It’s interesting that the Macquarie Dictionary defines feedback in the mechanical manner first, ‘1. The returning of a part of the output of any system, especially a mechanical, electronic or biological one, as input, especially for correction or control purposes, to alter the characteristic sound of conventional musical instruments, etc.’ It’s the second meaning that usually defines my general use of the word, ‘2. An indication of the reaction of the recipient, as of an audience.’ Feedback is a big part of my writing process. I regularly get writer-friends to read my work. I’m part of an ongoing writers’ workshop. My partner is made to read almost everything I write. I look at the stats of my blog to establish the popularity of some posts over others. When I write for online publications I seek what feedback I can from readers’ comments. That loop of feedback and refinement pushes many writers along.
This week my writers’ workshop met in a wood-lined Melbourne café among the clatter of cups and saucers. Joining the din of the crowd we gave our writers feedback. We had one of those sessions that divided the group. Our usual quorum of five was down to three – so it was a hilarious case of two heads banging with contrasting opinions and one writer listening carefully to the debate. Thankfully I wasn’t that writer. I wondered what was going through her head.
In the first year of my writing course I had a teacher who was loath to give specific feedback. We’d read something together and she’d give an opinion, then in a moment she’d take a completely different position. Sometimes she’d say nothing at all. It was the first class of my first year and I wanted to Learn To Write. As long as my teacher didn’t tell me what was right and what was wrong I thought my goal to Learn To Write would be thwarted. I found the class infuriating and dropped it after one semester.
Years later an administrative glitch forced my return to the second part of that class. I’d completed the entire course bar that one semester. I resented more time with the seemingly undecided teacher. I went to the class with my brow pre-furrowed. I wasn’t the only first-year dropout forced to return, familiar faces from years ago confirmed my notion that this was a pointless class.
But by the end of the second semester the teacher became one of my favourites. In the years that intervened I’d learned more about writing. I understood now what she had been trying to teach me in first year: that there are essentially no rules to this process – the important thing is to write. Just write and see what comes. Don’t feel success is in mimicking other writers. Trust your voice and understand that what you’re writing will not resonate with everyone. By refusing to give a specific opinion (rather than accepting many varied opinions) this teacher was trying to nurture our own unique voices, creativity and judgement.
I struggled with an essay earlier this year. It wasn’t finished (and I knew it) but I wanted some forward motion on the damn thing. So I muddled an ending I wasn’t sold on and sent it out for feedback. I got the most diverse set of feedback I ever have. Opinions were polarised and the essay even sent a few people on thought tangents ‘Blah blah…sorry, wrong place!’ one wrote after a few pars of commentary. My desk seemed as noisy as the café where my workshop meets.
As my fellow feedbacker and I continued to disagree in the cacophony of the café I took pity on our writer. How fraught the process of getting feedback is! In this sense, the dictionary’s priority of a mechanical definition is more appropriate. Sometimes feedback is just noise. It’s your inner voice that speaks the loudest. That’s where you must return.