3 Lessons I’ve Learned About Creating, Consuming, and Criticism

Shauna Niequist

I did that thing, that terrible thing that I do sometimes: when I was supposed to be writing, instead I read a bunch of reviews. Some of them were great. Some of them were absolutely awful, and they settled down on my forehead and heart so emphatically and meanly that I couldn’t shake them off.

So I did what I’m learning to do in those situations:

1. Circle the wagons.

    What I mean is that I closed my laptop, as a way of saying to myself that I am not my work. I am not my books. I am a person with a home, a life, a family. I do work that invites and depends on public consumption. But that’s my work, not my whole self.

    When you do work like mine, that line is very, very blurry — I write about my life, my self, my home, my feelings. So when someone writes a mean review, it feels more like a personal attack than a comment on my work. But it isn’t.

    And that’s why I circle the wagons, to remind myself that my very close family and friends are with me and for me no matter what, that the writing has absolutely nothing to do with it, good or bad.

    I work hard to invest in a small circle of friendships and family relationships that have nothing to do with the writing part of my life, and when I circle the wagons, those are the people I reach out to, people who have known me well and forever, who see the whole of my life, not just the one on the pages. Those are the voices that matter most, the truest compasses and guides.

*Photo by Ryk Neethling, Creative Commons

2. Develop a filter.

    When the people I love correct me or tell me that hard truth about myself, I want to hear it and understand it. When Annette or Aaron or my dad tell me the loving, ugly truth about myself, I want to gobble it up like hard but necessary medicine.

    But I’m learning that not all criticism should be weighed equally — and that people “out there” shouldn’t have the same voice into my life as the people in my little circle of wagons.

    My work is up for public comment. But my work is not who I am. And who I am is not up for public comment.

    Some people take all criticism equally. They don’t differentiate between Amazon reviewers and actual critics — by that I mean people who are educated and experienced in evaluating a particular kind of work. They hear the words of a best friend and the words of a nasty blog commenter at equal volume. They have no filter, no protective skin, and everything hits them, travels straight to their heart.

    I used to be one of these people. An offhand comment from a stranger could undo me. A bad review pierced and embarrassed me. An unfriendly or bored face in the crowd while I was speaking felt like an attack, and I couldn’t take my eyes off that person, like how your tongue keeps working a loose tooth over and over.

    But I know people who live at the other extreme: they never read reviews, they shut out critical words from family and strangers alike — they alone know what’s up, and they know with great certainty that everyone else is wrong. They alone understand their art or their decision or their whatever, and everyone who disagrees is a fool, a hater, someone who doesn’t “get it.”

    I don’t think either extreme is helpful or healthy, because essentially they’re both giving those other voices too much power in our lives, and neither view differentiates between the voices — either all the voices bulldoze us, or we spend our energy building a wall against all of them. Either way, we’re still driven by the voices, one blurred mass of opinion.

    The only way, I’m finding, is to develop a set of filters: whose voices are the ones that matter to me? Which ones matter more than any others, and which ones matter just a little?

    For me, not reading reviews isn’t an option, even though that’s what my editor and publisher and several writer friends insist upon. I promise them I won’t, and I do it anyway. I really want to be a learner. Most reviews don’t provide a lot of constructive learning opportunities, but some do — they help me understand times when I could have been clearer, or what my readers are looking for, or where I need to grow as a writer.

    But what I’m learning is that the reviews only matter a tiny, tiny bit. There are a few people whose voices matter very much, and I value their feedback exponentially more than I do feedback from the average commenter.

    And a word on the internet: I love you, dear internet. I love that I can learn things and stay connected to people and buy things with one click. But now every time I buy something on Amazon, I get a follow-up email asking me to “rate my experience.” Um, I ordered diapers and then they came. Seriously? A review?

    I’m certainly not the first one to point out the ugliness of a culture that wants to rate every experience just immediately after it happened. It seems very cool and democratic to give every person with an internet connection an equal vote on a restaurant or a movie or a book, but over time I think this leads to a culture of unchecked and unaccountable criticism — in the same way that we’re in danger of posting what we’re doing on Facebook instead of actually doing that thing we’re doing, I think we’re in danger of thinking that constantly evaluating and rating things is an innocuous practice. And I don’t think it is. I think that mindset is corrosive and dangerous over time. Which leads us to my next point:

3. Stay on the side of the creators, not the consumers or the critics

    One of the best parts of living with another artist is that we have an ongoing conversation about what it means to live well as a creative person, and Aaron and I try to make a practice of not speaking negatively about the things that other people create. We are, of course, massively opinionated. We have very, very strong feelings about music and writing and a thousand other things. But we’re trying to be on the side of creators, not on the side of consumers and critics.

    I love this post that Aaron wrote about the last Coldplay album, and about the temptation to be a critic.

    Once you’ve labored something into life, you know how hard it is to do — the dream and then the work and then the endless revisions. The adjustments, the bursts of inspiration and the agonizing middle stretch, where everything feels pointless. The nights when the voice cracks onstage, or when the words come out all wrong. It takes guts and hard work to make things, and even more guts and hard work to share them, so we want to be people who congratulate the effort instead of nitpicking the result.

I want to spend my time making things, telling stories, giving everything I have, not sitting back and pointing out what someone else should have done. It’s lazy, and it’s cheap, and it’s cowardly. So I’m circling the wagons, listening to the voices that matter most, and getting back to work.

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist

This is a post by Shauna Niequist, one of the Storyline Contributors. Pick up a copy of her latest book, Bread & Wine on her website and make sure to follow along on Twitter (@sniequist) for regular updates. To read more of her posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.