blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.

Constructive vs. destructive

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.

If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.

Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.

Put up your guard

Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.

Defence not attack

Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.

Probing for weaknesses

A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person.  You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.

Engage in rational discussion

You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.

  • Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
  • Consider the alternatives presented.
  • If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
  • You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.

Round two

Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.

Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”

Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.

The student becomes the teacher

Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.

Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.

Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Grey

#3 in the colour series

dandelion_wreco
wreco via pixabay

 

It is the time of sleep and not-sleep

but warm, always.

It is the time of seen and not-seen

soft focus, blurred.

It is the time of dream and not-dream

yet absolutely real.

It is the place mapped and not-mapped

each hill and curve already known.

 

These are not adventures, and here be no dragons.

We know this gentle push and pull

caressing the edge of darkness

teasing the frontiers of rest.

The familiar needs no more.

Soft half-light reveals us to each other again

veiled in a gossamer web of sighs.

It is that time.

blog

What colour is your balloon?

balloons empty assorted_PublicDomainPictures
PublicDomainPictures via pixabay

 

When I was a girl I wanted a balloon, shiny and blue, bobbing at the end of a string. Other people had them, so why not me?

Someone gave me a box of bright colours and said sure you can, choose one.

I didn’t realise how hard it would be to turn that scrap of latex into a balloon. I huffed and puffed and blew till I almost turned blue. It didn’t work. I was ready to give up.

Someone took pity on me. They showed me another way. I narrowed my focus, took careful aim, and blew.

And blew and blew, and held on tight, so none of that precious breath escaped. And my balloon grew big and round. Carefully I tied the neck tight and added a string.

Here’s my blue balloon. It makes me smile. And it brings challenges.

 

A storm will come, whether tomorrow or another day.

Envious people will come, to persuade you to let go so you will be like them. Malicious people will come, hiding sharp weapons to pierce and destroy.

Anxiety will come, asking whether pink, or yellow, or green aren’t really a better choice.

Devious people will come, coveting your possession.

My answer is no.

No, the wind may not take it. I will wind the string tight in my grasp until the sun returns.

No, I have the right to my balloon and you will not deny me.

No, I will guard my balloon and defend it against attack.

No, I will stand by my choice of balloon. Other colours exist, but this one is mine.

No, I will not give you my balloon by fair means or foul. Go find your own.

 

Maybe your balloon isn’t blue. Maybe it’s not even a balloon. But I say, choose your dream, focus and work hard, hold on tight and defend it from all threats. Starting is hard, but the reward is worth it as long as you just keep going.

It’s the only way to make a dream come true.

 

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Blue

poem #2 in the colour series

below-sea-blue_PublicDomainPictures
PublicDomainPictures via pixabay

Why do we talk of feeling blue? Depression is not blue. It is impenetrable fog grey, the ghosts of ships unseen on a black tide, the lighthouse beam obscured by solid clouds that touch an angry sea. It is thick and puckered scars that yield only to the sharpest, deepest cut. A slash of knives draws no pain from this unfeeling carapace. Far below, if you bridge that distance, oily dark blood oozes, curdled with loss and longing.

None of it is blue.

Walk on muffled leaden boots, here in the below. Strain my ears, hear no sound. Eardrums burst from the pressure, under the sea, bottom of the Marianas trench. Deeper yet, in the Laurentian abyss of my soul. I gazed into the void, but it did not gaze back. It too has forsaken me. Weighted like an old style diver, I wade through the sea of futility. Up above, water sparkles Caribbean blue, gold sun shines in a brilliant azure sky, birds sing. Down below, impenetrable dark and blind monsters. Nothing to see.

It feels like home.

Push past doubt, anxiety, fear. Now we reach the bone, skin nibbled and hanging in tatters, only a flash of white beneath grey and rotting flesh. Eaten alive but already dead, the marrow leached away, colours bleached away. What’s on the other side none know but me. My pulse thickens and slows, matching the absent drumbeat of null.

It is calling me.

I have forgotten my life topside, in this my true reality. When will my heart beat its last, when will I join? Let the nothing take me, let the absence consume me, let me be assimilated and so vanish, zero sum.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Pink

poem #1 from the colour series

pink lily petals flower
webdesignerbr via pixabay

 

As pink shades to red, so the tightly furled bud swells and becomes more of itself. Forever growing more alluring, velvet petals invite a touch, sensuous perfume beguiles the nose. Scent blown on a lover’s breath cascades down inmost folds, finally drowning in a gentle waterfall.

Carried over the edge into tempestuous torrents, blooming, opening wider and more, into enthralling depths of sweetness. Yes, sighs and gasps and the music of the spheres, all is here, tasting of honey, pulsing with life and heat, ripe and heavy.

Red deepens to imperial purples, blue of night, midnight indigo and sparkling starred ebony. It matures but does not end, fading once more purple, red, pink, sleepy pale at last it rests.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

When you feel you can’t go on

10 steps to let your body carry your mind

seascape_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t always make you stronger.

Sometimes God or the universe sends you more than you can bear, piling one pain atop another. It doesn’t kill you, but you want it to end. Your spirit bends, quivers, threatens to shatter under an immense load of bad thoughts, feelings, or events. The room is locked from the outside, and you can’t even find a door because the light flickers and fades. It’s dark and frightening.

Your strength is gone. What to do now?

This mind, with all its anguish and desire for oblivion, is housed in a body that only knows one thing. Even when broken, at the extremes of pain and suffering, the body strives to go on.

No matter how many people surround you, depression is a lonely, solitary place filled with funhouse mirrors. Your world is twisted and distorted, pain reflected back from every direction.

The body can help.

While the mind searches for solutions, focus on your body for a while. Often we neglect it, for various reasons. We lack motivation, we are at war with a body that does not work or look how we want it to. We’re preoccupied with fighting whatever battle is consuming our lives. Acknowledge that and set it aside. This is not the time to address those issues.

First we must survive, body and mind together. And it is strange but true; the mind comes to rest in a body that is usefully occupied.

First things first

  1. Get clean; shower, wash hair, brush teeth. Make your bed. These will give you a sense of achievement, early in the day.
  2. Fresh clothes, something soft against the skin, according to the temperature. Socks if it is cold.
  3. Drink water. Cold, hot with lemon, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, whatever appeals. Then, drink more water through the day.
  4. Eat something. Toast, cereal, fruit, yogurt, noodles, whatever is available and easy.
  5. Put on some music to distract you from the internal thoughts that constantly whisper negative things. Turn up the volume if it helps.
  6. Some, or maybe all of your environment is out of control, mirroring your internal state. Pick a room where you spend a lot of time. Start in one corner, and begin clearing up. Wash dirty dishes, put on laundry, fill bags with trash and take them out.
  7. When feelings arise about the process, note them and keep going. Remember this is practical, not emotional.
  8. If someone has offered their support and you feel able, ask them to keep you company and/or help you. Sometimes we don’t need someone to hold our hand, as much as we need someone to tidy the kitchen we can’t face any more.
  9. Go outside. Breathe fresh air, turn your face to the sun, stand barefoot on the grass and connect. If weather or other issues prevent this, open a window for a few minutes. Bodies need oxygen and sunlight.
  10. If you are able, a simple repetitive task will further occupy your body. Cleaning windows, ironing, digging a garden, painting a fence, mopping floors, pulling weeds, walking. Sing along with your music. Count your steps, left, right, left.
  11. You will be distracted by the pain. Tell yourself you will come back to it later, and concentrate on the task at hand. (You know it will still be there.) Mindfulness is not emptying your mind of thoughts, that’s impossible. It is about noting the thoughts, letting them go, and returning to the one point of focus. Counting breaths or steps, reciting prayers or mantras, all help to occupy the body and still the mind.
  12. Helping others can be very therapeutic. But we cannot give what we don’t have. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
  13. Remember we are all different, and YMMV. Try different things and see what works for you. Return to it when life gets tough, before things spiral too far downwards. Sometimes we sink deeper, and it takes more effort to climb out of the hole. Get to know your early warning signs, and act on them.
  14. Ideal outcome: your body is comforted and nourished; your environment improved; your sense of control enhanced; your mind rested. A break from pain frees up mental energy that can now be used to address the underlying issues, with professional help if needed.

I hope you find something here that helps you feel better. But if you don’t, if you really feel you can’t go on and ceasing to exist seems like the only way out, please stop and reach out. Help is available here (in many countries) and there is always another solution.

The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.
Juliette Lewis

Sometimes, just surviving another day is the victory. Let your body carry your mind until it feels better.

(first published in Invisible Illness on Medium, 18th June 2017)