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Accepting Criticisms

I considered myself an artist. Since COVID, I have published six books covering short fiction, poetry, and poetry reviews. I have been part of a couple of anthologies of poetry and short fiction.

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.

― Émile Zola

Art allows me to express myself through words. That makes me a writer, an author, and a poet. Some of my writings are extemporaneous, while some involve deep research and introspection. This applies to my poetry, in particular.

Some of this introspective and research-based poetry evolve as projects considering the amount of time and focus I have to commit to ensuring that the final composition meets my standards. My standards are instinctive and gut-felt, for I feel satisfied based on the quantum of work, effort, and ability that gives it a shape.

Since I am self-employed and writing is my passion, I am normally able to accommodate two or three projects at the same time.

But sometimes, I am overcome by the urge to finish fast, despite the absence of a deadline. When I cut short the effort of a project, I often miss the connoisseur’s eye that I wear while I edit or read aloud.

This happens when I am starting at my writing agenda, normally planned for a month, and I find that I am behind big time. Whenever I break the deadline and move it to a more comfortable position, I do not feel this stress.

However, there are instances when the urge to short the project kicks in. Let me share my experiences about this project called ‘Boudicca’, which I added to my writing agenda in October.

As I researched the character Boudicca, the protagonist, who fought who is betrayed and violated, brings together the various tribes of Britain and leads them to battle against the Romans. They fail and she perishes, but Queen Victoria along with her poets and sculptors eulogizes her as a bastion of freedom. This is the same time when the colonies were subjugated and made to suffer under the British Crown. The final piece was pure fiction where Boudicca acknowledges the paeans but admonishes the Queen about being on the wrong side of history.

I was inspired in portions, and my writing was inconsistent, as I sat in bursts. Somehow, I survived the drudgery. Some portions brought out the best in me. I wrote in different forms – some stanzas were free verse, and some others were rhyming.

Once I finished, I shared it with my friend with whom I regularly exchange poetry and plan to collaborate on a few poetry projects. This friend is an accomplished poet and is extemporaneous, and excels in romantic melancholy.

I was expecting accolades because so far, I have never faced critiquing in long-form poetry. Most, including the artist I work with, have shown uninhibited appreciation. Words of praise are what I have always got.

She started with a preamble that she is not into long-form poetry. My antennae went up and I told that I had this funny feeling that a student has when waiting in front of a principal’s room, but not knowing what was the matter about.

In short, she pointed out the lack of rhythm and rhymes, the inconsistent language, and the awkwardly placed punctuations. It was a great story, she said. But it was not a poem that she had expected from me.

I rushed to delete the posts. I could not accept the feedback, for I have never been critiqued like this. Something crashed inside me. It was a sinking feeling and I suddenly found that my aura had disappeared.

I did not know what to do. I took some deep breaths and tried to calm myself. By that time, my friend had realized that she had been bare-knuckled (and that is the way she is, always), and started apologizing profusely. I kept my silence and brooded over the situation.

Here is a gist of the conversation.

Friend: I’m amateur and inexperienced. You have years and years on me you know this. Take it constructively. I’m nothing with no experience. Only opinions. I read yours word for word, I would never read anything that long if it didn’t encapsulate.

Me: I have deleted the post. I think your review was scathing. If it is not a poem, it is not a poem. That is a first for me. But I will take it on my chin. The idea was to encapsulate the story into poetry. That story is available everywhere.

(After some thought) It is bad poetry. I have to acknowledge that so that I can learn.

Friend (now clearly agitated): You’re wrong. Is a poem with no story good writing?  Hell no. No. No edits are needed. I’m not a poet. You are. Ignore my voice message.

Me: Dear Friend, I respect your feedback. That is how I become better. I love your straight talk. Help me here. I wanted to improve, and I thought you would help.

Friend (probably a bit relieved): I hurt you and I did not intend that. You know that right?

Me (Now more sensible and sensitive): I am not hurt. If I were I would tell you. Our friendship is not that weak. I totally appreciate that you were frank enough.

Friend (probably smiling now): I don’t know any other way.

Me: So please point out the weak links. Let’s make this better. This is a herculean effort

Friend: Ok I will. Thursday night. My night let’s read it together ok.

