263 – The Feedback

Hey, I can see my house from up--no, it's just a penguin.

Earlier this year, with still so many OneADay posts to go I planted seeds for future posts that I’ve recently come back to harvest. The most obvious of these were cliffhangers, posted and instantly forgotten about by everyone except myself. Some of these have since been resolved but others still lie buried and growing, waiting for me to revisit them, as I will.

In other cases I gave myself wiggle room with elaborate names for simple subjects. My earliest posts concerned my family, and had definitive names: The Mother, The Father, The Sister. Later titles weren’t quite so definitive; I wanted to revisit these themes, plunder them in greater depth and where I was originally unhappy–if a post had strayed too far from its original purpose, perhaps–by returning to the subject with a definitively titled post I hoped to remedy that with an all new, all singing, all dancing One A Day. For example, I’d written about marriage long before The Marriage but until I struck bittersweet gold in that post, I hadn’t really done it justice.

Moving into the later half of the two hundreds I’m glad I planned my blog in such detail. Thanks to my past self’s foresight I can do things like write a post entitled The Enthusiast and longterm readers can contrast it with the opinions expressed in The Unenthusiastic Enthusiast–a post written some months ago–and think “Wow, this Campfire chap’s clever, spooling his blog posts out like this”. As it happens, The Unenthusiastic Enthusiast displayed such a lack of enthusiasm I couldn’t in good faith call it The Enthusiast, so I held that definitive title back, thus planting another seed.

Today’s post was supposed to be about compliments; unfortunately I’d already used The Compliment as a title some weeks ago, harvesting that particular seed’s fruit too early, so today’s post will instead be about feedback, and will open with three paragraphs regarding stuff I’ll never receive any feedback about. If I hadn’t mentioned it nobody would have realised this pre-planned, long game blog structure existed. Perhaps I should have called this post The Structure instead.

Ah well; it’s too late now.

One of my busiest days on this blog–if not the busiest day–was when I posted an epic two part rant about podcasts. Rather than my usual rants about filthy fucking advertising this was a pro-podcast rant, and as such took the fancy of certain podcasters who usually ignore my blog posts because, ugh, y’know, reading’s boring, innit?

The two parts of The Podcasting Epic remain a curiosity as–unlike a lot of material written about podcasts–they’re written from the perspective of a listener. Most podcast fans are content to discuss the shows they listen to on message boards rather than writing long monologues examining the reasons why they like them, what the presenters get out of recording them and how–as I believe–they’ve rendered talk radio obsolete for the purposes of anything other than background noise.

The posts must have struck a chord at the time as the few podcasters I know loved them and retweeted them to their supporters who flocked here in their dozens. It was startling seeing so many people coming to this generally neglected corner of the blogosphere (and now I’ve used the word ‘blogosphere’ I’m going to have to kill myself out of shame: those are the rules) but the real joy of those articles was knowing presenters who worked so hard on shows I’ve enjoyed read what I had to say and thought “Yes, he gets it!” By retweeting the posts to their listeners, my feedback on their work in turn became feedback on my work. I’d call it a feedback loop except it didn’t go all echoey and ring like an alarm as heard in a nightmare, and oh my God, why aren’t I waking up?

As with The Compliment, this morning I woke to find two rather kind comments left on my work from individuals whose work I respect. Feedback from people you respect is worth far more than, well, from random people like you. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh; I love hearing from strangers who happen across my blog and who–rather than just clicking to enlarge that funny meerkat picture I attached to that one post, dear god what’s wrong with you?–read a post relevant to their interests and like it well enough to leave me a comment here or on Twitter.

But people I respect, well, that’s even better. In the great ladder of life that sees social climbers stepping on the heads of those just below them and clutching at the ankles of those just above, seeking respect from peers who’re just a little better than you is like putting on crampons, and when these greater beings–gods, really–deign to reach down and help you with a friendly word of encouragement, it’s a joyous experience.

Do you know what’s even better than that? When you climb to their plateau on your own accord. When they name drop or comment on your stuff unexpectedly. When you reach their level and discover the only ambrosia these gods are supping is Ambrosia custard straight from the carton, because they’re just as mortal as you are, and–like you–they’re still climbing.

Which isn’t to do them a disservice, because these respected people are great–maybe even wonderful. But who doesn’t want to be accepted as a force unto themselves rather than–to put it bluntly–a peon working toward the glorification of someone else?

