With the high tide of the semester rolling in and pulling out so quickly, it can be difficult to navigate the sea of assignments and rough drafts that seem to, all at once, be submitted and resubmitted. If you’re someone that takes criticism well, congratulations, you are probably less affected by this than the lot of us. However, if you’re like me and hearing your name said in a terse tone leaves shivers down your spine, this is perhaps the most miserable time of the year.
Being fully aware that accepting and learning from criticism is part of “growing up,” I am learning day after day, bitten tongue after sullen tear, to be okay with receiving criticism. The difficulty is probably deeply rooted in my childhood, which left me often feeling as if I lived under a microscope. Thus, with every nod and “thank you” e-mail I send out, I learn to repress my childish fear of changing myself and improving. This can prove incredibly difficult as an English major because there’s a certain pride in everything I submit (well, most everything). It leaves me feeling like every work I give in is, if not my best work, a well enough alone work. In math I often made mistakes and oftentimes could look back and see that; there’s nothing objective about it, I was completely and utterly wrong. In English, my work is something which belongs to me, and not to Avogadro or the Pythagorean Theorem.
When it comes to turning in a paper, either it’s perfect, or I knowingly submitted a crappy first draft in hopes of receiving useful feedback that I can later use to write said perfect paper. But I am not perfect, and when I played volleyball or threw a javelin or acted in school plays I wasn’t perfect either. While I think my self-esteem processes such information LOUD AND CLEAR, I often get so caught up in being the best I can be that I forget there’s room for improvement, and sometimes you need a helping hand in reaching the next level of progress. I shouldn’t say that I think that I’m perfect, but I sometimes think that whatever help I need, I can provide for myself, and that no teacher or instructor or coach can tell me different. But I’m wrong, and I know I’m wrong, and I am learning to cope in different ways.
One of the easiest ways I’ve learned to give in to criticism is by reminding myself that it isn’t the end of the world if I don’t do well. I have lived through 2017, I have seen what damn near looks like the end of the world, and it most certainly didn’t look like an A- on a research paper for an English Elective. I have found this especially easy when it comes to non-verbal criticism, and it has become easier and easier for me to read an email title, swallow hard, and open the tab.
The worst it could say is that I failed— realistically, the worst it could really say is a C+ because knowing myself I at least cited correctly and included all of the given criteria. Verbally, I often fail myself and start to cry, but for me, such is not unusual even in passing conversation; I cry sometimes when I look at pictures of dogs up for adoption that I love but will never have. I have learned to accept that crying is just part of me and that I can so casually do it that it shouldn’t even be a cause for concern. I cried, and?
The other biggest part of criticism that I am trying to break away from is the notion that I can’t do what is being asked. Often when you’ve got your mind set on one thing it can feel impossible to work past it or improve on it. Fiction can be difficult in this way, as so often I find myself getting wrapped up in my own story and characters. My own connection to the characters lets me forget that, hopefully, there are other people reading it.
William Faulkner was once quoted having said that in writing we must “kill our darlings,” and while the prospects of that seem scary, I am learning that criticism helps me to do exactly that, and I am all the better writer for it. I kill all my metaphorical darlings, I unravel stories and I thicken plots and I tighten prose and I do exactly what my teachers ask because, in the end, they’re probably right. They’re looking out for me, for all their students, and for every improvement I make I will find that all the constructive clouds have silver linings, if I’m willing to work for them.