Negative Feedback Smackdown

I was disappointed when H, a writer whom I have admired for his insights, did not attend my short story critique. I knew I would get his pointed comments, and I looked forward to what he had to say.

Several days later, I received an early morning email from H with an attachment. I knew what lay inside that little paperclip. I let it sit tight so that I could meditate and do yoga in peace. Right upon waking up is not usually the best time to deal with harsh words. Later that morning, I emailed H just to thank him for providing feedback.

I had to ready myself before I began reading H’s comments. H had warned me ahead of time that his feedback would be brutal. I was a little shocked. His questions, frustrations, and admonitions littered the pages . As I read, my tummy jumped and turned as if I was on a rocky boat. I laughed nervously, but I made it out alive.

One curious thing was that his comments abruptly stopped. In some ways, I was relieved that I only had 11 pages of his comments instead of the full 29 pages! Although I was curious why the comments stopped mid-story, I was hesitant to ask H about it. I reasoned that it was for personal reasons that he was unable to finish giving me feedback on the full story.

I also I realized that not one of his comments was positive – not the character, the gist of the story, a word written here or there. Nothing. As part of our critique group feedback rules, people are required to talk about things they liked as well as point out issues with the story. Because of this, I decided I could ask him whether he liked anything at all.

Emails traveled back and forth. H pointed out a line that he liked and commented on. I couldn’t find it. At this point, I asked him if there was a reason that he stopped on page 11. I let him know it was totally cool with me if he couldn’t comment on it all.

Apparently, the commenting program he uses put in an extra page so he thought that was the end of the story. No wonder he was frustrated! H read the 11 page version three times hoping to see if he could glean some insight from additional reads. I felt honored that he would so take the time to try and understand a work which so clearly frustrated him. On the plus side, he said he was excited that he had more to read.

After the exchange, I reflected on what happened internally during this time. I feared his feedback. When I read it, I felt uneasy. And then I realized that reading through his commentary wasn’t in reality all that bad. More than that, I had survived pointed criticism on one of my stories. Furthermore, I knew that I could use H’s feedback to better my work.

In one of H’s final emails, he said he would be even more restrained in his feedback in the future and point out a couple of magnificent (!) lines. I told him:

And don’t change your feedback on my account – you can be you, and I can wipe the sweat off my forehead and be glad I made it. You know, it’s really OK. It will help my story in the end, which in turn will help me be a better writer. This was my first ever story I wrote beginning to end with the intent to write a story in my adult life. So there are going to be problems with it. Suggestions large and small are welcome.

I consider this a personal triumph that will allow me to continue moving forward in my creative life. Hurray!

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