Garbage Work, Not Garbage Person

Hello, anxiety! Like lots of working moms, I’m anxiously trying to get as much done as humanly possible ahead of possible school/daycare cancellations. Along with your anxiety, why not enjoy this post from my old blog?

I’m doing some research on Bette Davis at the moment and it has brought me to some amazingly wrong-headed career advice she received early on in a fan magazine. In it, the magazine’s beauty columnist advises Davis to stop playing such unpleasant women and, among other things, not to jut out her chin so much because it makes her neck cords pop out unattractively.

The beauty columnist insists on her appropriateness to offer Davis advice. She writes, “Now maybe you think I’m stepping out of my rôle as beauty doctor when I tell you that in this letter I want to talk to you about your personality. Really, I’m not, for beauty and personality are inseparable.”

Here’s the thing, though, she is wrong. She’s not an acting coach or a psychiatrist. And, luckily for us, it doesn’t appear Bette Davis listened.

So, what does this amusing anecdote about Bette Davis have to do with our creative work and with us?

As with the beauty columnist in question, sometimes judges of writing and other creative work get a little confused about their role and the kind of judgments appropriate to it.

In addition to being a writer myself, I’m also a teacher and a member of several social media writing support groups, including groups focused on academic work, creative work, and freelance writing.

With some regularity, a wounded writer appears, whether in my office or in these online spaces. Although the contexts vary, the type of wounding is remarkably similar: some gatekeeper has taken it upon himself to judge the writer unfit. This judgment often takes the form of unsolicited advice about a change in career.

When I speak of wounded writers, I am not asking that we stick a prize on everyone or make everybody feel good all the time.

Plenty of writing and artwork is bad. I make bad work all the time. Everyone who creates does—it’s a necessary part of making good work! And sometimes, I don’t realize work is bad until a reviewer tells me it is. Sometimes lots and lots of reviewers at lots of outlets need to tell me something is bad. Then I trash that work and try to make something better.

But telling a writer or student or artist that she is trash (or not fit for X profession) is not only unhelpful and mean, it’s also outside the reviewer’s purview.

If you are a writer, artist, academic, other creative person just starting out, here’s a guideline for categorizing appropriate responses to your work. Is your reviewer saying?

  1. Yes, this thing is good.
  2. Hm, this thing could be good, but it needs to be developed/changed.
  3. Hm, this thing could be good, but not for this venue (whether journal, gallery, festival, whatever).
  4. Hm, it will take a lot for this thing to become good—here are some thoughts, but consider shelving this particular thing.
  5. Nope, this thing is not good. Here are some reasons why it’s not good. Try applying these principles to the next thing you make.

All of these, including the judgment of a thing’s not-goodness are fine and useful. As you receive feedback as a maker of things, consider which of these categories of response you are getting—engage a friend to help you translate. That friend can help you parse the particular language of your critic–I was once told something I wrote was “a very strange article indeed.” As you can tell, the phrase has stuck with me, but what I really needed at the time was a friend to tell me that this response was a number four.

Importantly, nowhere on this list is the feedback: you, maker of bad thing, you are as bad as this piece of crap thing. Get out, you crap-making person.

If you’re getting feedback that doesn’t fit into one of these five categories, especially if you’re getting judgment about your value as a human being from someone who is not your mother, child, or God, bring in that friend to help you see that the reviewer is stepping out of his role. 

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