As you may know, I am writing a novel. It’s historical fiction, based in the Western District of Victoria, where I am living for a few months while I’m doing all the typing. So it’s a creative adventure.
Earlier in the year, a dear friend encouraged me to read Playing Big by Tara Mohr. This book asks women to step into their big, authentic selves and lead big, authentic lives. It’s revelatory. One of the key chapters is about unhooking ourselves from praise and criticism. Here’s what Mohr writes about her experience:
“Over time, the fear of not being good enough grew so intense that I stopped writing entirely. I call this my seven-year sabbatical from writing, sponsored by my inner critic. As the years went on, I missed writing and creative expression terribly. I wanted to go back to it, but my insecurity made the process excruciating, because my head was so full of worries about how my work would be received.”
Do you know the feeling? Where the fear of being judged or criticised – even by yourself – keeps you paralysed? I know it well.
My fear of criticism was bred into me early. I can remember quaking in fear from even just the presence of my lecturers at uni. Part of our tutorial process was to read a student’s work and then come together as a group and critique it. This made me terrified of the responses from my fellow students, as kind as they might try to be. One of my lecturers effectively told me my work was rubbish; the words “Your characters are drones,” sliced sharply within me, mostly because they were true.
Early in my career, I lived in England. I had a boss – a senior editor – who was liberal with the red pen. He used to write ‘Skippy’ in the margins of my work when I was being too Oz-tralian and I used to wither when I got his comments back.
The problem was that I took it all personally. Now, at the ripe old age of 50, I’m learning how to distance myself. My value as a person is no longer intrinsically linked to other people’s opinions. This makes me a more confident writer. And my mindfulness practice has taught me how to detach myself from what’s good, what’s bad. Instead, it just is. This is truly helpful.
In Playing Big, Mohr encourages us, no matter what field we are in, to seek feedback from our target audiences early on in our projects. Then we can build these responses in – if we want to – and know that we are working toward a better final piece of work. But she also encourages us to only use the feedback that suits our project strategy and this, my friends, was the true revelation for me: when someone criticises your work or gives you feedback or suggestions, you don’t have to take it on if you don’t want to.
“The key here is to always be asking, What feedback to do I need to incorporate in order to be effective in reaching my aims? And what feedback really won’t impact my effectiveness and is okay to ignore?”
This fabulous article in the Marginalian – titled How to Keep Criticism from Sinking Your Soul: Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Confidence – details Walt Whitman’s journey through receiving criticism from none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman decides not to take the feedback on, despite how good it is:
“More precious than gold to me that dissertation – it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each point of E.’s statement was unanswerable, no judge’s charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put – and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way.”
What bravery! And what fortune for I, having read that quote before the feedback on my first draft of the novel started to flow in. Perfectly formed, well thought out and unarguable, the feedback was correct, all of it. But, in a choice that I hope stands up as bravery rather than stupidity, there are swathes of it that I am going to ignore and continue to go in my own direction.
My reviewers provided me with the ubiquitous s*#t sandwich: good feedback, challenging feedback, good feedback. This is a notorious strategy and, having been on the receiving end of such well-presented feedback, I can assure you that it makes a difference.
I’ve used the s*#t sandwich many times myself in the past. But I do have some regrets about my career so far in that even though I had plenty of opportunities, I never excelled at giving feedback. In previous roles, I’ve always been so busy meeting deadlines that I’ve rushed through the feedback process. Revisiting a place where I am the recipient of feedback has been helpful and I hope that it makes me a better mentor in the future.
One of my tactics for preparing myself for what I assumed would be an onslaught of criticism was to write down my own list of things that I thought were wrong with the novel. And this is what surprised me. The comments from my reviewers did not mirror that list, at all. The feedback was completely different from what I was thinking and this is where the amazing value is when you open yourself up to the perspectives of others. They see things that you never would have thought of.
But I did have to laugh. One reviewer said that they found a particular part of the novel annoying. Another said they loved it and it was an example of some of the best writing in the book. I will be seeking more opinions so perhaps this will balance out in the long run. But, in the meantime, it forces me to decide what I think and what my intention is for that part of the book. And it implores me to either pull the writing into the middle, in an attempt to please everyone, or swing to the fringes.
And in that process lies artistic integrity. How exciting.
Ps. Did you know you can comment? This is a new feature that I've added to the blog, so you're welcome to give me feedback! I'd love to hear from you xo