How to Recognize and Invite (Constructive) Criticism, with Author Jacqueline Woodson
National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson talks us through her writing and editing process, and gives useful steps for how to handle criticism.
Jacquelin Woodson is the acclaimed New York Times bestselling and National Book Award–winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming. A former drama therapist and social worker for homeless youth, Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over 30 books for children and young adults, including From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (1995), recipient of both the Coretta Scott King Honor and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award; Miracle’s Boys (2000), which also won the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Hush (2002), which was a National Book Award Finalist; Locomotion (2003), also a National Book Award Finalist; Coming on Home Soon (2004), a Caldecott Honor Book and a Booklist Editors’ Choice; and Behind You (2004), which was included in the New York Public Library’s list of best Books of the Teen Age.
Three of Woodson’s books have won the Newbery Honor: Show Way (2005), Feathers (2007), and After Tupac & D Foster (2008). Her recent books include the young adult novel Beneath a Meth Moon (2012); and Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), a novel in verse about Woodson’s family and segregation in the South, which won the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor Award. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Woodson described how she wrote the book: “As I interviewed relatives in both Ohio and Greenville, S.C., I began to piece together the story of my mother’s life, my grandparents’ lives and the lives of cousins, aunts and uncles. These stories, and the stories I had heard throughout my childhood, were told with the hope that I would carry on this family history and American history, so that those coming after me could walk through the world as armed as I am.”
Jacqueline Woodson: In terms of a criticism here's how I deal with it, and this is having written 32 books. The first time I ask people to read my work I say tell me only what you love about it. And they say I love a Jeremiah; I love that you've centered this book in Bushwick, whatever it is. And then I get all excited. I go back and write more. And then the next time I say ask me three questions. And then the three questions are why does he get killed? Why do they fall in love? Why does he end up in the witness protection program, whatever the questions they have that makes me go back and realize I haven't explained stuff enough and write more. It really is fragile when you first put your words out into the world and for someone to jump on them and start critiquing or criticizing them right off the bat can be devastating.
So even for me at this stage it has to be incremental and always starting with praise, lots and lots of praise and then getting to the nitty-gritty. And so I think it's important to show your work to people you trust and love. And I think it's important to read your work out loud, to hear it and hear where it feels safe and unsafe. Even with my editor when I get my manuscript back from her I go through the whole manuscript and I read all the places where she's like wow I love this; brilliant; awesome. And all of those praises kind of get me ready for her to ask the bigger questions. And it's important that the criticism be constructive because otherwise it's destructive. You want to just throw the book away and so the criticism should be kind of critiquing that asked questions, ask bigger questions, why does this happen; I'm curious about where this is going; at the end of this piece of dialogue what were you intending for the reader to get it, so that kind of thing so it doesn't make you feel so vulnerable.
Writing is such a process and I think that sometimes aspiring writers don't realize what a process it is from the moment you have a brilliant idea to when you get to the point and that book completely falls apart and every single book you write you have a brilliant idea, it falls apart every single book. And then you have to start scaffolding and building the story again and starting to ask yourself the big questions about what this book is trying to say and how is it trying to say it and what do these characters want and how are they going to get what they want. So that's the process and then the next process is going out into the world with the story and getting that feedback and deciding who you're going to ask and what you're looking for in the feedback and what your end goal is for the story. Do you want to publish it or do you want something that your parents will love so you can give it to them as an anniversary present or what is it you want this book to be and how does it fit into the world of literature? How does it fit into the stuff that's already out there? So you have to be a reader. You can't be a writer without being a reader.
And I think that's another mistake young writers make. I've met so many poets who are like I don't read poetry I just write it or so many people who are trying to write realistic fiction that are only reading fantasy. It's just unrealistic to not know the genre your writing inside of. Then you have the people critiquing your work and you get to choose who they are; you get to choose how you want that feedback to come back to you. Some people will give their work to ten people or some people will trust a workshop. I for one have been in workshops and I haven't always trusted them because a lot of times I'm the only person of color in it so suddenly I'm having to explain to a lot of people who are not people of color my experience and having to justify my experience. And that's not helpful to me. So think about who the people are you're asking to read your work and what you want from them.
If I'm writing a book about someone who's transgendered, which I'm not going to do because I don't know enough about that story, but hypothetically I would want someone who's had that experience to be able to help me negotiate, and again, show me where do I get this right? Where do I get this wrong? Where does my own bias come into the story? But you do have to be able to be vulnerable with your work at some point, but for me I like to build a nice thick skin before I get to that point of feeling vulnerable.
Writing is a long process. Most authors have their individual ways to make it work, their own carefully designed method to make sure they actually finish what they started. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a gaping plot hole that means rewriting several chapters to solve one problem, and sometimes it turns out okay. There are published writers who reread their work and still find flaws, and there are authors who can’t stand to read their own work ever again. With each type of writing, type of plot, type of character – from Sherlock Holmes to Juliet Capulet – there are many different types of revision.
Jacqueline Woodson, 2014 National Book Award winner and author of many books, including Miracle’s Boys and her most recent Another Brooklyn, has figured the writing process out – or what works for her, in any case, although it does feel quite universal. For Woodson, it’s important that each new manuscript starts with a lot of praise – it must be heaped upon her. Launching into criticism without that ego fortification, she would feel too conflicted and upset about her work to continue. There needs to be some level of hope and happiness in relation to the book, because if people just drive straight into the "this doesn’t make sense, this doesn’t work, I don’t like this bit,’ an aspiring author can feel that there is too much work to be done in order to save the novel in the first place. Once there is a level of confidence related to the work, constructive criticism can begin, which for Woodson takes the form of asking a trusted friend or mentor for their questions relating to the piece. This gives her a chance to address those issues and clear up any assumed knowledge issues, clunky character traits, or plot points. The third step is asking for more specific feedback and critique, where constructive comments are balanced with insight into what this person likes about your work. Vulnerability is inevitable, but it’s easier to experience when it’s cushioned with some self-confidence.
There is a difference between constructive criticism, and "destructive" criticism as Woodson warns. Constructive criticism has a very certain aim, which is to help an artist move forward and be better. Destructive commentary may not have an aim or provide solutions, only distress. It is important to know the difference, when giving and receiving advice, and only solicit advice from those you respect. Without it, no one can move up and onwards to better things.
Jacqueline Woodson's most recent book is Another Brooklyn.
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>