“I know what it means, and that’s all that matters,” I reasoned like a high school sophomore. I remember the piece up for critique, a short description of a young, forlorn girl, not unlike the melodramatic actress-in-training I imagined myself to be at that age. And I remember the comments of my 10-grade English teacher, Mr. Kahn, who shared, “It doesn’t matter how clever you think you are if no one gets it.”
I defended myself to him; surely, there was only so much a little thirty-year old man with suspenders and a bow tie could understand about life. Then I pouted in front of my locker ; why, oh why, did everyone else have to be so dense to true talent? And finally I relented and wrote another draft; even if I were brilliantly misunderstood, I was smart enough to know that being misunderstood was like taking a lonely trip through the Heart of Darkness. And getting a B+ for it when you returned.
Now double the age, I realize how precious feedback is for my craft, and character. The trouble is most of us aren’t schooled in giving and receiving feedback, not withstanding a few school projects where you had to grade your classmates without any bias against that goody-two-shoes. Some of us only give it when asked. Others are quick to offer it unsolicited. Some only focus on the positive, while others point out only what can be improved. And then there are those like me who love giving it, why thank you for asking, but are hesitant (okay, cat-in-a-bathtub terrified) to receive it.
Receiving feedback needs to be like sorting the laundry, a metaphor I picked up from the new book from Sherry Surrat and Jenni Catron called Just Lead! (Jossey-Bass, 2013); as you would with whites, colors, and delicates, so too do you sort other’s feedback into the good, tough, and ugly pile. It is good when I get an email from my boss about a marketing video I made saying, “And the Academy Award for best film editing goes to…!” It was excruciatingly tough when a writing mentor I idolized in graduate school wrote, “Adverbs drain all life from your prose.” And it was just plain rude when a man came up to me after sharing my testimony in church at sixteen and said, “I stopped counting the number of times you said ‘like’.”
Although my laundry was more likely to be thrown in the cold cycle and forgotten for days, something clicked for me a few months ago. While saying goodbye outside of a local coffee shop, a new, more seasoned, writer friend offered to send me his manuscript for a book slated to publish this fall. It arrived in my inbox hours later with the note, “Really would be grateful if you have any thoughts about what needs to change.”
It struck me as a vulnerable move, audacious, and maybe even a bit simple-minded to trust a near stranger to give feedback. I felt the weight of his gift. It took only a few spaztic emails before I had sent out the book proposal I had been working on to friends and colleagues. This seemed mature.
Now, as the comments start to roll in, I’m feeling mostly grateful with a side of embarrassed. But I keep taking the giant risk of looking human and becoming, God-forbid, understood.