I’ve been perfecting and refining my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. So the other night I prepared this dish for a small dinner party of friends and family. Because Aaron (CEO of Delve Writing, Aaron Brown) was among the guests and he’s a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.
The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered.
“It’s pretty good,” my husband said. “But I think there’s a little too much salt.”
“Yeah,” my neighbor said. “Too much salt, and not enough garlic.”
“The carrots are too crunchy,” my son said.
“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” a friend said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”
“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But this vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”
“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude. Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And Aaron Brown, what an ingrate after she made that vegan dish special for him!”
Now hold your horses and your happy chickens.
This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t go writing scathing emails to Aaron. He would never say those things about any meal I cook for him. But he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:
“I really like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”
“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”
Yes, you’ve figured it out. I’m using this dinner party conversation as an analogy for CRITIQUE.
So knowing that, let me ask you this:
What if I’d said something different when placing the food on the table? What if instead of “What do you think?” I’d said:
“I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide–based on this one meal–whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”
Would my dinner guests’ comments feel any different to you after that?
“Sure!” I imagine you saying. “Absolutely.”
But wait. This blog post isn’t about what the critics said. What I’m trying to shine a light on is the perspective of the cook/writer whose work is being critiqued.
When we display our lovingly, painstakingly crafted work and ask “What do you think?,” what is it we are really asking?
Are we asking for critical feedback? Or are we looking for a pat on the back?
Sometimes all we want is for someone to day, “You look nice, honey,” not “well, your ass does look a little fat in those pants.”
So as writers I recommend we be clear about what it is we’re asking when we put our work out there for comments.
If you show your writing to your best friend or family member and you really aren’t looking for critique, be sure to tell them that.
When you submit your work to a critique group, be aware that their job is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE. You’re saying, “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.”
After all, you’re planning to present your creation to Those In Power who can decide based on this one example if they should “give you your own show” or not, aren’t you?
We want critiquers to be critical.
I remind myself of this frequently these days as I receive critiques from my “beta readers.” They’ve been dealing out some heavy criticism, but I try not to get my feelings hurt. I remember that I asked them to be critical, and I consider their comments food for thought, not cause for whine (or wine).
That’s not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive. Of course they should be.
This is to say that we—the chefs and writers—should be clear about what kind of feedback we’re asking for. If we’re clear with our critics about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a whole lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.