Criticism at the Gate

The criticism came in an email.

It was a few years ago. And it arrived a few days after I’d published a piece.

You don’t really know what you’re doing, it said. Your work is nothing special. No one’s going to pay money for it.

Initially, I thought, “Listen, email, go spit at some other inbox.” Then I thought, “What if the email is right? What if I’m fooling myself?”

Criticism can do that. It pierces our Achilles’ heel and out springs a rush of self-questioning. It’s a doubt-filled, vulnerable place to be. And it hurts.

I just read an article about Gregory Crewdson. He’s a photographer, and he teaches photography at Yale. Every spring, Professor Crewdson’s classes do what most art classes do in April and May: critiques – known as crits – where a student shows work to peers and professors for feedback. It can be a brutal experience.

“The idea is that what doesn’t break you will make you stronger,” Professor Crewdson told The New York Times. “But I always tell my students to forget 99 percent of what they hear. Find that 1 percent that really helps you.”

Tempting as it may be to harden ourselves to criticism, I think we can be like gatekeepers: we see and hear everything that comes our way, but we choose to only let certain things in.

Criticism can nearly break us. And we need space to lick our wounds. After a little distance and a little time, it’s our job to sort through the feedback with clearer eyes to see if that 1 percent is in there that’s worth taking in. That will help us grow larger.

Then we must get back to work.

I still don’t feel great about that email. I might never. But I’m learning to be a gatekeeper, to try and find that 1 percent. And then to get on with the work I came to do.

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