A little death without mourning, no call, no warning / Baby, a dangerous idea almost makes sense…Jack White, “Love is Blindness”
I had just graduated high school when I met a girl at a camp. Things were analog then, so after we each went home I wrote her lots of letters. After a few, I needed something more meaningful to say than what movie I was about to see or what my friends that she’d never met were doing, so in one of the letters I included a poem.
I’d had some degree of confidence in my technical ability to write. What I did not have was confidence in my ability to speak truth, or to be honest in a way that transcended the ordering of my words. But I was inspired, so I wrote a poem. I don’t remember the name of it now, but I remember that in it I associated my infatuation with a form of color blindness.
I thought it was kind of cool, or at least honest. I made a duplicate on my typewriter to keep, then sent off the original.
Later, I showed someone close to me what I had written. This confidant was dismissive, maybe intentionally, maybe casually, maybe unthinkingly. I don’t know; I didn’t ask why the person didn’t like my poem. I had created something personal and I was vulnerable. I was looking to this person whom I trusted for validation, and the dismissive reaction I received crushed me.
I threw my copy of the poem away. Two months later, the girl met some other guy and wrote me a Dear John letter, which wasn’t poetic.
I no longer wrote for my heart after that. Ten years later I started writing leadership books for pastors. This writing was technical and safe. It sold well, but it wasn’t honest in the same way the poem had been, and in spite of people’s affirmations I didn’t know how to recover the same sense of honesty. For many years, I didn’t even recognize what I’d lost.
A few years ago, I began to find my lost writing voice. It has only been after I have reclaimed my heart as a writer that I have realized what happened long ago:
Seeking creative feedback, no matter how we position it in our own head – “constructive criticism” and such – is dangerous business.
One of the great ironies of the creative process is that when we create, we want recognition and affirmation for our work, but the need to validate ourselves through other’s opinions is the very thing that almost always does damage, at times devastating, to our creativity.
To be clear, this isn’t permission to create bad art or license to ignore wise counsel. I’m not saying you shouldn’t benefit from feedback. But, to make it a healthy experience for yourself, and avoid what happened to me, I suggest you set some parameters. Don’t let someone’s reaction steal the creative joy that is your birthright. Here are four tips for how to get healthy feedback for your creative work:
1. Don’t use feedback to satisfy a need for other people to praise your work.
In my safe period, the closest I came to writing for my heart was my first book, The Wired Church. When it came out, I fell victim to the same problem that I’d had when I was younger: I needed people to tell me it was good. I still remember the day it came out, and bursting with excitement at opening the box from the publisher, and sharing it with people, and the devastation I felt at any tepid responses I got. Perhaps some people could have been more supportive. Regardless, it wasn’t healthy on my part to find validation in someone else’s opinion.
Assess your motivations. The benefit of feedback isn’t comfort. You will never be able to create anything meaningful if you need the opinions of others to tell you if what you have done is true. You must learn to self-validate.
Take away: Feedback isn’t therapy. It’s specific and professional.
2. Be selective about the people with whom you share your work.
With whom should you seek feedback? Some might make a distinction between strangers and loved ones, and think that loved ones will be more supportive / better people with whom to share raw work. But loved ones can sometimes be the worst responders.
The obvious problem is that they may be so effusive in their praise that they blind you to the harsh realities of your work’s shortcomings. But what of the opposite? What happens if some don’t care enough to engage with it? Or if they are unable to respond with objective / constructive criticism and instead speak out of a negative shared history? I’m not saying don’t go to loved ones. I am saying, be clear about what you seek, because they may not know or may not be able to provide what you need. It’s not as clear cut as it may seem.
Professional acquaintances may not provide comfort, but they’re more likely to provide detached, unbiased reaction. This is perhaps a better place to go for feedback. At any rate,
Take away: Only share your work with people who will make it better.
3. Set limits for their responses.
Understand the position of your reviewer. Is she a professional or a layperson? A layperson will respond as the public would, which is vital to know but not necessarily related to the making of the art itself.
For example, as a writer, I am most interested in feedback about structure that leads to a whole. Are my thoughts cohesive? Do they build from beginning to end? Have I made assumptions or left anything out? This kind of feedback likely won’t come from a layperson, who is likely to give me copy edits. I have a publisher for this part, and their professional opinion is the one I trust. Instead, I listen to reactions about the work’s ideas as a whole.
Take away: Establish the purpose of your feedback.
4. Seek feedback for the craft but not for the spirit.
Lord knows, I have known unteachable creative people. I have been unteachable creative people.
Now, I listen closely to any and all feedback, even the difficult kind, to see what I might learn. Here’s the difference: when you share your work, do it on the level of craft, not spirit. If what you‘ve done needs help, then someone’s opinion can help you, if you let it. Even better, you can almost always find improvements in the criticism of others, if you’re sufficiently teachable.
On the other hand, If I’ve uncovered a raw nugget of real truth in my work, and I know it is true, then other people’s reactions to the honesty of what I have created are irrelevant. What I no longer allow someone to criticize, and you must not let them either, is the spirit of what I’ve created. If it’s a true expression of my heart, I take satisfaction that what I’ve made is art, and I don’t let anyone else take that away from me.
You must be blind to comments others may make out of their own needs. Of course, that raises the stakes for myself too. I’m no longer satisfied with polish. It must have a spirit of truth. Now, everything I write must speak to my heart as well as the head.
Take away: Listen closely to matters of craft, but ignore matters of spirit.
What rules do you have in place for creative feedback?