First, there are the clichés: write what you know. Learn the rules before you can break them. Practice every day because practice makes perfect. (Or does it? According to Twyla Tharp, “Perfect practice makes perfect... Art is a vast democracy of habit”). They’re tried and true because they do have merit; you don’t get to be a cliché for nothing. But they’re also boring and non-specific. If our teachers, idols, and mentors are the ones spouting these clichés, it’s hopefully because they’ve found them to work. Ideally, they combine the familiar with more curated advice. If not, well, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Knowing what advice to take is as much about understanding your own potential as it is about seeing other people’s limits.
When I asked my network on Facebook about the worst advice they’d ever gotten, much of it was vague, like “make it more real.” (What does that even mean?) Other notes seemed downright insensitive. “Write less weird” or “don’t be so emotional and all over the place” with your acting are not constructive comments and give away the critic’s (negative) opinion without taking into account the intentions of the artist. Ouch. Though it’s easy to dismiss such sloppy advice, that doesn’t take the sting out of it.
Here’s a tale of three teachers: in grad school, one teacher told me my stories had no emotional weight. I was crushed (no pun intended). This guy, a supposed role model, thought my work was meaningless, or so I believed. Then, another teacher in the program told me to write from my own experience to add heft to the work so that I could eventually write empathetic characters who were far removed from myself. The two were essentially telling me the same thing, but the packaging was different. The latter was also more specific: he told me what to try vs what not to do. I followed this advice and began to produce more experimental, emotionally resonant stories, resulting in a novel in the form of semi auto-biographical prose-driven vignettes that completely perplexed a third professor. “You’re a poet,” she said, throwing up her hands. It wasn’t meant as a compliment, or an insult. She wrote linear, realist work and had no idea how to talk to me about what I was doing. Out of the three, only one knew how to effectively offer constructive feedback that was specific to my work. Knowing the difference was my job.
Then there’s advice that would be brilliant for someone else but just isn’t your style, perhaps because we tend to advise others to tackle obstacles in the ways that have worked for us, vs coming up with new strategies based on what we know about the other person. You will have to trust your gut enough to resist such well-intentioned suggestions, or else try it and be ok with it when it doesn’t work out—don’t fret over false starts, instead see them as part of the process, then move on. For example, a professor I know was advised to have papers in different stages of the publishing process at all times, which is similar to notes on submissions that I’ve received as a fiction writer, but she found it set an insane expectation. Rather than run herself ragged, she gave up the exercise and found other ways of achieving. Remember the method is supposed to work for you, you don’t contort yourself to work for the method. Same is true of the popular admonishments about getting up before sunrise every day to work on your art, an impossibility for many of us. Some advice just isn’t a fit for you. This is why clichés can’t be applied universally and must be paired with more curated input from a mentor who is paying attention.
One of the greatest skills I can teach is learning when to agree and when to pass. That means following the suggestions that get you nodding excitedly as soon as you hear them, as well as the ones that make you inwardly weep as they hit upon a worry you’ve harbored about your work, like biting down on a sore tooth. You can always give a suggestion time to settle, then see if it feels right. In the end, it’s your work, your career, and you have to be consistent in your values and goals to maintain a sense of self. The person most affected by your choices in your work is you.
So, take all advice seriously. Sift through it like a gold panner.
Pay attention to what resonates, even if it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to hear hard truths. Other times, someone is being petty or doesn’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. Be honest with yourself; your gut knows the difference.
At the same time, it is ok to take suggestions that don’t work—that’s part of the process. Keep taking risks. You’re not here just to look pretty, you’re here to make something incredible and that often happens wildly, surprisingly, and half by accident.
Forget about the people you want to impress. Find the people who get your work. Join collectives, exchange work with friends and other creatives you may meet at events, or in groups online. If you don’t go to such events or belong to such groups, start. We all need feedback to grow and that dynamic is most effective when it comes from an honest, agenda-less place of support.
Over time, you will fine tune your instinct. Though the work itself may never get easier, processing feedback will.