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Creativity Strategies

Here’s an artful way to handle criticism

Criticism feels like attack when that beautiful thing you invest so much time and effort in melds with your very being. To cope, what if you thought more like a Shaman?

MJ was many things, but not a Shaman. Photo credit: celebrityabc

Client: “OK, in the headline, change it to ‘add a new strength to your team’”

Me: “Should we talk about this? I’m not sure that makes sense.”

Client: “It is new though, and we add strength”

Me: “But if I visit the gym I get stronger or gain strength, I don’t go to ‘add a new strength’.”

Client: “It’s based on ‘add a new string to your bow’.”

Me: “But without the string or bow of the original idiom, it loses meaning.”

Client*: “Chris you are a supreme creative writing genius, and I’m definitely wrong here, but please just write it that way.”

When I was a copywriter, I romanticised my role as a quest. A freelancer of integrity – truth, honesty and clarity my allies, on a lifelong crusade to defeat needless jargon and flummery.

At least that’s what I told myself. 

When it came down to it, in the midst of an exchange like this, I spoke from a place of fragility. Language pedantry like that above was my defence. 

Because if you’ve ever been embroiled in a spat like this, you’ll know there’s more at stake than mere diction.

Criticism feels like attack, by proxy

This copy, or whatever beautiful thing you’ve invested so much time and effort in, at some point during the creative process, melded with your very being. So to have it criticised, to sully perfection with unsolicited amends, is to question your very esteem.

As a coach, I’ve heard similar accounts in all walks of life – graphic designers, illustrators, programmers – in fact anyone who absorbs themselves in the things they produce. I’ve even heard of people entangling their self-esteem with formulas in an Excel Spreadsheet. 

In instances like the one I recount above, some people fail to hear feedback as legitimate, justifiable (however misguided) requests. Polite feedback translates to “this isn’t good enough”, or worse, “you’re a fraud after all, I knew it all along, now everyone will know.”

Before you know it, it’s not your work that comes out of the exchange sullied and bruised, it’s you and your pride. It’s your very being that’s violated, your right to exist as a flawed human being.

Not exactly a helpful frame of mind to adopt when there’s urgent pressure to get something finished to an even higher standard. But a common one, nonetheless.

Maybe you’re a shaman, so try acting like one

In copywriting circles, writers talk with gusto about voice – developing the brand voice, and how messaging comes across in tone of voice. And I propose that this offers one possible lifeline, an alternative way to handle criticism when it inevitably arrives.

A copywriter’s responsibility is to nurture tone of voice for your client or employer, right? Or (if it already exists) adopt it, when you write content on their behalf. Same for working to any brand guidelines or style constraints.

That would make any copy a manifestation of tone of voice, and by implication, the brand or organisation that owns it (and where it stems from). 

When you think of it like this, it begs the question: is it really the place of copywriters to feel possessive over said copy? Who really owns this voice? 

Because chances are, it isn’t you.

Do you follow me? No? OK, let’s look at this another way. 

How about seeing yourself as a custodian or facilitator? A conduit for someone or something else to speak through. Think like a Shaman, channelling a spirit. You drink the sacred broth, trip out, then vomit up messages from another plane. The spirit lived through you for a brief, fleeting period. 

But, more importantly, it didn’t become you, nor you become it.

Your work is art, making it an entity in itself

This isn’t a particularly novel framework for dissociating self (pride and ego) from what that self produces. Those of you lucky enough to do art foundation or study art at college, may remember this subtle separation.

Here’s where we start getting a little metaphysical. You might find it helps to read the next few paragraphs in the voice of art-lovie Brian Sewell…

Art can be an entity in its own right (especially commissioned art). And the artist is a mere conduit for bringing it into existence. Once the thing assumes form (like a whitepaper, a blog post or whatever your specialty) it’s already independent of its creator. 

When words hit the page, pencil hits paper, your creation is already its own thing. You could even argue ideas are equally distinct – not owned or defining of their creator.

That’s the pretentious section done.

Try looking at the things you write or make like that from now on. It offers an instant, handy, alternative mental model for perceiving criticism (especially the negative sort). Because feedback is now about the art, not the artist.

A subtle distinction, I know. Intellectual, philosophical Nuanced, even – not a concept synonymous in this age of binary culture wars and identity politics. 

Take the oeuvre of Michael Jackson, for example. When it emerged he was a horrendous sexual predator, media outlets were quick to ban his songs and deny airplay, for fear of association. Which is a bit simplistic and draconian, with the benefit of more hindsight and less manufactured outrage. 

Bad is a belter of an album. It’s quite easy to enjoy ‘Dirty Diana’ without condoning monstrously creepy pop paedos (probably less so with ‘Just Good Friends’).

Take your pick of other favourite artists. Dickens was a bit of a love rat, apparently. Yet people glady regard his art as distinct from his fruity philandering.

These creators may well have been touchy (perhaps sensitive is a better word with MJ) when their art was criticised, but that’s not my point. My point is it’s possible to separate the two, which offers us a handy buffer during confrontations about its perceived quality.

More nuance and a little distance could be what’s needed here

What would happen if you began thinking of your creations as entities in their own right? The moment that final full stop appears – that’s that. Here’s an entirely separate thing that’s off out into the world like a fledgling.

How about thinking of yourself as less parent of what you do or make, and more midwife. Sure, you still get blood and crap all over yourself in the delivery, but once it’s born, you snip the cord and here we have a brand new individual – subject to the slings and arrows of existence on its own terms. 

What kind of stone-hearted client would criticise a baby, anyway?

I’ve toyed with this framework in my private projects, seeing them as creations in their own right. And it’s helping soften feedback from that other vocal critic we all know well – ourselves. Probably the harshest sort too.

Again, art is its own thing is your first line of defence. As above, these creative things deserve an infancy free of censorship. Permitted to live, breathe and grow first – arguably the most gaping pitfall dooming any creative endeavour.

As for that original exchange with a client: seagulls scrapping over a chip, mate. I coped with countless more during my career as a copywriter, through sheer brute-force and desensitisation. I just wish someone had offered me this nuance, sooner, and a subtle framework to help separate art from the artist, ideally conveyed in a haughty Brian Sewell voice.

(*= this part of the exchange may have been accentuated somewhat.)

Chris Kenworthy | Coach

By Chris Kenworthy | Coach

I'm Chris. I'm a coach. I help do-ers, makers and thinkers find their place in the world.

Are you at one of life’s junctures? Feeling a little lost or stuck, like you're not what the next step is, or what you offer the world? Maybe you want more soul in what you do for a living? Or there's an ambitious grand plan yet to come to fruition.

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