Saturday, February 14, 2009

Paris Day 36 and 37 - feedback purge

If I didn't get my point across in the last posting about feedback on finished work, it wasn't for lack of emphasis. The trickier question is about feedback on unfinished work; it's also a more consequential question, since the first kind of feedback can result in a mood swing, while the second kind can result in a better work of art, or a worse one.

A few years ago, a trusted mentor startled me by declining to read a draft of the novel, describing himself as "more and more of the mind that 'feedback' is an overrated commodity - it's best to trust yourself, and too much listening to what other people think can lead a writer to grow deaf to his/her own intuitions. Stare closely and meticulously at your own writing, over time, and you'll find the way..."

I love the purity of this idea, and I love it especially considering the source, one of the most fearlessly original artists I know. His intuitions are spectacularly strange and beautiful, and they are the kinds of intuitions MFA programs, New York Times book reviews and the publishing industry are designed to crush. He is one of those artists, like Messiaen or Gilbert & George, maybe Bjork though it's hard to see it through her ubiquity, who flawlessly execute a performance of perfect comfort within their own self-crafted skin, and you probably don't get there from here by taking other people's advice on how to make your art.

I've been writing fairly seriously, regularly, with purpose, since I was about 12. I started making the film 20 years later. But I feel like an experienced filmmaker and a novice writer. Part of that is obviously because I've put my first film out into the world, and the novel isn't finished yet, but I felt the confidence gap even before the film had had its first screening. I solicited feedback on the movie-in-progress and disregarded almost all of it. But if someone criticizes a passage in the novel, even one in which I thought I had perfect confidence, my psychic I-beams start to melt. And the steel begins to buckle even before the criticism is uttered, even before it forms in the critic's mind. The moment the work is exposed to the air, all the confidence of these weeks in Paris will vaporize:
During the few seconds that the visitors were silently gazing at the picture Mihailov, too, looked at it with the indifferent eye of a stranger. For those few seconds he was sure in advance that the most profound and equitable of judgements would be pronounced by those very visitors whom he had been so despising a moment ago. He forgot all he had thought about the picture during the three years he had been working on it, forgot all its qualities which he had been so certain of, and saw it with the fresh, indifferent eyes of these strangers, and saw nothing good in it. He saw in the foreground Pilate's irritated face and the serene face of Christ, and in the background the figures of Pilate's retinue and the face of John, watching what was taking place. Each face that, after so much searching, so many blunders and alterations, had grown up within him with its own character, each face that had caused him such torments and such raptures, and all of them so often placed and replaced to make a whole, the shades of colour and tone obtained with such effort - seen now with their eyes struck him as a series of commonplaces repeated over and over again. Even the face of Christ, which he most prized, the centre of the picture, that had sent him wild with joy as it unfolded itself to him, was lost when he glanced at the picture with their eyes. He saw a well-painted (and not so well-painted in places either - he noticed a multitude of defects) repetition of those innumerable Christs of Titian, Raphael, Rubens, with the same soldiers and the same Pilate. It was all hackneyed, poor, stale, and positively badly painted - weak and unequal. They would be justified in saying a few polite things in his presence and then pitying and laughing at him when they were gone.

What gives me equal parts hope and hopelessness is that Tolstoy (translation: Rosemary Edmonds) makes this vain, quasi-delusional nervous wreck of a painter a really good artist, if not a great one, his own avatar in the novel, painting an aesthetically dazzling and psychologically penetrating portrait of Anna Karenina. A sickness (it's called subjectivity) seizes us when we work and when we show our work, a high fever with vivid hallucinations, where nothing is stable, and a passage or figure shifts in and out of originality and quality like a bedpost turning into a shifty little dwarf and then back into wood. Because we are constantly hallucinating, we turn to others for the answer, for some connection, however mediated, to objectivity and critical stability. And those are the most elusive chimeras, but they can't be dismissed because we know that Messiaen is great (even if you don't like him) and that John Grisham is terrible (even if you enjoy him), and before we expose ourselves to the great cosmic streaking escapade of publication, we would like to know roughly where we fall on that spectrum, and more importantly we would like, if it's possible, to claw ourselves a little closer to Messiaen.

And it seems like the way to do that is by getting a little feedback, but the only way is to swear it off.

If I promise not to ask you to read my draft, will you buy me a beer?

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Blogger Allan said...

Its so damn quiet around here! I'll comment someday about how great Frankie Goes to Hollywood is.. but today's topic is feedback.
That vibe of suddenly shifting viewpoints from the viewers eyes and back is so right on. It is such a hallucinatory state between subjectives.
I'm totally in agreement that feedback is not of much use as a critical tool. What feedback would you give Messiaen on an unfinished work? What would you say that could make the piece better for him?
I love feedback. I love to hear people's reactions and impressions of a piece. Its part of the flow that art gets imbibed. For me it is enough if my own work gets me drunk (and that is partly my goal). Mostly, it is just cool to hear what unexpected things people hear between their own ears.
I suggest listening to feedback in a different way. Don't hear what they are saying about your work, but hear what they are saying about themselves... that's something you can use and enjoy.

February 15, 2009 11:30 PM  

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