Author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) recently posted on Facebook a reflection on how she deals with criticism. To sum it up: she doesn’t.
Her words of wisdom reappeared on my feed, shared by writer friends who seemed to agree. As Gilbert puts it, reading criticism of her work is “doing violence to herself.” She recognizes criticism’s established place in the creative landscape, but says it is not a critic’s job to make an author emotionally honest—that is left up to the author herself.
Gilbert also notes that she reads positive reviews with relish (“because it’s really nice to hear people say nice things about your work!”) and that she has a core group of trusted individuals that she leans on for feedback—on a certain timeline (“after the book is published THERE IS NOTHING MORE THAT I CAN DO ABOUT IT”).
At first, I thought I agreed. Writing for the web, I know what it’s like to be the receiving end of bizarrely personal, speculative, misogynist, ill-informed, and all-around angry comments. I identify with being too thin-skinned for this public world, where it’s easy to nurse the wounds while waving away the encouragements. Gilbert quotes the Internet adage to “not feed the trolls,” who she characterizes as porn-watching, beer-swilling, butt-scratchers. And listening to them can ruin your work.
At first blush, this seems like common sense for self-care and preserving personal dignity. But then I consider what she and other sensitive writers might be missing out on. A critique in The New York Times isn’t the same as an anonymous commenter on a blog post, but every person who puts their creative and intellectual work out there needs to consider how and when to engage with negative feedback. I’ve surprisingly discovered how critics—even the loud, harsh, and “mean” ones—have changed my writing for the better.
I landed my first major writing gig when I won a contest for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a humor website that runs columns from unknown writers from interesting backgrounds. I wrote about living and working with Somali Bantu refugees, positioning myself as the do-gooder missionary who got caught up in more than I could handle. I wrote about our differences and similarities, how I started off trying to convert them, and how we gradually became friends.
I received pushback from the start, mostly from one critic, a young Somali woman I’ll call Maryan. She hated the way I characterized my refugee friends, nitpicking even the slightest details (for instance, I said that they loved Bollywood movies, which Maryan took to mean that I was implying no Somali people were sophisticated enough to enjoy black and white films). More readers shared her critiques than my original columns. People emailed me links to Maryan’s posts, and I clicked and read on in horror: how she hated me more than she hated anyone in the world, how she wished I was dead.
After the initial shock over this level of vitriol, my fears quickly veered off into two directions: one, I wanted to defend myself and my writing choices and two, I felt incredibly ashamed and wanted to stop writing for good.
I pushed on and kept writing about my life and work with refugees for that year, with Maryan in the back of my mind. How was I portraying my Somali Bantu friends? Was I adding to stereotypes, or was I just committed to telling the truth? I even reached out to Maryan to suggest we write letters to each other, and our back-and-forth discussion ended up published in Geez magazine. Even at that point, we were writing over each other (I was writing more about poverty, and she was writing more about her concern with how Somali immigrants were viewed in America). Both of us were sure of our intentions, we were both sure that we were right.
A few years later, my family and I moved across the country, partly so I could continue my work teaching English to refugees from East Africa, and we ended up in the city where Maryan lived. One day, an artist friend invited me to a poetry and storytelling show. I looked at the flyer and could not believe my eyes. There, scheduled to perform at the event, was Maryan. My heart fell. Should I still go? Could I meet my worst critic face-to-face? I was curious enough that I decided to attend, watch her perform, and leave. That was all.
Maryan read several pieces, all of them devastating and beautiful and smart, most having to do with being a second-generation Somali girl in America. As I listened to her, I knew: I had to go introduce myself. I hung around and approached Maryan once she was finally free. In a rush, I said something I had not planned on, but realized the second it came out of my mouth that it was absolutely true: You made me a better writer.
I explained that I was the writer of the McSweeney’s column, and her face was blank with shock. I thanked her and said that because of her words, I now thought so much more about ethics and representation. She collected herself, apologized for being in a bad place the previous year, and then we established a sort of Internet truce: we took a selfie together.
George Saunders, the award-winning short story writer, tells of a writing mentor who once got a bad review. His students were worried that one of them might mention it in class, but right from the start, the instructor brought it up himself. The famous writer used the criticism to teach them “the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better.”
Our critics can make us better—especially if the people critiquing our work come from outside immediate circles. As a white girl from a middle-class background, I’ve become increasingly aware of how much I need feedback from people outside of my own perspective in order not to get stuck as a writer and a thinker. I write about issues surrounding refugees and immigrants, as well as poverty and inequality and the church. Thanks to the Internet, we live in a golden age of accountability. My work has been parsed by liberals and conservatives, Westerners and non-Westerners, activists and artists. Instead of viewing it entirely in negative terms—trolls, flame wars, trigger warnings, political correctness—when I take a step back I see how listening to thoughtful critique opens me up and expands my own limited horizons.
Still, an onslaught of negativity can weigh on you as a writer and as a person, so it helps to know which critiques you need to hear. I rarely respond to comments (unless the individual is truly seeking more information), as little good comes from engaging with anonymous voices. But if someone takes the time to critique something I have written, or wants to engage on Twitter, or sends me an email, I usually do read it. While it still hurts, and I still struggle to defend myself, I have learned to wait and breathe through it. Even if I don’t agree with a critique, I have found that dialoguing, learning to disagree respectfully, and examining my own blind spots are all disciplines that I need to work on. And thanks to my critics, I get the chance to do it better next time—to make my writing more honest, more respectful, and less sloppy.
Sometimes, my head feels crowded with voices. Maryan is there, as well as other friends from other cultures, ethnicities, classes, political persuasions. Instead of trolls, I have found real people who push back against my assumptions and privileges. Instead of crippling me, they have done the opposite. Like the Proverb, they have been the iron in my life, sharpening me in ways I never knew I needed (Prov. 27:7).
D. L. Mayfield has lived within refugee and immigrant communities for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as CT, McSweeney's, and Image Journal, among others. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Find her at dlmayfield.com or on Twitter.