What I’ve Learned from Handling Criticism (and Nice Words on How Some Famous People Handle it Too) By Emily Catenzaro

Frustration. (Photo/Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr|Creative Commons).
Frustration. (Photo/Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr|Creative Commons).

We’ve heard it all before: with writing comes criticism. But until you experience those first rejection letters (or a 2,000 word letter from a reader detailing nearly everything wrong with your story), it’s hard to predict exactly how you’re going to handle criticism. Actually, it’s hard for anyone to know how to handle criticism, period.

I was a competitive figure skater for fifteen years. During that time, I learned a lot of lessons from growing up in a subjective industry. An important, major lesson I learned is that rejection oftentimes isn’t personal. For example, rejection is often more about environment than most people realize. In skating, there are environmental factors to contend with such as, a) your competitors and the order in which you all perform, b) a judging panel’s random expectations for that day’s performances, c) the judges’ subjective opinions about how well you met those unspoken, random expectations, and d) arbitrary factors like the time of day you compete at and/or how cold the rink is (cold judges = more picky, temperamental judging).

Environment also has a heavy hand in writing. If you’ve ever judged a writing contest or read another friend’s or fellow student’s work, you know that environmental factors can and will influence your judgment. Maybe you couldn’t grasp the symbolic message behind that submission because you were half asleep when you read it. Or maybe a solid piece seemed just okay to you because it was the filler in an extraordinary submission sandwich. Just like in competitive skating, environmental factors are completely applicable to writing. And while it’s easy to rationalize or downplay these factors when you’re the one doing the judging, keep in mind that these factors may be at play when someone else is judging your writing. In other words, consider the source.

However, with writing you rarely (if ever) get a glimpse at just how close to the top you were, unlike in skating. In skating, there are ordinals; in writing, there are either acceptance or rejection letters. It can be so easy to lose sight of the gray in the black and white scenario of the publishing world, but if it helps, try to hold onto the gray. You never know how the editors were feeling at the time they read your story. They may have turned your piece down, but maybe it was one of the hardest decisions they’ve ever had to make. Maybe they fought for you story until the end, but it didn’t pan out. So don’t give up in the face of endless no’s, because someday your timing may go from bad to good. Someday, you may put that one piece together that receives a bunch of yes’s instead of no’s.

For those times when you’re feeling particularly down about your writing (and thinking positively feels more like an exercise in mocking yourself), it may help to find out how some established writers have handled criticism in the past. Any writer who has published anything has probably experienced at least a dozen rejections prior to the instance of publishing, either by editors, or friends, or fellow writers. So without further ado, here are some established writers on the subject of criticism:

Laura van den Berg (her latest book, Find Me, earned her the title “best young writer in America” from Salon):

“For me it’s important to acknowledge the inevitability of negative criticism. If I continue to write and to publish, it is going to happen. It has happened. It is a fact of any writer’s existence. And when we get negative criticism, we are in excellent company, since it has probably happened at some point, if not at multiple points, to every writer we have ever admired…. When faced with negative criticism, I first try to keep things in perspective….I remind myself that nothing can be for everyone. More than anything, though, I try to funnel whatever hurt I might be feeling back into my work…. I remind myself that what matters most (always, always, always) is my ability to dig in and write through it.”1

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the New York Times Bestselling Southern Reach trilogy:

“Ideally, you want [first draft] readers who are good at providing cogent, analytical comments on your work and don’t get hung up on petty details or are unable to sympathize with what you are trying to do. Any reader who continually brings their own agenda to your work and tries to impose their own vision shouldn’t be part of your revision process for very long…. Consider processing [feedback] in a systematic way. Why? To get the most out of [beneficial] comments and to better weed out irrelevant or harmful comments without losing valuable information. [A] systematic approach will allow you to get the most out of feedback in the same way that an expert butcher wastes not a bit of the meat from a carcass.”2

New York Times bestselling author Chuck Wendig:

“Understand that [writing] is a purely subjective industry. It’s nothing personal. You maybe just haven’t found the right editor or agent yet. When I was submitting to agents, I found that some really loved what I was showing them, but I also had rejections like, ‘I’m just not feeling it.’ Nothing personal. They don’t hate you. Let that lessen the sting…. Let rejection energize you, not enervate you. As one project is out there drawing fire, take each rejection on the chin and as you get jacked up, keep writing. Write more. It’s not only a good way to use that energy, but it’s also a good way to remain distracted from the rejections.”3

