Today was my third critique at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I don’t know what to compare critiques to, if they’re something you’re unfamiliar with. (People call them "crits" — I guess that's cooler.) You don’t get grades, so crit feels a little like getting graded, maybe, or some kind of other-worldly artsy-smartsy equivalent. I’m sure people who understand art much better than I do know how to describe crit better than I can. Sorry I'm not one of those people.
In my opinion, the things to know are: You have one hour and you present a piece of work in front of a panel of people — professors and guest artists — and all classes are canceled that week so you know that it is a big deal. Last year I wore a dress to mine, even though it was in December. My friend George baked cookies and I think he also tucked in his shirt.
This week crit week came at the tail end of my crazy illness. I’d written down that my critique started at 10 a.m., but I set the alarm for 6 and planned to get to school by 8 just to be prepared. I planned an outfit; I was gonna wear makeup and blow-dry my hair.
But then, of course, I slept through the alarm (because: sick), and then I slept through it again, and I was suddenly cutting it dangerously close. At 8:40 I haphazardly double-checked the critique week schedule to remember who was sitting on my panel, and that is when I happened to see my own name listed after the 9:00 a.m. line. I'd gotten the time wrong; my critique was going to begin in 20 minutes, and I lived 40 minutes (at least) from campus.
Luke, who’s been borrowing the neighbor’s car offered to drive me to the train station, which seemed like a tiny saving grace. I threw on the clothes that were lying around and tossed everything I thought I could need into my backpack. I didn’t comb my hair or put on makeup or try to wipe the snot out of my eyes — there just wasn’t time. Then, of course, because this is how things are lately, the car didn’t start. It was 8:50, and Chicago was in the middle of rush hour traffic. I called a Lyft.
I tried to think about how ridiculous I was being. I was flipping out about being late to my fucking art school critique of a fucking essay I wrote about owls. I am in the financial position to be able to hire a man to drive me the seven miles from my comfortable apartment in my tree-lined neighborhood to the massively endowed high-end institute where I have the luxury of studying writing as art. Who panics about something like that? What right did I fucking have?
And I got to school at 9:20 and I remembered that I was still very sick; my eyes had snot in them; I couldn’t really speak. In the critique room, the frustrated panel tried to reassure me that it was no big deal. One person said, “Your eyes look tired.” I wanted to say, “No shit; they have snot in them."
I talked about my work a little bit. The truth is that this has been an incredibly hard semester for me. I have not felt confident making anything; I'm sort of aimless. I’m not sure what direction to take my drawings, and I’m not sure what role I want them to play in my writing. I’m not sure what I want to be writing or what good writing really does. I start a lot of things I don’t finish. Everything I do finish feels like the way I imagine a bird feels before it has come out of its shell; like there is just the thinnest layer of cartilage between its ability to stay alive and sudden death.
So I had submitted my essay about owls because I have worked on the essay for one year. I no longer know what the essay reads like because it has gone through so many iterations. I’ve cut so much out and changed the purpose and order of things so many times that I can no longer really see the owls essay at all. I felt done with it. I wanted this panel to kind of tell me that I was allowed to be done with it.
But that was not what happened. In my abridged time slot, the panelists told me that they weren’t sure what point I was trying to make with the essay; they didn’t know how the images tied into the writing; they didn’t know if they liked what the images were doing; they didn’t really get why I had to use owls at all. One person said the owl parts were too surface level. They were “National Geographic-y,” he said. And that person also told me — because the essay is about love, you see — that he didn’t understand why I loved anyone I loved. He couldn’t tell what anything really looked like or felt like. He couldn’t smell the scenery. He didn’t understand why I loved anyone I loved. He didn’t understand why I loved anyone I loved.
And as he was talking I started crying a little. I was writing in my notebook; I tried to play it off like I was just sniffling because I was so sick, you know, I had an ear infection, after all. And then I started to cry more. And then I started to sob, and I could feel it like a train, that I couldn’t stop it; it was impossible to stop it.
I hoped they didn’t notice; I didn’t think they did. The man kept telling me what was wrong with the piece; he had this look on his face like he couldn’t understand why I had even submitted such a thing; what was I thinking? his face seemed to say.
And I wanted to say, “Well, it was three times as long before, but someone else told me I needed to cut it down; that I was giving away too much; that the parts I included the first time didn’t really belong. And so I cut them and now it feels like you are telling me to put them back.” But instead the moderator said, “Our time is almost up, we have five minutes; Sophie, do you have any questions?"
