This post is about criticism and ego, two forces in the life of a writer. Both forces are essential to your writing health, but they are opposing forces, and keeping them in balance can be tricky. It’s writing yin-yang.
Most people would assume the light side is ego, and the dark side is critique. After all, criticism is bad, right?
Not at all. For the writer, criticism, whether from the self or from a reader, is a valuable tool. Even if it appears to be pointless or ill-informed, it provides you with another viewpoint on your story.
Because let’s face it, as writers, we can be blind to the faults of our creations. There’s that post-creation buzz, where you think the story you’ve written is the best thing since Lord of the Rings (or your favourite book of choice). That’s the ego talking, and that is the dark force, the destroyer of reason, the concealer of truth. The ego is our child, and it’s favourite word is NO!
When the ego rules, you don’t grow, or learn. Your child wants to stay a child forever. The ego doesn’t understand or accept criticism, and is forever writing cliched pap, because it’s safe. The ego will lash out at criticism with personal attacks. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You just don’t ‘get’ it. You don’t understand the way I write.
We all know writers like that. The ones with 9 finished novels, bemoaning the fact that ‘no-one gets published these days’. What they mean is, ‘no-one is publishing ME.’
Pushing back the ego is a conscious act, and can be a struggle, especially for those of us who think we are hot shit. I am as guilty of that as the next writer, but thankfully there are intelligent, informed writers in my circle who are happy to burst my bubble when it needs bursting. Not everyone has access to those invaluable writing companions. The single greatest threat to a writer is constant, undeserved praise. If the ego takes over completely, you’re done.
But when you do push back the ego, and listen to the criticism, you learn so much. It’s like a tide of insight washing over you, and that can be just as fulfilling, even more fulfilling, than praise. Yes, even the criticism that, on first view, looks like it was composed by a writer who can barely string two sentences together. Not everyone is a skilled writer, but anyone can be a reader.
I’m not going to expand on that point, because it has been very well covered by Patty Jansen’s post Please don’t tell me it’s wonderful. Click over right now and read it. But please do come back, because I have a little more to say.
I’ve been denigrating the ego throughout this post, but now let me point out how it is useful. The ego, the child, is intimately tied to our creativity. If the ego is bruised or hurt, our creativity suffers and we retreat to a place of safety; the cliche, the old tropes, the boring, safe stories that challenge no-one. The ego needs to be fed to a certain extent, or we do not have the courage to spread our wings and travel to those strange places, to test our strength on new ideas, unusual angles, concepts alien to our own world views.
How to balance the two? Well, let’s be honest, the ego needs less work that the critical side. The ego is easily salved with just a little praise. Great story. I really enjoyed that. Terrific writing! There you go, the ego is out of hand already.
Seeking out criticism is hard, and learning to self-critique harder. These need to be worked on constantly. Find a good writing group, invite critical thinkers into your writing village. Put your work out there, and accept the barbs and stings that come your way. Look at your stories honestly. Love them unconditionally for a time, then pick them up again and see them for what they are, warts and all.
Like Patty says; please don’t tell me it’s wonderful. By all means, tell me if you liked it, but don’t be shy of pointing out where it didn’t work for you. That comment, for me, is worth more than any praise in terms of my growth as a writer.