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 did my first official reading as a writer last Tuesday night, and it was a blast.

One of my stories was included in an anthology (Strange FrenZies) released last April. The publisher, who is from Texas, was in town visiting some family and decided to host a reading with several authors she’s worked with in the area. We met at a small cafe. It turned out to be an intimate gathering. Only 3 of us (including Elizabeth Akin Stelling, the publisher) were there to read. The rest of the guests were there to listen. We totaled just shy of 20.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The other two readers were both poets. Elizabeth works with both poets and horror writers–an admittedly odd mix. She and the other poet (Molly Middleton Meyer) were reading…well, poems. (Both are very talented. Elizabeth’s poems evoke a sense of her Texas roots, while Molly’s poems were meditative and beautifully crafted.) Sandwiched between them was me.

So, the night went like this: folksy rural poem…BLOOD AND GORE…deep contemplative poem…deep contemplative poem…deep contemplative poem…folksy rural poem…BLOOD AND GORE!

Can you spot me in the mix?

Honestly, I was afraid these nice people were going to flip out a bit. (One of my friends confided in me afterwards that she was, in fact, a bit wary. She had not previously read any of my stuff, and was shocked at the demons who evidently make my head their playground.)

But here’s the delightful part. People were wildly supportive. Strangers told me they really enjoyed my work, even if it wasn’t their cup of tea. While I wasn’t there to get my ego stroked, it was a wonderful experience to hear the validation of others. (Many writers don’t often get that.) I was elated that I had gone.

If you’ve not had similar experiences, I encourage you to find a writer’s group in your area. Go to their meetings. Listen to others’ works. Read your own. Offer compliments, be receptive of criticism, and embrace the community of writers. It’s an experience well worth having.

On WritingRecently, a writer friend of mine sent me a message with this little gem at the end: “Remember – you probably do worry too much. Writers usually do.”

Oh, how true that is.

We writers are a weird crowd, and I mean that as nicely as I possibly can. (Weird is dramatically under-rated. Normal is so…eh. Who wants to be normal? Seriously. Who are these normal-agenda-ed people?! Count me out.)

Back to my point. I’m a writer. I worry too much. If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance you do, too. I’m not sure why that is. Writers are often anxious. Maybe it’s the nature of the craft. I mean, we’re rarely right there when people read our stuff, if we let anyone read it at all. If we’re not famous (and honestly, if you are, why the hell are you reading my blog? Or, more to the point, why aren’t putting me in touch with your agent?!), all we have to go on are the critical assessments of our friends, and that’s not much. They’ll say just about any drivel is ‘good’ to spare your feelings.

Or, maybe it’s just how the creative mind is wired. Who knows?

Regardless, it’s a common enough thing. Writers sometimes sink into anxiety and even depression, which is part of why being a good writer means not writing sometimes. Sometimes you need to read. Or hang out with people. (I mean people not in your own head.) Or just relax. You have to find ways to let that stress go.

One thing I do–you’re gonna love this–is just narrow my eyes and say, “Fuck it,” even as I’m writing. No, I’m not kidding. I’ll be sitting there at my computer, alone in the house, pounding away while also nursing an intense fear that everything I’m writing is pure shit, and I’ll just say fuck it out loud. Fuck the worry, the anxiety, the fear I’m not talented or creative enough. All of it.

It’s cathartic.

If that doesn’t work for you, find something that does. This is supposed to be fun, this writing thing. Life, too, for that matter. Our time is to short to worry it all away.

After all, if you can’t have fun, why are you doing it?

Failure

 

This is not a new concept if you’ve been reading my site for long. Failure, in all its gut-wrenching forms, is just a part of the process. That’s true in writing and true in life.

Sometimes I feel like there are a certain number of words in me. Some of them are good, and some of them suck ass. The only way to get to the good ones, though, is to get all of them out. It’s like eating a bag of Skittles. You can’t just eat the red and purple ones, even though those are clearly the best. You have to push through the yellow, orange and green ones, as well.

If you want to be a writer, you’re going to write things that are…meh. Stories that don’t pop. Plots that are painfully predictable. Characters that fall flat. What’s worse, sometimes you’ll be proud of something that just doesn’t work. You’ll hand off a story to a test reader, excited to get their feedback because you’re certain they’ll do a cartwheel, squeal and promptly tell you that your story was the most kick-ass piece of fiction they’ve ever read. “And,” they’ll remind you, “I’ve read all of [insert the name of your favorite author]’s stuff!”

But instead, they come back and gingerly tell you that your story is flawed. Hopelessly so. “What else are you working on?” they ask. That’s their gentle way of saying, “Because, yeah, this steaming pile of shit is probably best forgotten.”

That awful moment of failure is a part of the process.

And the best thing you can do when you fail is learn from it. Michael Caine delivered this line from the newest incarnation of the Batman movies perfectly: “Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” But the quote is wrong. Dead wrong. Disastrously wrong.

We fall so that we can pause, reflect and discover what we stumbled over in the first place. We fall so we can learn.

Failure is a part of the process. Embrace that fact, as much as failure sucks, and you’ll be a better writer for it.