Life in the Box: Genuine Critique


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It hurts to be criticized. Every creative person knows that. When you put your heart, mind, and soul into creating, the last thing you need is criticism. But I’ve been fortunate enough in my creative life to have received genuine critique. And it’s different than criticism. I’m going to try to describe the difference.

The deepest difference is that when someone gives you genuine critique, that person is extending to you what you’ve extended to him or her: heart, mind, and soul. Plus, hopefully, talents in proofing.

Genuine critique is from someone who gets what you’re trying to express and suggests ways to make it better.

Even off-the-cuff honesty can be genuine critique and can help a creative person. “I don’t get it,” can be a genuine critique if said by someone who does want to get it. It’s an opening for an artist to step forward and try to connect the dots better. “I don’t get it,” said by someone who’s not trying is less helpful and can be put in the same category as name-calling, shoving, or tripping. It’s meant as a put-down—and who needs friends like that?

“Oh, it was just fine,” is not helpful critique either. It can be honest or dishonest, but doesn’t really help define how a work of art is really being understood or received. And, most hurtfully, it means you have not succeeded in wowing someone.

The best critique is done in private, before a work is sent out to the public. It gives you a chance to tweak, adjust, and improve. Bad critique is after the fact and meant to put the artists “in their place.”

My television co-producers and I used to gather for critique the day after the weekly show was finished, and we were required to give both positive and negative comments to each other. For a while, that worked to get us to be more honest with each other; office mates often have trouble saying the negative because they want to stay friends.

But having creative friends who know what you are trying to accomplish can be a real gift. After a while we figured out whom we could trust, and we invited them into the edit booth when we were still figuring things out. Watching a mostly done feature in the dark with someone taking notes was uncomfortable, but many times it produced so many improvements that I came to crave it. I was uncomfortable not hearing good critique. There were a few good souls who could help me get the most out of my footage, detangle my storyline, and boost the clarity of my audio track.

One time I had a long project that involved a very limited out-of-pocket budget (as usual). My videographers had traveled the state for many, many days along clever trails that would allow them to get the most footage from the most locations with the fewest hours of overtime and overnight costs. They had really gone out there for me. In return, I spent many, many hours of unpaid overtime to get the project done in time. As a result, we had collected footage of more than 50 national historic places in less than three months and with great success.

Did my supervisor get that? No. His comment was that it was okay, but why didn’t I think to get some helicopter shots? (This was very expensive; way before we could fly cameras on drones.) He said it with a regretful tone, like if only I had thought to do that, it would have been such a great documentary. There’s no response to someone who says things like that. “You are a turd,” comes to mind. But, really, if individuals are out to prove that they are superior to you, there are no words to bring them around. My point, I guess, is that there are some people who just aren’t trying to give genuine critique.

It comes down to relationship and trust, I think. I’m fortunate. Some of my best critiquing pals are still friends, although most of us are retired. I joined a camera club recently where there are regular judging sessions. I watched members judge a few of my photos last night and felt great about their honesty. I was surprised by what they said about my favorite photo (“awkward angle”) and what they loved about a photo I was so-so about (“love the lighting, the op-art feel to it”). I got my first blue ribbon—in the novice category—and it wasn’t for the photo I thought they’d pick out.

So I like that I have more horizons ahead, and that I’ve found some more honest critique. And, although there are stings and surprises, genuine critique provides a way for me to learn and to deepen my creative process. It’s a great way to make real friends, too.

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Nancy Heather Brown is a retired Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process both inside and outside the box.