I took a poetry class my junior year of college and I loved it. I’d never really studied poetry before, unless you count having to memorize every word and punctuation mark in “No Man Is An Island,” which was apparently what my AP English teacher in high school thought counted as studying poetry. Our professor, Herbert Lindenberger, was the type of awesome prof you sometimes get who’s a distinguished scholar in his field, but also a man who clearly relishes teaching and words, as you could tell from the way he’d read to us in class. I can still hear in my mind his reading of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” bringing such breathless bravura to the lines, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/With rocks, and stones, and trees,” that you could forget that it was a poem about premature death. Even the unsexual poems became sexual…or maybe it just sounded that way to me because I was 19. (He is apparently now Professor Emeritus. I love that he has a Twitter page, which he has barely used, with a bio that says, “When you reach 85, 142 characters just isn’t enough room, so let’s leave it at that!”)
When something excites me, I want to have fun with it, so in my first paper for the class, I attempted to do that. It was an interpretation of John Donne’s “The Flea.” If you remember the poem, it’s written from the point of view of a man trying to get a woman to sleep with him. At my then-level of emotional (im)maturity, I found the whole concept that men had been doing this throughout the centuries pretty amusing, and so I decided to write it that way, with sort of a “tell it like it is” attitude. I still did a pretty decent analysis, I just did it kind of conversationally. I also went to town making the cover, with a giant drawing of a flea with one raised eyebrow that I created in MacPaint, making full use of the texture paint bucket tool (since, if you remember, it was the Bronze Age of computing, when most of us didn’t have color screens or printers). I was pretty darn proud of the whole package when I turned it in.
My TA gave me a B. She basically graded the paper like it was Freshman English, correcting things like how I didn’t declare what a paragraph was about in its opening sentence, and critiqued my tone as not being appropriate for this type of paper. This was quite a shock to me. While my academic career up until that point wasn’t perfect and I’d gotten plenty of Bs, I generally knew when to expect them, because I was aware of when I wasn’t quite grasping something (like the calculus class I took freshman year), or when I wasn’t giving a shit (basically the entire second half of my senior year of high school). I was not used to thinking I’d knocked it out of the park and getting slapped down, especially when I was trying to do something clever or different. On the contrary, my sense of identity as a kooky child prodigy had been firmly cemented from a very young age, thanks to the fact that my parents pretty much crowed over everything I ever made — every model rocketship, drawing of a flying pig, and “Escape from the Holocaust” board game was a sign of how wonderfully original I was. Schoolwork had been pretty much the same, from the time I’d made my “analysis” of the salamanders we were studying in our 3rd grade terrariums into a comic strip that my teacher loved, to even when I turned my final project in college freshman geology (which you may know by its colloquial name, “Rocks for Jocks”) into a children’s picture book that the professor had held up and praised in front of the whole lecture hall (which I only heard about second-hand, because it was a 9 am class on a Friday and that was the one morning after a frat party that I decided to sleep in), I was used to being praised for getting creative. I tried to explain to my poetry TA that obviously I knew how you were supposed to write an essay, that clearly I’d taken liberties with the form on purpose, but she was having none of it. I tried to go over her head, but that didn’t work either. I was too intimidated to talk to the professor, who, as much as I liked him, seemed to me, like most of the professors at Stanford, to be some sort of unapproachable eminence grise (despite that all of his TAs called him Herbie), and the head TA just thought I was grade grubbing. That irked me even more, that they’d assume all I cared about was a letter, when what was really upsetting to me was the feeling that I’d felt inspired to do something unique that I was really proud of, and they just didn’t get it.
Little did I know that that TA was basically saying, “Welcome to adulthood.” Especially if you want to work in a creative field, your career can come to seem like a long string of rejections and negative commentary about what you put out into the world, which, no matter how many times you tell yourself not to take it personally, crushes you like a bug. I was destined to go on to NYU graduate film school, where I would get very little feedback at all from the barely-present faculty, much less the positive kind. The most helpful notes I remember getting were from the Hungarian screenwriting prof for one of the other sections, who I went to see several times when I was looking for any sort of help with writing my thesis, and who, while she made it clear that she was doing me a favor by even reading my script and that I was never going to be one of her favorites, at least was willing to read a couple of drafts and say, eventually, “Well (sigh), this is somewhat better…” Feedback from my peers was more plentiful, since they were required to give it in class, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I still have the wonderful sense memory of feeling stomped after I presented a first draft of the script for my second year film in screenwriting workshop, when one fellow student began her critique with, “Well, I don’t know why you’d want to make this film,” then went on to detail all of the reasons why it was doomed to failure, from casting (because it had children in it) to locations (it took place in the suburbs), with nothing that would help me to improve the writing, aka why we were there. The people who came up to me after class to console me said she’d been so personal because I was trying to write something feminist, which she felt was intruding upon her territory. (She may have gone on to be a semi-successful TV writer in Hollywood, but since I see her most recent credit is as one of two screenwriters on the next Dirty Dancing movie, I can at least have the satisfaction of saying, Ha, who’s the feminist NOW, bitch?!). But regardless, any confidence I’d had in college to reply to negative comments with, “They just don’t get it,” would, over the course of five years of film school, evaporate completely, and I’d lose my sense of who I was creatively or what I wanted to do — to the extent that I’d ever had that in the first place. I was, after all, only 24 when I shot my thesis film. My experience of the world at that point was basically 19 years of school topped off with 8 weeks of travel in Europe and three months studying abroad — so more school — plus a couple of summer internships, a few weeks of temp work in a mail room, and waiting tables at Bennigan’s.
