Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Using a muse for feedback

Creativity, the life of the mind, revs me up. When my mind's on fire, my writing and thinking and speaking have all the warmth and crackle and power of a flame. Call it, as Shakespeare did, a "Muse of fire." I write, work or speak fast, edit crisp, make it sing. I've found my voice. The ideas flow, weave themselves together, persuade. There's urgency and agency. I've even noticed a pattern: Sometimes, I intuitively start my most creative work right before I am about to get bored with what I'm doing.

That's on a good day. Trouble is, on many days, it feels as if the muse is out of matches. When I can swing it, I wait for the muse to fire up again--I insist on waiting to write until I'm ready, most of the time. But, like any fire, I've also learned it's good to tend the hearth and keep the fire from going out. For me, that means finding authentic sources of feedback to fan the flames.

These are my real muses of fire, and I can count them on one hand. One watches me conduct training workshops so I get feedback on my content and delivery, and runs scenarios with me to think about how I can do things better. A frequent collaborator meets with me at least once a year in person and many more times by phone to compare notes on our businesses and our writing. I've learned to listen for her perspective, different from mine and full of inspiration for me. Another strategic mind takes me to the 30,000-foot view faster than anyone else I know. "Why not this?" she'll say. Yet another is the prototypical reader for my blogs, the person I'm writing for most of the time.

My latest muse heard me mention the book I want to write, asked about it, then suggested a chapter that will make everything else fall into place. I'd been waiting to start because I was stuck. Now I can feel the book taking shape. He'll be my first reader when it's done, because I can expect him to find all the spots that don't quite work yet, hold them up for me to see, shake the dust out of them and say, "Isn't this what you meant to say?" Or, where the writing's right, "Here, you're in the zone. More like this." I've been writing almost every day for decades, and that kind of help comes along once in a lifetime.

Is it uncomfortable to have this kind of feedback? You bet. Often it comes just when you thought you were finished with something, or unable to start, so part of the discomfort is your own inner critic. But I think we also flinch at the idea of feedback because we've all met that person who nitpicks and backbites and second-guesses everything, flinging "should" around like a boomerang. In an insecure world, it's easy to make yourself feel good by being critical. Many days, it feels as if we've forgotten that in "critical thinking," you need thinking, as well as an understanding that "critical" can mean analysis and not just disapproval.

My muses are different. I know I can trust them to give me feedback lovingly, with respect, with the idea that I'm already amazing and could be yet better. They listen, again and again and again. They ask questions. They don't try to fix anything for me. When I ask them about my work, they tell me the truth--not what I want to hear, and sometimes, not what I asked about in the first place. Certainly not the comfortable stuff.

Here's what makes it tick for me: Their ideas differ from mine, and stretch me. They're funny, smart, spot-on observers of me and many other things. When one of them tells me something, I'm much more likely to say, "Tell me why" or "Talk more about that" or "Tell me why you put it in just that way," to draw them out and make sure I am hearing what they're trying to tell me. That's where the insights lie. They don't praise gratuitously, but when they do offer praise and encouragement, it has warmth and crackle and power for me. I always walk away with my mind on fire, full of new ideas, glad I had the feedback. Who's your muse?

No comments: