One of my favorite Kaizen-Muse Muses isn’t actually a Muse at all—it’s the Bodyguard. You may not think you need a bodyguard—after all, you’re a harmless, mild-mannered creative person, not a celebrity or the President of anything—but if you’re going to be a successful mild-mannered creative person, trust me: you do.
Anyone who dares to create faces criticism. And fear of criticism turns creative souls into what my 8th grade Home Ec teacher called “paralyzed perfectionists.” It’s a deadly combination.
Sunday afternoon, I went up to New York to see Alan Rickman in a new play called Seminar. He plays Leonard, a former novelist turned editor who offers private writing seminars to those who are well-connected enough to get his attention (and wealthy enough to fork over the $5,000 for the privilege). We see him work with four young writers who are desperate to get their work published but who feel abused by the feedback they get. And really, who can blame them? When the story you’ve worked on for years is called “a soul-sucking waste of words,” for instance, how else would you feel? (You can see clips from the play here.)
As a graduate of the Goddard College MFA program in creative writing, and as a Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach, I went into the theater expecting to come out with strong opinions raging in one direction or another. From what I’d read in various reviews, I expected that I would be horrified by Rickman’s character and be thanking my lucky stars that I chose a program that was not abusive, competitive, or anything other than challenging and nurturing in exactly the ways that I and my classmates needed.
Instead, I found myself thinking about the nature of criticism and how some of us fear criticism so deeply that it turns us into perfectionists who can never step out of the boxes we’ve created for ourselves. In fact, many of us allow fear of imperfection (and thus fear of failure) to keep us from our creative dreams because it’s less painful than finding out that what we did wasn’t perfect. All that work, we think, would be wasted if it turned out that someone didn’t like what we did. That perfectionism turns up in two characters in Seminar who write prolifically but refuse to share their work with the outside world.
When we start a creative project, we need that shelter from prying eyes and careless critique. But there’s also something that is ultimately tragic about engaging in creative work without ever being willing to let anyone else see it. Our culture reinforces the idea that we should strive for perfection, which just makes it harder for creative work to begin, or to be shared once it’s completed. Creativity is a fragile thing; one wrong word and it’s destroyed forever, not because the talent isn’t there but because its skin is like the bubbles we blew as kids: way too thin to survive a puncture.
As I said, my MFA program was a wonderfully nurturing, exploratory environment where we could chart our own courses for the semester according to our own goals. The horror stories you hear about writing workshops at other schools simply didn’t happen at Goddard because that pedagogical model meant there was no environment of competition between students. The only competition was with yourself. Instead, there was collaboration, discussion, sharing information, and general collegiality. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. And I wouldn’t miss it if it had been like sticking your head in the lion’s jaws and praying you’d get out in one piece.
I worried when I began that program that I would have trouble taking criticism. My instincts had always been to defend how I had done things before backing off and giving any level of credence to what I perceived as anyone else’s harsh criticism, which was obviously not going to be a productive approach. And yet, I adjusted quickly. Some of my fellow students had a hard time dealing with criticism, even the very friendly, constructive variety offered in our workshops. I remember watching one turn so red during a workshop that I fully expected spontaneous combustion to follow—and realized that the issue I had anticipated for myself never became a reality. I recognized that the comments were about the work, not a reflection on me, and were meant to help me make the work as good as it could be. That’s not to say that I always particularly enjoyed hearing others’ comments, but I could take them in the spirit they were intended and evaluate them accordingly. I was not losing my cool or ending up in tears, and that was progress. I felt sorry for the seething soul in front of me who was taking every single comment personally rather than as helpful feedback on the work, because that missed the entire point of the exercise.
No one creates in a vacuum; we all need that feedback. But there is a fine line between criticism and abuse. At one point in Seminar, one of the students calls Leonard abusive. “Critics will be much worse,” he replies, barely batting an eye. “If you let any of it in here,” he says, pointing to his heart, “any of it at all, you’re doomed.” It is a moment when you can see that pedagogical philosophy is not only to improve his students work, but to toughen them up so that their hearts are protected from the cruelties of the outside world (whether his approach to toughening up his students is justified or just an excuse to get out of censoring himself is a matter for debate). You can almost see the workings of his mind in that moment, saying, “If you can survive working with me, you’ll survive being fed to the wolves outside the gate, so you might as well get used to it now. It’s for your own good, and it’s part of what makes this class worth $5K.” And he’s not wrong. The world will take its turn and since it’s true that we can’t please everyone all the time, it’s best to learn sooner rather than later how to shield ourselves from the criticism that could keep us from ever trying again. Is it really abuse, then, or is the development of a necessary defense for creative souls?
It’s a tricky balance, because that fear of criticism, of failing, is so often what keeps us from getting started in the first place, or from taking our work out of the drawer so the world can see it. Without imperfection, we can’t get started (and often can’t make the unexpected discoveries that are such a joy in creative work), but without criticism, we can’t grow. We get stuck in our own world and stop being influenced by others because we only see what our tunnel vision shows us. So we must find a balance, and keep a Bodyguard around to keep the outside influences from becoming too strong and to give us a safe place to play.
Embracing imperfection lets us see the truth in what others tell us, because we don’t expect that we’ve created a masterpiece already—we want to know where we can improve, what works and what doesn’t, what we might have missed. Without feedback, we’d never know. The Bodyguard keeps the harsh Leonards of the world from getting into our hearts and dooming our thin, fragile, dreams before they become reality.