I don’t remember what the news was that day, exactly, but I know I was writing about Bill Clinton, and it was my first day of work for The Des Moines Register.
My story landed on the front page. It was tucked in the lower righthand corner — “below the fold,” as they say — but still: Front page, baby.
I sat down at my desk in the newsroom, and held that paper to my chest like newsprint and I were one. My inner Woodward and my inner Bernstein elbowed each other over my awesomeness. I may have nearly passed out from all the happy.
And then my desk phone rang.
It was a journalism professor who was, at once, the most beloved and most feared professor in our little corner of the world. She was larger-than-life and she was iconic and she was a fierce defender of the English language.
And now she was on the phone.
I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or terrified.
“Msssss Dukes …” she said, drawing out my name, then exhaling all her breath into a dramatic pause. I wound the spiral cord of my phone around my forefinger. “Look at your second paragraph, would you? Read it out loud. Go on now. Second. Paragraph. Can you tell me what is wrong with your second paragraph?”
(In case you’re wondering, “terrified” is the appropriate reaction here.)
My eyes tripped over the words. I felt heat rising in my ears. My stomach threatened to drop through the floor.
Then, with laser clarity, I saw on newsprint what I hadn’t seen before on my computer screen. I saw what I had missed, and what my erudite editor had missed, and what the copy editors and the managing editor had missed.
“Do you s-eeeee, Mssss. Dukes, that you chose the word ‘rein’ when you clearly meant ‘reign’????”
Yeah. I saw it. I saw what I did. “Oh… um…” I stammered, groping for explanation — or at least someone else to blame for this blatant error.
But before I could say another word, she had hung up the phone.
I blushed approximately a million shades of red that morning in the newsroom, and her sharp needle of criticism popped my happy balloon.
But do me a favor. Don’t feel sorry for the young news reporter. And don’t get angry at that fiery defender of grammar who dialed me.
Norman Vincent Peale once said that the trouble with most people, is that we’d rather be ruined by praise, than saved by criticism.
All these years later, I’m sure of it: my professor was trying to save me from future embarrassment.
What We All Need to Know About Our Critics
Look. There will always be critics. Some are well-meaning; and some are, well, mean.
But don’t let either of them stop you. Don’t stop making your art. Don’t stop writing your story. Don’t muzzle your voice, or consign your paint brushes, or bury your dreams in the cemetery of good intentions.
The only effective way to avoid criticism is to stop what you’re doing. To never write another blog post. Never float another idea to the committee. Never risk your approval rating by suggesting your rad idea to the boss. You know, just sort of co-exist with the status quo. Punch in for the day. Do your time, and shuffle through life flatly, so that no one notices when you walk through the turnstiles or when you leave. Because blending in is the best way to disappear.
But there’s a better way. Try this:
Make your crazy ripple.
Lose your fear of getting it wrong.
Let your creative impulses sweep over you like a tidal wave, and marvel at how beautiful it is underwater.
Trust the gift that God has given you, and then give it your all.
You might get it wrong. But you might just get it right.
And yeah… There will be critics. That’s okay. Some of your critics will dial you up, not because they want to pop your balloon, but because they want to make you better. Let that criticism change you for good.
And when mean people bash you with irrational, bewildering reproach? Do something completely mature like I do: Stick your fingers in your ears, pinch your eyes shut, and shout at the top of your little lungs: “lalalalalalalalala!”
Did you know that the enemy wins when your critics run you off the rails? Did you know that the enemy gets happy when critics make you kill your good ideas? Your inner critic is the great eraser of creativity, rubbing out your best stuff by holding the threat of bad reviews over your pretty head. So do this: Pull the erasers off of your critics.
Just do what you do, OK? Let your inner Woodward, or Bernstein, or Monet, or Beethoven fly. And know that you’ll make a mistake. It’s guaranteed.
Because life is full of cars and crooked smiles and out-of-place hairs and mixed metaphors. And that’s how we know we are truly human, and truly alive.
Sure. You might get the publishing deal, or the corner office, or the opportunity to share your song on that dreamy wood-planked stage downtown. You might get the front-page story, on your very first day on the job.
And even then? The phone might ring.
And before you answer it, you might stare at the phone for an extra second. Because you aren’t sure if you should be thrilled or terrified.
But because you know that your critics don’t own you anymore, you pick up the phone anyway.
Hey Tell His Story crew! It is a joy to gather here every week with you. The linkup goes live each Tuesday at 4 p.m. (CT). If you would use the badge on your blog, found here, that would be great! And if you would visit at least one other blogger in the link-up and encourage them with a comment, that would be beautiful! Be sure to check the sidebar later. I’ll be featuring one of you over there! Our featured writer this week is Debbie Putman. Her challenge to look for the wonder in every day is one I definitely need – and it reminds me of #TheHappinessDare! Find Debbie here. To be considered as our featured writer, be sure to use our badge or a link to my blog from your post. 🙂 xo Jennifer