Monday, March 24, 2008

Critiques---To Get or Not to Get, That is the Question

Allow me to start with a story, please.

As a writing major in undergraduate school I had two professors; I adored both of them--Matt and Milt. They both liked me, so no problem there. However, they disliked each other. Possible reasons for this are irrelevant to this post, so I'll spare you. After a while, I noticed a pattern with my writing and their critiques, and I decided to check it out.

At the time, poetry was my genre-of-choice, so I prepared the same 10 poems and gave each professor a copy. Since they really didn't talk to each other much, there was little chance of them figuring out my test.

I waited. I brewed. I chewed my fingernails. I walked in circles. I ate chocolate. Finally, the verdict came in and I received my critiques on the poems.

Matt liked five of the 10 poems. Milt liked the other five. Go figure.

But I learned a really important lesson early on in my writing career: a critique is valuable, but it isn't 'the final and only word' on the subject.

Although I'm addressing writing at present, the same goes for any feedback you might get---photography, dance, visual art, melodies, advertising copy, anything creative.

Creative output is subjective. The response to it is subjective. Every viewpoint is 'right'---which doesn't make yours 'wrong.'

The value of critique is to get feedback, not judgment. If Matt and Milt had both liked the same five poems---or even two of the same poems and trashed the rest---I'd have had some incredibly useful information. And two excellent poems.

When you have a number of people read (or look at) your work, and they agree on the same problem---then it's time to fix something. If they disagree, then take all the criticism back home, let it sit a few days, or at least hours, and approach your piece with a clear mind. See how the suggestions fit with your own feelings and vision of your work.

Don't change something just because another person tells you to---no matter who that person is. Not even your mother, though if yours is like mine, she's probably right!

YOU, and only you, are the final word on your creative work.

I belong to a number of critiquing groups. They are always helpful. But I don't make every change that everyone suggests. First of all, that's impossible, as people, like Matt and Milt, disagree. Secondly, because I don't agree with all of the suggestions. And, thirdly, I'm stubborn.

There's a scene in one of my murder mysteries that most of my readers dislike. It's in the middle of the book; I hadn't planned it; the characters did it even when I wanted them to stop; it's not pretty. But I'm not ready to take it out, mostly because it was so organic to the process of the story as it was being written. Will I let it kill a publishing deal? No way. When a potential publisher says, 'take the *&^in' scene out'---trust me, it will be in shreds on my office floor. But until then, it stays. Because I'm the writer---and I say so.

So, yes, go get critiqued. From people you respect. From people who do your same art and who are better than you are at it. From people who know your artform. From people with similar world-views and life-agendas.

Then take all the suggestions home. Put them aside. Take a bubble bath. Go dance. Have chocolate. And the next day, spread them all out across your desk and pick and choose the ones that make the best sense and feel right and make your work even more yours.