“The covers of this book are too far apart …”

I have never found it easy to take criticism. Lots of family history in that – don’t go there. So, in my new life as a writer, I have realised this is something I need to come to terms with. When I eventually sort out the technicalities of loading my first novel onto Kindle and CreateSpace – I’m working on that – I’m going to get reviews whether I like it or not. Supposedly, part of ‘growing’ as a writer, is the ability to listen to critique of your work and use it to ‘become a better writer’.

I’m always in two minds about this. I am lucky enough to have had several readers supporting me through the two and a half years it took to get my novel written, and all of them were perfectly happy to tell me what they liked and what they didn’t. The problem was they all mentioned different things!

One person would tell me how much they’d enjoyed the fast-paced action based in London but couldn’t see why I’d included a detective living on the Isle of Skye. Another would say how much they’d loved the descriptions of landscape and wildlife but had found the complexities of the plot difficult to follow. Yet another would tell me they’d liked the whole thing but why hadn’t Helen (my girl in the red coat) done such-and-such instead of running away?

I quickly realised everyone had their own take on the story, the style, the characters and the venues. In fact, in their heads, they were all writing their own stories. When mine happened to match theirs, they felt it was good. When it didn’t, they were disappointed.

This discovery has taught me a valuable lesson. (Several valuable lessons, actually, including the fact that there are lots of different kinds of criticism. Topic for another blog?) When people talk about the need to write for an audience, this is generally absolute nonsense. Let me explain.

Some years ago, I took a fabulous class in Creative Embroidery. It was something I’d always wanted to do but had previously lacked the time, not to mention any inherent ability. Finding myself suddenly too ill to work, I joined a C&G group class and risked having a go. For a long time, I lived up to my expectations of being complete rubbish. Fortunately, I had an excellent tutor who knew more than a thing or two about actual creativity – as opposed to simply teaching us how to make French knots.

Each week, we would be introduced to a new design idea and given an entire morning to explore and play within it – no end-results stipulated. Wonderful! Then, in the  afternoon, this would be translated into a particular embroidery technique. We would be sent home at the end of the day with instructions to complete a sample.

What fascinated me was, despite the fact that we were all given the same brief, the samples that arrived back in class the following week were all completely different. Even the very simplest of ideas would be both interpreted and executed uniquely, according to the personal style of the stitcher. Lesson number one.

Lesson number two was something I learned as we moved deeper into the course. No matter how beautiful their samples, I often heard my fellow students expressing doubts about whether they were good enough. I found this astonishing because the work I was viewing was mind-bogglingly brilliant. Of a standard I could only dream about. What was going on?

It was when I listened to the conversation that I realised their mistake. “I showed it to my husband,” they would say, “and he asked me what it was meant to be.” Or “When I asked him what he thought, he wondered why it was all frayed down one side.” Way to hand over your confidence!

I, on the other hand, was in the fortunate position of having only my beautiful border collie, Molly, to ask for an opinion. She invariably answered: “That’s great. Can we play ball, now?” Consequently, I learned to rely on my own sense of judgement. I was realistic enough to know my samples were never going to match up to anyone else’s, but that didn’t matter since I wasn’t competing with them. I was busy discovering what I could do.

Ultimately, I discovered that creativity – of whatever variety – is primarily an expression of who you are. When others view your ‘stuff’, if it matches something about who they are, they’re going to like it. If they can’t identify with it, (or don’t want to – whole other story,) they’re going to criticize. This says to me, if I try to create something deliberately for others to like, if that’s my prime criterion because I don’t want to receive poor reviews, then I’m onto a loser … My creativity, then, will never be authentic and will, therefore, touch no-one.

My biggest aspiration in this regard is to emulate my current hero, Jodi Taylor, who says her favourite review is one which reads: “Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!”

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