Elizabeth Gilbert, the worldwide bestselling author of Eat Pray Love:

“It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it…. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again…. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s [the industry’s] job. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.”4

Now in both sports and writing, there are always exceptions to the rule. Yes, it is true that you can easily win a gold medal in figure skating if you are such an extraordinary skater that a even a single judge cannot contest your status. (A literary equivalent might be a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King—you know, those writers who manage to produce instant bestsellers out of everything they touch). But you can be sure that successful athletes and bestselling authors have had their share of rejection in the past. More often than not, it’s what motivated them to get to where they are now. You, too, could be the next exception to the rule, but if you don’t power through that criticism, you’ll never know. Let criticism and rejection drive you deeper into your work. And if all else fails, I’ve found that spending an evening eating Ben & Jerry’s from the carton and binge-watching Orange is the New Black works just fine, too.

End Notes:

  1. http://flavorwire.com/446215/11-writers-on-how-they-deal-with-criticism/6
  2. Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook (pages 269, 274)
  3. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/01/17/how-a-writer-makes-use-of-rejection/
  4. http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/thoughts-on-writing/

Emily Catenzaro is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut. She spends way too much time at ice skating rinks.

“Glorious” by Amy Martin

Glorious

by Amy Martin

 

Glimpses of his dreams pass by his eyes in the calm solitude of the waiting window. It’s one thing in Sean’s life that he wants slow and still and calm. One of few. He always seems in a rush. In a way, he is; in a way no one but James has ever been able to describe. Even James can’t explain him in words. James uses art that is enchanting. Sean’s constant movement blurs the edges of James’ sketches, and the movement is tangible. That art, that inherent magical quality when putting charcoal to paper- it is something Sean has only ever known James to posses. It is beyond his words. It is perfection. It is glorious. Sean hardly thinks he’s seen anything quite so breathtaking. He jokes that it’s because he is the subject of these creative endeavors, but he can hardly lie to himself.

Now he sits patiently, cold leaching into him from the unsealed cracks around the edges of the glass pane, he waits for the other thing he wants slow and still and calm. James enters. Sean can sense him, and his stomach does that odd flip he hasn’t yet accustomed himself to. He wants to hear the quiet voice say “Sean?” half a question, half an announcement of his presence. Instead, James simply crosses the room to him, standing silently beside him as the view into the swirling snowy darkness changes.

James doesn’t say the view is beautiful, or picturesque, or magical, or any of the sappy things that Sean suspects he’s thinking. Sean suspects James would love to sketch this scene; he is no doubt imagining how much black he’d need to cover the canvas, how to make the pinprick flakes of white swirl in a whorl that swallows you in the same way he makes Sean move. Sean guesses James isn’t quite sure himself how he makes his art come alive, that it’s simply a natural talent that surprises James as much as it amazes others. Sean has no reason to think this, but he guesses from the way James will stare blankly at a canvas or his sketchpad for full minutes, stops work and simply gazes, before becoming once more absorbed. Sean has always wondered if there is anything else in the world that can absorb James the way creating art does. He hasn’t yet found anything that does.

James shifts beside him, and Sean finally tears his gaze from the mesmerizing snowfall, tears his brain from its racing commentary, his senses from drinking in the presence of the man he knows too well yet not enough. He grins, and looks into the dark-soft eyes that have accompanied him through six years of friendship. James’ smile is broad, James the artist, James the quiet one, James whose innate happiness most people cannot see. But Sean has always seen it, and he will until the day that inner brightness fades.

Somehow, Sean knows James isn’t thinking about drawing or painting or art or the view out the cold glass, because that smile is for Sean, and no one else can see it. James’s eyes are subject to that goofy grin when they adore him in that moment. Sean lifts a hand from his lap, the crinkle of plastic too harsh between his fingers and real as is any noise in these moments with James he tells himself every day mean nothing.

“Cracker?” he offers, and it is the first word spoken between them and the sign for them both that this is just going to be another normal, casual, friendly encounter, and once again they won’t address the sparking fire that has been lit by their smiles. Sean doesn’t know James is slightly crestfallen, this time as well as every other; James himself refuses to acknowledge the slight lurch in his gut as he reaches out to take a salty delight from the proffered package.

