The Value of Feedback

I was in the 7th grade and I had written a masterpiece. It had been carefully crafted between the blue lines of loose leaf notebook paper, college-ruled, of course. As a nod to the temporary nature of art, I had written it using a No. 2 pencil. The words melded to the pages, though the graphite had a tendency to smear when handled by amateurs. The divinely-inspired work was artfully bound in a three-ring binder of brown vinyl so as to keep it accessible to the commoner who might wish to bask in its literary greatness. Who knew my preteen self had such talent and ability with the written word? Well, I did, of course.

How I managed to get my first reader is still a bit of a fog. My older cousin’s college roommate was a freshman majoring in journalism. Perhaps he had seen my potential and wanted to get in on the ground floor of such a discovery. Or, perhaps I begged for his opinion and approval. Either way, he graciously agreed to read my “novel” and give me feedback.

About a month later, we returned to the college town to visit my cousin. As promised, his roommate had read my story. The margins were dotted with snippets of thoughtful feedback. I listened to his comments with the impatience of a king hearing about some inconvenience. When he finished, I waved him away with a flourish and proclaimed that he simply didn’t know what he was talking about. My story was amazing. He couldn’t grasp that and , as such, had outgrown his usefulness to me. And that, my friends, was the last time he offered to help.

The thing about feedback is that it is valuable. My 12-year-old self didn’t know much about the craft of writing, nor was I mature enough to accept constructive criticism or, for that matter, helpful advice. I insisted on doing everything myself. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I don’t remember that guy’s name, but my adult self would like to issue a formal apology for my behavior and a hearty helping of gratitude for his patience. He actually read that piece of crap. He had plenty of other things to do, but he took the time to help a kid and take it seriously. I wish I had had better manners back then. So, whoever you are, thank you and I’m sorry.

As writers, we get so protective of our work that we can lose our minds and our manners over any feedback that does not meet the “this is the best thing I have ever read in my whole entire life and has ruined me for other books” standards. Of course, it’s great to hear how enjoyable and well-written our work is. Who doesn’t want praise and encouragement? But we don’t want to wind up in the situation like the Emperor with his new clothes. If we’re unintentionally naked, someone needs to be able to tell us before we leave the house.

When I ask my students to give feedback of peer work, they cringe. Some do not feel confident giving criticism to others when they are still unsure about how to write well themselves. They feel insecure because they don’t know the proper terms for identifying problems. To many, a dangling participle sounds like something in need of medical assistance rather than grammar assistance.

To help my students feel confident giving feedback, I ask them to focus on the “what?” factor. When we read along and something stops us, that voice inside our heads often blurts out “what?” If we are kind, we might read it again to try and figure out what it was that confused us. Many times, we simply skip over that part and move on. Sometimes, moving on means we stop reading altogether. This is the worst-case scenario for a writer.

As writers, we want our work read. Yes, I know. We write for ourselves first. That’s fine. But we also write for others. And before we release our work into the ether, it would be nice if we could polish it up a bit so that it sparkles and shines for the readers. In order to do that, we need to learn to accept and apply feedback.

But what about that one lady who rated my book one star because zero stars wasn’t an option?

Look, by the time reviewers are looking at your work, it’s probably too late. I know there are self-publishers who can release a new version after fixes, but that’s a bit lazy. Accidents happen and no one is perfect, but a self-published book should be free of typos and plot holes the same way a traditionally published book is. Also, reviews are none of my business. What readers think/feel about my work after it’s published is up to them. They are commenting based on expectations and as consumers. Sure, one-star reviews hurt, but only if you read them.

The feedback I’m talking about comes pre-publication. That’s when feedback counts. It may be from editors, agents, beta readers, writing groups, or some random guy on the bus who had a little time on his hands. It may be from a college student who is gracious enough to read the work and offer detailed feedback. Regardless of where it’s coming from, it is of value and should be appreciated.

But they want me to change the thing, and I don’t want to change the thing.

