My Bloody Shinebox: Dealing With Unfair Critics

Every writer has dreaded yet anticipated the unstoppable times when we are bunched up with other writers, sometimes in desks or table arranged in a circle, led by a teacher, mentor, or volunteer instructor who have us go around, one by one, and we offer our personal work or projects to the group, like a sacrificial offering of our own beating hearts on a silver tray to be sliced apart.

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Dramatic? Yes, but writing workshops can take a turn down that lane should one overzealous critic take control of the room.

As did my own creative writing workshop back at university, much to everyone’s excruciating headache, including the instructor. It’s a bitter truth that in every artistic education/field, there will always be that one artist, actor, performer, or in this case, writer who undoubtedly know everything there is to know and who are you to question their early-blooming expertise? Every group (and because my university was a performing arts university, I mean every group at every cafeteria table or in every classroom) there is always that one person who believes they were birthed from an original Muse or were handed to their parents in a blessed bundle with the graced talent for whatever it is they do. Now, does this mean they’re untalented hypocrites? No, because in the extreme cases, they believe they are experts because of their amazing talent. It’s frustrating because they act as if they’ve already hit their perfection peak and are watching down over the rest of us who have obviously not reached their height yet.

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We had such a student in my third year Creative Fiction Course. Let’s call her Morgan for confusion’s sake. Now Morgan wasn’t an outright mean girl (maybe Karen Smith level but nowhere near Regina George) but she was a bit socially awkward in how she talked to other students and even professors. She always spoke as if she was a professor or at best a student teacher who was bestowing a grace upon the rest of us by being seated in the same room. It was this odd energy that she held around herself, like a shield of faux confidence that wasn’t needed. The English majors I grew to know and even love as great friends were a relaxed group who actually did the reading for the class. No one really went out of their way to snub anyone else, to lord their writing or any writing awards over another in a way of dominating the classroom.

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Oh, but Morgan did. Insane as it sounds, she seemed to have a complex to really prove herself to everyone, probably moreso to the professors as if she was the only shining star among a classroom of fireflies. She carried at least four journals/diaries with her to each course and sat every single one of them up on her desk. We could have made up a drinking game based on her phrases “well, when I wrote my novel,” “when I finished my grand novel,” or “my agent said when it comes to writing…”

This girl said she had an agent all her freshman year which later became commonly known as untrue. Why make something like that up? And why go on about finishing a novel? I mean, I had written many novels in high school, but did I talk about it? No, because everyone in our class had at least written a novel or attempted it. We were English majors after all!

Still there was something completely false about Morgan. I didn’t know why but for a long time I disliked her, like a stench hung about her that kept me at bay and not want to get closer. For a while, I thought maybe it was my own envy; she obviously worked a lot on her writing (something I was still learning to balance with school work), her clothes were amazing, her hair was dyed this gorgeous red color I wanted so badly, and she had this uncaring attitude. Maybe, I pondered, I wasn’t being fair and was wrong.

Oh but how life has a way of proving us grossly right.

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There we were, a small group of ten young writers seated in a circle. It was my day to be critiqued on the young adult fantasy novel I worked on, which later would become my senior capstone project. I was nervously excited; the workshop days proved to not be as painful or harrowing as we all previously thought. Everyone was considerate and offered only constructive criticism, nothing mean or to poke fun, just pieces of solid advice that would ground and make the material stronger.

Until Morgan took the reins on my day and refused to let go.

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I can’t put into exact words every piece of spiteful advice this girl took aim and shot at me with for a solid twenty-five minutes (yes, she took that much time when we were only meant to have five minutes to talk) but I developed an angry twitch above one eye, right on my brow, that marked the ever long seconds passing by. She laughed about how my work came off like the fanfiction she read online, amateurish and naive. She offered that a sweet moment between my protagonist and her mom was too hallmarky, to cut every moment like it out, and it would do it much better.

I clutched the desk’s edge tightly, my face blooming red and nothing I could do could calm it or my rising anger. My stomach was shrinking too tightly and the room glazed over in red. I felt like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, when his character, Tommy, is being ragged on by a made guy about his shoe-shining days until Tommy finally screams out “My f*cking shinebox! My shinebox!”

That was it, right there. Morgan was harping on my shinebox, and I was ready to go full Goodfellas on her.

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“Is your character gothic?” She said it with a sneer of a glittering false smile. Her eyes were pointed at me, and I couldn’t tell if she truly was oblivious to the rising instinct in me that told me to stab her with my pen or if she was enjoying it.

“Um, no, why?” In no way was my protagonist gothic, perhaps a taste with her teenage angst but I didn’t understand how she could be seen as goth.

Even others in our circle appeared confused, too, so I felt this critique was her really digging for anything to cheapen my work.

“Well, you talk about her black eyeliner. I’m sorry but that just reads goth to me. Maybe just get rid of that if you don’t want your readers confused.”

