I do not take criticism well, constructive or otherwise. I am a deeply sensitive person, and one of the only ways I’ve found to survive in a world that has a lot of negative things to say about my sensitivity is splitting my identity into Perfect Infallible Person and Shitty Garbage Goblin. I am one or the other, there is no in between, so when I’m criticized, I either clamber onto my high horse and deny that I have ever been at fault for anything ever, or I spiral into a pit of self-loathing and self-pity. March 2017 was no exception.
I was in a poetry-nonfiction-hybrid workshop headed up by Dr. Eric LeMay (a truly amazing writer, professor, and mentor) and I had brought in a collection of poems centered on the theme of mental illness. We were going through the part of workshop where everyone gets to say some stuff about my writing, both good and bad, which can be a truly hellish time for me. Sometimes the Perfect Infallible Person part of my personality will step in to prevent the comments from stinging, which is great, but then my writing doesn’t improve at all. Other times, the Shitty Garbage Goblin will take over and I will go home to cry and drink wine and think about burning every poem I’ve ever written.
Thankfully, years of undergoing these workshops actually helped me find a third identity that allowed me to take criticism a teeny, tiny bit better: Writer Megan. Writer Megan is professional and focused on improvement, and thus does not get bogged down in poor coping mechanisms or personal hurts. She is a relatively rare occurrence, and often the Shitty Garbage Goblin shows up shortly after she arrives, but for just a brief moment, Writer Megan can truly absorb criticism and use it to improve.
That’s what happened in Dr. LeMay’s workshop. Writer Megan was able to listen just long enough to hear the best writing advice I ever received before Shitty Garbage Goblin kicked her out, because this comment stung so badly and made me rethink the very idea that I could ever be a real writer. After some discussion, Dr. LeMay spoke up and said “Y’know, a lot of these poems end the same way. Not with the same words or anything, but with the same tone. Like a sigh.” In a completely shattering instant, I knew he was right. Every. Single. One. of my poems ended the exact same way. Thank goodness Writer Megan was able to hold on long enough to hear him add “I’d love to see you experiment with some different endings, or different forms. A really long poem, for instance, might force you into a different ending.”
And there you have it, the best writing advice I ever received. I cried so much that night, I hated my writing, hated myself, even hated Dr. LeMay a little bit because didn’t he get that that’s what mental illness is like? Struggle on top of struggle, only to end up with a dissatisfying sigh?
But he was right. I was an artist, not just a mentally ill person. I had to come up with different ways to convey that feeling of pointlessness, or maybe it was time to try conveying some new feelings. Suddenly, my poetry completely opened up. I wrote super long poems, I wrote a few happy poems, I forced myself into uncomfortable endings that sucked, but in revision led to some of my favorite poems to date.
If you’re struggling with your writing, feeling like it’s gotten stale or boring, or maybe even if you like your writing but it doesn’t seem to be getting published anywhere, take some time to read several of your pieces back-to-back. Are your endings all the same? The beginnings? Do they all give off the same vibe or tone? If so, it’s time to take some risks, make some changes, and branch out. You can do more. This doesn’t mean you aren’t doing enough right now, it means you contain multitudes, you are a powerful force full of too many stories to tell the same one over and over.
And if you’re struggling with the dichotomy of the Perfect Infallible Human version of yourself and the Shitty Garbage Goblin version of yourself, trust me when I say that you don’t need to “toughen up.” That bullshit advice is what led to this split personality in the first place, so just let that go if you can. I don’t actually have any advice for how to find a middle ground between these two, because it’s something I still struggle with A LOT. Writer Megan developed as a sheer byproduct of time, and other than just existing in a semi-professional setting for several years, I have no idea how to get better at handling criticism. All I can recommend is therapy, which is what I’m trying. We’ll find a way to be happy with ourselves somehow, and in the meantime, a poem about thinking you are simultaneously the best and worst person to exist probably wouldn’t be too shabby.