Friday, 3 June 2011

Can't take criticism...

My brother reads my short story "Desire Path" to my mother. She refers to the style as "flowery" and states that I write like an "Old Master" (a line she's cribbed from a school report some thirty years ago and which she has deployed at regular intervals ever since).

She moves on to more specific criticisms: she objects to a line comparing tree-blossom to a wedding dress not because it is trite and rather ordinary but because "not all brides wear white nowadays". She's right, of course. A reference to the tram-line brocade on military uniform trousers vexes her because I don't specify the direction the stripes go in. On having read it to the end she merely asks "Is that it?".

I'm going to try and get her to critique everything I write. (I was going to write "everything I do" but she does that already). She has a unique insight and extraordinary grasp of what I'm not trying to do. Her specific interests are always arresting and alarming and unique to her. She claims that Dickens is her favourite writer but will admit to skimming over all the "descriptions"

My brother, in his cups, tells me that "Desire Path" isn't funny. I say it isn't mean't to be funny. He says "isn't all of your stuff was supposed to be funny?" Touche.

I've spent a long time listening to people telling me that I can't take criticism. In fact the opposite is true: I am a craven masochist - I'm desperate for people to point out the many flaws in my work. I love it. Mnnn. You hate it? Delicious! Can I get some coffee with this?

There are two reasons why. Firstly it means that somebody has actually read it. I'm still at the stage where I can't give away the prose; I'm hustling verse on street corners like pencils in a tin cup. I'd pretend to be a war veteran or hold up a sign saying "Will work for appraisal" if I thought it would do any good. When someone has read my work it is a big deal.

Secondly, I do this stuff to the best of my ability before I show it to anybody but, and it's a Kardashian of a but, eventually you will go word-blind. Text looks diffeent in a notebook, on a computer-screen and printed onto paper (and probably carved into a basalt column): the simple mechanism of printing it onto paper can reveal a myriad of mistakes that hours spent blinking at a monitor will never reveal. So how much better would it be if another pair of eyes scan it; another brain engages with it? Brilliant.

But...this is where I get my rep for being unable to take criticism. I didn't realise for a very long time that there was a social contract meaning that if someone critiques your work you smile politely, take "onboard" what they are saying and buy them a glass of wine/blueberry muffin, depending on circumstances. I always assumed it was a debate or an exchange of views. If there was something I disagreed with I thought it was honourable to defend my work. After all, I wouldn't have wasted their time presenting them with something that I didn't think was very good, now would I?

I realise now that I was very wrong. These days I will meekly accept any barely realised, half-chewed philosophical nugget you choose to spit in my direction. I will scrape it from the wall behind me and swallow it whole.

Because I need you! Help me!


  1. There's got to be an OU course somewhere, latenight tv n all that, about "creatives receiving criticism". A technique of taking it on the chin, pretending its in the 3rd person, eating muffins without spitting the crumbs all over the place AND having a meaningful debate. My mum always hones in on what hasn't been finished, not what I've toiled to half-create, so I'd expect nit-picking from her anyway.

  2. This would be the first thing I've written that she has read for about twenty five years. Well, had read to her. But her grasp of exactly what the point isn't is legendary. I came in to find her watching golf once, unusual in itself. She didn't say anything for about ten minutes and then turned to me and said "What a beautiful lawn". She marches to the beat of her own drum does my mum.