Every year around this time, one or more of my children comes home from school with the following old chestnut: “It’s not what you get, Mom, it’s what you give.” And while I absolutely appreciate how this represents a heroic effort, in our consumer culture, to encourage children to see the holiday season as something other than a chance to rake in as many Shiny New Objects as possible, I fear it sidesteps an opportunity to talk about how profound and important it can be to receive gracefully.
This is something I’ve had to teach myself on the fly and out of desperation, and it isn’t exactly my strong suit. But as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I see how often we get tripped up by our unwillingness to fully receive what’s being offered to us. Take criticism in a workshop, for example. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of your least favorite fellow writer tearing your work to shreds, you know what it feels like to engage in a resistant reception. Perhaps that sort of rejection of what’s being offered seems excusable. But what happens when your favorite reader smiles tightly after reading your latest favorite work? Historically, I tended to do one of two things: Either willfully ignore my screaming intuition and somehow wheedle them into saying something positive; or poke the bear by proclaiming that nothing they could say would bother me, encouraging them to take me and my work down so cavalierly that I could go home and grumble to my spouse that maybe they had a point, but that they really crossed the line. In both cases with my favorite reader, and probably even in the case of my least favorite one, my ability to receive what was on offer was severely compromised by my desire to nurse my sore feelings.
As the years of writing diligently accumulate, I’ve become much better at receiving criticism, mostly because I’m now much more aware that the ability to generate my best work makes me infinitely happier than the desire to receive positive feedback. It’s never easy, however, especially when the criticism comes in the form of a snarky review or packaged along with a load of hooey, but I have found that the more good criticism I can find, no matter what the source, the better. Because once you get over the sting, you find that good criticism is its own kind of fuel, sort of like fiber for your creativity, if you will – if taken in the interest of your ongoing health, you’ll soon appreciate that the benefits of integrating it far outweigh the unpleasantness of taking it in.
I find that the work, too, has frequently offered me things that I’m reluctant to receive, much to the detriment of both me and it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and reread scenes that never quite feel right to me, blaming them as liberally as I might a puppy-kicking pundit, or determined to “fix” them into what I’ve already decided is their ideal form. After wasting what has probably added up to years of time engaging in these strategies, I am finally beginning to recognize that a scene that refuses to smooth itself into submission is oftentimes a true blessing in disguise, the red flag waving you toward the disconnect between what you think the writing should go and where you’re ignoring its potential. Perhaps it’s showing you that despite how much you want those two characters to fall in love, doing so would sacrifice a far more interesting, complicated, and authentic relationship. Or maybe it’s showing you that as much as you want to be an unimpeachable historical novelist with impeccable credentials, without some healthy doses of magical realism, your work just doesn’t reflect how you actually see the world. No matter what the case may be, listening to the work, really receiving what it’s offering you without your ego trying to beat back whatever it’s not sure it can take, is often the difference between lingering indefinitely in the creative doldrums and catching a new and exciting wind to a place you never even knew existed.
Art: Bustling Aquarelle, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923