Learning the Wrong Lesson from Feedback


 by John Backman

Never would I expect an offer of unsolicited feedback on a contest submission, but that’s what I found in my emailbox one morning. Apparently the reviewers had liked my essay—a lot—but felt it wasn’t ready for further consideration, and the editor wrote to ask if she should forward their comments. Would you say no? Me neither.

As it turned out, the comments were excellent: highlighting the sections I should keep, where the essay went awry, what its best form would be. I wrote the editor, thanked her profusely, and applied the advice to my essay, with wonderful results.

And then I made a mistake, because I’d learned the wrong lesson from their criticism.

In a nutshell, my essays want to be like my hair—an overall style with messy bits sticking out—and the reviewers suggested more polish. Somehow, in polishing this one essay, some part of my brain decided that all future essays should have the same polish. In other words, I should become a different writer to meet the market. Self-doubt crept in, and the writing slowed to a crawl.

After a few weeks of struggle, I stumbled across one of my older, messier essays. It reminded me how my prose thrived amid the quasi-controlled chaos. More than that, it reminded me of the joy I felt writing it. There had to be a way to start with that joy, let each essay determine how much “polish” it needed, and proceed accordingly. Once on that path, the joy returned, so did the energy, and the prose flowed again.

For the moral of this story, I can’t do better than the well-known quote attributed to Mark Twain. “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”