Dealing with Criticism


When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite subjects was art. And artistic projects weren’t limited to a certain time. Teachers wove creativity into many of the everyday tasks of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Writing the letter B in the shape of an actual bee, helped with hand-eye coordination, and reading (the buh sound), as well as, entertaining the kids with bright Crayola crayons.  (Still love the big, super box of crayons with the sixty-four shades, everything from midnight sparkle to mauve.)

We even had a free time segment near the end of the day in which we could explore our inner Picassos.  We could draw flowers, a picture of our family, a pet, or our homes.  After a dozen or so times of drawing the typical lineup. I got bored.  I was bored a lot in elementary school. I found much of it to be very–well, elementary.  The curse of being clever in a public school.

I remember gazing at the paper and digging deep into the crayon box to find jet-black and violet crayons. purple-flowerssmallAnd an idea was born.

I thought it was brilliant. While all the other chibis copied the typical yellow daisy, a circle with four wobbly petals, I made my flowers petal square outlined in black and purple , even the stem leaves were square.  But as I looked at it, I knew it wasn’t enough, I had to made it more strange, more me.  I added a grid pattern.  Here!  This is it!  Art!  Beautiful!   I rushed up to the teacher’s desk and asked her what she thought.

She frowned and handed the paper back to me with little more than a glance. “Come on, you can do better.”

Now from my adult viewpoint, I can imagine what she felt and saw.  Weird picture, weird kid, and she only had five more minutes to finish her dang coffee before she had to dive back in and try to teach the heathens something, but what she said was like a pair of scissors stuck in my chest. And not the blunt tip safety scissors either, but the super-sharp-serrated-edge kind.

My thinking outside of the norm, my experimenting was wrong. My opinion of myself and my art—crumbled.   I went to my desks, hollow, gutted and drew a picture of a house that was a box and a flower that had exactly four petals and looked exactly like the other thirty kids in class.  This wasn’t the only time in my life that my creative endeavors were criticized but it was the first that I remember that stung, and made me change, made me doubt the muse.

I’ve had other teachers who were the anti-purple-flower teachers.  The ones who saw me writing  fiction in class and instead of asking me to put my papers away turned a blind eye. The ones that entered my drawings into contests.  The ones that let me read my short stories to other class members. But the experience with that first teacher left a deep scar.

Years later, I remember the purple flowers and the cool graphics and wonder how different my life would be if had maintained my faith in myself, if I had sloughed off her opinion and followed the muse down that crazy eight-year-old rabbit hole of creativity. But it took a long time for me to have that kind of confidence.

And even now, I still have a hard time when I get criticism, founded or unfounded.  It shakes me. Makes me doubt.  But the difference is now I understand that not everyone is my audience. I know that not all critics value the same things. Not everyone likes chocolate, or puppies, or purple flowers, and that is fine.  I like chocolate, and puppies, and purple flowers, and that is validation enough.  And if I look hard enough I will find other people who appreciate those things too.

Leave a comment if you want to share how you deal with criticism or just say hi.

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