April 29, 2019 Selig Blog: The Creator Meets the Critic at the Nursery

By Jennifer Leigh Selig

My newest book has been birthed—she’s just a few days old now. To say it was a labor of love is trite, but no less true. Deep Creativity: Seven Ways to Spark Your Creative Spirit took three years to conceive, grow, and release, and my co-creators Deborah Anne Quibell and Dennis Patrick Slattery and I are now holding our breath as it wings its way out into the world, hoping it’s viable, wishing it a long, healthy, and abundant life. 

For a Creator, there’s nothing like receiving the package that is your baby into your hands for the first time. You hold it with wonder, examining it to make sure it’s perfect—all metaphorical fingers and toes present and accounted for. You stand outside the nursery with your close friends and family, who make the appropriate goo-goo and gaa-gaa sounds over it. “It’s beautiful,” they swoon, saying its name aloud with awe and appreciation that it’s finally in the world, this thing you’ve been gestating for so long. You’re exhausted, yet proud, as you steal glances at what you’ve just produced. “Can you believe we made this?” you whisper to your co-creators. “That’s our baby.”

Imagine, then, that a group of Critics shows up outside the nursery. The Critics are people you’ve never met, faceless and often nameless strangers armed with Post-It notes and a pen. They slap assessments of your baby onto the nursery windows for all the world to see. 

“I give your baby one star. As a woman who has seen many babies in my life, I find yours doesn’t add anything original to the world.”

“This baby is really heavy at 9 pounds, 6 ounces. It’s really a slog to get through looking at all parts of her.”

“Two out of five stars. This baby could be loved only by crunchy granola millennials. As a sane middle-aged woman, this baby is not for me.”

“This baby feels too academic. I promise in my reviews that I’m gonna keep it honest. Honestly, I don’t love this baby.” 

You guessed it—these are fairly close replicas of some of the advance reviews of our book. Yes, there are fabulous reviews as well, far more positive than negative, but still, every Creator knows that while the negative reviews may be outnumbered, they take on an outsized role in our own psyches. The Critic can crawl under the skin of the Creator, and give us the heebie-jeebies. We wish they had learned the lesson all babies-turned-children are taught—if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. After all, let’s face it—some babies start out quite ugly. But even if you’ve just given birth to a baby that looks like the reincarnation of a pallid and wrinkle-reduced 99-year-old man, people will still congratulate you and say it looks like an old soul. Even if you’ve just given birth to a baby with the most glaringly large nose ever to (dis)grace a human face, people will find other qualities to praise, like its adorable little fingernails or its teardrop earlobes. 

And you’re right. My analogy is inexact. The Critic doesn’t belong in the nursery, but they do belong in the bookstore, where they (can) serve a valuable service. Only maybe, if you don’t like my baby, still find something nice to say about it. Maybe you don’t like the words themselves, but you could point out that the font is really thoughtful. Maybe you don’t think the book has anything original to say, but you could acknowledge that for over 300 pages, we gave it a really good try. Maybe the book is not for you as a sane middle-aged woman, but truthfully, how many of those exist anyway? And, since you promised to be honest, you have to admit—crunchy granola is really tasty, and not just to millennials!

All Creators who put their work out there in the world have their go-to defense mechanisms of choice to arm them against the Critic. Humor is obviously one of mine. Willful ignorance works too—we just don’t read the reviews, or the comments on our social media posts. We may reverse the adage attributed to Ernest Hemingway—“Write drunk. Edit sober”—to “Create sober. Read reviews drunk.” Whatever it takes to not become the Wounded Creator, so paralyzed by the anticipatory sting of the Critic that we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. 

Because the truth is, the vulnerability of the Creator is, well, vulnerability. We are twice vulnerable to the Critic—once, to the Inner Critic, that wily time traveler who shows up before, during, and after we put pen to the page, notes to the song, or brush to the canvas, and then again to the Outer Critic, if we’re lucky enough to have an audience for our work, a reader or a listener or a viewer. 

I teach memoir writing, and here are three homilies about the Critic that I preach to my students, and practice religiously myself (on my good days).

  1. It’s all relative—and sometimes, you need better relatives.Not all Critics are created alike. Some are not even Critics, who are technically defined as professionals trained in the field who can objectively judge your work based upon tried and true industry standards. Find your trusted Critics, and trust them in turn to tell you their (still relative) truth.
  2. It’s all about service—and you don’t need to serve everyone.Can you name a musician whose music you don’t like? Of course. Are there other people who like their music? Of course. Should they change their music just to please you? Of course not. Creators are in service to their audience—and not everyone is your audience. 
  3. It’s all about timing—and the timing is not always right. There’s good folk wisdom in keeping your pregnancy tight to your chest, or close to your belly, for a certain period of time. In some stages of our work, it’s just too delicate to share—we’rejust too delicate to share. To everything there is a season—and it’s not always the season to share, or even care, about what others think about what you’re creating. 

As for me—that season has passed. My book is out and available. (You can check for it on-line.) I say a little blessing for it—may it find itself in the company of good relatives, and serve those it is meant to serve. In the meantime, I pour myself a bowl of crunchy granola, and get to work, laboring away on my next creative baby. 

Jennifer Leigh Selig, Ph.D., is an author and educator interested in the intersection of depth psychology and creativity. Having recently left academic institutional life, she refers to herself as an itinerant educator, traveling around the United States teaching, speaking, and leading workshops, primarily on the topics of creativity, memoir, and vocation. She owns a book publishing company, Mandorla Books, and is the author, editor, contributor, or publisher of nearly 20 books. Find her at www.jenniferleighselig.com, which also features some of her photography.