When I was a teenager, I obsessed about my looks to the point where my mother’s refrain became, “Oh for God’s sake, get away from that mirror. No one’s going to be looking at you anyway.” Years later, I recognized this as my first lesson in the value of toxic feedback. Someone can say something that is harsh or even unmotherly, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some wisdom or benefit to be gained from the experience.
As writers, it behooves us to develop some survival techniques, or at least a little Zen humor when it comes to handling derogatory comments about our work. You can’t be a writer and not experience toxic feedback. It goes with the territory, whether you present your writing to an editor, a client or in a critique group. Everybody’s got an opinion.
Part of me thinks, how sad this is that every feedback provider can’t be sensitive and supportive when talking about a writer’s work, especially given the fact that so many of us consider our words to be an extension of our souls. But another part of me thinks, oh well, what the heck.
Feedback providers are only human, and we all make mistakes. I don’t mean to make excuses for feedback providers who behave badly, but ultimately it is up to the writer to learn how to deal with toxic feedback—and maybe even get something positive from the experience. Think of it this way. Every day we are surrounded by toxic substances—gasoline, weed killer, nail polish remover—that make our lives better. The same point can be made about toxic feedback. It can kill us or serve us, depending on how we use it.
Some of the people I admire most in life are those who have experienced toxic feedback and didn’t let it stop them:
- The graduate student whose advisor prefaced his remarks about her dissertation on feminism in Victorian literature with the words, “I couldn’t help but laugh,” but she steeled herself against his condescension and completed her Ph.D.
- The poet who wanted to try writing prose. “Stick to poetry,” advised a member of her writing workshop, but she refused to be confined in that way. Instead she became more attuned to the lyricism in her language and how it helped or hurt each scene.
- The journalist who was once told by an editor, “You can talk, but you can’t write,” so he made his prose more conversational and stopped trying to sound so smart.
- The timid writer who asked her husband to read a story before she gave it to her creative writing class. “You aren’t going to submit this?” he asked her on her way out the door. But she did submit her manuscript to the class, and in doing so learned that it is okay to show imperfect drafts—that’s when feedback is most valuable—just make sure you show your work to someone who understands the writing process, and who has better timing.
As writers and as people, if we have to deal with toxic feedback then let’s deal with it in a way that does us some good. Let’s not allow other people’s disparaging remarks to undermine our faith in our ideas or our potential. Let’s use toxic feedback instead as an opportunity to reaffirm our own convictions, to show we are made of sterner stuff, and maybe even take away a life lesson or two.
I think about my mom’s comment when I was a teenager. No one’s going to be looking at you. For years, I bristled whenever she made this remark, though you would have thought I’d find some comfort in the notion, given that I hated my looks at the time. Eventually, however, I grew up and was able to gain some wisdom from the experience. Maybe people were looking at me; maybe they weren’t. But the value of my mom’s feedback came when I realized that I needed to live my life without worrying about it one way or the other.
Excerpted from Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni B. Cole.
Joni B. Cole is the author of five books from five different publishers (a fact that makes her feel both accomplished and paranoid). She is a frequent speaker at writing conferences around the country, and runs The Writer’s Center of White River Junction, Vermont. A 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, Joni’s next release, Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior, will be available this September wherever books are sold. For more info visit her website, twitter or facebook.
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