Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 3)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to Aaron Kramer:

“I am going presently to discuss your work in detail; but first I want to make some general appraisals. You seem to have little power of self-criticism. There are some fine things in the pamphlet, but they are side by side with work which no one should be wiling to have printed.”
[Page 59, Out of My Bone – The Letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King, Eerdmans, 2009.]

Davidman’s letter to Kramer occupies 17 pages in Out of My Bone, Davidman indeed discusses Kramer’s work in detail; she gives him what he asks for – but how will he receive it (a question that will be answered in a future post)?

The best educational experiences I’ve had were my preaching courses at Gordon-Conwell; they taught me a new level of self-critique and they taught me to listen to the critique of others. I dared not preach a message without engaging in ruthless self-critique beforehand and I had better learn to humbly and respectfully listen to the critique of my peers and professors after I delivered a message. Having said that, self-critique remains ruthless work for me, trying work – work akin to weeding a garden. I’ve never said, “This is going to be a great day, I’m going to weed the garden!” On the other hand, if I keep my eye on the prize, on the end result, I am motivated to weed the garden and to weed my speaking and writing. The closest experience to the preaching courses I’ve had is that of working with editors; it is an “Ouch!” and also an “I’m glad (I think) you pointed that out.”

I once asked the book editor of a popular and very good writer how he handled the editorial process, she replied that it didn’t make any difference how many bestsellers he had, he always doubted the artistic worth of what he had written and hearing critique remained painful. I equate some things in my life to eating ice cream, which I love; I don’t think I’ll ever feel like self-criticism or receiving the critique of others is like eating ice cream.

When I interview prospective employees in business I ask questions designed to measure their self-critique. Questions such as, “When you look back over your career, if you could go back and do one or two things differently what are they and why?” There are some people who can think of nothing in either career or life that they would do differently, at least that’s what they tell me. Within the church, when helping others in spiritual formation and when considering candidates for leadership positions I also look for the practice of self-critique.

Davidman was straightforward, and if there was nuance in her critique of others I haven’t found it in this volume of her letters. She gave encouragement and vision to others, she identified the good, the better, and the best…and she also pointed out those things which no one should be wiling to have printed. That may seem harsh to those who live in the world of the touchy – feely, but to those seeking to grow and improve their craft it is an education that money can’t buy.

Alas, since we tend to tie everything to self worth these days we often feel threatened when our work product is critiqued; we translate the language of clinical criticism into the language of feelings and emotions and personal acceptance – is it any wonder the quality of work and the ideal of workmanship have plummeted in our culture?

When we ask for others’ opinions and insights do we really want what we’re asking for? When we give people requested critique are we sincere or do we take the easy way out? Suppose I received a letter from Joy Davidman that had the above paragraph in it – how would I respond? Would I keep reading what she has to say?

What would you do?

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