Well, the worst has happened. What to do? If only we knew. As for me, I’m letting my senators know what I expect of them. Courage, for example. And I’m also sending notes of thanks and encouragement to those public officials who speak out against the un-American rhetoric and policies we are currently being subjected to. Mayor Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe is one of them. Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis is another. Figuring out how to be active at the local level, too.
But in the meantime, I'm trying hard to stay grounded. In my family and friends. In my belief in the good. And in my work. So, friends, let's get to it. Today, I mouth off about feedback. Yikes!
Feedback. First of all, I can't stand the sound of it. In the first syllable, one hears a bullet whizzing through the air; in the second, it hits its mark. Feeeeeedbackkkkk. Ouch! Alternately, it comes very close to describing the process through which baby birds get their nourishment. Feedback. Ew!
Yes, it's an ugly word. But ugly words have their place, too. Right along such beauties as "onomatopoeia." And "grace." So here’s the thing: If you get it from the right person, and if you can hear it, feedback can be a very good friend.
Feedback. Heading straight for your heart.
Ah, yes. The right person. Not easy. Often it takes a while to find that perspicacious (another beautiful word!) group or individual. There are always those folks eager to give you feedback not on the book you wrote, but the one they think you should have. These people are generally talkers. It's the What-I-Would-Have-Done crowd. Feebackalooza, baby! Then there's your grandmother or her stand-ins. She loves everything you do, including that special ability you have of putting a full stop at the end of every sentence. (You genius, you!) Maybe the worst is the devil who takes your hand, smiles, and then whispers that she's going to be brutally honest. What she doesn't tell you is that her primary interest is brutality. If that person inhabits any area of your life, run! Run like the wind!
I have two or three trusted readers, depending on what I'm writing. One of them is my pal and non-fiction writer, Susan Goodman. Another is B. Why?
An anhinga baby getting some feedback. Uh, no thanks. (What's an anhinga, anyway?)
B is not a writer. She’s a reader. One of the smartest readers, I know. And she reads widely. One day it's Middlemarch. The next it's Outlander.
She knows me. All my little foibles. The big ones, too.
She’s honest. If it’s not working, she tells me.
She’s kind. (Usually.)
But if I trust B so much, why do I feel homicidal when she tells me the truth? This leads us to the second condition: If you can hear it. Criticism is hard to take. Any criticism. But when the criticism targets what you are sure is coming from the sanctuary of your soul, well, it hurts.
(Almost as much facing the fact that some of that work didn't come from your soul at all, but from the high altar of your ego. Dammit!) And that's why I've always felt it's permissible to hate the person giving you the feedback. Not forever, mind you. Just long enough to ease the blistering pain. It's also why I have often found myself seeking out that voo-doo doll I bought as "a joke" a few years ago.
"You're not feeling well tonight, sweetheart? I wonder what the problem is."
The most common response to criticism is, of course, to defend. Go ahead, Defend away. It might make you a better attorney, but it won't make you a better writer. The sad, harsh truth is a reader doesn't care what you tried or meant to say. Or that your most deeply held conviction is that you were born to write. In fact, the reader only cares about one thing -- what's on the page. And it's the writer's responsibility to get that right. To make sure that every word, every sentence, every paragraph break, every tiny mark of punctuation is communicating precisely what she intends it to. One way to do that is to learn your craft. Another is to solicit feedback.
I write all this as if my own ability to hear criticism is under control. Yes, I'm a regular Dalai Lama. NOT. (Just ask B.) But after my initial tantrum, I try to follow the advice I received long ago from a guy named Charlie. He drank whisky. He smoked cigars. He wore a kilt. And he wasn't talking about writing, but Life, when he told me that whenever he received any criticism, any criticism at all, he accepted it as completely true. For twenty-four hours.
St. Sebastian and voo-doo dolls have quite a lot in common apparently.
That twenty-four hours is precious. After the initial hate-fest has dissipated, it allows me to return to reason (what little I have these days) and sift through the feedback, accepting that which seems on the mark, rejecting the stuff that seems wrong, and putting aside for a bit anything I'm not sure about. How do I make those decisions? I dunno. Experience, I guess. Instinct, too. Sometimes blind faith. And I'm not always right, by the way. Writing is hard.
Still, Charlies's method has turned out to be the best way I know to deal with that dreadful word: feeeeeedback. It's not only helped to make me a better writer, but has also helped to make me a (slightly) better person. Twenty-four hours. Give it a try.
But don't forget about the voo-doo.
All I want is unconditional love. From everybody. 100% of the time. Is that so wrong?
Feel free to leave some-you-know what below.
In the meantime, call your senators. (And don't forget about the folks in the other party. They need to hear what you're thinking , too.) It makes a difference. Here's the contact list:
Fight the good fight, pals-o-mine, and see you in a couple of Mondays.