Want to get better as an artist? Know the difference between cheerleading, feedback and validation.
“Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it.” Edna St. Vincent Millay
Two of the worst pieces of advice I have ever received had to do with picking a career. I was deciding between going to cooking school or law school. One person told me I couldn’t be a cook because the pans were too heavy for me to lift, and another said that law school would be my ticket to happiness. I was miserable in law school, could barely stomach clerking, and have never practiced. To this day I love cooking, baking, food and travel to the point that I wonder if in a parallel universe I could have had a career similar to Anthony Bourdain’s. Here’s the crazy bit: neither of those doling out advice had done either! The fact that I listened to them is on me. It took me years and a few months of professional coaching, but I learned something about advice that will not only save you hundreds of hours of heartache but many of your relationships.
As a writer I want nothing more than to share my work with the world, not only because I believe that what I write has value, but because I understand that in order to get better I need to get feedback from others. This is all well and good, but for too many years I’ve looked for advice in all the wrong places. Imagine my disappointment when I asked my husband to read a few short stories I had written and all I got was a solid “Meh.” While he is great as a technical editor, he has no skills as a story editor — which in all fairness he’s never pretended to have. His lackluster reaction to storylines I thought were ingenious or turns of phrase that were overly clever was crushing. I wanted not only appropriate feedback, but validation from him. To be fair — as you’ll see — it wasn’t his to give. Rather his role, which we’re now both happier that he holds, is Number One Cheerleader. It wasn’t until I hired a fabulous coach and we talked about what sort of team I needed to assemble in order to grow my practice that we stumbled upon a revelation that I want to impart.
There is a crucial difference between cheerleading, feedback and validation. You need to be careful who you ask for what.
Cheerleaders are the ones with the bright pom poms and boundless enthusiasm. They yell a lot and make you feel good, but they don’t know jack about the sport. They come from outside the process. These are the people who love you, want to see you succeed, and who have absolutely NO idea how to do what you do. They can be your dad (unless he’s Stephen King and you want to be a writer), your best friend, members of your book group, or even your favorite waitress. Cheerleaders just want you to know they think you are awesome and that they want you to win. They’re the best for the pick-me-up, but their duty is not to help you get better.
Feedback comes from someone who has already mastered the skills, understands the work and is often a professional. For years I made the mistake of looking to people who should have been cheerleaders for feedback, and while they often intended to help, they either didn’t know enough about writing to help me progress or they gave advice that was so far out in left field that it would have been better to get nothing at all.
One of my best sources of feedback is a friend who used to be a writing instructor. I once gave him a SIX page screenplay and he made over 100 comments. When I first saw the pages that were red like the aftermath of a murder scene, my stomach sank. I was ashamed: how could I have thought my work was ready for feedback? Then I was angry: how dare he not see the brilliance, the sheer genius of my writing! But as I read each comment carefully all I could think was “Damn, this guy knows what he’s doing.” Every single thing he wrote was not only valid, but — more important — helped me become a better writer.
A caveat: it’s hard to get honest feedback from friends who are professionals because they can be wary that their friend really wants cheerleading and worry that when they do an edit and the page runs red with ink, it can be the end of the friendship.
Validation is the published article, the book deal, or placing in a contest, no matter how small. It’s the idea that your work has gone through countless drafts and has been acknowledged for its craft. It comes from a reputable source who can do something, whether it’s paying you, signing an agent or giving you the green light for your project. It can also come from readers or viewers who are not obligated to love your work, but yet they do.
Why is validation important? Because it separates the amateurs from the pros. Validation doesn’t have to be an Oprah-level event, and it only depends upon how far you want to go. If getting published in your local paper is your own private win, than congratulations, you’ve received validation! I have had a couple of my essays published, had an agent’s interest, and had an article go a bit “viral,” and those all made me feel like I’m moving in the right direction. For me, it’s still not the ultimate validation I seek, but I definitely feel like a winner for a couple of days.
The clarity I gained from this realization cannot be underestimated. I now understand who it’s appropriate to ask for help and can better manage my expectations. This has not only allowed me to get better, but has preserved many of my friendships, for which my friends are eternally grateful as they cheer from the sideline.