I’ve been working my way through Creativity, Inc. Written by the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, the book chronicles the rise of the animation giant. Pixar is known for top quality films and an unrelenting passion for high-quality art. Catmull is central to Pixar’s story, of course.

He has a lot to say about the concept of ego, but most of it can be boiled down to the statement above.

A big part of Pixar’s culture is rooted in candid feedback, regardless of rank, department or involvement in the specific project. Basically, everyone there is committed to making the best films possible. Constructive criticism is a necessary part of that process.

As he tells Pixar’s story, it’s hard not to think, “Well, yeah. Obviously.” And then someone reads something I wrote and points out a potential weak spot, and I immediately think, “Hmph. Clearly you don’t get it.”

But in those moments, I’m the one who doesn’t get it.

Do you want your art to be great? Do you want to produce the best stuff you can possibly produce? Then you have to be okay with candid feedback. In fact, you need to seek it out.

Don’t just ask for feedback from people who will tell you your work is amazing because, of course it’s amazing. You did it. Don’t seek out consistent nay-sayers, either. Seek out people who aren’t shy about giving you frank reactions.

What do they like? What don’t they like? What feels right? What feels wrong?

And whatever they say, put your ego on the shelf. Listen and then, from a non-defensive place, consider their input.

Candid feedback is the only kind of feedback that helps artists grow. If your ego can’t handle that, it won’t invalidate your talent, but it may keep your talent from developing further.

On WritingI shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t weigh in on the Starbucks red cup controversy. I really shouldn’t, but I’m going to.

It’s all bullshit. There.

I’m sick to death of the irony. And hey, I’m a fan of irony. I dig on it. I think it’s great in stories, and mostly entertaining in actual life. Occasionally it’s just a little too bitter to be anything but tragic, and every once in a while (like now) it’s so poignant that I kind of want to kick an elf’s ass just because. Any person of any faith who turns sour, angry, indignant and/or mean because other people aren’t representing love the way they’d prefer is so clearly in the wrong that I’m shocked we’re even pretending to indulge these ridiculous debates.

And yet, here we are.

It’s as predictable as death and taxes. So much so that someone needs to change that saying: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and people spitefully losing their shit every December in the name of love.” (Benjamin Franklin, with special guest appearance by AR Martin). We could get U2 to do an update of their song by the same name. “One man sips from a vile red cup; one man, he resists…” We’d have to have Bono sing a duet with someone much younger, of course, because no one under 20 gives a rat’s ass about good music U2. Maybe we could even get Starbucks to sanction it. No publicity is bad publicity, right? It could become their new annual thing. I mean, plenty of other businesses are focused on love and good cheer. At least one major corporation should be all about seasonal discord.

And before you say I’m taking this too far, consider how far it’s already been taken. People are accusing Starbucks of intentionally taking philosophical military action against Judeo-Christian ideals. That’s what a so-called ‘war on Christmas’ is, and it’s absurd.

And before you say the other thing, yeah, I know this was all over the news a few weeks ago and I’m a little late to the party. Hey, I made a U2 reference two paragraphs ago. Obviously I’m all about hitting these cultural phenomena at the height of their popularity. Besides, I hate how early we’re ‘celebrating’ the holidays now. Christmas decorations start showing up in August. I refuse to focus on one holiday until the one before it has passed.

And before you say the last thing, yes, this is related to writing. No, not directly, but if you’re even moderately familiar with my site you know I don’t mind taking the scenic route. Recently, I’ve had more than one friend/invited critic tell me that if my writing is weak anywhere, it’s weak in the following regard: sometimes I don’t have enough confidence in my opinion. I hem and haw, justifying my reasons for thinking this way or that for far too long. Instead of just speaking my mind, I beat around the bush.

It comes through more in non-fiction than fiction, but I’m pretty sure there are traces of it in both places. I don’t like that. I’m committed to weeding it out.

Hence this rant about the war on Christmas, which, again, is bullshit.

In your writing, be bold. Say what you think. Don’t hold back. Part of the magic of the page, whether relating fact or fiction, lies in the writer’s ability to be candid at an insane level. No-holds-barred content feels more real. Yes, you might piss some people off, but that feels more real, too. Don’t walk on eggshells, my friends. Not here. Not when you sit down to write.

