Balancing Criticism, Social Responsibility and Creativity

(I wrote a post with a similar title many years ago, and while I liked the overall message I thought my examples were weak. So here’s my second attempt.)

Criticism stresses me out. And the thing that stresses me out most isn’t when someone convinces me that I did a bad thing in my writing, or that something I enjoyed has a problematic element. No, then everything is fine, because I can fix the bad writing/acknowledge that some of the things I enjoy are not perfect. The thing that really scares me is when I hear somebody’s argument about why a thing is bad, I listen carefully to all their points, and I truly, honestly, do not agree.

Is that weird? Is that just me? I’m going to go ahead with the assumption that it isn’t, because otherwise there’s no point to this post.

The first thing that scares me is the way internet criticism can turn shitty. The way people attack things that I love and make it seem like everyone who likes it is Irredeemably Horrible is stomach churning. But the older I get, the smaller that worry gets. For one thing, I’ve realized that if the only people who argue a point are mean-spirited trolls, it’s probably not a good point. Not that mean-spirited trolls can’t sometimes make a good point, but if a point makes sense to compassionate, thoughtful people, they will make it in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

The second thing is the fear that I might be wrong, and not realize it. That’s a more existential kind of fear. It’s harder to push through, because no matter how I look at it, I’m not infallible. I’ve changed my mind about many things, and I don’t believe that current me is the magically flawless one who will never have to change again.

To be more specific, I am afraid that my current, imperfect self will put some things out into the world that are bad. That influence people in a bad way. I write in no small part because I love social justice and I believe stories play a powerful role in shaping how we live our lives. Put all that together, and it’s possible that something I write will, someday, influence someone for the worse.

In this way, the very thing that inspires me to write can also shut down my creativity.

I’m not writing this to describe the way I magically banish my fear. That doesn’t exist. I’m human and uncertain and I am kind of glad that I’m afraid enough to take my writing seriously. I’m writing about how I do my best not to let the fear get to the point where I can’t write anymore.

Use Longer-form Social Media For Writing Resources

Simply relying more on longer-form media has reduced my anxiety a lot. By that, I mean I focus on blogs, vlogs and podcast episodes over Tumblr or Twitter. In particular, Twitter’s structure is the enemy of nuance and context. It’s fine for promotions and goofing off, but when it comes to social commentary, it pushes people to over-generalize and sound quippy. And while I think satire is an important part of social commentary, there’s a difference between satire and flippant put-downs.

Twitter and Tumblr also favor a piling-on phenomena, leading you to feel that a lot of people feel very strongly about an issue, simply because enough of them could get to a punchline in two sentences or less. So if you come across an issue that is oversimplified, you can also feel bombarded with social pressure to join in with the oversimplification. And if you push back and criticize, you too will lack the space to give your disagreements respectful context and nuance, making it easy to build a virtual war between two armies of strawmen.

In contrast, when I watch a Youtube video or listen to a podcast where somebody disagrees with me, they have opportunities to fully express their point of view, and I have time to make my response equally thoughtful. This actually makes me more likely to seek out diverse viewpoints. On short-form social media, I’m scared of attack because there’s nothing to do but attack. When I have space to consider and discuss, I can, you know, do those things.

It’s Okay to Not Talk About Everything

It seems like these days, if you’re going to have a public presence (and thanks to social media, who doesn’t have a public presence?), you have to comment on everything. “I don’t know” is often treated as a kind of cowardice. It shouldn’t be. Unless something falls under your area of expertise, it should be fine to take time to consider before publicly stating an opinion, and maybe not comment at all.

This especially goes for writing stories or articles that explore important social issues. I have seen writers, especially fiction writers, attacked for not exploring this issue or not representing people of this identity. To be fair, occasionally this is valid. “Research the story you choose to write” is a completely reasonable standard to set, which is why it’s fine to point fingers at someone who sets their story in 1920s Harlem without writing any Black characters. But it’s different to pick out a writer who has stayed in their lane, and criticize them for not straying from it. Accurate information and respectful representation both take time and effort, and there’s too much out there to discuss for anybody to tackle it all. So why not focus on topics that you either have personal experience in, or care enough about to put in the work and research?

Remember the Single Story

I think this should be required viewing for any writer. Here’s a link that includes a transcript.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The Danger of a Single Story”

When I’m scared that I might write something bad, it’s encouraging to think that there are other people out there who can say the things that I can’t. The important thing is to have a healthy writing and reading community, where people are putting out their own perspectives and taking in those of others. Everyone’s life is an incomplete window on a big reality.

At the root of most bad faith criticisms, you find the assumption that somebody, somewhere, should be able to write a perfect story that will save the world from our oppressive patriarchal heritage forever. No one will spell that out, of course. Anyone can see that it’s an absurd proposition. But when critics, whether on mainstream publications or a personal social media accounts, take a smug attitude the moment they find a minor flaw in a popular piece of media, that’s the implicit message. If you assume everyone’s perspective is flawed, you will make your minor criticisms constructive and balanced, saving your disgust for works that are truly irredeemable.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think the most important thing is to check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back.

As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.

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