He holds the foodstuff delicately, nibbling at the corner, and Sean laughs uproariously as is his custom when seeing James behave overly politely. To enhance the disparity between their eating methods, Sean shoves his fist into the plastic sack and, still chuckling, shoves a handful of crackers into his gaping mouth. He chews with his mouth open, too. James grins. The humor of this friendship is infectious. Even if no one but Sean sees it, James’s secret smile is never more satisfied than when they’re together.

Sean shrugs his legs off the window ledge, kicking his heels against the wall and staring at James, who no longer has a cracker to conceal his unrefined glee. It wouldn’t have had much chance, in any case.

After a moment, not a second too soon, Sean leaps off the windowsill, eyes sliding past James into their living room, where he spins in a dramatic circle before falling back onto the couch. It’s not long before he’s rifling through James’s things, James sitting in the armchair beside, ignoring the constant commentating Sean has running about the half-concealed personal belongings he’s sifted through a million times before. James is unconcerned, an empty page in front of him being filled with darkness by his nimble fingers. He’s recognized by now that he’d waived his right to privacy when he’d accepted Sean as his friend, even more so when they’d become roommates. He learned on the first day he’d ever met Sean that nothing would ever be safe from his sticky fingers and prying eyes. Prying, in Sean’ case, simply translated to curious. Or bored. Or, even, very occasionally, suspicious. But, it was always a good-natured suspicion, and James had never since kept anything he didn’t want Sean to see.

This was why he was confident as Sean rambled on about the state of his underwear, the hideous porn that Roger had slipped to him, and even James’ handwriting on business documents and meeting notes. James smiled and laughed and let his eyes wander to survey Sean discreetly, only to return them instantly to his fresh drawing when Sean held up a new object for inspection. Sean fell silent for the first time in ten minutes, and for the first time fear crept into his veins. As the waves of sound rolled away, James’s ears pricked and he froze, waiting for the moment when Sean would rip James’ attention from the sketchbook and demand an explanation behind the acquisition of some new addition to James’ belongings. It didn’t come. Slowly, James raised his eyes to examine Sean. A page of James’ notes was clutched in Sean’s hand. There were doodles in the margins partially concealed by Sean’s fingertips. Sean’s eyes had gone blank as he gazed down at the paper. James tried to surreptitiously sneak the page from his friend’s hands, but Sean drew back to life, and held it tighter to himself. Before James got the chance to ask what was wrong, Sean pulled a fresh stack of paper from a pile beside him on the coffee table and covered the offending document, launching quickly into a new rant on the CEO and how he was an enormous greasy jerk. James let it pass. He returned to his charcoal drawing, but kept an eye on where Sean placed that pile of parchments, keeping track of where he moved it six different times. He wanted to know what Sean had seen that had made him so uncharacteristically silent and distant.

Sean was cold, colder than he’d been at the windowpane even though he had a warm comforter bunched up around his waist and James’s long legs stretching out across the sofa beside him. In fact, James’s closeness had made him warm in a way he refused to acknowledge, but the chill in his brain and his chest had not been touched. Office meetings were ridiculously boring, notoriously so- had James spaced out so much that he’d not realized what he’d doodled? The picture of the man, from waist up and shirtless, on the side of the page was unmistakably the same as the image Sean faced in the mirror each morning. James must have done the doodle from memory, which begged the question- how much did James stare at him half-naked? So, alright, he was shirtless quite often at the gym or parties or swimming in the summer, or hell just wandering around their apartment- but that didn’t give James an excuse to remember the lines of his body so well.

Surely, this was a fluke. James had never drawn anything like this before, at least not that Sean had managed to get his hands on. Either James’s imagination had gone haywire while listening to the boss’s droning, a real possibility, or he’d been concealing immoral feelings for his best friend for an undetermined length of time. Sean hoped to God it was the first.

After he’d scattered James’ possessions everywhere, Sean retired to the kitchen for a beer. Since the tense moment with his notes, everything had been normal, or at least he thought it had. The camaraderie and easy routine the two of them had had only skipped a beat, then Sean had been back to cracking jokes and leaving the both of them laughing. Still, as soon as Sean had left the room James picked up his things and carefully replaced them into piles around his briefcase. On the pretext of organizing them, James hurriedly rifled through the stack that contained that particular page of his notes. Despite their near-instantaneous return to friendly banter, James was curious what had caused Sean’s momentary lack of composure. He had not yet located the correct page when Sean returned, holding out a beer for him, his hair tousled messily in his usual fashion. Sean’s eyes were drawn to James at once, and suddenly James felt guilty for prying, although the notes he was shuffling through were his own. For a moment, Sean stared at him with an expression that James had never seen before. It left him feeling raw and thoroughly examined. Sean raised the beer to his mouth and disappeared towards the kitchen once more. James was struck still for a moment, then returned to his task as quickly as he could.