I had to look up at these people — who didn’t like my work, who knew me as someone who arrived to the most important day of grad school late and with knotted hair — and I was unable to talk because I was just crying so hard. And they looked horrified. Like, Who let this girl into this school? She must be paying a lot of money. I am paying a lot of money. But I don’t usually fall apart in public in front of panels of people. And actually, I think my skin is sometimes pretty thick.
The only other time I have ever really felt this exact way was when I was teaching a first grade reading lesson and the principal and another teacher were in the class observing me. I was such a bad first grade teacher; I’d thought I would be good at it, but I was so bad. The kids were out of control and I couldn’t do anything to make them be quiet. I saw them rolling around; there were two boys openly fist fighting in the back of the room. Not a single person was engaged in the lesson. The principal and the other teacher scribbled furiously on clip boards.
I was failing. I was failing in front of everyone; I was a disaster; a Before picture. And no one was doing anything about it! I had to just suddenly BE BETTER, and I didn’t know how. I started crying; I panicked; I had a panic attack. I sobbed uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop and I had to leave the room. It was so embarrassing because I was so out of control.
This time, as I felt it happening again — I couldn’t talk; I couldn’t form words in front of this panel of people; I mean, I couldn’t even really breathe — I willed myself as hard as I could to stop. But I couldn’t stop. And I left the room and went into the bathroom and tried to speed through the Techniques for Having a Panic Attack I have memorized. Only you can’t speed through those. You need thirty minutes and a bedroom.
I wanted to be able to back to the room and erase the last 15 minutes — really, the last two hours of my life. The moderator of the panel came out into the hallway with this sort of gentleness about him that I recognized to be genuine and nurturing; it’s a kind of gentleness I hope I take on when I see people who lose their fucking shit in public and cry openly. (I have only really seen this happen to children, but I think I am pretty gentle towards children.) I have so much pride. I didn’t want this man to see me cry. I didn’t want any of those people to see me cry. I felt so embarrassed that my pride had been disrupted. I wanted to be the kind of person to leave a brutal critique and say, “I got a lot out of that; that was really helpful.” Instead I was crying loudly in the hallway. Pitiful.
The moderator said, “Hey. This is just a critique. You can take it or leave it. You are an artist and you make things, and once you put them out into the world they don’t belong to you anymore and people aren’t always kind to them."
“I’m embarrassed,” I said. (It came out like this: I-I-I [BIG GASP] EM-[GASP]-BARRASSED [MULTIPLE GASPS].)
“Don’t be embarrassed. It’s good to feel things. It means you are alive. So many people in this world are dead.”
Ultimately, I told the panel thank you for your comments, this was really helpful. The moderator gave me a book about owls. “I brought it for you; it is a gift,” he said. “I like owls a lot too."
I sat in the bathroom and threw up twice and sobbed for 45 minutes on the floor. I tried tapping my temples like my friend Hannah taught me to do. I texted my sister; I texted Hannah; I texted my student mentor from last year.
My mentor said, “It’s fully okay to cry about it. To be this personally tied to your work — that an attack on your work feels like an attack on your soul is a sign that you are writing things that really matter."
Hannah said, “Let me just remind me you that you make all sorts of beautiful contributions to this world, the main one being you being just you. Your willingness to be messy and imperfect in public and express so much joy and gratitude and honor your creativity and celebrate beauty."
And my sister told me she loved me, and I remembered what I remembered in the Lyft: that this is an art school and I wrote an essay about owls and if being late to a rough critique is the worst thing in my life then I have a lot of blessings to count.
But on the subject of this owl essay, which has taken so much abuse (not from the panel, necessarily, but definitely from me): I think I don’t believe that other people can really make your writing all that much better. It’s great when people tweak and pull at little pieces, or whatever, but ultimately I return to this notion that art is its own living thing and it needs to be loved just the way it is in order to grow. I don’t even really believe in “better.” I believe that there is writing out there in the world that has made me feel better, and that isn’t that the point? There are essays in the fucking “Chicken Soup for the Soul” franchise that have probably saved my life, and there’s no way a panel of critics at an art school would have had anything nice to say about those. Different art means different things for different people.
I didn’t come to art school to get better. I came to art school to have time to make, and to be inspired by other people who were making. I came to art school to read more and to be around art. I came to art school so that I could honor my art and to honor the art of other people. That was the point of it for me. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I am incapable of translating my own love.