In our third episode, we talk about ways to identify and handle criticism–and how sometimes, criticism isn’t about you or your work, it’s about the other person. We also do a three-page read of a fan-submitted script called DANGER CLOSE by Craig McInnes.

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Hello and welcome to episode three of Coping with Creativity, a podcast for creators about coping with that unrelenting need to create, our mental health, self-imposed pressures, actually succeeding, and everything in between.

My name is Jesse Lawson, and in this episode, we are going to focus on dealing with criticism.

I want to focus on criticism because being a creator often times means learning how to cope with self-doubt, and for someone who hasn’t developed a thick skin for it, criticism is going to exacerbate those feelings–like gasoline on a fire.

Criticism is something that everyone does, even if they might not mean to, and something everyone experiences, even if they might not want to.

When talking about creators, I think it’s safe to say that we are especially sensitive to criticism. I know for me one of my most vulnerable states in life is waiting for someone, most often my wife, to finish reading something I wrote. Even though I should be reminding myself that, from experience, she’ll likely enjoy it, there’s still that looming shadow behind me, that question in the back of my mind, that keeps saying, “What am I doing… Is she going to hate this… Is she going to think I am an awful writer now… Why are you doing this… You’re not a good writer…” And so on, and so on.

I guess you could say that even with the people closest to us–including ourselves–we can still feel this impulse toward self-doubt. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because most people never learn how to offer constructive feedback.

Generally speaking, people talk about what they like and don’t like. That’s largely to be expected, especially if you’re creating entertainment which by its nature is designed to entertain, and if it doesn’t, people will react negatively to it. And this can hurt sometimes, because no one wants to hear that the thing they’ve spent so much time and energy on is garbage–and that’s a lot of pressure we’re putting on whoever close to us we’ve shared our work with, unless they’re creators themselves.

But it’s not just creators who are sensitive to negative criticism–everyone is. That’s because there is a human component to all this: we are biologically designed to react to negative situations with anxiety.

Before we explore that, though, let’s step back and talk about what’s going on behind the scenes when someone offers criticism.

Any form of feedback on your creations is some type of valuation of your work’s contribution to the culture of a society or an individual. I think it’s safe to say that feedback from one person will be highly individual–that includes the feedback I give at the end of each episode, and I try to emphasize this fact with the format (which is me asking questions about someone’s work rather than making statements). Sometimes feedback will have societal implications, but unless the person is an academic, ninety-nine percent of feedback will be grounded in the individual tastes of that one person.

Back in episode two I talked about how the value of your creations can only be determined by other people; you can’t provide a valuation of a social artifact that you created. An important addition to this is that the valuation that other’s do provide is, again, and individual one.

And since these valuations are highly individual, it would be appropriate to assume that the general reception of your work will be evenly distributed at the very least. But you know as well as I do that this isn’t always the case in the beginning, when we’re starting out. Some people get lucky and run into the half of the world who loves their work before they get bombarded with the people who don’t.

That’s definitely not me; I have always had a slew of negativity in the beginnings of my projects. It’s to the point now where I sort of expect it, you know? I am so used to just rude comments and downvotes and baseless criticism that when it doesn’t happen, I get suspicious. It’s almost like if I don’t encounter a bunch of roadblocks and people who are overly critical of my work, I think I’m doing something wrong.

One could argue that this has helped me along the way. I have an easy signpost to follow when I am unsure about myself or my work, even if those signposts are, ironically, people telling me or implying that my work is garbage.

The important thing to remember here is that everyone’s experience will be different. I always hear that luck is a factor; I guess I am just an unlucky person.

So a good way to look at it, at least for me, is that all of the years and years of people not liking my work for whatever reason has given me years and years of learning how to let the really bad comments roll off me and how to pick apart the other ones so that I at least learn something. And remember that some criticism won’t teach you anything about you or your work–but it will teach you about the person doing the criticizing.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of video game design. In a video game, how do you know you’re going in the right direction? You encounter obstacles, and more importantly, you interact with people who don’t want you to continue.

In games, we might call them enemies, but in the reality of your world as a creator, the people who want to see you fail are not so concerned with what or that you’re creating, they’re concerned with the fact that they just encountered someone who is one level ahead of them in the arcade of life.

You are the creator–you are creating something from nothing–and, well, they resent you for doing that.

Do you know how I know this? Because no one who is a creator themselves would negatively criticize another creator’s work–unless they’re projecting their own insecurities. But this is something both creators and non-creators will do, and unfortunately, you’re going to encounter this a lot. Maybe you’re encountering it right now, today.

If you are or when you do, because you will, it can be frustrating how much criticism affects us. But while not being affected by criticism is impossible, we can learn to stop being soaffected by it, and we can do this by encountering it head-on. Get your work finished. Get it out there. Get it in front of people. Get those negative experiences out of the way so you can make room for the positive ones.

With that in mind, let’s go back to human component of criticism for a bit.

Thanks to the way we have evolved, our minds have an increased capacity to recognize and be aware of harmful things due to a phenomenon called the negativity bias. We are hardwired to place greater emphasis on situations and conditions that resulted in negative feelings than ones that produced positive ones. This is because our minds are hardwired for survival–and avoiding negative situations and conditions was essential to survival for our ancestors.