Then don’t change it. It’s still your work. I’m not suggesting that you apply every piece of feedback. Some feedback will contradict other feedback. You still have to wade through it and determine what will work for the story. It is, after all, your name that’s going on the thing. But regardless of the feedback, thank the giver. Be grateful that someone took the time to say something, even if you whole-heartedly disagree with it.

And please, whatever you do, don’t shame people on social media when their feedback doesn’t meet your expectations. I know if Twitter had existed in the early 80’s, I would have blasted this guy for saying my story needed work. I’m glad social media wasn’t even a figment of my imagination back then. As it were, no one else except him knew what a jerk I was. With social media, everyone sees it. So…slamming one person for feedback you don’t like means other people will be less likely to offer their services.

Sometimes, even when someone says something that isn’t kind, or carefully crafted in a way that saves our feelings, there is still value in what they say. I shared a plot point with someone a couple of years ago and his first response was disbelief. “What could be so bad it would make someone do that?” Again, my first thought was that he didn’t know what he was talking about. After all, he hadn’t read my story. We were just talking about it. But, as annoyed as I was with him, I couldn’t stop thinking about the question. The truth was, I had no valid answer. I didn’t know what was so bad. In my head, no one argued so it had worked. But after hearing someone else give pushback, I had to admit that he was right and I needed to work harder to find the “something.” And this time, I apologized for saying the person didn’t know what he was talking about.

Feedback is valuable even if you don’t ask for it or use it. Always be grateful for feedback when you get it. If nothing else, it will give you the opportunity to test your knowledge about your story. Can you answer the “why did the character do that” question? If the answer is “because I said so,” you need to keep looking for answers. The plot has to make sense. The characters have to make sense. If someone hits the “what” factor, ask for more details. Who knows, it may save you from those pesky one-star reviews.

A Novel Idea

Who knows how long it had been there, tucked away on the high metal shelves in my school’s library? Who knew it would kick off my love of books on the craft of writing? Who knew that a book so important to me could be completely erased from my memory? I certainly didn’t. If I had, I might have taken the time to write down the title and the name of the author.

Remembering this book is like trying to grasp a faded dream upon waking. There are pieces. Quotes. An image. But not the important thing I need. Not the title. I put the quotes into the Internet search engine, but nothing comes back. The main quote I remember is attributed to someone else, but Catherine Drinker Bowen didn’t write this particular book. She did, however, ask an important question: “Will the reader turn the page?”

This nameless book has morphed in my head, but I’m an unreliable narrator. The book is a small, white paperback with navy lettering. The author’s name is Eric Boca, except that it’s not. Eric was also the name of my biggest crush. My guess is that’s where the memory comes from. Or maybe the author’s name really was Eric and the book simply wasn’t as popular with everyone else as I was with me. But I keep searching.

“Read a lot, Write a lot, Practice, Practice, Practice.” This is another snippet from the book. I wrote it down on hot pink notebook paper, but not the name of the author. I am sure that my thirteen-year-old brain assumed high school would last forever and the book would always be available. I don’t regret much about my life, but not paying closer attention to the title of that book is something I regret.

And maybe…like many craft books…the contents were all gleaned from other people. Maybe it was a compilation. Or maybe not. I will probably never know. I don’t even know when it was published. “Before 1983” isn’t really all that narrow when it comes to dates.

Squirreling was another valuable skill I got from this book whose title I forgot. Squirreling away ideas is nothing new, but this was using squirreling as a verb to describe writing things into a notebook after a bout of coffee shop eavesdropping. I still do this. Before there was live tweeting, there was squirreling. Though, by the time any of these conversations turn into dialogue in a story, it’s hardly something one could consider live.

I keep hoping I will stumble upon this book. I search thrift stores and used book shops. I search the Internet. I keep hoping that something will jog my memory to help me locate it out in the wild. It isn’t that I need it to help me write. I know how to write. I think what makes the book special is that it was the first book I would repeatedly check out of the library. It’s nostalgic. It reminds me of a time when I was new to the whole majesty of writing. When I was still learning all of the techniques. That’s not to say I have nothing left to learn. There is always something. But these days, I pick up craft books as either a distraction or a validation of things I already knew. It’s fun to find one that says something new, but it’s rare. This book was all that. Everything was new to me then. It’s a piece of my childhood.

