Recently I’ve been reflecting on the year that has been. If I could choose a few words to describe my experience one of them would have to be criticism. I’ve been criticised for being too liberal and too conservative, for being too overbearing and too hands-off, for being too outspoken and for not saying enough when it counted. Some of this resulted in me having my first ever dose of writers block recently where I became so nervous about peoples responses that I just decided to pack it in all together.
If I were smart I would have taken this time to batten down the hatches and write some self-help mantras above my desk to deal with the insecurity of it all. Instead, I sent away a copy of a speaking engagement I did recently to someone I consider one of New Zealand’s best communicators for feedback. Great idea huh?
The feedback arrived a month later in the form of a ‘shit sandwich’. It’s a youth work term for when you nestle the critique between encouragements. In this case there was very little bread and a lot of the brown stuff. This total hero of mine questioned not just the form or delivery, but my underlying assumptions and philosophy. Not only did I say something badly, but the content wasn’t good either. Ouch.
Alongside this I’m currently in the process of sending my upcoming book around a selection of friends and other authors for their take on it. This project has taken me five years to pull together so it all feels particularly raw at the moment. After a few glowing reports (to be honest the only kind I was hoping for) I got an email from a friend who’s a journalist for a big New Zealand newspaper. She pulled no punches with her assessment that it needed wholesale structural change.
And as much as I want to be, I’m not allowed to be hurt or angry about these two experiences. In both cases I asked for an honest critique and that is exactly what I got. And the more I experience critique and scrutiny the more I start to understand that these moments are actually little gifts in the form of questions. Maybe, just maybe, criticism is my friend and not my foe.
Criticism asks me questions like, ‘Do you actually believe what you say you do?’ It’s really easy to espouse a set of values when you’re surrounded by people who agree with all the same things you do; but what about when people say that your ideas are too lofty, to idealistic, or even claim you’re judgmental and exclusive? Do you still believe, or is it time to change? Never until this year have I been forced so often to go back to the fundamentals of the way I live my life and ask whether I actually believe these things. Criticism is the crucible that refines and develops our minds and hearts to true commitment to the resolutions we’ve made.
And then there’s the question that goes ‘Am I defined by my art?’ The gift of critique is a call to the deep disentangling of my core identity from the reception of my work. No doubt there will be many when my book comes out who disagree, and moments like these prepare me to hear their reactions as judgments on the quality of my work and not the value of my personhood. Criticism is the friend who helps me to let go and know who I am in the moments I don’t have a microphone in my hand. Criticism is a sword that cleaves my soul from the work of my hands.
And then there’s that final, and annoying, question of wisdom and humility: ‘Is what is being said to me true? If so, what do I need to do about it?’ It’s all too easy to walk away from these painful critiques and immediately find a cohort of friends who will tell me what I want to hear, but that’s actually not what grows us is it? I would be a fool to disregard the wisdom of legends I’ve sought out to help me become better. But that must be held in tension with the fact that even the best are never right all of the time. There is this difficult art of maturity I’m learning which is to discern the relevant from the irrelevant, the good from the bad and the person from their perspective. As a friend puts it, ‘eat the meat, spit out the bones’. For the moment I tend to just pendulum swing between indignation and self-pity. One day I’ll learn the balance.
I’m extending an invitation to walk into the furnace of criticism with me. It hurts, but it’s not as hard as I thought it was. There’s life in that place of weakness and vulnerability where we’re told that we’re not as good as we thought we were. It’s in that place that we grow. It’s in that place that we become our most true selves as we cleave our identity from our output. It's a wonderful place really.