Thursday, October 29, 2015

Criticism and Professionals

I am grateful to have learned the Secret of professional "criticism."

As a writer, before I talk about the Secret I really need to talk about that word. It says something about human nature when the word "criticism" has taken on negative connotations. How queer. For the denotation is neutral. Let's remember that when a scholar writes a piece of art criticism on Picasso, or a critical article on Shakespeare, his piece is apt to be very praise filled indeed.

A man my age is blogging about submitting manuscripts to his teacher as part of his continuing education class in Writing. The teacher is a "real writer" who has neglected, I think, to share his Secret of criticism. When the blogger gets his manuscripts back, covered with little blue corrections and advice, he feels disheartened, de-energized. He reports it takes him a while to bounce back, but at last he does. On his blog he said he wouldn't quit. That's good, of course, since professionals, of any form or calling, just don't quit.

I hated criticism as a young teen. We criticized each other all the time, remember? You might say we "got our kicks" by criticizing. I could have joined in with the criticizing of my peers in order to be a good sport, to blend in, but I didn't. Unlike my peers, I had already survived a harsh home. Years later, even as a manly soldier I still refused to camouflage myself that way.

One day, about age 40, I thought of how such criticism continues down the years. I was in an "art in rehabilitation" class, in a prairie border town, among housewives and rehabilitation workers. Over two weekends we tried our hands at all sorts of art, both visual and performing. Once our teacher broke us into groups and asked, "What if we had to do something to bring a group together?" One small group came up with a "trust exercise" where a person would lay on the ground while people walked around him. So we all tried it. A wife remarked, "My husband works in the oil patch. If one of his crew had to lie there, the others would kick him."

"Or at least," I agreed "keep threatening to do so."

After the class, driving along wheat fields, listening to sensitive country songs, I pondered the difference. The teenage criticism and "kicks" have seemingly continued with oil field workers. Why? Well, they lack the presence of women. And being stressed is surely a factor. Maybe they need to stay tough to encourage each other to do tough jobs. Certainly for their "hands on" work the cooperation required is mostly of a physical nature, not emotional or intellectual. No need to grow on the job. I suppose a career with no staff meetings could be a career with no "job requirement" to be "nice."

Not to say white-collar places are perfect. I have read newspaper features about office bullies; everyone's heard of certain businesses being populated by sharks. A middle-aged bar waitress once told me the patrons in a blue-collar bar had treated her better, more respectfully, that had the patrons in a businessmen's lounge. My guess is the boozing suits disrespected not merely the lady's workplace skills: I think they disrespected her very self.

In a world where we may have felt disrespected in the past, where we may somehow feel disrespect is imminent, looming close by in the present, it is no wonder that grown adults, including me, are so sensitive to negative criticism.

Sometimes criticism is necessary. I serve in a toastmaster (public speaking) club. Since our goal is self-improvement, every week it is my duty to criticize. People approach the club door from all directions, all walks of life. Maybe some of these people, in their life outside the club, may go hang gliding on the hill above Cochrane and shout, "Yippee!" Some folks may kayak down rushing water and shout, "Yahoo!" But as for public speaking... trust me, everyone goes, "Ulp!"

A novice speaker, working hard to conquer her fear, would disappear into the night if she was unduly criticized, or witnessed anyone being so mistreated. I try to act like a concerned martial arts teacher: The trick is to evaluate a speech by giving only a very few pointers, just enough for the person to have something to work on for next time, while also pointing out what she did right. Besides, most people are not Einstein; they can only remember a few things. A speech is fleeting. Not like writing.

A manuscript is permanent. If a professional scrawls lots of feedback on a fellow's pages then it is because the man will have lots of time to work on any suggested writing techniques.  Moreover, the teacher sees the man as a "professional" ... quite unlike my fellow hobbyists at toastmasters. When I evaluate a speaker I do so in a way that is honoring of the person. To edit a writer's manuscript heavily, not lightly, is also to honor the person.

I have a real job, to be sure, and I am a writer... Between my ears I am a professional. As a professional my writing is not my body, not me. I have boundaries. My work is little black squiggles on the page. Slash my pages with your editor's blue pencil all you want, my own skin in unharmed.

My first job was being a swamper (co-driver) on a truck. My first profession was being a soldier. My peers were proud and confident—except back in our recruit days. Our corporal stressed to us, "The louder the sergeant-major yells at you the more he loves you!" Back then we started off like our civilian peers: a little lazy, a little spoiled, doing just enough in school to pass, enough to keep the boss off our backs. Over time, of course, as Rudyard Kipling put it, we recruits "got shut of doing things rather more or less." We became devoted to doing everything well. Like any professional.

I was released from the service, walked across the airstrip to the community college, and there I discovered that college students were still like the kids I'd left behind when I enlisted. My department receptionist valued me highly for such simple integrity as always returning borrowed "overnight" resource materials on time.

In that brave new college I somehow got to know the theatre majors. One day they looked a little amused, and they told me why. This was early in the rehearsal process. I think their director was still trying to get the play to gel. In college, remember, the directors, like the coaches, are not students - they are paid teachers. I forget the specifics of that day. Perhaps a woman was not standing with the right posture, or not walking with enough energy. So the director raised his voice—he yelled—to encourage that student to shape up. She cringed over and said, "I'm sorry." Then he really raised his voice. "NO! You are NEVER SORRY" I am sure he yelled without malice, impersonally, with enough volume to ensure that every student in that big theatre heard the lesson: a professional is never sorry.

I understand. As a writer, I never cringe if an editor yells like Spiderman's editor, J. Jonah Jameson. That is, if he doesn't get personal. Jameson may in fact think I'm a credit to my mother and a fine Sunday school teacher. He is yelling for emphasis... at my work. His feedback I take seriously. Graciously. Professionally. I don't deflate.

As a professional writer I respect all other writers, including volunteers struggling through a night school class. I don't respect slackers or recruits, but yes, I respect other pros. The master black belt bows to the brown belt; everyone, as they first enter the dojo, will bow. They bow to something—call it professionalism—greater than themselves. As I see it, to train very hard at one's craft, hard enough to become a master, is to know humility.

As for those "second raters," those who give insults, who take yelling and criticism personally, they who don't yet see the need to "bow" to others ... they obviously don't bow humbly to themselves yet.

Sean Crawford
Sweeping dead leaves,
Calgary, March 2010.9
October 2015

Footnote: I wish I were in a continuing education writing class, for I keenly feel my lack of an editor for this blog. An objective second opinion is always worth considering.


  1. I grew up in a household that indulged in a lot of negative criticism. I describe my home life like this: To the tune of Home Home on the Range - "Home, Home on the Plains, where the dreary old pessimists reign - where seldom is heard an encouraging word - and the skies are all gloomy all day - Please don't send me home" etc. It took me years to be able to except criticism and now I am thankful for the criticism I get on my writing as I use it to improve my work.

  2. Nice comment.
    I think you hit the nail on the head with the term "thankful." It seems to me I cannot feel gratitude for feedback and at the very same time have my ego broiling. The two feelings are mutually exclusive.