Josh Dale: On Criticism and its Impact on my Artistic Career

            Any creative work is subject to criticism when published, whether you like it or not. Sadly, I feel as if the word ‘criticism’ carries a dark shadow that no one wishes to explore. Some artists assume that any feedback immediately brands a ‘scarlet letter’ onto their persona, and their followers ready the battle stations. In the most sincere and least pretentious way I can, I say: just stop being easily offended. There is nothing wrong with criticism as long as it is constructive. Many of you know me and the fact I take pride in my studies spent at Temple University. I too have been a victim of ignorant feedback that not only has no merit, but is completely absurd. It is childish, and ultimately leaves the accuser with a tarnish critical opinion. Contrarily, I too have also given criticism that may seem harsher than the norm, yet I was fully aware of workshop standards. I was educated on how to craft a review that was not a constant drivel of discord, but to point out both the positives and negatives, depended upon my subjective opinion and common rules of grammar. There have been times when I would assume an Emersonian role and beg, yes beg, my peers to give me a review that was truthful and sharp. In this column, I will reveal to all of you the few instances where I was indeed criticized harshly and almost without remorse, but it was with those defining moments where I was able to fully justify my pursuits of literature and rationalize the path of the artist.

            The first. I had just transferred to Temple into a construction-related field, (yes, construction) yet was drawn back into creative writing thanks to a gen-ed course. One of my English-Ed friends recommended I check out Hyphen, a group of English, Film, and Journalism majors that curated an undergrad literary magazine. Enthralled with this opportunity, I sat in to a meeting and fell in love with the environment; the flowering of subjectivity and creative thought was titillating to my mind. I thought ‘Hey, I’m in a writing class. Why not try to submit to the magazine? It would be awesome to get in!’ My passion consumed me weeks later and I wrote a poem that really got my creative juices pumping. I was down by a lake near my home and penned this:

As I lose myself in the reflections, the ripples of the past echo on. My soul does not know when to enter the effects of a billion causes. There are times when I am uncertain in this endeavor. Do I continue to dance on the edge, enjoying the sanctities of freedom? Or should I blaze my own trail in the beaten path? Who's to say what will I decide? Alas, after years of thought, I've finally made a decision. I'm going to simply walk on the fucking water.

Pretty good huh? It’s introspective, philosophical, even touching base on the metaphor of Jesus Christ. The day came when this poem made it to the panel, which consisted of the 15 people in Hyphen, including myself. It was read blind so no one in attendance would know the author of the poem. It was put to a democratic vote. Want to know the outcome?

0-14-1. That 1 was a maybe. That maybe was me.

            It was eviscerated. Everyone had a perplexed look on their face after it was read. Some immediately drew their blade and hacked my emotions asunder. Some censored themselves, coyly pointing out the good parts, but allowed their true emotions to speak for the rest. I was shook to the core. I was half-tempted on jettisoning atop the table I sat at and yelling at each and every one of them. You know what I did? I gave my opinion aloud, like they all did (it was a democracy, no?) I said that this poem needed work, but had some very individual qualities about it. I self-critiqued myself without even knowing it. At that moment, I was filled with an insatiable desire to articulate the most perfect poem to pass through all of their snide levels of critique (2 rounds) and to ultimately make it into the magazine. It was on a Thursday. That following Tuesday I switched my major to English studies.

            The second. Fast forward a year later. I had just finished the rough draft to The Being That Ensues From What Cannot Be Explained, a short story chapbook which ultimately became the inaugural publication of Thirty West. It was for a very interesting (and my favorite) class named Writers at Work; a publishing class in short. It took me two months to finish the 12,000 +/- manuscript. My professor, a respected publisher and poet of the Philadelphia writing community, gave us all an opportunity to have their work critiqued by him one-on-one. I sat in front of him, all smiles, and he ever so gently laid down the prototype upon the desk. He seemed mildly enthused and began to peruse through it. He told me he read it in one sitting a few nights back and found many inconsistencies with the narration. He was not a fan of the ‘avant-garde’ use of parentheses and took slight offense to the main character’s mental condition. What are the fucking chances that the exact mental condition in question was diagnosed upon his own biological brother? He furthermore judged the typesetting, cover design, binding and many more nuances that he ‘disliked’. He dissected my overall theme and, to this day, still remember him saying ‘you’re leaving a trail of bread loaves instead of crumbs’.  I wanted to leap across the table and give him a taste of his own medicine. My chagrin hid back the rage that welled within. Flashbacks of the Hyphen nightmare hit relentlessly. My back began to sweat. It was either the poor ventilation of the building or I was anxiously looking for an escape. However, I took notes, both mental and physical, thanked the professor graciously for his words and departed. I was left with this awkward satisfaction, as if I was now empowered to take my craft to the next level. I had now two moments of self-realization under my belt and a vigorous zeal to spearhead my efforts. I pressed forward and ultimately finished the project, which some of you may possess to this day.

            I am now finished with Temple as an undergrad, and I must say that I obtained an A in Writers at Work and ultimately scored a spot into Hyphen with one of my favorite poems, ‘Gathering of Shadows’. In hindsight, there was no way I could continue in the manner in which I wrote again. I hope that my story will empower you to seek out individuals for critiquing. I hope that my story will add an additional course of brick to this bridge that will ultimately span the divide of criticism and complacency. Forever.