Twenty-two years ago in the spring semester in 1995, I took a Creative Writing class. The instructor was Trish Joyce. It really doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed, but it has and Trish and I are both older. While I know Trish is definitely wiser, I hope that I have gained some wisdom over the years!
I had had some success with writing. I had written well enough in my English Composition one class to have my instructor tell me I should take Honors English Composition Two. I had also had a short story published in one edition of Pan Ku, the college’s literary magazine and became the the first person to have a play excerpt published in another edition.
I had some sense of confidence in my writing, but also had doubts. I enjoyed life in Creative Writing class, the weeks were flying by and I was counting down to graduation. Trish Joyce decided to critique a short story that I wrote. I wasn’t worried. After all, I had been doing well in the class. Then the unimaginable happened. Well, it was unimaginable to me!
Trish Joyce shredded my story! She pointed out every thing that was wrong. She even compared it to the story that had been published to illustrate what was wrong. I sunk deeper and deeper into my seat while a few of my classmates attempted to defend me. I had tried to defend myself unsuccessfully. My classmates were not successful either.
I left that classroom very upset. Actually I was outraged! I ranted and raved to myself as I drove home from campus. Then when I arrived home, I continued ranting to my mother! My mother never forgot how angry I was that day and reminded me of it from time to time. I even called another student to commiserate with me. Well, as far as I was concerned, there was nothing wrong with my story!
Oh no, the problem was Trish Joyce! She was seeking perfection in an imperfect world! She would never be satisfied regardless of what I wrote! So I eventually calmed down, though I did not forget and went to class. I did ask her why she was so harsh. Her response surprised me. “I knew you could take it!” She said with a smile. “Oh no I couldn’t” I thought to myself, but I didn’t tell her. Actually it was many years before I told her what my initial reaction had been. I also asked her if I was a good writer. Again her response surprised me. She asked, “Do you really need me to answer that question?” “Yes, I do.” I replied. “Yes, you are. She answered.
She thought I could take that rough critique. I thought she was wrong. But was she right or wrong? It took a little while, but I gradually grew up a little more and wrote an little essay:
LEARNING TO ACCEPT CONSTRUCTIVE CRITIQUES
By Patricia M Smith
(Dedicated to Trish Joyce)
With a touch of confidence and a trace of nervousness, you read your written work to the class. There is a long, almost unbearable, moment of silence between the time you stop reading and the first reactions from your classmates and/or instructor. In that single second, your stomach tightens and your body tenses. You want to disappear, or at least find a place to hide. Unfortunately, you cannot. The first responses are warm and cordial: “That’s really good.” “I really liked what you wrote.” “It’s nice.” A tentative smile slowly breaks across your face as you blush ever so slightly. Then you wait for the most dreaded word in the English language. The one word that strikes terror in the hearts of new writers. The one word that is heard long before it is ever uttered and even if it is never said. The “But . . . .” Little by little, your classmates, encouraged by your instructor, begin to comment. They reveal flaws. Pinpoint words, phrases, sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs, that might be changed. They offer alternatives and suggestions. Although you are not on trial – there is no judge, no jury deciding your fate, no one gleefully waiting to be the executioner – it certainly feels that way. You struggle to remain calm and rational, but instinct takes control. You feel compelled to defend your work. You try to explain – justify – clarify. Words stumble from your mouth as you attempt to ward off these perceived attacks: “But wait a minute . . .” “Just let me explain . . .” “This is what I’m trying to say . . .” Each time, your instructor stops you in mid-sentence, reminding you that you will not always be there when your work is being read. If you have to explain, then your writing needs more work. Oh-oh, you think to yourself, here comes the “R-word”: REVISION. When the class ends, you pick yourself up and, with bowed head and rounded shoulders, leave the room. You convince yourself that the instructor is a perfectionist who will never be satisfied regardless of how many revisions you make. As for your classmates, well, they simply do not understand your particular style of writing. This is not only a normal reaction to receiving a critique, but a common one shared by nearly all new writers. However, it is not productive. It is detrimental. Your instructor is not seeking perfection in an imperfect world. Your classmates are being honest, and if they do not understand, then it is highly unlikely that anyone else will either. Now comes the hard part – and you thought being critiqued was difficult – learning how to accept and incorporate the suggestions into your work. To do this, you must come to a few realizations: 1) Everything you write is not etched in stone – it can be changed. 2) Even the best, most accomplished writers always have to revise – as your instructor has undoubtedly already told you. 3) Your writing will never improve if you are unwilling to accept constructive critiques – construct means to build. Give yourself the chance to build your writing skills. All this sounds good, and I will be the first to admit that it is much easier said than done. Learning to accept constructive critiquing takes patience and practice – I know because I am still learning! Remember, your instructor and classmates are not picking on you. Rather, they see the seeds of talent buried beneath the clutter of confusing passages and unnecessary words. Take the brooms they offer, sweep away the debris hindering your work and discover the writer you can become.
I recently sent Trish an email with a similar version of what I have written as a possible talk I might give to her current creative writing class. I wanted her to know that she really was right and I was wrong, and I have finally learned that after all these years. I didn’t stop writing. I grew enough and felt confident enough to write that little essay advising new writers about the necessity of accepting constructive criticism. That is something I never would have done had it not been for Trish Joyce. In fact in 2011 and 2012, I self-published two books and two plays that I had written many years ago. I could take that critique!
Copyright 2017 The Moderate Voice