No, speak your mind. Embrace your inner bad ass. And while you’re at it, fuel your writing sessions with demon juice Starbucks coffee, because damn if that red cup doesn’t symbolize anarchy in all possible forms.

On WritingGawker published a story over a year ago entitled “Michael Bay Is Sorry About Armageddon“. The story explains how Bay first apologized for the movie, and then later retracted said apology.

Both were weak moves. Here’s why.

I’m no fan of Armageddon. I think it’s one of the worst films I’ve paid good money to see. It was cliche, emotionally manipulative in all the wrong ways, and ultimately stupid in regard to both character development and story arc. That said, it was his. His work. His art.

(I’m tempted to say something about ‘art’ being used loosely, but just because I hated something with the fire of a thousand suns doesn’t mean everyone hates it. Some people liked Armageddon, and that’s just fine.)

He should have stood by it.

Having thrown his own baby under the bus, he should have left it there, not retracted the apology later in some half-ass attempt to save face. That move made him look even worse.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted one of the first serious fiction stories I wrote. It’s far from my best work, but I stand by it. You should stand by your work, too. Don’t ever apologize for it. If it’s not your best stuff, that’s fine. The process of writing includes highs and lows. You won’t always knock it out of the park. Don’t feel the need to be either apologetic or defensive of your lesser efforts. It’s all art, and it’s all yours.

Never, never, never say you’re sorry for what you wrote.

Say you’d do it differently now. Say you’d change some things. Say you’ve grown as a writer. Say you’ve penned better tales.

But don’t say you’re sorry. Ever.

On WritingIf you spend any time listening to what writers say about the writing process, at some point you’re likely to ask yourself, “Are all these people just whiners?”

It’s a fair question. We writers are fond of talking about the challenges of writing.

“It’s hard,” we say. “So very, very hard. ”

“Why is it hard?” you ask.

“Because!” we exclaim. “I sit down and stare at a blank screen and that damn little cursor. It taunts me, blinking like a madman, daring me to say something. And I have all these thoughts, you know? All this stuff floating around in my head, but when I sit down to write, it’s hard to bring it to the page. And sometimes, I don’t know what to write! Sometimes, I know I want to write, but I don’t want to write at the same time. It’s this battle raging inside me, and I feel torn in two. Torn! So I do it. I sit there, sometimes for hours and I write, and then, when I’m done, sometimes people don’t like what I wrote. And then I have to listen to them criticize my baby. It’s a part of me, but they just stomp on it, and it hurts my soul. Seriously, you have no idea how hard it is.”

You roll your eyes. (I can feel it. I feel you rolling them now.)

“So,” you say. “It’s work and you can’t always make everyone happy?”

Yes!” we exclaim.

“Um…” You drawn out the non-word, debating between being sharply candid or frank-but-gentle. You settle on the second. “That’s kind of life. Everyone deals with that.”

We huff, as if to say, “Not like us! Nothing like us!”

What can I say? We’re writers. We like drama.

But here’s the thing. Years ago, I went on a hike. Not a day hike. Not a 2 hour outing. A real excursion. It lasted 4 days. About halfway through day 1, trudging back and forth up a steep bank of switchbacks, I discovered something about hiking: it’s both ridiculously easy and agonizingly hard.

Hiking is walking. If you can take a step, you can hike. It’s not rocket science.

But the hard part of hiking is this: if you only take one step, you’re not hiking. To hike, you have to keep taking steps. That’s how you climb a mountain.

That’s what writing’s like. No, in essence, it’s not really all that hard, and for that reason a lot of non-writers listen to us wail about the trials and tribulations of the writing process and struggle to maintain straight faces. Everyone writes something, even if it’s just the occasional text message. It’s not like we’re doing something only a handful of people in the world possess an elite skill set to accomplish.

What makes it hard is that we don’t pound out 140 characters and stop. We keep going.

To tell the truth, writing’s not hard. Continuing to write, that’s the hard part. Harder than you’d think. In fact, it’s kind of like climbing a mental mountain.

So, if you’re a writer, whine away. I mean, don’t go overboard with it, but the occasional vent session is good for you. And if you’re a friend of a writer, stop making faces when he/she complains about how hard writing is. We complain because it is hard. No bullshit.

Of course, it’s also fun. That’s why we keep at it. I’m not really sure why people hike.

