When to Ignore Feedback
Passion is great in writing, and you, the author, are doubtlessly the one who knows your work best, but you can’t always know every way your piece can be interpreted. If you bring it to a writers’ group, then you are submitting it to be critiqued. You need to pay attention to the room, even if in the knowledge that it is easy for a crowd to be swayed by one vociferous voice.
Recently I took what was ostensibly a list poem to a writers’ group to be critiqued. Each line had an individual word or clause, but there were also pairs and sets of items that were linked and I hoped that—gradually—it would become apparent how the streams of separated content were bubbling into each other to make a whole. I had brought it to the group precisely because I didn’t know if it held together in that way or was too fragmented or felt arbitrary.
I read it aloud and in the eight minutes of silence that followed the members annotated their copies. When it came to giving feedback, a member of the group responded to it very negatively, saying it was “why people hate modern poetry; deliberately fractured, deliberately obscure, highbrow, complicated, it doesn’t rhyme.” They became so agitated that they decided to leave but were thankfully supported by others and in the end stayed.
When things had calmed down a little it became apparent that, amongst other things, the structure wasn’t something that they were used to and that they had no experience of some of my reference points (Northern Ireland customs, history and slang), therefore it was an uncomfortable read for them. But that’s okay. Plus, it’s my poem, not oxygen; they don’t need it in their life.
Sometimes someone’s comment, whether flippant, unguarded or even well-meant can make us feel put on the spot, flustered or hugely sceptical. At such times we may swing towards either pretending what’s being referred to was what we wanted all along, that we have no idea what they are talking about, or to become overly defensive. I’ve been there and it’s only human to do so when we are sharing something from inside us or that we thought was complete. But it may also mean that you have missed something or haven’t written as clearly as you could.
In those situations, try to trust your contemporaries, even if you don’t like what they say or how they say it.
I had a choice: to be offended or to just suck it up. I told them that it was okay if they didn’t like it. That they didn’t have to get everything about it. Their reaction was useful for me to know, as not everyone is going to like everything you write.
On that occasion I was there specifically to assess the majority verdict. I needed to know if most of the group understood what I was going for, and if they liked it. If the majority didn’t, then it would be my fault and I’d try to change it or bury it. If they did, it worked.
If there are a bunch of people who all have the same query, have misread a piece, or got lost in a certain section then it is likely that there is something there that needs taking a second or third look at. If one person reacts badly to it, however, then that can sometimes be overlooked.
© 2019 Gary Studley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Gary Studley is a writer, artist and teacher. He co-runs SoundLines and two live-lit nights at The Jolly Sailor and The Lighthouse.