Feedback is a gift
We have to cultivate communities where sharing critique is the norm.
It's well known that the life of an artist can be solitary if you let it.
Creativity often requires looking inward, which often also means forgetting to look up, out, around. It can turn into an echo chamber: an idea strikes, you pursue it and explore it and rework it, and if you fall in love with it, you can fail to hold it at a distance to see its nicks and flaws.
Leaving your comfort zone
I've learned that the first step to exiting the echo chamber is putting your art out for others to consume.
The next step is putting your heart on the line to ask for critique.
These days, my main artistic community is on poetry Instagram. Like any community, it has its ups and downs.
I love its endless fountain of inspiration–prompt lists, for example, always quench my thirst for ideas when my well runs dry–but it's not designed to go far beyond simple encouragement to do the writing.
Jump-starting creation is absolutely valuable, but what's missing is the feedback loop that will help writers actually improve their craft. This creates an echo chamber in and of itself, a room where affirmations bounce off the walls without differentiation.
Pure encouragement has its place. I truly appreciate that Instagram poets, many of whom I wouldn't be able to recognize on the street (but I know their handles by heart), always come to the comment section to voice their undying support: "love this!" "wow, that final line!" "this is beautiful!"
I don't take it for granted that these internet strangers spend some of their one wild and precious life to validate my writing. But I don’t usually need validation; I rarely publish my work before the reverberations in my ears ring only with pride and satisfaction. The dopamine boost from these compliments is powerful...but what if we could help each other grow as writers too?
What if we could change the social norm to encourage meaningful feedback?
In the last two weeks, I've actively engaged in seeking, providing, and normalizing feedback in this community. Some opportunities have been off-the-cuff, others more deliberate and meticulous.
For example, I got invited to join a handful of other poets in a Zoom call where the norm is to write for a few minutes, then optionally read what you wrote. One person hesitated about sharing because her piece didn't feel right and she didn't know where to go with it.
"Isn't that what we're here for?" I asked as the newcomer who wasn’t sure of the usual dynamics. "Maybe we can provide some ideas or constructive criticism?"
"Everyone's always so nice though!" she replied. "They always say how good it is but I don't know if I believe them!" I offered up that I would be happy to be constructive, if she was open to feedback. This opened the floor for others to join in providing ideas and suggestions in addition to affirmations of her undisputed talent.
In another example from this week, a different poet friend posted a piece with the caption, "I'm not happy with this and I can't figure out why! Help me please poetry community." For once, the comments included not only "I love this!" but also "this line didn't work for me, maybe try this instead?" Using these comments, she has a path forward for revision–and a bunch of us decided to create a group chat where we can ask for feedback less publicly to workshop works in progress.
Also this week, a poet I really admire posted on their Stories that they had finished their chapbook manuscript and wanted feedback, with the caveat that "if you're going to tell me how amazing I am, please don't!" I spent two hours with the draft annotating areas where I was confused, where I saw opportunities to "kill their darlings," where to tighten language–and, yes, where their vivid imagery blew me away.
Be afraid to not receive feedback
Escaping our solitary echo chambers of creation is essential to making good art.
But catapulting straight into another echo chamber where you only hear how fabulous you are won't make you any better.
Feedback is a gift. One of my colleagues is teased for repeating this phrase often, but it's true. It is an act of generosity to thoughtfully approach someone's work with an eye towards contributing to their development and success. Critique serves to improve your art, to make you a better creator.
This week, I'd like to leave you with a question: How can you change the norms of your process (or your community) to open channels for feedback? How can you plant seeds and nourish the soil that will help you grow as an artist?
A Rec or Two
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
I've been meaning to pick this book up for a long time, and I finally got my hands on a copy. I now believe it to be required reading for poets, memoirists, and fiction writers–or people who want to incorporate a bit of each of these genres' strengths into a beautiful hybrid piece. The way Vuong creates plot from imagery, characters from moments, and wisdom from single lines is completely remarkable. We all have so much to learn from him.
This month I'm doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to get a first draft of a memoir onto paper. While I do recommend the full challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month, the part I really want creatives to take away from its philosophy is the emphasis on silencing the inner editor. You simply cannot write 50k words in a month if you're pausing to second-guess all of them. The experience has encouraged me to produce what I lovingly call "fast garbage" that I can edit, more slowly, into beauty. For now, it's a great antidote to the inertia that lots of us feel when we pressure ourselves to be "good" on the first draft.