A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down
On the importance of positive feedback, even if it's not constructive
Welcome to this month’s installment of Confessions of a Former Snarker. Today we’re talking about feedback – specifically when it comes to creative writing, but this probably applies to other pursuits as well.
When I first started getting serious about writing and taking workshop classes in college, I was surprised at how quickly I started internally rolling my eyes at the nice things people would say about my work. Note that I said ‘internally!’ I’m not a dick – I just wanted something I could work with.
As I developed a thicker skin for constructive criticism I also craved it more, sort of paradoxically, because I knew that constructive criticism at the workshop level was the only thing standing between my early drafts and the real, soul-shredding pain of rejection at the endpoint. I didn’t have thick enough skin for that, so I needed more of the little hits to help me perfect my work so it would sail through every submission process (yes, that line is dripping with sarcasm, because rejection is inevitable).
So I got snarky about the positive stuff fast. I was easily annoyed by workshop members who only had good things to say, and I would scour the best pieces in my reading pile to find actionable feedback to give, as well. I staked my own value on the constructiveness of the criticism I gave, and to some extent, I still edit that way – I work hard to give my students, clients, and fellow writers something to work with, even if it’s just “this is really great and you should do more of it!” (Another thing I’ve learned: positive feedback can be actionable!)
But back in my youth, I thought all positive feedback was pointless. I mean, look, it felt good to hear that people loved the way I phrased something or laughed out loud at a line of dialogue – I’m not a monster – but honestly, by the time I did my MA I knew I was a good writer, and what I needed help with was fixing the things I wasn’t so good at. And there were/are plenty of those.
Recently, though, I reassessed that perspective, thanks (as usual) to my husband. This time, he didn’t mean to help me change my ways. He just took me at my word when I told him I wanted his help making an essay better. So he told me all the things that were wrong with it.
And I… well, I didn’t like the way that felt. Not because I needed him to validate me as a writer (although, you know, a little validation never hurts…*sob*), but because I needed to know whether this piece of writing had value, whether it was worth me putting in the work to make all the changes he was recommending.
In that moment, staring at him as he told me bluntly how much revision I still faced on this essay I’d already revised three times, I realized that positive feedback is about more than just making the writer feel good. It’s about bolstering her for the fight ahead, convincing her that there’s enough good in the piece to be worth the effort to refine it.
I told him that, and he looked at me like I was speaking another language, then said “well, yeah, of course it’s good.” As if it was absurd for me to need him to tell me, after all the writing and publishing I’ve done in my life, and all the times I’ve re-read something I wrote a while ago and texted him “who wrote this great essay?” It’s fair enough that he would assume I’m confident in my writing, because I am, finally, after decades of insecurity.
But revision is hard work, and if I don’t have any reason to push through I’m likely to just set a piece aside and never return to it. So I needed to hear that the core of the thing was valuable.
I think we both learned something that day – I mean, I hope we both did. I guess I’ll find out, next time I ask him to read something I’m working on! But one thing’s for sure: I learned that I’m not so tough or cynical, that I do need positive feedback. Not a ton of it, but a sprinkle, to keep me going.
A little sweetness goes a long way.
The big news in our house this month is that I landed a pitch with BuzzFeed Reader – a pitch for a personal essay, which quickly became a reported article with a super tight turnaround, at the same time that I landed two other pitches.
Needless to say, it was an extremely busy ten days, but I had a great time interviewing some really fabulous people, and I’m thrilled with the reception the finished piece has been getting since it came out this week (and relieved that my sources all seem very happy with their portrayal). The other two essays will go live soon, and I’ll share those links in my August newsletter.
Meanwhile, over at Moments Between it’s been a slow month for submissions, but luckily I had a personal essay that I’d written for a previous submission call about monsters and my co-editor, Magda, loved it. She suggested we publish in the magazine and we did – you can read it here.
What I’m Reading:
And speaking of monsters, it’s been a fairly gruesome month, reading-wise (in the best way). I recently finished Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which was a masterclass in genre tone and a delightfully creepy, if sometimes disgusting, read. And for our book club this weekend my husband and I both read Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett – he’s not so sure about it, mostly because of the Florida-centric nature of the story, but I really enjoyed it and will definitely pick up another of her books in the future. Fair warning if you’re squeamish: the descriptions of taxidermy work and carcasses are…visceral.
A Random Joy:
This summer, we’ve been reaping the rewards of all the camping reservations we sowed last winter (we have to book them all at once, right when the reservations open, because people around here are NUTS for the outdoors and shit books up super fast). It’s been so wonderful to get away from our computers and Netflix and just read, cook, and do crosswords together – my idea of a good time! Alas, this month’s weekend was our last trip for the year, but we’re raring to book more once reservations open up for 2022.
My favorite spot so far has been this walk-in site at Rasar State Park, although our morning spent kayaking on Silver Lake was also amazing (and nearly made up for the vault toilets at the campground).