How Being Critiqued Changed My Life

The first time I attended a writer’s critique meeting I didn’t know what to expect, although visions of Great Gatsby soirees came to mind. I imagined intelligent conversations intermingled with witticisms, sartorial elegance, and as a nod to Hemingway and Poe, passing around glasses of wine and whiskey. The insightfulness of our remarks would be utterly mind-blowing and we’d declare ourselves to be utter geniuses. Following that would be a lighthearted debate concerning which Hollywood actors are talented enough to play the hero or heroine in our future book-to-movie adaptions. Next, we’d bemoan the writing industry, curse the difficulty of breaking into it, but reassure each other that we would be the next lucky few to “Make It.”

The reality, however, was shockingly different from my speculation. The meeting took place in a brightly-lit conference room where writers positioned themselves at a large Formica table. Laptops, notepads, pens, and piles of writing submissions littered the table, but strangely, no wine or cocktails were in sight. Instead of relaxed conversation, the leader sat with a stopwatch and timed our responses as we took turns critiquing each other. Rather than a party-like atmosphere, the air was thick with gravitas.

The part of the meeting that caught me most by surprise was the constructive criticism. When it was my turn to be critiqued, people started off with immense praise. They said my writing was funny and original, romantic without being clichéd, the heroine smart and loveable, etc. I happily lapped up the praise like a thirsty cat drinking a bowlful of milk.

Then out of nowhere, they turned against me. They said the subplot was weak, the pace too fast, and most damning of all, was my propensity to overdramatize some of the characters. I opened my mouth to defend myself, but the leader shushed me. He said that I needed to absorb the critique through quiet listening. And so I did (albeit, not very happily). By the end of the meeting, I had not only received invaluable writing advice and critique, but I had stumbled upon a life-changing skill. The skill of listening.

A few weeks later, something happened in my personal life that left me reeling with a case of déjà vu. On a particularly stress-inducing Sunday evening that involved me issuing various demands of my husband Daniel, he made the offhand remark that there was a fine line between being my husband and being my slave. I stopped what I was doing and turned to look at him. To me, those were fighting words; a simple statement that translated to ‘You’re a bad wife.’ I opened my mouth to defend myself, but then I recalled the rule of listening when being critiqued, so I nodded instead. The expression in his eyes softened and I knew he could tell that he had hurt me. “Heidi, I got up at seven this morning while you slept in till nine. I got the kids breakfast and took them shopping with me. I made lunch, I made dinner, I shoveled the snow and helped the kids with their school projects.” He sighed. “Sometimes, I need a break, too; I’m only human.”

You know that part in the movie The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis finally realizes that he’s dead? That’s exactly how I felt after Daniel finished speaking; not the dead part, just the realization that you’re not who or what you thought yourself to be. In my head, I was an easy, fun, happy-go-lucky wife, whereas Daniel saw me as a slave driver. The truth is probably a hazy middle.

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

So often in life, people take things out of context by extrapolating false ideas to otherwise simple statements. At the writer’s meeting, for example, I immediately assumed that the subliminal message of their criticism was that I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist when in truth, they were simply pointing out ways that my novel could be improved. Once I understood that I began to crave criticism in the way I once yearned for flattery. While I still appreciate compliments, they don’t carry the opportunity for growth the way criticism does.

I implemented this skill into my personal life as well. When there’s a disagreement in members of my family, be it a marital argument, inter-sibling or parent-to-child, we take turns talking and listening, which means there are no interruptions until the person speaking gives the signal that he or she is finished. It’s extremely effective and best of all, fast at resolving disputes. As long as there are interruptions – usually for the purpose of defense – there will be no easy recourse for a problem.

Besides for the obvious goal of winning the Pulitzer Prize for a romantic comedy novel (there’s a category for that, right?) and accruing masses of riches and fame, my other – dare I say more important goal – is to be the best possible version of me. As a Jewish wife and mother, a sister and friend, neighbor and community member, there are many opportunities for me to grow as a person. But I can’t improve unless I first stop and truly listen.

So the next time my sister points out my judgmental tendencies or my child says I’m being unfair or my husband reminds me of my priorities, I promise to take the time and listen. I hope to improve, but there will be times when I fail. And that’s okay, too. As a writer and a person – my novel and relationships – they are both works in progress. And you know what? It is the journey itself that makes life beautiful.