Eventually, he found it in the stack. He scanned the doodles that filled the sides of the page until his eyes found it and fixated. His brain took a few seconds to process the drawing, and in that time his jaw dropped open. When his brain caught up, he quickly scanned the room, relieved to see that he was still alone. He slid the paper out of the stack and into his pocket, and hurriedly replaced the pile on the table where Sean had found it. He finished organizing the last of his belongings, and walked into the kitchen.

Sean didn’t look at James as he leaned against the edge of the counter. It wasn’t really awkward, just silent for a few minutes until Sean announced he was going to bed, and disappeared into the other room.

James heaved a deep breath, finished his beer, and decided that retiring was probably a good idea. After shutting the door to his room behind him, he pulled the paper from his pocket, his charcoal stained fingerprints smearing the edges of the page. The drawing of Sean was left intact. James didn’t remember drawing it. The boss’ lecture had been droning on, and he’d spent the lesson staring at Sean’ head. His face was in profile to James, and he could see himself idly scratching out the lines of his nose, the familiar angles of his face, but he’d thought that then he’d dozed off. James tried to confront himself honestly. What were his feelings for Sean? At this point, no matter what they were, Sean deserved to know the truth.

Sean, who had been raised devoutly Irish Catholic.

Sean, whose Dad had disowned his Uncle Matthew when he’d come out to the family.

Sean, whose priest had had such a kind face and such gentle fingers when they’d lain themselves across his arms while he’d said his prayers.

Sean, who’d been such a disappointment to his father.

Sean, who’d discovered that kissing Sadie Brown after the Christmas Party was not half as exciting to him as being close to James.

Sean, who was even now curled in a ball against his bedroom door, clutching at his rosary and chanting, repressing the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum…

 

***

 

Amy Martin is a senior studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is an Environmental Writing individualized major and an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology minor. She loves dogs, travel, and food.

 

 

LRR 2015 Online Publications Directory

We recently posted a number of creative submissions to our blog. To navigate the influx of literature, please feel free to either refer to the directory below or, if you are feeling more whimsical, explore the LRR blog.

Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Pieces
Turner’s Comedy” by Martin Bremer

“Morning on Cathedral Parkway” by Lillie Gardner

“Cold Water” by Catherine Hires

“A Man and His Beard” by Carleton Whaley

“Glorious” by Amy Martin

 

Poetry
“Godson” by Devin Samuels

“Missing” by Colby McAdams

“Calm the Storm” by Shantel Honeyghan

“The Blood Shed” translation by Ana Arriaga

Interviews
Interview with Camille Dungy

 

“The Blood Shed” translation by Ana Arriaga

Spanish
LA SANGRE DERRAMADA

¡Que no quiero verla!

Dile a la luna que venga,

que no quiero ver la sangre

de Ignacio sobre la arena.

¡Que no quiero verla!

La luna de par en par.

Caballo de nubes quietas,

y la plaza gris del sueño

con sauces en las barreras.

¡Que no quiero verla!

Que mi recuerdo se quema.

¡Avisad a los jazmines

con su blancura pequeña!

¡Que no quiero verla!

La vaca del viejo mundo

pasaba su triste lengua

sobre un hocico de sangres

derramadas en la arena,

y los toros de Guisando,

casi muerte y casi piedra,

mugieron como dos siglos

hartos de pisar la tierra.

No.

¡Que no quiero verla!

Por las gradas sube Ignacio

con toda su muerte a cuestas.

Buscaba el amanecer,

y el amanecer no era.

Busca su perfil seguro,

y el sueño lo desorienta.

Buscaba su hermoso cuerpo

y encontró su sangre abierta.

¡No me digáis que la vea!

No quiero sentir el chorro

cada vez con menos fuerza;

ese chorro que ilumina

los tendidos y se vuelca

sobre la pana y el cuero

de muchedumbre sedienta.

¡Quién me grita que me asome!

¡No me digáis que la vea!

No se cerraron sus ojos

cuando vio los cuernos cerca,

pero las madres terribles

levantaron la cabeza.

Y a través de las ganaderías,

hubo un aire de voces secretas

que gritaban a toros celestes

mayorales de pálida niebla.

