Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning to take criticism

I have a motto that I carry with me and try to live by: I’d rather be good than right.

It came to the forefront when I started to take writing seriously, but it began much farther back in my dim, dark past, November 11, 1959, to be exact. That’s the date I had my first piano lesson.

Mr. Lishman, a dapper Englishman, was also (thankfully) quite patient. I played. He corrected. I went home and practised (fitfully), played at my next lesson. He corrected again when I usually made the same mistakes, although I occasionally figured out new ways to mess things up. By the time I was eleven, I’d had enough. I didn’t understand at the time that this was the way things were supposed to work. (I also didn’t understand that practice really does make perfect.)

First of all, popular music entered my life and I wanted to play the stuff I listened to on records and the radio*. So Mr. Lishman went by the boards, I saved up the money I earned on my paper route, and bought a guitar and amplifier. It was pretty clear after a short while that the shape of my hands was not good for playing guitar (big palm/shortish fingers) so I went back to keyboards and bought a small Lowrey Organ. By the time I was sixteen, I had got pretty good and had my own band and was playing in bars most weekends.

About that time I realized I needed to learn more and the only way to do that was to get a teacher. Enter Weldon Irvine, another patient man, and an ace on the Hammond B3 (I had managed to purchase one from money I earned by gigging.) He helped me a lot and the main reason was that I was ready to take the criticism he handed out quite freely. The rewards of learning this arcane skill were immediately obvious as I began to understand exactly what I was doing and why – rather than just playing and not thinking about anything but the notes.

Fast forward more years than I care to acknowledge. As always, a few months back, I told my new editor my standard thing: “Don’t pull your punches. I want to know exactly what you think. I’d rather be good than right.” He told me later that no author had ever said that to him.

It’s tough having to acknowledge that your best efforts aren’t good enough. In music, you have something concrete to critique (wrong rhythm, wrong notes, wrong interpretation, wrong fingerings, wrong...). With writing, it’s much more nebulous in so many ways. Sure, an editor can point out errors in punctuation, spelling, sentence construction, word choice, etc., but past that, you get into very grey areas like pacing, voice, dialogue versus description, plot construction.... It becomes very much a “this is the way I see it” situation. The person doing the critiquing may be right or may be wrong.

What’s a writer to do? First, you have to be willing to take the shot on your literary chin, walk away and think about it. Too often I hear of writers who just get their backs up from any attack on their deathless prose. They are unwilling to even entertain that the criticism might be right on the money. Yes, it’s discouraging. Yes, it’s humbling. And yes, you may even discard the criticism. The best editors allow you to challenge them right back, and if they’re astute, they’ll just sit back and say, “Okay. Defend yourself.”

It’s amazing how often you get partway through your spirited and well-thought-out defense only to realize, Oh my God! They’re absolutely right.

The point here is: you won’t ever make the progress you need to if you’re not willing to entertain criticism. For me, thanks need to go to all those patient, knowledgable music teachers who gently pulled me toward that universal truth: Thomas Lishman, Weldon Irvine, Harry Berv, and Bill Karstens. More than music, you taught me humility. My next novel will be better because of you – even though you will never have seen it.

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*What was the first recording you purchased? Mine was a 45 of “Alley-Oop” by Dante and the Evergreens. (How do I remember this crap?)

3 comments:

Melodie Campbell said...

I love the comparison you make between music criticism and fiction. Perhaps it is because we are 'schooled' in music for many years, that it seems easier to take criticism there.

My embarrassing first purchase? "Hello, I Love You" - The Doors.

anyessays.net said...
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hannah Dennison said...

This is a good post! I wish I'd known how to take criticism when I was learning to play the piano - (although my teacher, Miss Boyd, only had three and a half fingers --- seriously). With my writing, I learned how to take criticism with some degree of grace from a fellow author. She said to grab a pen and paper and focus on writing down the points that are being made as they are being said. Somehow, writing it down and listening at the same time stopped me from getting all defensive and blurting out why I did what I did - a really big problem of mine. But yes, now, all I want to do is improve and be good.