How to understand this blog

Friday, October 8, 2010


I'm not that great at accepting criticism.

Over the years I've gotten used to having my creative writing critiqued by the small writing group of which I am a part. Partly because they are really helpful, really good at it, and say things in a very nice way. But also partly because I know my writing's nowhere near perfect and I really need the help! The few times I've written something that I've really loved, I've known for sure that I will get a positive response because I am a reasonable judge of my own (creative) writing.

It's different with my historical writing. It took me ages - ages - to get to the point where I could hand something to my supervisor that I knew was imperfect without wanting to die. It took me even longer to hear them telling me that something I thought was okay is actually bad without bursting into tears as soon as I'm out of earshot. It's really hard to cope with when you are hitherto unaware of these faults.

I'm better at accepting criticism than I was. My two supervisors are very kind men, and one in particular is very good at making it clear that he knows I am good at history, and that that opinion is not going to change, whatever he may say about this particular piece of writing or this particular opinion of mine. It's easier now to accept criticism from them without feeling like they're going to say something like this:

This chapter contains errors, poorly laid out arguments, and bad prose. It was a waste of my valuable time. You are unworthy of Masterhood, and the university asks you to leave and never come back.

So things have improved. I am becoming less insecure.

All the same, though, sometimes I feel like I've gone straight back to square one. At this precise moment, I've had weeks of thinking that I really want to do a PhD, that the world needs a doctoral thesis written by me, and that I may be able to get a good scholarship in universities all over the world to enable me to do this. Then, I get one tiny piece of negative feedback, and suddenly I am questioning my own presumption, my own arrogance in thinking that I have anything of value to contribute. Insecurity = returned.

It's worrying, because if a PhD does anything it separates the wheat from the chaff, the emotionally stable from the emotionally instable. Slowly I've been coming to the conclusion that the people I've always thought were really really clever simply have stickability. They don't give up. They persevere beyond insecurity. (They also love what they're doing. Which, at least, is something I've got.) So will I be able to cope with a PhD, in a foreign country with people who have more sophisticated accents and more postmodern interests, without my family, without the supervisors I've come to trust and rely on? Is my inability to trust myself more defining than my ability to do history?

[NB: I am currently trying to finish my thesis, hence the slightly frazzled nerves.]


Stacy said...

I think you're right about the stickability factor. I remember in grad school having discussions about how everyone feels like an imposter in academia, like any day some one might discover that they are actually not all that clever.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Oh I'm exactly the same! In fact, when I finally discovered that I was going to be published by a traditional publisher, rather than feel relieved, I suddenly felt much more insecure than before.... What if the publisher puts a bunch of time and money into the project and then nobody wants to read it, or worse, people read it and wish they hadn't! Gah!

I'm sure you're do great though. :) We'll take you in Texas! My word verification was 'angst'!!

Annah said...

Good luck with the thesis, and I agree with you.

Criticism is a hard pill to swallow.