How a Single Drop of Lukewarm Feedback Nearly Sent Me Off the Edge, Into a Pool of Negativity

A creative person’s ego is like a lily’s petals: fragile and easily destroyed.

If you’ve ever grown a lily, you know what I’m saying. A strong wind can rip, or heavy rain can pummel the petals right off the flower’s blossom.

You also know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever shared something you created with another person. Sometimes, anything less than voluptuous praise can tear your inner self asunder.

At the bottom of every issue of my newsletter, Writerly, readers have an opportunity to provide instant feedback about that email. They can choose from five options, ranging from “Bad” to “Love it!”.

In this week’s email, a reader gave the issue a “Meh” rating. Seeing that nearly sent me into a tailspin of negativity. 

“Oh my God,” I thought. “Someone doesn’t love my newsletter. What am I even doing? I should delete it and go live in a cave alone with just a pet goat to keep me company.”

But I’m not currently coming to you from a cave, and, no, I didn’t delete Writerly. 

Here’s how I pulled out of the emotional nosedive one piece of so-so feedback sent me into, and how you can, too, when you receive anything less than a positive response to your work.

A person crying
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

It’s Not About You

First, let’s accept that not everyone will love what we create. Unfortunately, that means we’ll receive negative, or at least not overwhelmingly positive, reviews.

Let me rephrase. At some point, our work will receive negative, or at least not overwhelmingly positive, reviews.

That’s a significant difference. Responses our creations receive are not reviews on us as individuals. (Yes, people sometimes lodge personal attacks veiled as criticisms of our work. It happens, though I’m not sure it’s frequent for most of us.)

One of the first steps I took to pull out of my tailspin after a reader gave my newsletter a “Meh” rating was to realize their feedback wasn’t about me. Even if it was, my takeaway from their review shouldn’t be about me. So I had to remove myself from the equation.

It’s crazy hard not to take negative criticism of our work personally. We are, after all, making ourselves vulnerable and pouring our existences into what we create.

But we have to realize that most times, we’re not the target. Our work is. Accepting that is the only way we can continue creating, and it’s the only way we can grow as creators.

And It’s Not About Praise

Similarly, we need to understand we’re not creating for accolades. Or, at least we shouldn’t be.

We should be making stuff because we want to help people and because we want to contribute to society and our culture. Many writers, for example, attempt to help us better understand our world through their writing. 

And some writers, such as myself, try to guide and inspire others. We share from our experiences and backgrounds in the hope of giving others the tools and encouragement they need to grow.

That’s something I had to remind myself after getting a lukewarm review for Writerly. The newsletter isn’t so other writers can praise me. It’s so I can help them, to give them something each week they can use.

Reminding myself of this mission allowed me to shift from fretting over the “Meh” rating to appreciating it. For one thing, someone cared enough to provide feedback to the email. That’s something to celebrate.

But, more importantly, they tipped me off that I have more work to do to deliver on Writerly’s mission. Their rating lets me know, at least according to one reader, that Writerly needs more something to be the indispensable weekly email for writers I want it to be.

Remembering why you create and making sure it isn’t so others will praise you will put you in the best mindset for using negative feedback to grow.

The Devil’s Not In the Details

What changes do I need to make? Honestly, I don’t know. 

The downside of Writerly’s easy ranking system is that it doesn’t allow for detailed feedback. That’s OK, though. 

Sometimes the feedback our work receives is vague or inarticulate. For example, maybe the critic does a poor job of pointing out the issue they have with your creation, or perhaps they misplace the focus of their criticism.

But we don’t always need accuracy and specifics from our reviewers. Instead, we can use negative feedback as a pause for our work, giving us a moment to reflect on what we’ve done to see if we can do it better next time.

You may disagree with what someone says about your work. Or, you might not get much information about what someone doesn’t like. 

No problem. Use the moment as an opportunity to review what you created and see if you can identify areas for improvement. 

Don’t agonize over the specifics or lack thereof in the reviewer’s input. Look instead at the totality of your creation and see if you can find one or two things you’d like to try doing differently next time.

