On Criticism

Yesterday I couldn’t wait for my Motherlode essay to be posted. But today, with comments that include the words “maudlin,” “trite,” “annoying” and “over the top,” I simply wanted the editor to post something else already so maybe the comments would stop.

This is not a post seeking praise. I was overwhelmed with kind words from family, friends and via Facebook (thank you, for those). This is a post about learning how to write honestly but in a way that anticipates—and therefore addresses—possible criticism. And also, dealing with inevitable criticism that comes no matter what you write. And finally, deciding if it’s even worth it to write, knowing the type of criticism you’ll receive.

A lot of the criticism I received on Motherlode was in response to my not letting Sophie choose her own backpack. Perhaps ironically, she did choose her own (which, looking back, I should have made more clear in my essay). I wanted her to use my old preschool one, the elephant one my mom made. And what a lovely ending that would have been to my piece! Even Lisa Belkin, the editor of Motherlode, said via e-mail that she was rooting for the one my mom made. But I had already shown Sophie several backpacks online—the bee one, the pink monogrammed L.L. Bean one and another pink monogrammed one with a butterfly on it. She was obsessed with the pink butterfly one and she didn’t want anything to do with the elephant one (although, today she won’t take the elephant one off—go figure). And so I let her choose. By letting her choose I let her “take away” the perfect essay ending. And what was left was imperfect life—and an imperfect essay.

Of course, criticism can be a very good thing. I’m always concerned that my writing is too sappy, too Hallmark-esque. Perhaps it is. I did spend too much time researching that backpack. And it’s good to know that more than once she’s going to come home with wet clothes spoiling the inside of her bag. I, honestly, hadn’t thought about that. These comments, I appreciated. But the others, the ones that painted me as controlling, made me feel awful.

I wish I could tell everyone that my backpack search was done in the evening, after the children were in bed. I wish I could tell everyone how much time I’ve spent talking with Sophie about preschool, about the activities she’ll do, the friends she’ll meet, the books she’ll read, the things she’ll learn. I wish I could tell everyone that I understand there are far worse problems out there, that I was too obsessive, that I won’t cry in front of her on that first day (but maybe just a little, in the car, once she can no longer see me) and that I fully expect her artwork to come home wrinkled and torn, and that her backpack will get very, very dirty. In fact, I’d be worried if her backpack wasn’t all but destroyed by the end of the year.

I e-mailed Susan Shapiro (read her books, take her classes, she’s wonderful—you can learn more about her here), an author and writing instructor I worked with at Writer’s Digest magazine, and someone well-versed in the art of personal essays. She reminded me of the necessity of thick skin and said, “I always say if you want to be popular, write cookbooks.” She also reminded me of the importance of critique, if only to anticipate such criticism. And she’s right. I wrote my essay in about an hour and sent it off, without an outside reader, without letting it sit, without taking the time to truly think about people’s reactions—a novice writer’s mistake.

So this is what I’m struggling with: How do you write honestly, which means revealing all your idiosyncrasies, mistakes and faults, knowing you’ll get criticized, personally? And I don’t want to not read them. As a writer, red pen marks all over my pages are what have made me better. And as a parent, criticism has made me rethink how I handle things, do things and approach matters with my children. That said, it’s difficult not to feel the sting of judgement, the feeling that you’re failing your children in some way.

I love the personal essay. I have written them since elementary school. I love the column. I had one in my college newspaper. I love the blog. But am I ready for the personal to be so public? Is it worth it? I don’t know. Some days, yes. Other days, like today, I imagine a small cabin in the woods, with no Internet access, a Moleskin journal and pen my only outlet. But then, without outside opinion, how can one grow?

It’s a strange feeling today. Although not the print version, I can now say I’ve written for The New York Times. And while there’s excitement associated with that, I don’t know how graceful an entry it was.

But, it was an entry. Is it, though, an entry I want?

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.” —Aristotle