When you get a note say 'thank-you'...
Notes. The dreaded, ‘I liked it, but what if…’ Giving and receiving notes in our industry is both necessary, and can be excruciatingly difficult. We pour ourselves into our work, so it can be challenging to hear that something we love so much isn’t exciting to others; not everyone finds our baby as cute as we do. The nerve!
And yet, we are not making art just for ourselves. If you are an artist who creates just for yourself, and really doesn’t care to share it with others, stop reading this now; you don’t need notes, doesn’t matter, move on. For the rest of us who do want to give our work to others, notes are essential to understanding if we are achieving the result we are looking for. If we are writing a comedy, we want to know that it’s funny, and not just to us. If we are acting in a scene in which our character is fighting for something that’s important to them, we need to know that our audience gets that. If we are painting a picture meant to invoke calmness and order, we’ll want to ask others how it affects them. Whatever the art, we begin with a goal in mind, and it’s only by giving it away that we can understand if that goal has been achieved.
Even knowing this, receiving notes can still feel like someone is calling our baby ugly; it hurts. It’s much easier to become defensive and ignore notes, or avoid getting them altogether. But this doesn’t ultimately help our art. What’s the solution? How do we take notes in a way that helps our work grow, while protecting our egos from being crushed?
Where are the notes coming from?
Whether you’ve asked for a note or not, they will turn up: in reviews, in peers, in your mom who thought you should look more shocked when it’s revealed you’re a princess after all. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone’s opinion is worth your notice.
Let’s begin with reviews; too many artists pin their success on reviews, and are crushed by reviews that aren’t positive. The quality of review is only as good as the reviewer. Who is the reviewer? What is their background and experience in the creative field they are reviewing? What is their goal in writing the review? If the reviewer works for an established blog/print source, their reviews will align with their paper’s world perspective; your production of Oklahoma isn’t going to get a stand out review from a small grunge political independent magazine, no matter how good it is. Reviews can be great to pull lines from and create some buzz for your work, but take the opinions within them with a grain of salt. Reviews are, themselves, their own art form, and are not only written to evaluate work, but to entertain in their own right; a nasty review is often more interesting and fun to read than a glowing one. There may be the odd reviewer whose opinion you do respect due to their knowledge and expertise; if so, why not connect with them personally and invite them to aid you in achieving your vision?
Research professor Brene’ Brown, suggests when it comes to feedback, that you take a piece of paper, a small piece of paper, and write down everyone whose opinion matters to you; these are the people within your creative field who you respect and admire, and feel like you can be open and vulnerable to receiving feedback from. These people will understand what you’re aiming for with your work, and be receptive with helping you achieve it.
Many people will give you feedback based on how they would approach the work, or what they wished the piece was, rather than helping you achieve your vision. Having a clear vision of your work will also help you know if the notes you’re getting are actually helpful, or based on someone else’s taste. Are they helping you create what you want, or pushing you to create what they would create?
Of course, even if a note is helpful, it can still be tough to take. When asked how he suggests takes notes, Broadway producer Jack Viertel, tells the story of how Lanford Wilson would put his notes on a dart board and go at them until he was ready to actually look at them. Taking a break from work and notes for a bit can relax the ego and make it more receptive. When finally taking in the notes, ask where they are coming from; Is that note about a particular line there because something wasn’t set up clearly enough two scenes earlier? What is the note trying to tell you about your piece?
Are you creating your own piece or creating with others?
If you are an actor in a play, or a writer being commissioned, how you take notes changes. You may not have the time to put notes aside until you’re ready to look at them. If you’re in a rehearsal room, working on your feet, you most definitely don’t. Sometimes these notes go against what you’re aiming for, but you’re not just creating for your own tastes, and the rehearsal room is a collaborative environment, so how do you handle this? I’ve found myself in those situations, both as an actor and as a writer. What I’ve found to be the most effective thing is to just try the note. Try it, even if it doesn’t make sense, because if it really doesn’t work, then by trying it, you will prove to the rest of the team it doesn’t work. Creating art is a bit like a scientific experiment; you have a hypothesis of what you expect the outcome to be, what you are testing to prove, and you try different things until you reach it. You may think adding a certain element is not going to get you to your goal, but until you try it, you can’t effectively rule it out as a possibility. Until you attempt the note, you can’t prove that it won’t be effective. Sometimes you’re going to be right, and sometimes you’ll be surprised and the note will be helpful. You can’t know for sure unless you try it.
Receiving notes and feedback about our art can be a very vulnerable thing, and yet to achieve our end goals, we need others to help us know if we’re heading in the right direction. Our art babies are going to fall a lot while they learn how to walk, that’s just how they learn. On work you’re creating yourself, take notes from those you trust, take them when you’re ready and able to separate your ego from your artist, and keep in mind that a note might be a reflection of something else within your work that isn’t working. If you are working for others, allow yourself to stay curious, and take notes as opportunities to play. Feedback throughout the creative process is necessary, and helpful feedback is priceless, so whenever you get a note (from someone on your list), don’t forget to say ‘thank-you’.