Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Why Criticism Hurts
I was eleven. My cousins came to visit a few times a year. Of the five boys, I was the only one without a brother. I had two sisters instead. And every time I did something that my cousins perceived as effeminate, I was mocked for not being manly.
My father didn't help this situation. He had a good sense of humor, and my cousins laughed at everything he said, whether it was funny or not. This included jokes made at my own expense.
The following was typical of family gatherings in my house.
"Hey, Alton, tell your cousins about that thing that happened in school last week." I soon caught on that this was a set-up. He already had jokes prepared. He just needed me to set him up with the story.
"I don't want to tell that story."
"Do it! Tell the story!" he shouted.
I had no choice. I told the story. And as I predicted, the jokes came. I could never get through my account of what happened in school. I was repeatedly cut off. My father interjected sarcastic barbs that took my words out of context and flipped them around to make me look stupid.
I tried to flee on those days. I went upstairs to my room to play video games, but then I'd hear my father's voice.
"Alton! Come down here! You're being anti-social."
No kidding, I thought. "I don't wanna."
"Come down now or I'll take your Nintendo away from you for a month." He knew how to motivate me.
I went downstairs and sat on the couch.
"So," my father said, "tell us what happened a few weeks ago in gym class."
And it started all over again.
These events continued on throughout my teen years. Surely, my father thought he was toughening me up; he saw I was a sensitive boy, and maybe he didn't like that. So he tried to change who I was.
As you can imagine, those words were painful then and my eyes water as I recount them now. But they had a huge impact on who I am today. First of all, I really don't like sarcasm, particularly sarcasm that is malicious instead of playful. Whenever I'm informed that something I said was perceived as malicious, I backpedal and beg for forgiveness from the offended party. Some of you may have seen me do this on Twitter. Now you know why.
Second, those events made me especially sensitive to criticism of all kinds. You might be wondering just why the heck I chose to publish my fiction. Surely, I must know how vicious and critical people can be, right?
Yeah, it's easy to forget that, isn't it? You write your words, you edit them carefully, and then you share them with friends and family. It's supposed to be safe. You're vulnerable. People should respect that, and honor you for having the courage to put yourself out there. Unfortunately, even friends and family can let you down. I learned that the hard way. In fact, I'm still learning that.
Here's the rub in all this: you can't expect people to know about the baggage you carry. They're not mind-readers, and unless they're your spouse or someone who knows you intimately, they're not going to know about the things you suffered as a child, the things that make you sensitive and needy. That's your problem to deal with. You might not like the criticism you get, but you can't take that out on the person who gave it.
Unless, of course, they're the person who caused your problems in the first place. Then you get to decide whether you forgive or hold a grudge. (Pro-tip: you'll live longer if you forgive.)
As writers, criticism is going to come whether we like it or not. By putting your work in the realm where people can actually read it, you're opening yourself to world of potential hurt. Don't believe me? Even beloved books have plenty of 1-star reviews on Amazon. No author is immune.
The alternative is to give up and not publish. But where's the fun in that, right?
Why Criticism Hurts