Saying No to a Culture of Criticism

“There are too many noises in the apartment. The dryer buzzer just buzzed. It’s supposed to buzz three times. It only buzzed once,” Coco woke me from a deep sleep to tell me this. I walked her back to her room, laying beside her in her twin bed.

I thought about my last couple of days.

I was so proud to have gotten published in Salon and so unprepared for the barrage of criticism. My mind drifted to my workplace book club where my women colleagues had so many negative things to say about the Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom. I thought the book was awesome. I loved how Bloom attacks tabloids and reality shows. And, of course, those conflicts are manufactured for our entertainment.

In my lunch time book club, all these brilliant coworkers trashed Bloom because she was writing about the failings of mainstream media while she was a part of media herself.

At Salon.com all these people criticized me for my story when I never asked what they thought (but I guess Salon asked by opening the comments to a free-for-all.) I wrote more about this on my writing blog yesterday. http://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/

Last night, comforting my daughter, holding her hand as she drifted back to sleep, I thought, we live in a society of criticism. We constantly criticize one another. I’m not sure if it’s the vitriol of reality shows, politics or our own insecurity over jobs, relationships, parenting, whatever.

Trash talking bonds people together. “Look, isn’t Bloom an idiot!” “Yes, I agree.” But the whole thing leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Not a sweet one.

An article popped up on my Twitter feed this morning — about happiness helping productivity (Do Happier People Work Harder? by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer)  http://ow.ly/6kXqQ

Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier.

Yes! True for me. When I delight in criticism of other people I internalize it, get in a habit of criticism and then criticize myself and hold back on my creativity and kindness — as if we should be stingy with our happiness. As if joy in life, in our accomplishments were a weakness not a strength.

I struggle every single freakin’ day to be happy.

While I’m criticizing our culture for being so critical, I’m also happy there are writers like Bloom, Amabile, Kramer, and even me. Who ask, What do we need if not more criticism? The Times article says we need to “support workers’ everyday progress.” Simply pay attention to one another’s well being and stop the barrage of negativity. Simplistic? Maybe.

I go back to my rules, especially my rule learned from improv. Say yes! Happiness is harder but encouragement is essential. I like to take the difficult path.

Coco was fast asleep in her twin bed by now. The dryer had stopped tumbling. I was falling asleep myself. I unwound from her blankets. As I pulled my hand away, she squeezed it. Thanks!

My Salon

I never asked what all these commenters thought. I never really asked what anyone thought except for the writers in Joanna’s and Charles’s classes, where I had workshopped the story.

And yes, I wanted to know what an editor thought.

I’d sent the story to the Salon editor late Wednesday, thanks to the query challenge from Robert Lillegard. (See the comments at: http://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/the-westport-workshops/)

SH replied on Thursday over my lunch hour. I got her email while sitting in the hairdresser’s chair. She said my story “had potential.”

Nice! A new hair cut and a potential piece at the best literary and intellectual site online.

SH asked if I’d intended to publish under a pseudonym. No. She’d begun a line edit. She had legitimate questions about chronology and adding a “message moment.” That is, a moment to give the experience a meaning, an Aha! She was right.

I worked on the story; she worked on it. In a few hours, we were done. But commenters don’t take hours, months, years to write their comments. They dash them off.

I was surprised by the comments. At seven am, on Friday, I read the first seven. Then I stopped reading. I have very little experience with negative comments. The people who’ve commented on my blogs may spin out their own thoughts, but they don’t rip me.

I asked a couple of people what the comments said. My aunt (Ellen Wade Beals) emailed me; she said some of the comments were funny, some complimentary, and some snarky. One friend told me a lot of the commenters are commenting on each other’s comments. I didn’t need to go there. (And my sister emailed me with one direct message: don’t comment back!)

My only experience with negative comments was long ago on my article in the New York Times City section in the form of a letter to the editor. It was from an ASPCA representative quibbling with the way I’d represented their agency in my funny essay about the squirrel trapped in my airshaft. Fair enough.

At that time I took pride in the ASPCA’s letter to the editor. Aha! A letter to the editor meant my NYTimes story hit a nerve or was controversial. And now, I’m trying to take pride in the comments (that I’m not reading) on my Salon.com story. It’s a badge of courage to be criticized, commented on, and then survive (to blog about it.)

My cousin Susan Elster Jones sent me an amazing email last night. She said, One of my best professors once told me that the work isn’t really finished until you share it. And the more uncomfortable that feels-probably means the work is really strong. Thank you for sharing!

So, go ahead, comment away. Sure, I’m feeling defensive, sensitive, uncomfortable, but also proud, strong, happy. Uncomfortable.