No hubo príncipe en Sevilla

que comparársele pueda,

ni espada como su espada

ni corazón tan de veras.

Como un río de leones

su maravillosa fuerza,

y como un torso de mármol

su dibujada prudencia.

Aire de Roma andaluza

le doraba la cabeza

donde su risa era un nardo

de sal y de inteligencia.

¡Qué gran torero en la plaza!

¡Qué buen serrano en la sierra!

¡Qué blando con las espigas!

¡Qué duro con las espuelas!

¡Qué tierno con el rocío!

¡Qué deslumbrante en la feria!

¡Qué tremendo con las últimas

banderillas de tiniebla!

Pero ya duerme sin fin.

Ya los musgos y la hierba

abren con dedos seguros

la flor de su calavera.

Y su sangre ya viene cantando:

cantando por marismas y praderas,

resbalando por cuernos ateridos,

vacilando sin alma por la niebla,

tropezando con miles de pezuñas

como una larga, oscura, triste lengua,

para formar un charco de agonía

junto al Guadalquivir de las estrellas.

¡Oh blanco muro de España!

¡Oh negro toro de pena!

¡Oh sangre dura de Ignacio!

¡Oh ruiseñor de sus venas!

No.

¡Que no quiero verla!

Que no hay cáliz que la contenga,

que no hay golondrinas que se la beban,

no hay escarcha de luz que la enfríe,

no hay canto ni diluvio de azucenas,

no hay cristal que la cubra de plata.

No.

¡¡Yo no quiero verla!!

English
THE BLOOD SHED

I don’t want to see it!

Tell the moon to come,

that I don’t want to see the blood

of Ignacio on the sand.

I said I don’t want to see it!

The wide moon.

Horse of quiet clouds,

and the grey plaza of sleep

with willow along the barriers.

I don’t want to see it!

I hope that my memory burns.

Alert the jasmine flowers, so small and white.

I said I don’t want to see it!

The cow from the old world

passes his sad tongue over a muzzle covered in the spilled blood pooled on the sand.

And Guisando’s bulls, almost dead and almost stone, mooed as if they were fed up

spending two centuries walking the earth.

No.

I said I don’t want to see it.

Ignacio climbs the stairs with Death on his back.

He sought the sunrise, but sunrise it was not.

He finds his stable silhouette

and the dream disoriented him.

He sought his beautiful body and

found his spilt blood.

Don’t tell me to look at it!

I don’t want to feel that blow,

every passing time with less force;

this flash that illuminates those laying on the ground

and falls over the corduroy and leather of the thirsty crowd.

Who yells for me to show my face?

Don’t tell me to look at the blood

His eyes didn’t close when he saw the horns getting closer,

while the terrible mothers lift their heads.

And through the livestock there was

an air of secret voices that yelled at celestial animals, the overseers of the pale fog.

There was no prince in Seville with who you could compare him,

nor a sword like his sword,

nor a truer heart,

his marvelous strength was like a river of lions,

and his decorated wisdom, like a torso of marble.

Air from Andalusian Rome adorned

his head in gold where his smile was a block of salt and of intelligence.

What a great bullfighter in the ring!

What a good ham from the mountains!

How dull the spikes are!

How hard the spurs are!

How tender the dew!

How dazzling the fair!

How enormous with the small flag of darkness!

But already he sleeps with no end.

Already the moss and the grass open up

the flower that is his skull with sure fingers.

And his blood already comes to me singing;

singing for salt marshes and prairies,

slipping on frozen horns,

flickering without a sould through the fog,

stumbling over thousands of hooves like

a long, black, sad tongue to form a puddle of

agony alongside the river Guadalquivir of the stars.

Oh white wall of Spain!

Oh black bull of pain!

Oh harsh blood of Ignacio!

No.

I don’t want to see it!

There is no chalice that can contain the blood,

there are no swallows that will drink it,

there is no frosted light that’ll make it cold,

there is no song nor flood of white lilies,

there is no goblet that could cover it in silver.

No.

I don’t want to see it.

 

 

Ana Arriaga is a sophomore who is majoring in Spanish with a minor in linguistics.​ She enjoys reading Spanish literature and poetry, especially the works of her favorite poet, Federico García Lorca. Ana hopes to one day work as a translator or interpreter.

She writes of the piece, “My father is from the Basque region of Spain. This region of Spain was one of Franco’s big targets during the Spanish Civil War. García Lorca draws inspiration from the war in many of his poems and was a strong voice against Franco.”