It helps having people who ground you, who know you’re just a person only doing what a person can. Believing in gods can get out of hand–just ask Stuart Sutcliffe if you need proof of that. Mankind has wrought works of such immense beauty it’s difficult to believe there was a man or woman at the centre of every one . . . but there was, and knowing that doesn’t subtract from the wonder of the work so much as make it obtainable, placing the wonder not in the novel or music or whatever but inside the human spirit itself. It’s something professional writers–deities who’re published, if you can imagine such a thing–drive home whenever they’re asked how to succeed. The first rule of writing is to finish what you start. The second rule’s something about trimming adverbs–which is splendid, wonderful, decent advice–but without that first rule in place, the second doesn’t count for shit.

And maybe your finished story is shit–not to burst your bubble, but it probably is–but you won’t care, and you shouldn’t. “I’ve finished!” is something very few people get to say–Hell, I rarely do it myself and I’m the god who regularly gets forty hits a day on his blog. Once you reach The End and realise you got there one word at a time, the endorphin rush that follows is better than any feedback readers will offer.

Unless they give tell you to use fewer adverbs. Which, really, you should.

But you’ve built something! People and places and events that never existed, all poured from your diseased writer’s mind onto the page like spilled ink. You splotched; you finger-painted and it was a joy.

It’s all downhill from there, my friend, because whatever feedback you get once the story’s finished will never be good enough. Satisfaction at completing a project sets the bar so high, all subsequent feedback might as well be limbo dancing beneath it. God knows, every time I finish one of these posts and force my wife to read it under pain of listening to my CD collection nothing she can say will top my own expectations–especially if it’s a post I’m particularly happy with.

“I liked it” isn’t good enough. “I thought it was good” isn’t good enough. Good? Why not great; why not perfect; why not the best post you’ve ever read in your entire damned life?

Even being told a post was ‘one of my best’ wasn’t good enough for me because no, actually, I appreciate the compliment but you’re wrong–this was merely an okay post. Now this post, this was one of my best, and did anyone say it was fantastic? Well, yeah, a few people did, but–crucially–not enough.

The post in question? I feel a bit silly for mentioning it but I was terribly proud of The Death of a God, which is a post I felt should have been supreme nexus for all Internet traffic. And this is terrible of me, seeing as the post was about a man who’d died too young–as well as what it’s like for a young, virile guy in his thirties to feel mortality clutch at him like a cramponed hand, not climbing up but dragging down. It’s a wonderful post about a guy who by all accounts was a wonderful man, and though it’s not quite me at my best (The Death. Always The Death) it’s as moving a tribute as you could hope for.

And it’s a piece of writing–you know, a piece of work. Words pressed together expressing certain sentiments so well I can’t help feeling proud of them, and, even though the air of wistful sadness that carried me as I wrote was heartfelt, once I hit The End they’re only words recording feelings and a project, completed.

Which is desperately sad when you think about it (and not a little callous).

With that in mind, perhaps it’s just as well I received so little feedback on it. Maybe wanting more feedback is a bad thing, because the more feedback you get, the more you’re likely to be confronted by someone disagreeing with your views. I don’t want people to find my work distasteful–though I’m sure some out there would, if they read it. I don’t want them to dislike it–and by extension, me..Negative feedback is an avalanche unsettling your grip and sending you tumbling. Fragile, oh so fragile: a single unqualified negative response and sky and cliff face reel away. That hot, impotent anger; that ‘why bother’ feeling that escalates so quickly from ‘why bother replying?’ to ‘why bother writing?’ to–perhaps–‘why bother getting out of bed?’ and maybe, in dire circumstances, ‘why bother living?’

Why bother at all? That’s a question only you can answer.

Feedback, for all the highs and lows it brings us, is so much water off a sea lion’s back. If after the appropriate time spent brooding you can’t oink and get back to swimming (or climbing; I’m muddling my metaphors here but you understand what I mean) then maybe you’re not cut out for this. That’s not a put-down–I’ll have you know, I’ve spent hours, maybe even days of my life pacing in a depressed funk saying “I’ll never write again!” as if it’s a threat the world could take seriously, as if anyone would notice or care–but you have to realise, this isn’t about being sensitive or having a thick skin: it’s about how far you’re willing to climb. You might be climbing for the rest of your life without ever reaching the next encampment–is that okay?

It is? Good; that’s how I feel as well.

Now we still have a long way to go, so hold tight, dig your crampons in and get going.

And I’ll forgive you for giggling every time you saw the word ‘crampon’ in this post because that’s the forgiving kind of guy I am.

‘Crampon’, not ‘tampon’. You bastard.

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