At the end of that conversation, I realized that I had saved my friendship and my work. It was not easy to ignore the fact that my artist’s ego (or simply, ego) stood in the way of accepting genuine, well-intended criticism.

I wrote to her that night, a few paragraphs that I now share as a letter.

Dear Friend,

I also went through a personal struggle last night.

I was stunned at your feedback but I think for some reason, I started to listen to myself about the greater good.

You were right. You spoke from your heart. It was genuine, bare-knuckled feedback.

I felt that I was losing my mojo in the 3rd and 4th parts. I wrote the second part first, then the first part, then the fifth part. The initial victories and final stand, I had to write to fill back – they weren’t my best part.

I know our relationship is still fragile, and we are caring but careful not to hurt. I am mindful of that. This episode is better put to rest. Hope you will agree. If there was anything I could have done better, I will carry forward that as learning.

We have a special thing about poetry and I wish and hope that your silence is only because you are busy, and not because you are hurt or hesitant. In retrospect, I may have overreacted to brave and heartfelt feedback, and for that, I sincerely apologize. This apology is string-free and of my own volition. It takes courage to be straight and it takes maturity to listen. So I have something to work on, to make our partnership better.

Of course, when a raindrop falls on a flower, it gets hurt. The delicate petals have no option but to face the fury of the raindrops. But the raindrop cannot be held guilty, for it falls at the same speed on all things below. Yet, it is the raindrop that feeds the plant that bears the flower. Your critiquing is like those raindrops, and I am the plant and the flower.

It is love and cares for this friendship that is brimming over. I will collect all of that and put it in a place that I can hold on cherish forever. It is a gift that you are my friend. What more can I ask?

Yours truly,
Ashok
____________________

That Thursday came, and we read a few lines, and she gave some pointers. I went back to work, this time more mindful of consistency, focus, and spontaneity. I deleted the whole stanzas and rewrote them. I edited for rhythm and rhyming. Five parts became six. At the end of the effort, I felt this version was much better. This was more like me. I mentally thanked my friend for holding on to me, despite my harsh reaction to her review.

She read the second version. Here is a gist of our exchange.

(In series of voice messages)

Friend: I loved part 1 so much. It is a different read than the first time. It is… just amazing. I am on to part 2.

(Reads a line in part 2) You are… a ridiculous storyteller. I am so proud of this piece of yours. I really am.

(A little later) I’m on part 5. It’s really perfect, Ashok.  I don’t feel bad about my critique now because this is a masterpiece. When you post it I’ll leave a nice comment.

This was the feedback I thought I was entitled to. But this time, I worked for and earned it. These words sounded sweet because I had to work harder to get them.

As I posted the poem, the artist also loved the poem. Her words sounded sweeter than ever.

Incidentally, I watched this video with literature laureate 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro, who talks about the “very deep influence” his wife Lorna has had on his work.  “I’ve sometimes abandoned whole projects because she’s said: ‘No, this won’t do!”

Art and love are the same things: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.

― Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

This is important learning for me as an artist as how critiquing and creative advice without inhibitions enables great quality work. The fact that the critique or the advisor sees the author’s work and not the author makes all the difference.

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Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian is a Poet and Fiction Author based in Chennai, India. Ashok has been writing blogs and content since 2011. From technology and management articles, and to website content, Ashok has written articles on businesses, finance, funding, capital markets, management, strategy, and sustainability over the years. His poems and articles, which were published in blogs got a publishing turn when he had time in hand to put together his poetry and short story collections. He publishes short stories and poetry reviews regularly in his medium.com blog. His published works so far: a) Maritime Heritage of India - Contributing Writer - b) Poetarrati Volume 1 &2: Self-published on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback; Ranked #8 in Amazon Hot Releases in May 2020. c) A City Full of Stories: A Short fiction Collection based on people and events of Mumbai: Self-published in Amazon in Kindle and Paperback. d) Poetarrati Ponder 2020 - A collection of Poem Reviews He is currently working with his creative advisor and publisher on his next poetry collection. His second short story collection about Kolkata, India, and his first novel are in the manuscript stage. He is a graduate in Engineering from Madurai Kamaraj University, India, and a post-graduate in Management from IIM Calcutta, India. He currently runs Strategic Advisory and Investment Banking companies headquartered in Bengaluru. He lives with his wife Gayathri and son Anirudh in Chennai, India.

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