On Seeking Feedback

On Monday, I got a message from a prof who has been reading an article I’m working on asking if I had time to come in and talk about it. I had been waiting for several weeks for him to have time to look at it (he was getting his book off to the press at the time, so I guess he has an excuse), but honestly, the first thought that entered my head was something like “I wonder if I could schedule a dental appointment at the last minute.”

It isn’t all about ego. I have a thing about being the center of attention in any situation. When I was little, I used to cry when people sang “Happy Birthday” to me, so great was my fear of the external gaze and the implied scrutiny that comes with it. I’m past that frightful stage and have successfully gotten through an oral exam and a prospectus defense, but I still dread these kinds of meetings. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Despite the mewlings of my inner toddler, I showed up at his office that afternoon, and as they always tell you: “It wasn’t as bad as I expected.” In fact, because this professor was not an expert in some of the things I discussed in the essay (though he’s one of 3 people I know who is familiar with my primary text), this meeting was an excellent opportunity to think about audience and what concepts I will need to explain further depending on whether I send the article to a religion or lit crit journal. Because it’s about 2,000 words too long for submission to most journals, he was able to recommend some pretty obvious cuts that weren’t obvious to me when I was drafting. All in all, it was a productive meeting, and I walked out with my self-confidence boosted rather than shaken. So why my initial reluctance?

That’s an important question to think about both from a personal and pedagogical perspective. All writers need external feedback. Period. Even when a draft is just in an intermediate stage, all writers reach a point where they can no longer look at the project with anything approaching objectivity. Yet quite a few of us are reluctant to go get help. I need to remember my initial reaction to the prospect of this meeting whenever I complain about no one ever coming to office hours or making use of the Writing Center. It’s clearly not just laziness.

Is it culture or personality? Like a writer immersed in the final stages of draft preparation, I’m too much inside my own process to sort it out. Possibly, it has something to do with that whole Good and Bad Writers thing: on some level I and the otherwise strong students who avoid my office hours believe that good writers don’t have to seek help, that we should be able to anticipate all problems and churn out excellent drafts unassisted. An intellectual understanding of how ridiculous and false that is only helps a bit. Then you have my naturally retiring personality. I sort of identify with a student I had this past semester who would pre-schedule meetings during office hours and frame her requests with “I don’t want to bother you.” On some level, I think I also believe that my less excellent, less complete drafts are a bother or an imposition, or worse, that they will color this teacher/colleague’s perception of me. Again, as a teacher, I know this isn’t true. But it feels true much of the time.

All writing advice columns/manuals, especially those written for grad students, will tell you to just go do it anyway. You/I should, but I hate hearing that. Aside from Bird by Bird, I really hate writing advice columns and manuals. Like magazines marketed to women, I feel that they are saturated with shame, obligation, and desperation. It’s possible I’m projecting, but with their constant pronouncements about what you HAVE TO DO in order to get work done successfully, I think they bypass a lot of the internal work that you have to do on yourself in order to engage in certain frightening but necessary aspects of the process. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: as in therapy, writing is where you meet yourself, and sometimes the experience isn’t pleasant. But I do believe it is noble. It is righteous, and it is ultimately rewarding. But damn if it isn’t hard.

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One thought on “On Seeking Feedback

  1. I’m there with you. I’ve become a lot less sensitive to criticism than I used to be, in large part thanks to writing workshops and chemistry research lab group meetings. But, man, I still cringe when I’m receiving targeted criticism from someone, especially if I’m unfamiliar with their editorial style and/or they’re critiquing my work for the first time. I’m totally going through this right now for my qualifying exam papers, and it’s been harrowing. I know that the papers, and my writing overall, has improved dramatically through the process. But I had anxiety the whole day that my adviser was supposed to get his comments back to me.

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