I learned a lot from that book. I also learned a lot from not having it. Memory is fallible. These days, I write everything down. I am, after all, a writer. That’s what we’re supposed to do. If only I had known this then.

Conquering Chaos

The other day, someone asked me how I deal with chaos. The truth is, I don’t. It’s not that I can’t handle chaos. It’s that I never see it that way. At least, not anymore.

When I first started driving, curves would scare me to death. I would slow way down because I was seeing the other end of the curve. I would try to find the end, but that perception made even the slightest curve seem unmanageable. Then I learned one of the only three things I ever learned in my high school physics class – there is no such thing as a curve.

According to my physics teacher, a curve is nothing more than a series of straight lines. Once I heard that, something changed in my perception when I was driving. I no longer looked for the end of the curve. I focused on the road in front of me. Right in front. I could navigate that tiny straight line, and the next, and the next, with ease. Curves were conquered.

I see chaos the same way. Chaos is a pattern that one has yet to recognize. It’s like one of those paintings with the tiny dots. If you stand too close, you see the dots. You have to back up to see the big picture. The thing is, the whole canvas was blank with the painter started applying dots. Before the painting was finished, no matter where someone stood, it would have resembled chaos. The pattern was in the painter’s mind.

When I am asked to help someone get organized, what I am really being asked to do is help them find the pattern. There is one. The trick is finding the best viewing angle. The best perspective. Too close? Dots. Too far? A dangerous curve. Too early? A blank canvas.

It was a simple question. They usually are. But like most simple questions, it made me think of the bigger issues. I can handle chaos. I conquer chaos by making the pattern simple. But I need to make sure that it’s easy enough for the next person to navigate. After all, what if I got hit by a bus? Would my idea of simple work for someone else? Would the next person see order or chaos?

So, I have begun to consider what I will leave behind. It’s great that I can manage chaos, but I need to make sure that the pattern makes sense to more than just me. I won’t always be around. The last thing I want to do is create chaos for someone else because they can’t see the pattern after I’m gone.

Remembering Christmas

I can only remember one Christmas present from when I was a kid. It’s not that I only ever received one present. It’s that I received so many things over the years that none of them really meant anything.

The one present I remember was an I Dream of Jeanie doll that came in a purple plastic bottle playhouse. I couldn’t tell you how old I was, or whether it was a Santa gift or a gift from my parents. What I can tell you is that I lost one of the doll’s shoes in the mayhem of discarded Christmas wrap. The doll was only 1:12 scale, so the shoe was miniscule. And I lost it. We searched through the trash sacks, but the shoe never turned up. And that is why I remember that gift. Not because it was special. Not because I remember it giving me hours of enjoyment. Because I lost a piece of it.

When I was a kid, I thought we were rich. We weren’t. Not by a long shot. But in my kid mind, it felt that way. Everyone worked. Everyone bought Christmas gifts. And since we didn’t have a huge family, there was more money for gifts. The tree was barely visible at my grandmother’s house because of the presents surrounding it.

But as people retired, changed jobs, and lost jobs, I noticed the change. The piles of gifts from my early youth started to dwindle. We drew names instead of buying gifts for everyone. Stress became visible on the adults’ faces. People worried about not being able to do as much. Or buy as much.

I learned early that what I loved about Christmas wasn’t unwrapping gifts. It was playing card games with my cousins. It was hearing the funny stories my dad, uncles, and granddad would tell. It was the snacks. It was making pallets on the floor so we kids could all sleep in the living room. In other words, so we could stay up late being kids. Had it been up to me, I would have done away with the material gifts altogether.

When my kids were born, I used Christmas as the opportunity to replenish the clothes they had grown out of. I bought a couple of toys, but nothing crazy. They didn’t know any better. We had Netflix. No commercials. They didn’t know they were supposed to want things. Then they spent a week at my mom’s house. She had cable. And unlike the early days of cable, there were commercials. My kids came home with a whole list of things they suddenly wanted.

