Destructive Criticism

A thick skin.

So many insinuations and finger-pointings made about the habits, ineptitudes, malaise, entitlement and drive of the latest twenty-somethings who are out there trying to make some mark in this “brave-new” world.

I’ll add my own. I often wonder, do they have the thick skin necessary to not let what I say about their work turn them into my killer? Or, perhaps more accurately, I wonder if the way we go about sharing and dismantling ideas with our peers via mostly emails will be the impetus behind my demise. A punishing removal from this plane of me or some other creative who takes the time out of her or his busy schedule to try and help constructively push a youngster who snaps.

Nearly twenty years ago, as part of finding a gig in advertising, I began the grueling ritual of putting my portfolio, ideas, writing, and designs in front of seasoned professionals for their opinions, help, take, connections and wisdom. The process was oh-so-very different from today. It required a physical book. And that book had to be delivered via mail or by hand. And then, though there was email, the dominant method of having these “special” one-on-ones was still mostly over the phone, or if you were lucky enough, in their offices seated across from their sometimes smug faces. It was a far more costly process than today’s, both in effort and actual dollars. Kinko’s printings, poster board, spiral bindings, stamps, travel, dimes or quarters spent on pay phones, the pager and the pager plan, hotel rooms, cabs, trains, and the like. On the plus side though, most of the beat-downs of my work were delivered by an actual voice over the phone or in person with the voice and the added bonus of the human who owned it. They might have hated my book, but most of the time, it was easy to see or hear via those two things that while they thought my work was utter shit, that the opinion was being expressed with my best interests in mind. Sure, sometimes those additional human elements didn’t at all soften the blow-after-blow slaughter of my mental babies by the industry’s in-the-knows. I’m sure I left many an office wishing I’d had the “moxie” to punch faces before finding a bar to nurse the gaping brain wounds.

My experience is that it’s almost all email now. Or even worse, Facebook messenger. And I’m guilty of participating in this new way of exposure and feedback. It’s easier, cheaper, possibly more efficient. It consumes less time I guess for both parties. And if my note back is, “WOW! I think this is the best collection of work I’ve seen in some time. I have a job for you!” or “I’ll hook you up with some other people who have a job for you right now!” sure then, it was a nice win/win transaction for everyone. I get an appreciative email back, saying “Thanks Mr. Rosch!” Maybe the recipient even claims they’ll buy my novel. This is a gross exaggeration of that type of interaction though. I’ve rarely said that; I’ve possibly never said that. Even when I’ve liked someone’s noodlings enough to pass their name along, I’m sure I’ve still found something to try and help better.

There’s talent within all of the people who reach out to me. If I don’t like a book, it’s usually because most of the time there is simply a lot of un-learning to do. Not exactly the same un-learning I had to take-on, in fact, probably a far more aggressive attack on how to go about ignoring the oodles and oodles of heinous real world examples that fester in our brains and sometimes force our own best creative efforts into something passably benign and predictable. We’ve seen it before, it’s the way it’s done, so we put our spin on something that’s been spun.

I don’t care how many emoticons or exclamation points, or “you knows, hey, don’t frets,” I use in an email—at the end of the day, I think it’s far more difficult to get blunt or frank criticism about your work from a digital communication composed of Times New Roman. There are no eye brow raises, no smirks, no shoulder shrugs that subtly say, “I don’t really know what the fuck I’m talking about, kiddo.” It all gets lost. It must sting. It must sting like the numerous form email rejections I get by the dozens when peddling a manuscript. I’d think even more so because I’m not trying to sell someone on a manuscript to get a job or make money or justify the 100K my folks just spent on an ad-education.

I don’t know. I just know that in the past year or so, that a few of the next generation’s 30 under 30 who’ve reached out to me never bothered to write me back after I’d given them my honest and hopefully helpful critique. Just digital crickets after I hit them back.

And that’s fine. It certainly beats getting an email back in which I’m told I’m an old hack who doesn’t know shit about shit when it comes to what’s creative or a sure-bet-fire-starter in today’s marketing onslaught. But sometimes that silence works my brain to the dark spot, and I’ll entertain the idea that the feedback I’ve just given (even in all its peppy-packaged-you-can-do-it-optimism) might be the final nail in a coffin built on this one man’s opinion on what might make your book (website), your writings and shillings better, award-winning or worth a full-time gig at the next hot shop.

We work hard our ideas, even when they are godawful. And maybe the criticism we wield at one another has never been more deserving of some actual face-to-face time. Of course, then I’d only be giving you a leg-up in your ability to jab a pen through my neck. So, for now, even though I’ve identified it as problematic, I’ll be sticking to winkys and extra exclamation points when I tell you through the most impersonal of correspondence that I think you (and even I) can do significantly better.