A recent Telegraph post about the relationship between poets and their editors starts off with the nervous subhead, “If one poet edits another, whose work is it?” Tensions arise over the prospect of editors having too heavy an influence, the implications of an incestuous landscape. How can we rest assured that our most treasured poetry is "pure"?
Lucky for me, I am completely unperturbed by this notion of purity. I, in fact, adore quite a few exceptionally heavy-handed editors. I’m also still coming off the glory high I got reading Jonah Lehrer’s article in last week’sNew Yorker about brainstorming, in which Lehrer debunks the myth that brainstorming has to be free of criticism in order to be productive. Criticism and debate have been shown to actually improve creativity. Ha! Criticism wins! Editors are helpful!
So, seeing as how some people could use a little push toward criticism-acceptance, I’ve decided to draw up my top five reasons (with a little help from Lehrer, whom I quote liberally below) we shouldn't fear the red pen.
1. Science says that “exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity.” Sure, everyone has something to say. If it's useful, steal it. If it's not useful, it can help define what it is you're not looking for.
2. Science also says that “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” Dissent! Know thine enemy! How better can you position yourself to be the champion? Would you even know about being a "champion" if it weren't for the presence of critics?
3. For the most part, no one is paying any attention. If they are paying attention, they will forget everything you’ve done in less than thirty seconds. There is only so much time you have to engage and really have an effect on someone else, so you might as well try to make it count. Good criticism can help push you toward that effect.
4. For the most part, we are not paying attention. Do you know how many unconscious actions I’ve committed, for years, without knowing? I couldn’t be the first to end a telephone conversation until I was 24 years old—and I had no idea. Or with my writing: how many times in a paragraph do I have to mention a hand touching something before someone shoots me? We all need someone else to tell us what it is we are doing.
5. No one wants to hear you whine. What are you, a baby? Whether it’s the undergraduate with the rambling justification or the man-child distraught because not everybody likes him, whiners are usually too busy suckling on the self-absorption tit to get any work done. Don’t be one of them.
Good criticism can save you from the enormous embarrassment your actions alone will undoubtedly lead you to. So what's the difference between shitty criticism and good criticism? Honest, deep concern for the creative object at hand. As long as the critics you listen to are truly engaged with what it is you’re trying to accomplish—and not just smarmy ass-clowns with ulterior motives—they deserve a good listen. Even the act of turning away can lead to something better.