrations.
My point is that you may assume that someone who is criticizing your work is against you, when in reality, that person is more likely than not for your text, if he or she is taking the time to read and critique it carefully. The longer I write, the more grateful I am when someone hands me a good suggestion for my work. It’s a gift. Now if I like it, I grab it greedily, and stuff it right into my text. I might not incorporate the suggestion exactly as the other person has offered it, but I will take it willingly, and with thanks, if it is an improvement over what I have written on my own.

Other recent posts about writing topics:Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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