Overcriticizing Your Own Work (or How NOT to Take a Compliment)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Sunday I wore this dress for the first time. I made it back in early September (if you found this blog through the Sew Weekly, you may have seen it before).

Normally I’m someone who dives in, wings it, fixes along the way if necessary, and comes out of the creation process with something I like. Something that fits. Something that works.

Not so with this dress. I thought I’d be smart and really measure and really fit the pattern to my body, and so I ended up thinking I needed to lengthen the bodice (that’s the top part of the dress, for you non-seamstresses out there). But it turns out I must have done that all wrong. And I neglected to check the neckline while doing my alterations. So I ended up with something way too low-cut for comfort and bunchy around the torso to boot.

It went straight into the closet and I decided I would take the time to fix it later. Yeah, right.

Then Sunday morning I decided to finally wear it. I’ll wear it, I reasoned, so I can really get a feel for what needs to change. I put a light turquoise tank underneath to deal with the neckline problem and wore it to church.

I got a lot of compliments on it. No one noticed the flaws (except perhaps my close fellow seamstress friend who may have been wondering about the bizarre bodice issues). People loved the fabric (which I also adore and which is one of the reasons the fit issues were such a huge disappointment to me). They loved the pleats. They loved the whole package.

But as I received their kind comments I quickly told them about all the flaws I needed to address. Not being seamstresses, they all adopted a somewhat glazed over look in their eyes and were probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, I was just trying to give you a compliment.”

Not surprisingly, this whole experience got me to thinking about writing, editing, and sharing our work with others…

Lesson 1: We’re all our own worst critics. Well, unless we’re deluded. We see the flaws in our work that others do not. What we need to ask ourselves is whether we can be satisfied that others see beauty when we ourselves see something that’s almost-there-but-not-quite-yet.

Lesson 2: If you’re not happy with it, go ahead and work to make it exactly what you wanted. If it will continue to eat at you and keep you from confidently showing your work to the world, keep making it better. Go ahead. Indulge yourself in all those little edits. However, you may, like me, discover that you constructed your creation so well and so precisely that to fix it you have to do a lot of work and everything you alter will mean some other part needs to be altered as well. (This is why I like making clothes but not altering them.)

Lesson 3: At some point, you really just need to let go and let the thing be what it is. Sometimes the more we work on something the worse it really gets. I’ve worked a piece of clothing to death. I’ve probably worked over my first as-yet-unpublished novel almost to death. Sometimes you just have to call it quits and move on to something new.

Lesson 4: Don’t point out the flaws that have already gone unnoticed. It’s not humility. It’s false humility. It’s fishing for the other person’s comfort and reassurance (and more compliments). It’s giving you a chance to talk about yourself more. Just gracefully say thank you and move on to another subject, perhaps returning the compliment to them somehow.

Now then, where’s my seam ripper?

5 thoughts on “Overcriticizing Your Own Work (or How NOT to Take a Compliment)

  1. Great post, and dress. This is the whole reason I started my blog. I write and throw it on the net without a seconds thought. If I only posted what I liked, I don’t think I would have anything up at all. You expressed my thoughts on the subject perfectly.

  2. Erin: Not knowing how to sew or hardly spell the word, this “unpublished novel” got me really scared given your excellent writing skills: What I am just reading now from the Algonkian masters:
    “What divides the 99% of aspiring authors from the 1% of those who’ve learned the hard way how challenging it is to have their expertise and projects taken seriously by professionals in the publishing business? ….. compare the hundreds of thousands of writers in America struggling … to accomplish this feat… instances of duress and disappointment inflicted each day on hundreds if not thousands of writers as their manuscripts get routinely rejected by agents…..”
    Well, I’m still trying….and there is always Amazon’s createspace….John

  3. I know just what you mean- your post had me nodding! Most of the people who see my togs can’t sew- so I am trying to learn to nod, curtsey and move on without giving them the unintelligible treatise on why my darts suck . They are just trying to be nice, I mustn’t torture them!

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