Thursday, October 8, 2015

Artists and Feedback - The Eternal Lecture of Feedback Tides

If you don't even know whether there's anyone out there even noticing your existence
it's really hard to remain self-confident.

Not to get any feedback for your art is depressing. And it's even more depressing if it happens after a phase when you could almost swim in feedback. I publish my written works since 2004 on the internet, so I had much time to observe my emotional reactions to feedback in different situations.

Of course my subjective feelings can't be applied to everyone. Yet I've noticed - and other artists may have noticed it as well - that not only the quality and quantity of feedback for a particular artwork play a role but also the artist's own attitude towards that artwork and how much feedback the artist gets in general.

Personally I've went through many emotional phases:

When I published my first fanfictions back in 2004 I was a 14-year-old girl, happy about any kind of feedback. I was lucky not to get any mean comments but much appreciation instead. For me it was a huge motivating factor. Yet somewhen, after writing and publishing many fanfics that followed a ridiculous logic, I started to work deliberately on improving my writing.

While the quality of my Lord of the Rings fanfics improved I satisfied my more childish fangirl needs in the Inuyasha fandom, writing two Mary Sue stories with approximately the same plot: Fluffy Eye Candy Sesshomaru-sama falls in love with a human girl (a very logical thing to happen to a demon despising humans), yet in the end she dies and he's somehow involved in it. Yeah. A love story with Sesshomaru guarantees you many readers automatically (if you know Sesshomaru, you know why), and the two Mary Sue stories are still pretty successful, judging by the stats and the users I met in different internet communities who recognized me as the author of these two fanfics and told me how much they liked them.

With all this praise it might be surprising that it were these two fanfics that made me feel depressed because of reviews. When first published, no comment was more than a "luv dat storrryy!!!!!!!11111". It was some kind of a culture shock: My primary fandom was still The Lord of the Rings, and I was used to get quite elaborate feedback there. Those squealing comments, on the other hand, made me wonder whether the commentators had even read my stories and whether my stories were really so bad that they attracted only readers without any high expectations.

I was averse to squealing comments for a long time ... However, let's drop this topic for a while and return to the Lord of the Rings fandom.

I had started as an author of long stories with many chapters, yet as time passed I slowly turned towards short stories. And when it comes to feedback the number of chapters is incredibly important:

When publishing a long story online an author usually releases one chapter after another instead of all chapters at once. Since writing and publishing a long story requires much time and effort, the author wants to be "rewarded" with constant attention. So ideally, he tries to attract and keep his readers with good writing - or, in the worst-case scenario, with blackmail (i.e.: "ill contunua dat storry only when i hav 10 revouws!!!!!!!111111"). In the case of short stories, however, there's only one chance to impress the readers, and the author doesn't have to worry about keeping them. There's only one publishing moment, the story will never be "fresh" again, it's finished and no reader will leave more than one comment. Nobody will lose interest in the middle of the story. Once the readers have swallowed the short story they either like it or they don't. As the author, you don't have much control over this situation. - And this is freedom! When you have a story with many chapters you usually want to "milk" it and get as much feedback for every chapter as possible. A short story may make you happy when it gets 2-4 comments, and then everything is over anyway.

For years I lived almost without the stress of publishing long stories. I lived without the fear the next chapter wouldn't get as many comments as the previous one. And seeing all the kids complaining about the lack of feedback, I thought I was mature in this matter.

Until I confronted reality.

When I finally published another long story all my inner peace and maturity were gone. Once again I was trembling with hope and fear ... Of course I could have published the whole story at once, since I publish only finished stories anyway, but firstly it would have been too much work for only one day and secondly there was this capitalistic desire for "milking": Many readers are scared away when they are confronted with too many chapters at once, the story will be seen by more people if it's updated regularly, and when there's enough time between the updates readers are more likely to comment every single chapter rather than the whole story at once which makes much more comments in total.

The desire for feedback is always a balancing act. On the one hand, there's the ideal of the self-confident author who doesn't need readers to backscratch his ego. On the other hand, there's reality: An artist needs feedback, he needs to know whether his artwork is good or not, whether he should work on something ... and the more feedback the better. The yearning for feedback isn't only the yearning for recognition but also the wish to improve. And if you don't even know whether there's anyone out there even noticing your existence it's really hard to remain self-confident.

However, after suffering a phase of too little feedback (whatever one defines as "too little") squealing comments seem like a blessing. You realize their worth, their very positive message; you learn to appreciate them. Complaining about the quality of feedback is a privilege of the pampered.

With all the fuss everyone makes about getting feedback it may be surprising that I also made an experience completely opposite to it: total apathy. A very sincere "I absolutely don't care about feedback" attitude. In my case, it happens with two kinds of stories: Stories that already have many comments, so many that my artistic ego is 100% satisfied and believes that everything that can be said about the story was already said, and very special stories, stories that are more than stories, written with all my soul and pain rather than blood, sweat and tears. I can barely describe it. These are stories that don't just want to be written: They burn the author's soul like a cry that can't be suppressed, they're neither spontaneous ideas and nor made-up in a long thinking process - they're just there. They don't have to be stories that actually happened - and yet, they're the author's most personal creations. They're stories that define their creator, that capture his whole life. They aren't "babies" nurtured with love, but lumps the author brutally ripped from his deepest inside. Stories of which the author knows that they're plain, crystal clear truth, that they have to be just the way they are, that they can hardly be made any better. They can be adventure stories, dark stories, mysterious or funny ones. Yet nobody except for the creator has the authority to judge their quality.

This attitude sounds arrogant, yet ... Yes, I do appreciate comments, I am curious how these stories are perceived by my readers. But I don't actually need feedback for these stories, because I really wrote them only for myself. Very unlike the other stories which I wrote for fun, for practise and/or for my readers.

An artist can be apathetic and yearning for comments at the same time. It depends on the story. It isn't always a flaw of the artist as a person.

An artist can get totally crazy about comments temporarily, though. This is just how humans are: We can't accept things as how they are. We believe in standards and regularities. We sincerely think that what we have is normal and natural. And when the situation suddenly turns different we're shocked.

Those used to getting six comments per chapter have every reason to be depressed if they get only two. In a way, their worldview is shaken, and this always hurts. However, if it stays this way, two comments per chapter, they'll have to get used to it and accept it as a new standard. And then they'll be all aflutter when they get six comments per chapter again. When the comments become less again they'll be depressed again, then they'll cheer when the number of comments increases ...

The way you present your story, the genre and - if it's a fanfiction - the fandom and the protagonist have an impact on how much feedback a story gets. The amount of comments also depends on the time of the year, the day of the week and the time of day. And often it's just chance. It's a constant up and down of feedback and emotions. Whenever you think you've experienced everything and nothing can shake you anymore it's only until the situation changes again. Until you're again all depressed, refreshing your stats every five minutes. Until you're again flooded with comments. Until you again just shrug apathetically when seeing new comments. Until you again jump happily around your apartment.

Until you again see all the other aspects of your personality.

What do you feel when you get feedback? Do you share at least some of my experiences? Have you ever been depressed because of positive but "squealing" feedback? Have you ever been apathetic towards feedback? Do you think my experiences can be applied to other art forms than writing? What should an artist who doesn't get much feedback do?


(This text is a translation of an older German essay. You can find the original text from 2013 here: Die ewige Lektion von Ebbe und Flut.)

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