Early in my creative writing education, I spent a lot of time in writing workshops. And when I say a lot of time, I mean a lot of time. Enough time that I’d memorized the formula exactly—the way we all sat casually, shoes off, cross-legged like all cool art students do; we carried red wax pencils; we spoke kindly about each piece first before offering criticism and suggestions to the writer. Fiction class was one of my favorites. I hit my stride early on with a piece about a man who worked for a company that made toys—a man who was woefully immature; a man wrestling with adulthood that seemed to have come too quickly. But the next piece to be workshopped was one I was sure would light the place up. It was about a woman with a mundane, married life, with two kids and a dog. She decided to shake things up and went on a dating website where she met a woman with whom she began an affair, which finally allowed her to find herself. She wasn’t your typical stay-at-home mom, after all. She was a rockin’ hot lesbian superhero and she was ready to claim her true identity, and along with it, the happiness that had always evaded her.
As the workshop began, I watched other students shuffle papers until they got to mine. The process rolled along. I was given compliments, which I ate like candy, savoring each one before taking another. Then, the professor opened the floor for “more productive” feedback.
The conversation was dynamic. I received great suggestions about how to add depth to the main character, make her husband more likeable, and how to lift the story so each intended theme came through more clearly. My only moment of embarrassment came when a classmate pointed out that the lesbian pornography site I mentioned, wasn’t made up as I claimed. It was real and she knew because she watched it. I then had to admit that I knew it too because. . . well, because I did. Despite that cringey moment, I felt positive about the experience and was ready to run home and revamp my piece. That was, until Duncan Hampshire Humphreys raised his hand.
“I’ve got to be honest,” he said, crossing his legs in an exaggerated manner, “I don’t understand how any of you got a positive impression of this piece. Frankly, it’s shit…”
Someone stifled a laugh.
“Duncan, we don’t speak about our fellow writers’ work like that,” the professor said, cutting him off.
But Duncan didn’t stop. He looked my way leafing through my essay and said, “All due respect, what’s your name? Alee? A lesbian housewife? A fantasy about being tied up with scarves because she’s wearing a silk scarf in her profile photo? Come on. This is all totally cliché. It’s all crap. I truthfully think this piece is total garbage. I’d rather stab myself in the eyes with a pair of scissors than read one more word you’ve written.”
“Ok,” I managed, tears stinging the backs of my eyes.
“Duncan, I need to see you alone NOW. Everyone else is dismissed,” the professor belted. She glanced my way as if to see if I’d stop for comfort, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I gathered my things and ran out of the room, down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. I spotted a group of friends standing next to a wall outside the building. They made room for me as I reached them. I leaned on the wall and sank to the ground, which smelled like urine. One of them handed me a lit cigarette and I closed my eyes while inhaling the smoke. I opened my eyes and stared at the words on the page through tears. Were they shit? Was I shit?
That night, I drank my feelings which, it turns out, are made of straight vodka. I took shot after shot after shot, grieving my own talent. At around 10 p.m. I stumbled out onto the street with my friends for a cigarette and wouldn’t you know it, there was Duncan Hampshire Humphreys walking into the building.
Who did this kid think he was? The GOD of writing? The next great American novelist? No. He was an idiot with an awful haircut and a serial killer name. And I was going to tell him.
I ran up behind him and pushed him harder than I meant to. He spun around and looked at me and his eyes narrowed as he processed who I was, “Oh, it’s you.”
“Yes, it’s me,” I yelled, “and you were a total dick to me today. Where do you get off treating someone like that? I worked hard on that essay. You owe me an apology.”
“I don’t owe you anything,” he said laughing, “and you should find something new to do with your life.”
“Well, you should. . .” my mind froze, I had nothing clever to say, so I yelled, “stop being a miserable dick!” But he was already inside the dorm carrying, of course, a leather-bound book.
Years later, as I began my career as a professional writer, I started to encounter people on a regular basis who were mini-versions of Duncan Hampshire Humphreys. There was the woman I wrote copy for who told me my writing was stale, boring, and basic. There was the couple I wrote a book for who told me my writing made them sound boring and “uncool.” There was the man I wrote an e-book for who told me that if I couldn’t understand and communicate his “very simple” engineering business plan, I should quit the craft altogether. Then, there was the woman who called me the c-word for putting her in a pink sweatsuit in a scene in her book, because she would never wear something that tacky and how could I ever assume she would.
What’s funny is, as much as I despised Duncan Hampshire Humphreys, he taught me an important lesson about writing. No, the lesson had nothing to do with drinking your face off and confronting the person who spurns you on the street (that is actually quite ill-advised). It’s that this type of criticism will be forced on every writer at some stage in their career. And the longer you’re at it, the more likely it is to happen more than once.
The key, I have realized, is to not get riled up. Take a breath, let that person own his or her reaction, and approach every situation with a solution-oriented mindset.
Here are my golden rules:
- If you don’t have one yet, keep a running list of compliments you’ve received over the years. Visit that list before doing anything else.
- Don’t react from your gut. Give yourself time to think, calm down, and form a plan before responding.
When you’re ready to respond, ask questions instead of firing back with insults. Begin with, “What I’m hearing is you feel upset, and I hear that. Can we remedy the situation by changing the wording a bit?”
- Do not be afraid to walk away from a working relationship where you are being treated disrespectfully or are being submitted to abusive behavior. Walking away is the right thing to do.
- If you’re dealing with someone offering criticism of your published book, please, please, please IGNORE IT. You know what they say about opinions. They’re like assholes…and most people are assholes.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy thing to do, but it is the best way to handle situations like this. Why? Because your abilities as a writer are not and never will be in question. These rough, poorly-communicated opinions matter to one person and one person only: the person dealing it out.
The bottom line is, our craft is subjective. What one person loves; another may hate. It is, therefore, our greatest challenge to meet the Duncan Hampshire Humphreys head on, handle them with respect, and remind ourselves that just because someone thinks we’re shit at something, it doesn’t mean we’re shit at anything at all. Remember, you cannot control whether you receive criticism, but you can control what you do with it.
Fun Fact: Duncan Hampshire Humphreys is now a CPA. I make six-figures writing. (mic drop)
Written by our founder, Alee Anderson. Click HERE to learn more about her writing journey and career.
Photo credit Jimi Anderson @jimiandersonphotography.