Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.
That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it. The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.
It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.
My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors. I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.
The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto. One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind. They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”
I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right. The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series. She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.
Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.” A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”
That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career. I got queries from agents and fan mail. So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing. Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.