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The Painted Cow

After a weekend of being social with other writers, and of thinking about my writing, I . . . am exhausted, for one thing, but also concluded that writing was sometimes a bit like painting.

Say I painted a cow. I worked really, really hard on this cow, trying to make it just the way I envisioned it should be: big brown spots, cute little ears, pink nose . . . Sometimes I would have to paint over parts of the cow because they didn’t look right. But finally! At some point I would say, “I’m finished!” And ta-da! I would show my cow to someone else.

And they would say . . .

“Why does it only have three legs?”

Which just goes to prove that when you paint—or write—you have a kind of blind spot in regards to your own work. Sometimes what you envision, great as it may be, may still lack something. Like a leg.

In other words, you need feedback.

Here’s where things get tricky. Not all feedback is created equal, and all art is subjective. So a writer (or painter) can’t take every critique personally, but should always be open to considering what’s being said. In the cow example, the options are to say, “Well, I wanted a three-legged cow because [fill in valid reason].” Or, to admit you hadn’t noticed your cow was missing a leg and then go back and fix it.

The same is true when writing. You can explain a reason for having done something a certain way, or you can say, “Huh! You’re right. I need to rewrite that.” What you shouldn’t do is get defensive. Because this only shuts down lines of communication. And you need those lines to stay open if you’re ever going to succeed. You need these people to (a) continue giving you feedback (which they won’t do if you’re difficult about hearing it), and (b) to hopefully then help you find a place to show your painting, or submit your manuscript, or whatever. Relationships are key in marketing yourself and your work. If you get a reputation for being a pain in the ass, you’re not going to get very far.

When I was working on film sets, I had a reputation for being “can do” (as the producer told me). To be honest, it wasn’t a guise; I just didn’t think “no” was an option. So if something needed to happen, I worked hard to see it done. And if it really was impossible, I looked for viable alternatives. Because my biggest fear was to have to go back to the producer’s trailer and say, “I can’t.” But that can-do attitude served me well because, one day when the associate producer stormed off the set in a huff, I was selected to take her place. Being flexible and willing and easy to work with won me a promotion.

It’s tough, as an artist—someone who puts themselves into their work, then puts that work out there for others, thereby basically breaking off pieces of your soul and offering them up—to not be hurt, to not want to protect when others begin to throw stones. But you are allowed to dodge. And always examine the motivations. Some people really are trying to help, and they’ll usually be constructive and encouraging. (Some won’t be, not because they’re trying to be mean, but because they don’t have the finesse to be softer about it.) And then some people really are mean, or they’re the types to find fault with everything, and you learn to avoid those people and find the ones who won’t abuse you and your work. That isn’t to say, “Find only people who will say it’s great.” No. You want honest feedback. But honesty doesn’t have to be painful. It may sting, but it doesn’t have to leave third-degree burns.

Now. Go paint your cow. Make it the best possible cow you can. Don’t make it look like every other cow; make it yours, own it, let it show off your style. And if, at the end of the day, someone points out that it only has three legs . . . Well, it’s up to you how to deal with that.

This comes on a day that started with a form rejection for one of my scripts. They did not offer any specific feedback, which is always difficult because that is like saying, “We don’t like your cow” without saying why. “What’s wrong with my cow?” I wonder. But I can waste time worrying about it, or I can say, “Maybe cows aren’t their thing” and move on. It hurts, yes, but if I let it stop me, I won’t get any more work done. So I must move on. I’ve got a chicken to paint next . . .

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M

Writer/Screenwriter

Comments (1) for post “The Painted Cow”

  • I love this post. You make great points about accepting feedback with grace (which can be hard) and an open mind (also hard). But the rewards, as you say, are so very much worth the effort. I highly, highly value my critique-ers; it takes a lot of time and thought and care to provide helpful, constructive criticism, and I always appreciate it.

    This is going to sound terrible, but what I struggle with is feedback that really isn’t valuable. It’s too vague to be helpful, or wrong (i.e. “all cows have five legs. DUH. You need TWO more legs here.”), or it sounds like the person didn’t really look at your cow for more than 30 seconds. I think the best you can do there is say ‘Thank you’, and never ask that person to look at your cow again.

    Good luck with your cow!

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