Three Lessons for Pulling Out of the Tailspin

And that’s how I decided on two tweaks that I think will nudge Writerly closer to the newsletter for writers I believe it can be.

First, I will change the format to make it easier to see the links I’m sharing. Secondly, I’ll be more mindful of the links I include to ensure they’re focused on helping creative writers while removing anything superfluous.

As creators, we will receive negative, or at least lukewarm feedback for our work. Unfortunately, when we do, it’s easy to nosedive into a pool of negativity.

But when poor reviews strike, keep these three things in mind:

  • The critique is about your work, not you.
  • You’re creating for reasons other than receiving praise.
  • Don’t get caught up in the details.

Remembering these truths can pull you out of your tailspin and set you up to benefit from the input so you can continue growing as a creator.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

David Moldawer Encourages Us to Embrace Experimentation While Creating

David Moldawer’s The Maven Game is one of the best newsletters creative people can read.

Each Saturday, Moldawer sends one missive containing information, guidance, and inspiration about making art. Moldawer’s writing is superb, as you’d expect from someone who’s worked for years in book editing and publishing.

But what separates the best writers from good writers is the ability to see what the rest of us do not, to point out the truths we miss.

"Our job as creators is to spot patterns, and there are none to be found on the blank page. You need to go out in the wilderness. Clap your hands together, see what emerges from the underbrush." David Moldawer

Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense sees dead people that others can’t. David Moldawer sees paths to creativity and artfulness that we may not, and he puts that into his bare-bones newsletter that features no up-selling or social media support.

The Maven Game is simply one image-less email a week about how to be better artists. I highly recommend it.

Each week’s issue is worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed his March 11 edition, titled “Uncharted Territory.” Moldawer uses the piece to praise experimentation.

Another word for experimenting is to practice, to try, to play around, to draft. Moldawer urges us to enjoy doing so as part of creating.

It’s a tough lesson for me to remember because I’m focused on being efficient. I’m self-employed, earning a living from what I create, so it feels wasteful and costly to experiment.

But with David Moldawer’s encouragement, I’m making a point to experiment more throughout my creative process.

Who knows what we may find when we go into the wilderness and shake the underbrush?

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Nicole Eisenman’s Lessons for People Who Like to Create Stuff

Painter Nicole Eisenman’s recent New Yorker profile covers a lot of ground, from being gay to doing heroin, and all the art she’s made along the way.

The piece also has some handy missives for all creatives, including writers.

For example, many of us plug away at our art, hoping to create something that deserves attention, that causes people to feel something and to see us. We tweak, edit, and practice, never knowing if we’ll make it to where we want our art to be, which is in a place someone might call, “Good.”

In the excerpt below, Eisenman talks about how, after years of being an artist, something clicked in her work.

"In Nicole’s account of her career, things changed about fifteen years ago, after she found ways to infuse her paintings with some of the looseness of her drawings. She expressed this in the form of a question, her voice shrinking with each word: 'The paintings started getting good?'"

One day, if you keep at it, your art will start getting good.

And when it does, when others start taking notice, you may get busy. You could get overwhelmed. If that happens, it’s crucial that you step back, return to center, back to where you can create the art that makes you happy, that you have to make.

"She missed working alone, without hourly consultations with fabricators and assistants. (The list of materials used in 'Procession' includes a fog machine, mirrored Plexiglas, a telephone pole, a bee, tuna-can labels, and 'various twigs.' One figure wore socks knitted by Roeck’s mother.) She wanted to “push the world out.”

As you work, never forget that nothing in the creative process is wasted. You never know when that thing you made ends up being not something you toss, but a piece of the larger puzzle of your creation.

"In her sketches, she had drawn someone carrying a barrel, and someone else with a belt of knives. The barrel made it into the potato painting."

Drafts, sketches, extras, whatever you call them, are steps creatives take along the path to art. As John McPhee wrote:

Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

John McPhee

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