Feedback - The Enemy Of The Writer?
This is a commentary - though, I prefer the word "confession", possibly because it sounds more scandalous - about writing and receiving feedback. I suspect many fellow writer friends, artists, and performers will likely relate - as can probably everyone, to some degree and at some level. Unless you are the solitary person in the cave in the middle of nowhere - feedback and commentary from others are part of your life.
Whenever we create something - anything - an object made of clay, we dance boldly to new choreography that approaches the artform in a way not seen before, or we pen a new poem - the creation is ours and we own it. But, the moment we decide to share these creations, they become public property, whether we choose to look at them in this way or not. It is not rare to read the words, "my art is my own and I write (or dance, or sing, or create physical art) for myself". I mostly believe creative types who state or write these words, but it is difficult for me to believe these confident figures are bulletproof to the flying objects that certainly (hopefully only occasionally) fly towards their creations by critics. I find it difficult to believe these creators are completely unmoved by the words of others. Writing for an audience of one is an empowering and romantic idea - but, those who share their work are willingly giving a gift to the world - and it's up to the world to receive it with kindness or otherwise.
I admit (confess, if you will - again, to sound scandalous), commentary about my work is very important to me. And, I admit - I'm not a big fan of constructive criticism, though like most writers I know, I ask for it at every turn and on most occasions. It's as if we give our audience a handful of arrows with poisonous tips and baskets of flowers and then run away to a comfortable distance (using a strong metal shield to cover ourselves when least confident) as they decide whether to pierce our skin with sharp words or give us praise for work well done.
The only thing worse than dodging the arrows is silence. - the stage curtain has closed and the performance is obviously over - and the air within the amphitheater is completely still and noiseless. That kind of silence, to me, is worse than poisoned arrows. It tells me the piece of work is ignorable - and I've yet to meet a writer (or other artist) who enjoys being the wallflower at their own party.
Also, as a writer (or other creator), it is easy to remain consistently inconsistent when reacting to commentary. For example, about 5 days ago I posted a poem I wrote in 2012 on a poetry site and waited for the response (while discovering lots of really great work by other poets). One reader took the time to write a brief review of my poem. He was very kind in his wording, very encouraging, gave me suggestions on how to improve the writing (with examples), and wished me well. I thanked him and am flattered when people take the time out of their day to incorporate something I've written into their lives - that means a great deal to me. He didn't know (and probably wouldn't care) that the poem he was critiquing came in 14th (of over 35,000 entries) in a national poetry contest held in 2013 - I submitted the poem, at that time, under my birth name, which has no professional connection to Jimmy Broccoli. My breath was confused on how to exhale after reading his suggestions - the review wasn't openly critical, but it did assume I was a beginning beginner. I thought, "how could he?", with inappropriate bravado. Then I re-read his advice and didn't totally disagree with him in two instances. Keeping ego (which can be so very fragile) out of the equation is to the degree of difficulty of mastering calculus, at times. But, it can be learned.
But, then again, at other times (and most of the time), I am deeply humbled by the kind words of others. The wind outside might be howling at a record miles per hour, signs falling all over the road, and the radio broadcaster predicting doom upon the city - but, if someone says something nice about something I've written, for a short time, I no longer hear the aggressive wind battering trees against my home, threatening the electricity and my safety. It's not much different than the feeling you get when you've finished decorating your holiday tree in December and have just put the tree top on the top branch before ending a festive evening with loved ones. It's endorphins or serotonin, a first glass of wine, or milk chocolate or whatever drug or chemical reaction overtakes you. To some (including me), it's swimming with dolphins on a perfect summer's afternoon with the water warm and inviting and bits of sunlight reflecting like diamonds upon the light blue waves. In this hypothetical photo, everyone is smiling.
About 3 weeks ago a fellow poet compared one of my poems to "random noise" and was relentless with two paragraphs of very aggressive criticism. The poem had 68 positive reviews (some of them glowing in beautiful verse themselves) and 3 negative ones. This is a WIN in capital letters - unless you allow the criticisms to be the black dot on an otherwise unblemished sheet of paper. I, initially only saw the dot and the remainder of the sheet of paper became invisible. It took me a couple of days to read the comments again and the criticism began to sound less loud. How did this happen? I turned the volume knob to the left to not hear the words as loudly. And it helped. I suggest you find this volume knob too if you are easily bothered by those who dislike your work. Their voices are important too, but it's okay to, at times, make their voices mere whispers. And sometimes it's okay to press the mute button - this isn't for purposes of ego, it's for survival.
While it may sound like I'm being critical of the review process, I admit it can be a lot of fun, if you let it be fun (and informational, in a good way). Two days ago I posted three different poems on three different poetry sites and the poems (and I) are enjoying how they are being received upon their respective pages and against the other two. One poem is being received very well, while the other two are getting very kind words of how I can make them better (LOL - it's important to remain humble). But none of them are being ignored and, to me, this is important, though it would probably be mature and adult to say it isn't - but that wouldn't true, not even a little bit.
To end this commentary (or confession of fragility), I want to remind every writer, every performer, every artist, and to all the creative types - please remember to be gentle with yourself, though the action (and it truly is a conscious action) may not always feel natural. The more your work is seen and reviewed, the more praise and criticism your work will receive. This is natural and it does no good to expect every offering to be the next "Bell Jar" (or - choose whichever work most tightly fits your highest expectation). 27 years ago, my Modern Poetry teacher turned to me (while in class) and said, "you're a better poet than [Sylvia] Plath", I melted into my seat and couldn't speak for hours. She had just, unknowingly, handing me the nobel prize - and I glowed for months. But the story doesn't end there. I've written hundreds of poems since and every reader doesn't agree with my former poetry professor. Others have used very different words (than hers) - some have referred to me as "talentless" and "obviously miserable" (which I'm really not) and my poems as "hollow" and 'pointless". I've read the words "garbage" and "trash" a few times too by people commenting in my direction. Critics come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and it's important to separate the comments shared by those who are supportive (whether they overwhelmingly like your work or not) and those who think blatant, bold and raw criticism is "honest". It's okay to sit the latter group at the back of your theater (in your thoughts)- a place you can barely hear them and easily drown them out with positive ideas.
Be you. Celebrate you. Celebrate your work - though it is not you (in your entirety), it is a part of you. Remember to be kind to yourself. I write these words as much to myself as to everyone reading.