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For the first time, I let my heated stare settle on her with the intensity of a lioness who’s had enough of the meddlesome meerkat and was ready to pounce. I pointed at my own eyes, my lids lined in kohl black. “I’m wearing black eyeliner. Do I look freaking goth to you?”

It’s not that I have anything against goths, but a point had to be made.

She faltered, that candy sweet smile of hers finally melting as she realized my voice was nowhere near friendly. I sounded as pissed off as I was and didn’t care if the instructor was right there, too, who also seemed too stunned to respond at the moment. “Well, I mean, it just was in my notes and I thought_ _”

“You know,” the professor verbally slid in between us, her face somewhat pale as she flipped through her own papers, “Perhaps that’s a detail that doesn’t really need discussing. Now, Morgan, come to a close and we’ll move onto the next in line.”

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Morgan blinked, plainly befuddled at what happened. She meekly mumbled that she was done and oh, she liked my story, really.

But I’d had enough at this point. She talked way over her time and her tacky “advice” was all so “higher than thou” I was shocked that she didn’t have a nosebleed from reigning over me. She had even gotten to the point of saying to me “You know, I know I’m probably coming off mean right now, but someone else did this to me and I was grateful because it made me a better writer.”

Like are you freaking kidding me?

As soon as our time came to a close and everyone else offered up short responses to my writing, I grabbed my bag and shot out of the door like a bat escaping morning light. I went out, sat in my car, and screamed like a tortured banshee. God, I feel for anyone who had been walking by.

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Now I realized I could have been a little oversensitive to criticism but no one else made remarks as blunt and condescendingly as Morgan did. I forced myself to go to several other students in the class and ask point-blank: Did she have valid points? Was I being too sensitive?

Several of them responded similarly: “Although she did make sense on a couple of things, she really went over the line by hammering into you like that. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t shut up. I’m dreading my turn next.”

Morgan continued to do this for several more people. By the end of the class, everyone’s desks pulled away from hers inch by inch until she was physically outed and hardly anyone would even say hello to her. This small community rejection occurred in every class I shared with her; she had a knack for saying things that rubbed everyone the wrong way but then sat confused, like she wasn’t sure what had happened. I began to wonder if she was one of those people who are so academically smart (she was a bright honors student) that her social skills were compromised. She always sat alone and had this confused doe-eyed stare as she gazed at the empty seats around her. No one volunteered to be her partner, no one walked with her to the caf, and everyone gritted their teeth when it was her turn to talk aloud about anything.

It was a bit odd because she always found a way into my grade-level’s classes (a lot of us were either third or fourth years into our BA’s while it was only her first or second year, yet she always managed to snag a seat in the courses though she was still a freshman). It wasn’t until our final year it was discovered that because she was a double major (she was also an acting major along with her English endeavor) she would use her second passcode to sign up for classes even after her English advisor would tell her she couldn’t take them. It became a bit of a scandal; the head of the department went straight to the professor in question, asked how it was she was signed in classes that she didn’t need to be in for another year or two, and to set it straight and withdraw her from them. Well, I heard that went over well.

It didn’t. One of my friends who tutored in a room near this professor’s office messaged me:

COME QUICK! MORGAN IS GETTING CHEWED OUT!

Y’all, it may seem petty, but haven’t you ever witnessed karma that was so sweet it was like being fed butterscotch candy by a butterfly?

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I can’t say it wasn’t satisfying. This girl not only made every friendly writer/student cringe by merely waltzing into the classroom but she could have faced academic punishment by lying to her advisor (who also could have faced consequences, too). Even the instructor who led our creative course admitted to another student: “I don’t know how Morgan got into that class. She was such a monster!”

Seriously, the teacher said this. The teacher.

Now please don’t let this make you withdraw from workshop groups. They’re amazing and it’s rare you’ll meet someone as bad as Morgan (God help us if there is another one like her) but it happens. We all have a day where someone says flat out “I didn’t like this story” and won’t bother to apologize for saying it, but not everyone is going to write your stuff, not that it’s okay for someone to mercilessly tear another person’s piece apart to make themselves seem experienced and otherworldly talented.

Just remember: your work is yours and you made it happen. That’s more than what others are doing, who just talk about the work. Unfortunately, unfair criticism is bound to happen, and you need to grow a thick skin to take it, even when it is uncalled for. Rejection letters are another enemy, yet even those are easier to manage than sharp comments jabbed into us.

I’m not sure whatever happened to Morgan, btw. None of us bothered to care; she was very good at remaining disliked. I don’t know if her writing ever made it as far as she praised that it did but her attitude will cut down any chances she’ll have as far as making resourceful connections. Crowd sourcing can be as important as working hard on your projects, and a little bit of positive feedback can take you miles ahead with building good relationships with writers. You never know when having writer friends will help you with your own writing career.

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