Their father had a different philosophy. His childhood hadn’t been that great, so he had kind of a Clark Griswold view on what he wanted Christmas to be. One year, we did that. We went all out and spent all of the money he had made from his extra job. And you know what happened? The kids didn’t love us more. Their lives didn’t improve exponentially based on the amount of the gifts they received. It took about five whole minutes for them to lose interest. Like me, they can’t tell you much about the gifts of old.

Right now, we are sandwiched between the Black Friday, Buy Nothing, and Shop Local crowds. Consumerism has taken over. The Christmas bell rings earlier and earlier each year and the Pavlov’s Dog response kicks in with a rush to the stores. The commercials suggest the three best gifts are jewelry, cars, and, oddly enough, exercise equipment. Seriously. Who is getting super excited about a treadmill? But I digress…

I remember the people. I remember the love. Those are the gifts that matter.

This year, I’m focused on those things. Time with loved ones. Good food and good times. Gratitude and joy. That’s how I want to remember Christmas.

No Replacements Found

I keep a pretty healthy list of titles to check out when I visit the library. There is little limit to the types of books I will seek. Yesterday, it was books on writing. As I typed the name of a particular author into my phone’s notes app, the dreaded red highlight told me I had spelled her name wrong. Oops. However, when I clicked the highlight for the proper spelling, all it said was “No Replacements Found.” Thanks for nothing!

I don’t mind being wrong. I don’t even mind being corrected. In this case, I was not wrong, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I was told I was wrong, but not given any solutions. This problem goes far beyond autocorrect. It is how we tend to function as a society. Employees bring problems to managers, but not solutions. Constituents bring problems to their elected officials, but not solutions. We complain about problems on social media, but offer no solid answers. We say it’s a problem, but when pressed, the answer is “no replacements found.”

When I began my college teaching career, the argument styles I taught were Classical (win/lose) and Rogerian (compromise). The one I steered clear of was Toulmin. I was intimidated by it, for one thing. For another, there weren’t any essays designed around it.

When I changed colleges, the Toulmin style was a new focus. I read about it and decided that it was the far superior type of argument. Why? Because it looked for solutions to the problems. All of the stakeholders agreed that the problem was the problem. The argument came from the lack of agreement on how to best solve the problem. Suddenly, I couldn’t see ever going back to a Classical argument style.

The students, and even some of the professors, struggled with the Toulmin concept. It’s understandable. This is, after all, not what we are used to. We are used to talking about the problems. We are used to telling the other side how wrong it is. We are used to inventing words to describe the problem. (Words that usually show up in bloated masters theses, but I digress.) We are not, however, accustomed to actually getting off our backsides and researching how to solve any of these problems. That’s where the real work is. It’s the only work that matters.

A lot of this comes from the adversarial nature of humans. It’s easier to call out something than work to fix it. Snark is easier than sincerity. For Toulmin arguments, even the research approach has to be changed from those other argument styles. Students are used to searching for pros and cons instead of solutions. Their search results bring up “the problem with plastic” instead of “ten ways to reduce plastic usage.” Why? Because they are looking for problems, not solutions.

Highlighting something in red and telling me it’s wrong did nothing for me. Why is it that the system knew it was wrong, but didn’t know how to make it right? Mainly because it wasn’t programmed to do so. That would have taken more data. It was easier and cheaper to put the burden back on me. It would have been even cheaper to keep its opinions to itself. I mean, either go all the way with the solution, or don’t bother.

First Dates and Job Interviews

What do first dates and job interviews have in common? Everyone is on their best behavior and the questions rarely have substance. And, sadly, many of them end in failure. I see a lot of books out there on the subject of getting the job you really want, but I haven’t seen a lot from the other side of the table. This speaks to the lack of awareness many companies and hiring managers have about the importance of finding a mutually beneficial relationship between employees and employers.

