Thanks for the feedback

In my painting days, I didn’t really care much for instructional books. I went to classes and took lessons but I wasn’t even overly aware of the existence of how-to paint books. Painting, to me, was a doing thing that you had to see and imitate, experiment with, get dirty.

When I worked in a commercial gallery (one where they sell the paintings) I was never interested in art criticism as such. I’m a huge fan of the things I like (French Impressionists, Frida Kahlo, Tracey Emin, Italian Renaissance, early 20th century American painting, mid-century architecture) and try to avoid the things I don’t (anything I thought was trying too hard, most of the Baroque era, collage, bodily functions or fluids – anything overtly ugly – except Emin’s work, oddly enough. She appeals to my love of the Hot Mess. Emin was the Fleabag of the 80s.)

I like what I like and hate what I hate and don’t feel the need to explain or convince you of the rightness of this.

I’ll explain if you’re interested but I won’t defend. I’d also like to hear your likes and dislikes. I want you to like what you like and hate what you hate, too, just because your senses tell you to. Lucian Freud (British painter, grandson of ol’ Sigmund) believed that the role of the artist is to make people uncomfortable. Some people don’t need to be made uncomfortable by art; life can be disturbing enough.

It’s okay to like the art you like, to read what you like, to watch the movies you like. As long as you’re not into snuff movies, non-consent porn, and making art out of human skin that is. Don’t be foul.

I would probably have failed fine art school because I always struggled with those artists’ statements or the highfalutin ways artists are expected to explain their work. I do believe that an understanding of the life and times of an artist can help us appreciate their work but this doesn’t mean we must understand the work itself.

It’s my opinion that art should be seen, heard, felt, touched, smelled. Art should be ingested, inhaled. I always hated when gallery clients wanted to buy art for its investment potential but that’s late stage capitalism for you. It didn’t stop me from selling it to them.

I have been pondering these things as I write more about art and writing and music. It’s one thing to feel, to touch, to smell, and quite another to put those smoky, amorphous feelings into words. So now I have a growing collection of writing craft books. I’m reading Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Thanks for the Feedback isn’t strictly about writers or writing but there’s something in the book for everyone, especially those navigating the world of working in teams or in any space where feedback can and will be forthcoming. Okay, literally everyone.

We hear a lot about triggers these days and most people try to avoid them like the plague but there’s nothing better than a good trigger for some healthy introspection and personal growth. Stone and Heen describe three feedback triggers: truth triggers, relationship triggers and identity triggers.

1. Truth triggers are where the criticism is wrong. unhelpful or somehow just off.

2. Relationship triggers are caused by the existing relationship between the giver and receiver. Our reactions can be based on what we believe about the giver, We think, ‘what would they know’ or ‘they don’t really know me at all.’ Or the feedback causes us to feel poorly treated by the giver. Our focus shifts from the feedback itself to the audacity of the person for giving it.

3. Identity triggers. This is Personal! Whether it be wrong or right, it triggers us to question our sense of who we are.

When someone tells us they didn’t think much of our story/painting/short film/poem, if we experience an identity trigger we want to quit. We think ‘I’m a hack. Everyone hates me. My work is garbage, and we will not only die alone, but be ridiculed and riddled with disease. I’m only partly joking. This is a matter of survival. Evolutionarily, criticism was a literal threat to our survival.

All these triggers cause us to misread, misinterpret and misuse the feedback given. Feeling personally wounded by the words keep us from engaging with the feedback and milking it for all the juice it offers. No one can be the best they can be without feedback.

I believe we must uncouple our identity from our work.

Elizabeth Gilbert famously tells us that our work is not our baby. If anything, we are it’s baby. We are the thing that is becoming. One of the Four Agreement urges us to take nothing personally.

What about when someone attacks us personally? What about the thoughtless ad hominem attacks on social media?

When Brené Brown was the target of abuse after her massive TED Talk, she understandably felt under siege. Dealing with abuse based on your appearance, your ethnicity or your gender is often hard to ignore and if we want to make wholesale changes to society, we shouldn’t ignore such attacks.

But it is essential to take the time to sit down and consider the feedback received if it’s about your work. Think of that scene in the movie Midnight in Paris. Zelda Fitzgerald bounds up to Ernest Hemingway.

‘Did you read my stories?’ She looks him dead in the eye, challenging him to criticise her.

He nods.

‘There was some fine writing, but it was unrealised,’ he says.

I mean come on, Z! That’s some pretty good feedback coming from Hem and you know it. But Zelda takes it badly runs off to Montmartre with a bullfighter.

If only she had been able to ask him to send a ‘track changes’ doc. and see what he had to say. Perhaps she could’ve organised a beta reading group through Gertrude Stein, Imagine if her poor wounded heart hadn’t sought solace from these imagined attacks in drink and drugs. We might really have seen what she was capable of as a writer and she might have been a happier person.

I think back to experiences that I’ve had and wonder where I could’ve sat back and taken a less hysterical view of feedback. I know there’s little joy in looking back but if I can avoid the same mistakes it’ll be worth it. Besides that will leave room for a lot of new mistakes.

Not everyone is going to take the time to think before they speak but if we accept their criticism as the gift that it is, we can avoid a lot of pain.