let’s get critical

I fancied myself something of a poet when I was in college. I wrote a lot, hit a bunch of open mic and went through the standard cliched Bukowski phase (because of course). When I moved to Seattle in 1999 I imagined that here I would find my artistic transformation and take over the scene. I got published a couple of times, which was cool, but after a while I just drifted away and got bored. Shades of things to come.

But I think of it all now and again, particularly in terms of constructive criticism and the best bit of advice I ever got as any kind of creative person. Something I still use to center myself and wish I had the chutzpah to pass on in the proper setting.

Long story short, I was a member of an online writer’s forum and I had just posted my Epic to a criticism group. Looking back, it was an angsty bit of twaddle full of adolescent rage and “You don’t understand MAN!!!!” rhetoric. At the time, though, I thought I’d cracked something and the praise would just come pouring in.

The first comment has stayed with me to this day, decades later.

“I’m glad you got that off your chest. Now go write a poem.”

Of course I was furious. Didn’t he get it? Didn’t he see? OMG!!!! I had feelings!!!!

But eventually I calmed the hell down and I thought about it. And while, at the time, I was still quite smitten with what I’d written, I began to see it for what it was. That it was trite and monotonous and, ok, yeah, fine…

It wasn’t a poem. It wasn’t good.

But maybe next time…?

In a weird way, I think this is the best constructive criticism I’ve ever gotten. I’m serious. It didn’t faff about talking about the imagery or the emotions involved. It was blunt and it knocked me on my ass and it made me think. Eventually.

And I think about it now whenever I’m in any kind of creative group or community that doesn’t have room for constructive criticism. Where everything’s great and everyone’s amazing and, oh my god, where did you get your ideas to post yet another picture of a naked girl by a waterfall? Again?

On the one hand, everyone has different goals in their artistic journeys. I get that in my fire spinning groups. I’m pretty content to flow and call it good while others will practice for hours at a time to perfect every move. Hell, there’s room for fine art and coloring books, selfies and studio photography, Bob Ross and Pablo Picasso. Who am I to critique someone who’s just having fun taking pictures? Hell, honestly I wouldn’t like people to inundate my Instagram feed with unasked for criticism.

On the other, I think a little criticism would do us all good as creative people, especially in groups or communities dedicated to the arts. It doesn’t have to be mean or dickish, but a little bit of bluntness maybe? Or even the freedom to respond to someone asking “what do you think?” with something other than just a polite “nice!”

Or, more frustrating to me, being silent because, as we all know, if you can’t say anything nice…

I’d like to say something honest. I’d like to say something constructive. I’d like to say that I can’t make out the model in the chaos of the background. That the photo isn’t “mysterious” so much as I just can’t tell what the hell is going on. Or that it’s minifigure on moss. That the colors are great but how is this different from the last picture? Or the pose is great but the composition could’ve used some work.

On the one hand, the artist doesn’t have to do a damn thing about any of it. But maybe the next time they approach a concept, something will resonate? Or maybe someone else will read it and think of it the next time they plan a shoot? And maybe we can all develop thicker skins and grow?

Just by being honest.

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