Boy, do I have some mixed feelings about this quote.

Wait. Scratch that. I love the quote. I agree completely with it. In fact, that’s what I try to do when I’m writing fiction. I have mixed feelings about referencing it not because of the content of the quote but because of who said it. See, I’m not a James Patterson fan.

I’ve read a few James Patterson books. They read fast and they were moderately entertaining, but he’s not my cup of tea. His plot lines and, more importantly, his characters simply did not resonate with me.

But here’s the thing: one, who the fuck am I? So I didn’t like his books. So what? Clearly a lot of people do. He’s done something that is really damn hard to do–he’s made a living writing. Good for him. Two, it sounds like he’s an intelligent guy. I mean, if this quote is any indication, he understands a thing or two about story telling. And three, the quote is sublime. It’s sage and wise and well worth reflecting on.

Thanks, James. For the quote and for your stories, even if they aren’t my bag. The world needs all kinds of story tellers. Keep doing your thing.

Recently I found a bunch of interesting quotes from various writers in a random post over at theChive.com. Credit where credit is due, folks. I plan on doing several posts based on these quotes and I want to credit theChive.com right up front because I don’t plan to referencing where I found the pictures in every post. That would get repetitive.

Now, on to this post.

I used this quote a couple of weeks ago when replying to a comment on another post. I like this quote because it speaks to the tension in trying to process criticism from others. If you’re like me, you want people to read your stuff and tell you what works and what doesn’t. Except, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re in love with what you wrote and even though you tell your test readers you really, really want honest feedback, the fact is you want honest feedback that affirms your writing genius.

You want them to honestly tell you your story is the best they’ve ever read.

But they don’t understand that, mostly because it’s not what you said, and they come back with real, gritty, honest feedback. The kind that can make your story better but isn’t always fun to hear. They tell you which parts worked and which parts didn’t and sometimes the parts that didn’t were your favorite parts. Boy, that sucks. Then you have to decide if you’re doing to defend your baby (that’s what the story is–bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh) or change it. And by change it, of course, I mean hack it to bits because this literary Neanderthal you foolishly sought advice from says it doesn’t work.

What do they know, anyway?

Well, they know if the story worked for them. If they say it didn’t, it didn’t. The best thing you can do then is listen to why it didn’t work for them. Maybe you need to make a change and maybe you don’t, but Neil is right about one thing: you almost certainly don’t need to make the change they are telling you to make. Their fix probably isn’t going to be your fix. Accept that something is broken and take your story, your now-weeping baby, back. Cradle it in your arms and sooth it. Find a solution to the bits that don’t work.

Or, more to the point, find your solution. I mean, it is your story. You should enjoy it, too.

And if your critic’s reason for not liking something was arbitrary or obscure, sometimes–only sometimes, mind you–you can ignore the criticism altogether.

As a yet-unpublished writer, I don’t have to deal with public reviews of my work. You might think I have to deal with criticism right here in the comments section of this blog, but you would be wrong. I’m king of this blog. I can block any comment/commenter I don’t like at any time! (I’ve never blocked a comment, truth be told, but it makes me feel powerful to know I could. Let me have my small victories.)

But, the fact that my work isn’t formally reviewed doesn’t mean I don’t deal with reviews. Every time I share a story with a friend or ask what someone thinks about an idea I have, I get hit with a review. Invariably, there is something that could be tweaked to make it better.

Now, to be clear, I thank my lucky stars to have friends who give me honest feedback. More often than not, I use that feedback, making adjustments that typically strengthen my stories and help them grow. I have smart friends. Most of what they tell me is worth listening to.

Except, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I have faith in my story as is, convoluted themes and all, and I don’t want to change it. Sometimes I feel like changing certain things would compromise the story, itself. I mean, I can’t change the fundamental nature of the thing. I’m a writer. My job is to tell the story, and sometimes the story knows how it wants to be told and I’m just along for the ride.

In those times, when someone gives me negative feedback about something I have faith in, I like to think on what one of my favorite writers once said about bad reviews:

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.

Iris Murdoch

If you like your story as is, if you have faith in it and believe it needs to be told as you have told it, then stand by it. Everyone won’t like everything you write, and that’s just fine. It’s more important that you like what you write.

Unless, of course, you secretly want to be a meteorologist in Patagonia.