Usually I’m pretty cool about getting feedback on my writing. Occasionally, though, I notice my back arching, my claws coming out. I get so angry or sad or both, that I actually contemplate giving up on writing. I’ll just being a normal person, I think. I’ll wake up, go to work, hang out with my wife, and go to bed. Who needs feedback? Or writing for that matter? But I do need both actually.
The first feedback I ever got came in fifth grade. Mrs. Kean had asked me to stand up and read my short story out loud. I don’t remember any of the details, like why I was reading the story, or if anyone else was reading stuff. After reading that last word, I looked up and saw that some of my classmates were actually sleeping. Others were propped up on one hand, slack jawed, and bored out of their goddamn minds. A few were smiling and nodding. “That was really good!” one girl said. And that one girl carried me through to my next story.
In college, a really nice freshman composition instructor was willing to read a short story I had written. One of the sentences in the story went something like this: Her beauty transcended space and time. I thought it was so deep and moving, but my instructor commented that the sentence (along with several others in the story) was flowery and over-written. I was devastated. I had been so sure she would love the story, that she would think it was amazing, think I was amazing. After the initial sting of her feedback wore off, I revisited the story and realized she was right. The story really had no substance–I was just trying to put together pretty-sounding words and sentences. Big mistake.
I did pretty well for myself in creative writing classes. I sucked up all the rules “show don’t tell” and concepts (real time vs. artificial time) like a sponge. My professor, Tony Robinson, told me that I wrote with great sentiment, but that my stories were not sentimental. I had gotten past my whole beauty transcended space and time hang up. But then in our Writing the Novel class, somewhere around chapter 3 of my novel, he looked up and said, “You know what? If you never publish this one, it’s okay.” He was basically just saying that maybe this was my exploratory novel, the one where I tried a bunch of things, but none of them actually worked. I thought, Oh, I’m publishing this one, alright! Just you watch. But of course, I didn’t.
After college, I took a few creative writing workshops. Nan Gatewood Satter used to work for Doubleday, but was now doing private editing. She also ran these workshops a couple of times a year. She became a mentor for me. I felt that from the very first thing I submitted, she totally connected with my vision and my characters. None of her feedback ever made me defensive in the least because it always resonated so deeply. BUT, there was this one guy in one of the workshops, and he actually HATED my novel. This was my second novel, and it was generally well-liked by everyone who had read it. Sure people had their various questions and complaints–Why is Jackie with this junkie douchebag???–but they liked the voice, the pacing, and the weirdness. This one guy, though, was actually offended by my work. He found my narrator mean and thoughtless. He found the story unbelievable and boring. He could barely even bring himself to finish the fifty pages I had submitted for workshop. Because I had gotten so much positive feedback, his criticism didn’t bother me so much as mystify me. In the end, I chalked it up to “different strokes for different folks.”
The feedback I’ve been getting while in the MFA program has mostly been energizing. Some things sting a little, but that’s to be expected. My colleagues help me identify problems or weak spots, and I’m able to attack them. Recently, though, I found myself going down that I’m-never-going-to-write-again spiral after getting some feedback from one of my instructors. For whatever reason, it left me feeling pretty raw. I was feeling “what does he know!?” and “he’s so right–it sucks!” in equal parts.
I reached out to an old friend of mine, William Boyle, who just published his first novel, and from my perspective, is doing pretty damn well for himself in the writerly realm. This is what I said to him via a facebook message:
Bill–sometimes when I get feedback….I just want to vomit and die and give the whole thing up. What I thought was a good story actually needs a ton of work. Did you ever feel overwhelmed like this while you were going through your program?
His response really calmed me down and made me think. He reminded me that ultimately, feedback is just one person’s opinion. If it resonates, great, take it and apply it. If not, throw it away. There was a lot of advice he got that he simply didn’t listen to. “Don’t give up!” he said.
His words were exactly what I needed in the moment. They were the perfect reminder that ultimately, we are responsible for our writing. And part of that responsibility includes wading through feedback, keeping the stuff that resonates, and throwing the rest away.
The other part of that responsibility is making sure we remember that it’s about our stories and novels, not about us. I notice that feedback really only hurts when I take it personally, when I feel like it’s a stab at me or my writing ability. The guy way back when in that workshop really hated my character, not me, and that was his prerogative.
During my first real attempt at publishing that novel that he hated so much, I got five rejections from agents. These rejections so paralyzed me, that I wasn’t even able to work on my novel anymore. I felt like I didn’t know what to do to improve the work, and worse, I didn’t even believe in it anymore. Three or four years later, I finally came back to that novel and fell in love with it again. I still haven’t published it, but I’m definitely not going to give up. I just love the characters too much.
Oh, feedback, my frenemy! It helps and it hurts; it guides us and it paralyzes us. But it’s less about the feedback and more about what we do with it. Or don’t do with it.