How to be critical

                                  How to be critical
First, remember everyone likes compliments and no one wants to be informed they suck. Especially if this information is conveyed by your mother who asks questions like: "Did you mean this to be funny?" or makes helpful suggestions such as, "Maybe you should ask daddy to tell you what's wrong."

If daddy is a literary genius and you've just written your first novel which mainly complains about growing up with a literary genius and a mother who is capable of telling you your work is bad, don't show it to him. if you do, be prepared for him to highlight a single sentence with the following comment: "This sentence has promise."

Don't read aloud your first short story at age 8 to the aforementioned people for they will inform you that your work is filled with cliches and malapropisms. Even though you have no idea what either of those words mean, you know it's not good.

Second, don't get a boyfriend who wants to be Jack Kerouac combined with Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen. You will spend endless evenings listening to terrible 'poetry' that refers to all women as "fallen angel whores" and describes human existence as  what's left behind when the garbage is taken out. Because you are the daughter of a literary genius and the most critical woman in the world, both of them vastly talented, funny, astute and Harvard graduates, you will listen to your boyfriend's work and feel overwhelmed with sorrow, personal sorrow for being in love with such a talentless chump and universal sorrow for the world that is subjected to this tripe. This will make you feel guilty and you will shower your talentless lover with insincere praise. Meanwhile, you write. You write poetry, short stories and part of a novel. Your creative writing teacher tells you to start submitting your work. You don't.

You decide to become an actress and you end up in a summer Shakespeare theater. You audition and find yourself with a tiny part in a single play. You end up building sets, smoking prodigious amounts of pot and making up a secret society (Federation of Set Technicians) which you call F.O.S.T. You recognize this is not your finest hour. Then the Set designer borrows your car and ends up stuck and starts reading your notebooks because she is bored. She knocks on your door and comes in holding a stack of them. "You're a writer," she says."Didn't anyone tell you that you're an incredible writer?" You shrug and accept your notebooks but after she leaves you start reading what you are writing. Who is this person, you wonder.
 "They will never forgive you," you say aloud. And then you shut up.

After years of screwing around, having terrible jobs, dating bad writers and submitting to your father's criticism, you have enrolled in an MFA program. During your first critique session you eagerly praise a writer's work as brilliant because "his main character is a total pig and he made that real." When you meet with your professor he tells you that this individual has left the program. "Why?" you ask in surprise. "I thought his story about the asshole Wall Street guy was great." Your professor looks at you and says-"Someone called him a pig." You open your mouth and close it. There is already a problem because you got a book deal during the first week of school. People don't like you.  "Never confuse your writing with your real life," your professor tells you.

The MFA program is okay except you receive such harsh criticism it's often hard to separate whether people hate you or your writing. A famous writer conducts a workshop and refers to your writing as "sweet". You want to punch him in the mouth. You pour your heart out to your other professor and he asks you whether you have a boyfriend. He praises your writing and your cheekbones. He looks at you longingly. This is unacceptable. Being sexually harassed in every job since you left high school is bad enough but now your writing teacher is trying to seduce you. Your belief in yourself is shaken. You call your mother and ask her why she and your whole family walked out of a performance of a play during your monologue. "We wanted to leave before the crush," she tells you. "Also, the play was shit." She pauses. "You were very good," she says. "We didn't leave because of you."

You write three novels and receive good and bad reviews, words of praise and criticism that makes your teeth ache. You keep writing.

You become a teacher and you love it. Your students writing makes you laugh and cry and shake your head in disbelief. Most of it is terrible but that's to be expected. Your students come from Senegal, Haiti and the South Bronx. Your students need someone to help them unbury their squished down voices. You will do this because writing is the thing that has saved your life. You are very, very encouraging and gently critical. You write words of praise wherever there is something good to say. You make suggestions and you ask many questions.

You also teach skilled writers who have been told by their critical parents to shut-up. You tell them to speak their truth. You read everything about how to teach writing and somehow you already know 99%. Whatever happens, no one should be silenced. You remember when you were little and you wrote that story that began: "They were like two ships that crossed in the night. Her lips were ruby red and her eyes were as blue as cornflowers." Language was so beautiful, so graceful and filled with power. You were unafraid because you didn't know what was good or bad. No one had told you the rules. The world and its beauty was waiting.


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