A few years ago, someone recommended one of those chick boss books. By the time I had gotten around to reading it, the author had already destroyed the company she had started. One thing that struck me was her insistence that an interviewee should send a hand-written ‘thank you’ card to her after an interview. One-sided much? As it turned out, her treatment of her employees was part of what caused the company to fail. Color me shocked.

More recently, I read a book geared toward entrepreneurs that discussed the employees as those who sought stability and had no vision. You can have all the vision you want, but if you don’t have employees to help you execute that vision, you won’t get very far.

In dating and in working, there has to be an acceptance that the relationship should be mutually beneficial. One-sided relationships cause resentment and, ultimately, fail. Employers should approach job interviews with the awareness that they have a need that goes beyond getting a warm body in a chair. Job seekers should approach job interviews with the knowledge that they are an asset, not a beggar.

In both dating and working, the participants should be honest about what they are seeking. Pretending that it’s okay because you don’t want to be alone, or because you need to find something, anything, will not end well. You will waste precious time and energy trying to force something to work when you would have done everyone a favor by saying, “this isn’t what I’m looking for.”

If everyone comes to the table looking for a good fit, and is honest with themselves and others about what that looks like, relationships, both work and personal, can thrive.

Help Yourself

I love self-help books. Reading one feels like getting friendly advice from a cherished friend or insider. What’s not to love about finding the secret to happiness by simply reading 300 pages?

Over the years, I’ve used self-help books to manage time, manifest things, and motivate myself. A couple of books on my shelf get read multiple times. Others have a bookmark tucked away somewhere, never to be finished. And though I have succeeded on some small level, the “magic of tidying up” eludes me.

Recently, I picked up a popular self-help book geared toward women keeping their faces clean. My library had a copy and it was available. There is a newer one out by the same author, but it is highly coveted at the moment. I’m 45th in line to check it out. Besides, I figured I should read the books in order.

But two pages in to the first book, I realized something. Something important. My face, it turns out, is already clean. In other words, I didn’t need this book. Nor will I need the second one. My face is clean and I don’t apologize.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I think Rachel Hollis is a fabulous writer. Her book, what I read of it, was pithy and relatable. She’s honest and raw, but not in a negative way. If I had more time, I would read “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Girl, Stop Apologizing” for the enjoyment of her writing. But I don’t need her books.

As I look at the books on my shelf, the ones giving me advice about life, I realize that I don’t need any of them. I love them. I enjoy reading them. I nod when I relate to something they say. But when it comes down to it, I already knew how to do these things. Like Dorothy Gale, I had the power all along.

Reading the books was a form of procrastination. It felt like progress, of course. Reading, after all, is an activity. I could write it on my to-do list and check it off when I finished. But what had I accomplished? I read the book. I read another book. What about applying the knowledge? What about the actual work?

I’m sure the 46th person in line to read how to stop apologizing will be happy to see that I’ve dropped out. That she is one space closer to learning the secrets contained within the pages of this book. But after she finishes reading, she will still have to do the work if she wants any results. As I found out, reading the books isn’t the same as living the books.

We all have the power to fix our own lives. I’m glad these self-help books exist when we don’t know where to start. Or when we need a reminder that what we want to do could work.

I read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne several times a year. It seems to sum up what all of the other books are trying to teach me. I find it to be the most empowering book I’ve ever read. It’s one of those books that won’t allow you to blame the outside world for problems. Good or bad, it’s all on you. Your life is determined by how you look at it.

Marie Kondo says to throw out anything that doesn’t spark joy. Kyle Cease wants to screw things up. Jake Knapp and John Zaratsky want to make time for what matters. The list of my favorite self-help books and authors is long, but the messages are so similar. It all comes down to finding happiness. And reading good writing does make me happy. Momentarily.

But once I realized that I was beyond the place in my life that Hollis was targeting, it hit me. I knew how to manage my time. I knew how to clean my house. I knew how to wash my face. Now was the time to do the things I already knew how to do. After all, the secret is, if you want a better life, help yourself.