Learning to Favor Feedback

by Jessica Derr on April 09th

Learning to Favor Feedback

by Jessica Derr on April 09th

The nature of writing is so personal that it can be difficult to untangle it from your identity. I went through a period in which I was wary about sharing my work with others. Any criticism or less-than-stellar paper grades were a mighty blow to my self-esteem. If I was not a good writer, what was I? Writing, after all, was my “thing” as early as elementary school.

Excerpt from "River"

A retort came to Claire’s tongue, pressing against pursed lips, all anger and heat and grief at a childhood bereft of big white houses and chocolate covered strawberries, grief at an upbringing lost to plastering over holes punched into walls and clearing away liquor bottles. But in that moment Mama was not Mama, but soiled fruit past harvest, like when it is left in the sun to fester and sag, the dullness in her eyes, the hard creases in her face making her appear far older than her 37 years. Looking at her, an overwhelming wave of pity stilled Claire’s words. Even more so was the fear. Mama was but a glimpse into a future that too readily could become Claire’s own if she opted to stay.

So when she spoke again, it was little more than a sigh.  “It’s not enough, Mama.”

“Well, you are 17,” Mama said. “In some places, that’s a woman grown. That’s a woman married and having babies. Who am I to say what a grown woman does with her life? Your Daddy won’t like it one bit though.”

“Daddy doesn’t like much.”

Mama let out a sneer of laughter. “Ain’t that the truth. Maybe you aren’t as soft-headed as I thought.” Shaking her head, she opened the bottle and took a long swig. “If you actually do make it, don’t be selfish. Don’t forget your Mama. You might be in up in those sparkly cities mingling with all those fancy rich folk. But you’re a colony girl. That stays with you. It’s in your blood.”  

 

As much as reading and practicing is necessary to develop as a writer, so is receiving honest feedback from others. In a way, seeking the opinions of others seemed to me like a cop-out, an admittance of inadequacy. If I was such a good writer, I should have been able to rectify any mistakes on my own. But not only can another set of eyes pick up on things you might have glossed over, but each person brings distinct backgrounds, perceptions, and experiences to a text to enhance it in a way the author alone never could have. I’ve learned that I shouldn’t feel self-conscious showing someone a rough work-in-progress—a crappy initial piece does not a crappy writer (and person!) make. It is all a part of the messy, chaotic process that is drafting.

Recently, I was forced to re-confront these facts. Last fall semester, I threw myself into a personal creative writing project. Normally, because of the hustle and bustle of work, lacrosse, and school, I don’t finish things that I start, dooming them to a dusty purgatory in my Google Drive. But something about “River,” a short story that features a farm girl who becomes a lounge singer in space, stuck with me. In the story, the title character gets swept up in a life of glamor overseen by a charismatic, though domineering, patron who enhances her body with cybernetics in order to make her stick out in an oversaturated market. I was inspired by the #MeToo movement and wanted to answer the question of why talented, beautiful young women stay so long with men who abuse them and run their lives. I wanted to do a serious topic justice, so I sought the help of my friends and peers.

Though I am a consultant at Arcadia’s Writing Center, it was there where I primarily sought help (with additional assistance from my father and my lovely, talented friend, Sav). In the Writing Center, we have consultants specially selected to also be creative writing consultants, who are primed to help with creative pieces, prose or poetry, at any point in the writing process. I went in with a 10-page draft, feeling pretty solid in my work. After having long, collaborative discussions with two of my co-workers, Kate and Andrew, and taking into account their advice and suggestions, my draft grew to over 30 pages and probably has many pages left to go. My primary issue was that I needed to make my main character, Claire (who takes River as a stage name), a more active agent in the story. Some of her motivations were unclear and she needed more backstory and development to show why she is the way she is. My consultants advised me to flesh out more of her life before she pursued being a singer—mainly, her relationship with her parents. (See "Excerpt from 'River'" for an example of the type of elaboration they encouraged.)

Many scenes from my story, such as the one above, would never have existed if I had not enlisted the help of others. That said, I think there will always be a slight sting when I receive a draft back laden with comments, an instinctual urge to defend myself when I’m told something isn’t working. Because if something is lacking in my work, my brain jumps to the idea that there’s something lacking in me. But I have to remind myself that feedback is a prime way to grow and improve. When writing, not everything you produce will be a homerun, and that’s okay! But by investing time and reaching out to others for the sake of betterment, you can certainly begin to take steps in that direction.