How to cope with crushing criticism that makes you question all of your life choices at once

20:51 Sophie Flynn 2 Comments

Thursday 4 November will go down in my own personal history as a very, very bad day. Work, which at the best of times is trying, was truly terrible and by the end of the day I was having a breakdown in my office and claiming I was going to quit (spoiler: I didn’t). My only gleaming ray of hope for this day was that Thursday is my uni day, so I at least had something to look forward to.

Instead of driving over to Oxford as usual, our class that week was replaced by tutorials and I’d set up a skype session with one of my tutors. We handed in our first submission the week before, I'd submitted the opening of my novel which I've been working on for just about a year, so I'm pretty attached to it. To be honest,  in my state of work-related-stress I had completely forgotten that this work was about to be graded - the first time any of my writing has been 'graded', so I was not prepared. Instead, I sat at home, relieved that the day was finally drawing to a close, and expected to have a nice chat with my tutor.

That is not how things ended up.

Now, I’m not an egomaniac and I’m used to feedback. I work in a press office where what I write is routinely crossed out, scribbled on, deleted and rewrote – I’m not precious. I’ve been part of lots of different writing groups where my creative work has been critiqued with things like ‘seriously, I know your character’s supposed to be posh but no one speaks like that they sound like a nineteenth century dame’ and ‘are you sure this characters a man because she definitely sounds female, it doesn’t work’ so I thought I had pretty thick skin.

But I was not prepared for Thursday.

There was no pre-amble, no how are you finding the course etcetc, we went straight into the feedback. The criticism ranged from the general ‘I don’t get it’ ‘ it lacks establishment’ ‘I don’t believe it’ to the downright cutting ‘I don’t like your main character, she seems stupid and immature’. Ouch. It was short and sharp, 20 minutes of everything she didn’t like about it and then it ended. I was left sat on my sofa feeling like the biggest idiot in the world – what had I done? Why had I spent nearly £6,000 doing an MA in something I clearly couldn’t do? I’m the worst writer in the world, I’m stupid, I’m immature (anyone else take criticism of their characters as if it were aimed at themselves..?!) I’ve made a terrible decision.

Now, I’m sure many people have felt this way when they started an MA or BA. I remember my first A-Level assignment, after getting all As in the subject for my GCSE, I got my first essay back with an E. An E! I was horrified, my tutor simply said ‘you’re just not used to writing at this level yet’. She was right and soon enough I was back up to As and Bs. I did try to remember this on Thursday but I was too busy being terrified that I’d made a bad decision, that I would not even pass my MA, that I wasn't really a writer and that I was wasting my time and money.

So, what’s my worldly advice for dealing with it?

First, talk to people. I spoke to the rest of my MA writing group as soon as I got off the phone to my tutor. They were brilliant, none of them told me to ignore the criticism or that it was wrong (because it wasn’t) but they supported me and made me feel like it wasn’t the end of the world and I could do this.

Second, put it in perspective. I know that if I’d had that feedback another day then I would have handled it better, but we can’t always have perfect days. Things like this will happen when you’re tired, upset, hungry! So you have to learn to deal with them. Criticism doesn’t mean you can’t do what you set out to, criticism is what makes you end up better than you started.

Third and finally, don’t let it make you question your whole life. Honestly, the questions that ran through my head after this feedback ranged from: ‘What have I done, I can’t quit my MA but I can’t pass it obviously, I’m going to spend 2 years and six grand on failing’ to ‘now you’re stuck at your job forever because you have no other career prospects, you’re a terrible person, and an idiot’ to ‘if you hadn’t bought a house then you wouldn’t have a mortgage and you could quit your job and concentrate properly on your writing’.  As you can see, things go a little out of hand and it took a lot of conversations with a lot of different people to make me see things rationally.

Now, over a week later I am sat in my study having completely rewritten the work I submitted. I don’t know if it’s better, I don’t know if it even makes sense but the point is I read the feedback with a clear mind this time and realised, though still harsh, it was fair and necessary.

This is part of doing an MA, or any type of study. No good writer, or anyone good at anything, ever became good by being praised, they did it through hard work. And this is hard work, it’s hard work to even think about writing anything right now, to re-read her feedback is hard, to write this is hard. But what is the point of all this if it isn’t hard? So if you’re struggling, just keep going. You aren’t wasting your time. The time will pass anyway. And if all that that doesn't help, read these quotes which made me smile and kept me writing last week.

How to deal with criticism, a cartoon

2 comments :

  1. Really good comment on how life can just get on top of you and blow everything out of proportion. Remember though not all of us like the same stuff that's what makes us....us. perhaps try your work out on a few trusted people and guage the feedback and make the changes x

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  2. Good advice... Talking to others always makes me feel better. I also agree with Nicola above. There's no question you should take the constructive criticism but people have different tastes and personal preferences, even your tutors. Another great blog BTW :D

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