I spent probably the next ten years after that learning to tell the difference between what people were saying about my work and what it actually meant, or at least, what it meant to me. This is a key component, I think, of being a creative person of any sort: having a healthy enough artist’s ego that you can see and accept criticism that helps you, that appreciates what you’re trying to do in your work and wants to push you to accomplish that better, and reject the criticism that is either trying to cut you down or trying to make your work into something it’s not and never will be — that just doesn’t get it. All right all right, who am I kidding, I’m still trying to learn that. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. My response when someone criticizes something I’ve done is still basically to 1) beat myself up about it and tell myself I’m stupid and I suck; 2) tell myself they’re stupid and they suck; 3) try to figure out where the most helpful truth lies between these two positions. Not necessarily in that exact order, because I might tell myself they suck first, but 1) and 2) in some form still always come before 3). I say “helpful truth” because there are always many, many different truths that you can derive from people’s reactions to your work. For instance, knowing the person and what their taste tends to be can really help you derive something useful from their feedback, as long as you don’t just say, “Well, his favorite filmmaker is Scorcese, so unless my film has superficial female characters who get physically abused, he just won’t appreciate it.” That might be true, but it’s not helpful. If, on the other hand, you say, “She likes conventional love stories, so if I want my film to be more commercial, she might have a point,” then you can actually take that person’s notes for what they’re worth. You really need some sort of protective shell to be able to do this (more like a beetle, say, than a flea), and you build that one screenwriting contest/production company/film festival/grant application/feature magazine/short story journal/book publisher rejection at a time. Or you think that you do, but in all honesty, just remembering the rejections that helped me come up with this list is making me sweat.
Because it’s really hard to separate the criticism from yourself, and that’s just as true when you’re the one giving it. That’s not only because we all have egos, it’s also because so much of what we learn when we learn the business of selling creativity is about judgment: accepting or rejecting, sorting through the piles of losers to pick the winners, and, in doing so, proving that you understand what it takes to be one of them. Helpful critique, however, shouldn’t be about the person giving it proving that they can tell good from bad; it shouldn’t be about the person giving it at all, and it shouldn’t be about good or bad. Once I figured this out, I think I got a lot better at giving people notes. I was in a screenwriting group for a long time, and my criticism was more popular than my writing, which is saying something when you are basically giving people notes about what’s not working with their scripts (and I guess not necessarily saying anything positive about my screenwriting abilities, but let’s gloss over that for now). I think I just looked at it in terms of what I’d want someone else to do for me, and that meant figuring out what the writer wanted to do and how to make the script do that better — and by “better” I don’t mean more like how I would do it. There’s some basic stuff we are all supposed to know, like character development and story structure, that it gets hard see in our own work once we get too buried inside the writing process. And how you say it, explaining what needs to change in terms of what you like that’s there already as much as what you don’t like, can be just as important as what you say. Anyone who dumps all over you and then says they’re trying to help you by “just being honest” is just being an asshole.
I dug around recently and found my essay on “The Flea” in my parents’ attic. It’s sort of embarrassing, riddled with cringeworthy clauses/sentences, such as “In the second stanza, the wily fellow changes his tack…,” and, as an ending “All in all, I think that when she killed the flea, we pretty much know that he blew it. Better luck next time, John.” My TA was right, it does read like a kid who’s trying to be too clever for her own good, which makes it really hard to take the analysis seriously (although I still think she wasn’t one hundred percent right, because she said of the opening paragraph, “tone good here for class presentation,” when that paragraph ends with the sentence, “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this man was thinking about sex,” complete with bold and italics, or at least to the degree that was possible with a dot matrix printer). Luckily, even if I bristled at it, I was smart enough to listen to her criticism about not using that tone in future class papers, which basically stuck to formal essay-writing prose (except for the catchy title of my next one, “Throwing Out the Bathwater but Keeping the Swan: An analysis of how William Butler Yeats wrote ‘Leda and the Swan,’” of which my TA predictably wrote, “Wit in a title is dangerous unless it works to a purpose.” Honestly, it was generous of her to call it “wit”).
And yet, there’s something about the writing style of my “Flea” essay that reminds me a little bit of this blog. So even if it wasn’t appropriate for English 150, a little kernel of what I liked about that voice survived, and eventually went on to find the place where it belonged. Maybe I learned the right lesson after all.