It’s in human nature, I think, to want to avoid criticism. We want to please. And in careers where pleasing others is the ultimate goal—where one’s livelihood is based on pleasing the greatest possible number of people—criticism can feel all the harsher and sometimes seemingly fatal.
Writers, for example, want and need readers. So they want to please that potential audience. Sometimes they do, and sometimes the readers make it very clear where the author has fallen down on the job.
The key is to remember you really can’t please everyone. There’s just no way. Unfortunately, those who are displeased are often more vocal than those who are perfectly content with your work. (Of course, if more than a few people are unhappy with whatever you’ve done, you probably need to revisit it.)
But here’s the next important thing when facing criticism: Don’t respond.
It seems there are usually two ways artists of whatever kind are likely to react to criticism. They either (a) argue their side, or (b) try to do what they think the critics want.
I’m here to tell you not to do either of these things.
If you argue against your critics, you come off as arrogant and unlikable. If you are perceived as arrogant and unlikable, you make yourself a greater target for criticism while simultaneously risking your core fan base who might be turned off by your behavior. Be gracious, always. Be willing to admit when the critics might be right (yes, they sometimes are), or if you don’t think they are, thank them anyway for their input, or else remain dignifiedly silent. Then walk away.
The flip side of sparking out against your critics is to try and please them. In a day and age where there are so many ways to be aware of what others think—not just magazines now, but social media—an insecure artist may gather up all the bits and pieces of his or her failure and try to make amends by doing ALL THE THINGS the critics say they should do. In short, they try to write to spec. But in the process they invariably lose the flow and joy that was the origination of their art. They start to worry about doing it “wrong” or whether people will like it. They cease to enjoy the work, and that shows in the final product. The end result is something stilted and unnatural.
Fear of criticism should never be allowed to color the work.
You know how they say “dance like no one is watching.” It’s true for every art. Write like no one will read it, like it’s only for you and your characters. My best moments on stage occurred when I forgot the audience was there and just felt the role. Paint until you’re satisfied with the picture because in the end only your opinion will matter. Yes, it’s true. In the end, you must be satisfied with your work. If others like it, that’s just icing. And gratification seldom if ever comes from catering to the reader or viewer. Oh, you might make more money that way! If money is your only goal, by all means, crank out whatever formulaic thing is hot these days. Otherwise, I advise against it.
I, for one, consider The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller to be my best work. At the very least, it’s the one I put the most love and craft into. I’ve been told by many others, however, that my Sherlock Holmes stories are best. And at least two people have told me, no, Manifesting Destiny is the best thing I’ve ever written. What’s a writer to do? Well, I certainly do take all this into consideration. But my own heart counts for more than the outer clamor. So while I know from a logical point of view I should write more Sherlock Holmes in order to make more money, I find myself flowing with my inspiration and writing . . . Whatever I feel like.
(BTW, I have at least *started* a new Sherlock Holmes story. Just don’t know when I’ll finish it.)
I’m not going to say, “Don’t listen to your critics.” Feedback is important. But you need to learn to weigh it appropriately. And you shouldn’t let it drive your art.