Of course we respond with anxiety and fear when someone is negative or mean or rude–our brains are hard-wired to put a big red stamp on that experience so that we can more quickly classify future experiences as threatening or nonthreatening.

It’s just a tool!

And since this visceral reaction is just a tool, we must start thinking about it as something we can learn to control–and even use in our favor.

How can we do that?

The first step is to determine where the criticism is coming from. Is this a fellow creator? Or is this just a random person on the internet? Who is offering the criticism should greatly impact how much you care about it. If it’s just a random person online, they might be one of the many people in this life who define their worth by their judgment and review of things that other people–like you–have the courage to create and share.

Determining where the criticism is coming from will help with the next step, which is to determine what the criticism is for. Is someone criticizing something you made? Or are they criticizing you directly? If your first response is to feel hurt by what they said, it may be that that’s because they themselves are hurting inside, and they’re projecting their insecurities about themselves, their own work, and their lives onto you and your work. If someone is criticizing you personally because of a creation that you shared with them, the only response they deserve is this: “I’m sorry you don’t like yourself.”

It will take practice, but over time, this will become second nature to you. Once you can determine whether or not someone thrives on negativity in this life–and again, I think this is most people–you can save a lot of time and energy by not engaging with them.

The final step in learning how to control our reaction to criticism is to constantly remind ourselves that there is more to you than your creations. You are an incredibly complex human being, and your work is only a small glimpse into a very thin sliver of who you are. In past episodes, I said our work is our way of expressing ourselves–but that doesn’t mean our creations can express all of ourselves. No, our creations are just little envelopes of self-expression, of pieces of us that we have chosen to share with the world.

And so now you can see just how sad those people are, that the thing they choose to share about themselves with the world is their sad, lonely, and self-loathing perception of themselves. Even if you’re struggling with the same emotions–I mean, I know I struggle with low self-esteem–take a step back and look at how much more courage and strength you have shown by choosing to express yourself through your creations instead of negative comments about other people and their creations.

Be proud of yourself for transcending that simple worldview–that something is bad just because you don’t like it.

Ideally, you’ll follow these steps and find someone who has been in your shoes that offers constructive criticism on something you made. That’s what I would like to see happen, but I can tell you, having been creating different things for many years, usually what I get is negative criticism and sometimes it’s targeted directly at me.

And to be honest, sometimes people call out my work for having something that really is bad. Some of the reviews on my first fiction novel, Burrow, pointed out that there were some typos and grammatical mistakes in the first few pages. Imagine how I felt, here with a Master’s in English and as someone who is trying to be proud of my skill as a writer, learning that I published a book with a bunch of typos. It’s embarrassing.

But mistakes like that, even if they are shown to me through negative criticism, only give me opportunities to improve. I love when people tell me how I am doing something wrong–as long as I can ask them questions about what they think “doing it right” looks like. Obviously for typos and grammar mistakes of my novel those are just things I had to go back, find, fix, and republish–it’s a Kindle book, thankfully, and I have the only print copy. And yes, that hard-copy is full of typos. And you know what? I make sure to keep it in a prominent spot on my desk at home to remind me that it’s okay to be proud of something that is or was flawed to you.

In my case, the negative comments were basically a road-map for me to follow, a checklist of what I needed to do to get my creation from good to great. It is my hope that when you encounter criticism, you’ll keep these things in mind so that the energy you spend on it is productive and healthy. Keep creating. Keep going forward. You can cross the river even if the current feels overly strong, even if you have to spend a little time learning how to build a bridge first.

So to recap:

  • Negative criticism is to be expected. It means you’re going in the right direction.
  • Is the person criticizing you or your work? If it’s you, brush them off–they’re trying to make you feel like they feel (which is insecure). If it’s your work, ask questions and see if you can find something to put in your toolbox.
  • Remind yourself that you’re strong and courageous for sharing pieces of yourself with the world through your creations.


Immediate Questions

Alright, it’s now time for our next segment, Immediate Questions, where I read a script that you’ve submitted and give you all the immediate questions I have as a means of giving you a little bit of insight into what one audience member (me) may be thinking.

Today’s three pages is from a script called DANGER CLOSE by Craig McInnes.

My Immediate Questions:

  1. What demons is Donnely dealing with that causes that nightmare he had? Is this a Checkovian hint at some horrific psychological episode to come? When the apparition of the guy in the suit yells at him to “take his pills,” is this some hint at a deeper trouble that Donnely has that we’ll learn about through his future mistakes?
  2. The guy in the suit from his dream calls him a traitor–what does Donnely know that we don’t? Are we going to find out? Is he having this dream because he is overcome with regret?
  3. Does the fire that the guy in the suit burst into represent something? Am I supposed to see a contrast here against the intact warhead from the opening scene and the guy bursting into flames yelling “traitor”?
  4. Is Claire subbing in for the audience during all this? We can tell Donnely is struggling with some inner demons–are these self-imposed demons, and is Claire here to help us keep an eye on them?
  5. Is there something significant about Miami? Is this a vacation they’re going on and is it going to be interrupted by something that Donnely did before the first page? Is this trip to Miami a metaphor for Donnely’s need to escape something he did, and is his dream on the plane a manifestation of his guilt? What did he do? And who is now in danger because of it?

So those are my immediate questions. Thanks again to Craig McInnes for submitting that script.

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