A while ago, I completed The Writer’s Studio offered by Simon Fraser University. When I signed up for the program, I was interested in fiction writing skills and how to improve the words on the page. I didn’t expect to learn about something that is probably more essential—how to keep going. All the brightest ideas in the world will not help us succeed if those ideas don’t find us sitting at our desk ready to work. We need to keep writing whether it’s going well or not. I call this wonder power “resolve”. How’s yours?
When I first tried creative writing three decades ago (yes, I’m really that old), a person said something mildly critical about a story I wrote and I was so wounded I did not try creative writing again for ten years. Looking back, I can see that what she said was not unkind. The problem was my resolve was not ready to carry the weight of feedback.
A decade later when I tried again, I was extremely protective of my work and rarely shared it with anyone. I spent twelve years slogging away day after day, working really hard, and not making the progress I could have if I’d asked for help. For the last few years, I’ve been seeking critique anywhere I find it. I have discovered the discomfort is more than justified by the gains.
The middle ground
Workshopping is a major part of The Writer’s Studio. As we learned together in our small group, I paid attention to my relationship with my work. I soon noticed that I swing between two extremes: hatred and love. Both have a big affect on how I hear the feedback given to me. If I am hating my story for its failure to live up to my expectations, any positive comment is like balm to my wounded soul. If I am loving my story, any criticism is like an attack on my children. Picture a mama grizzly. Enough said.
I discovered I was unlikely to make genuine progress when I was in either extreme state. I made progress when I found a middle ground. For me that middle ground was best described as a state of open commitment. It felt like playing. When I was solidly there, I didn’t take my work too seriously. I enjoyed experimenting. When I was able to stay in the middle ground, I started to make genuine improvements and they were improvements I would never have achieved alone.
To get to that mental state, I needed to set the feedback aside and move onto something else. I needed to put what I thought was said out of my mind for a while. Something interesting happened. When I returned to the feedback, without fail it read differently, shockingly so. What people said and how they said it shifted when given a rest. Positive feedback seemed more negative on second read. Negative feedback seemed more positive. This points to a reality of the experience: our attitude filters the message. For that reason, it’s best to take all feedback with an attitude of experimentation.
Feedback that helps
Positive feedback that’s not grounded in authentic discovery can be misleading and hold us back. If uninformed, kudos do little more than bolster ego. At the same time, there is a different kind of positive critique that is nothing short of transformative. It comes from eagerly seeking authentic good in a piece of writing. I think we are socially conditioned to readily recognize shortcomings and to dole out empty praise, but to search for what’s genuinely good takes more effort. It is a worthwhile practice. In giving that kind of support to others, we learn how to also give it to ourselves. Perhaps that is the most powerful way to build resolve.
On the other side of the delicate balance, we all need a healthy dose of kindly worded criticism. I’ve come to value direct and open feedback a lot because it allows me to improve. Early on, a writing teacher gave me advice that continues to be helpful. She said if you find yourself swearing under your breath after a critique because of something somebody said about your work, go ahead and rage a little, but when you get over that, take a good hard look at that feedback. She said in her experience, when she feels that strongly, there is usually something there for her.
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