The Man, The Boy, and The Donkey: An Aesop Lesson For Receiving Feedback In Our Writing, By Kierann Elliott
Would the man, the boy, and the donkey have left the walls of their cozy and sturdy farm if they had known the tragedy that was in store for them that day? Of course they would have. What a silly thing to ask. For what comes from fearing the unknown but empty tummies and hearts strained by stress? Better to take that walk to the market square and shake hands with feedback. Only compared to them, you’re not going to hoist the donkey over your heads.
For those who may be a little more than lost right now, The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey is an old Aesop fable about—you guessed it, a farmer, his son, and their beloved donkey who are met with constant criticism about how they are walking to the market square. And the farmer, feeling quite embarrassed over the critiques, tries to make amends to their behaviors to match the critiques. This goes on until the donkey is hoisted into the air, its legs tied to a pole, and ends up being dropped into the river below where it drowns.
Sometimes, in your own writing, you may feel just like the farmer. You may receive feedback—whether they are constructive criticisms, abrasive scorn, thoughtful comments, suggestive rewrites, or a combination of the four—that makes you feel like everything you are doing is wrong and maybe, just maybe, you don’t actually know what you are doing.
So I’m going to stop you right there. While you shouldn’t outright reject any feedback you receive on your work, you shouldn’t take it at face value and feel like you need to re-do everything. Instead, remember this: All the travellers on the road have their own lives and their own ways of riding a donkey. So in some ways, their feedback is valid. It just might not always be relevant with your own ideas or, in that case, to the farmer’s situation.
When you are receiving feedback, take a step back. Think about where the feedback is coming from, whether it is from a different perspective or because something wasn’t clear enough in your work, and try to figure out what the feedback means for your work. The feedback may also show you where you need to improve in your writing, even if the content of it isn’t the most relevant to your vision.
Keep in mind that research is a crucial tool when it comes to writing and relieving your anxiety over writing, especially if you are thinking about incorporating ideas, places, and concepts you don’t have first hand experience with. Perhaps more importantly, research will keep you from perpetuating stereotypes so you don’t tumble into creeks of controversy like Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “HOW-TO”. If you are looking for insight on how to conduct research for your writing projects, I would suggest taking a look at Kristen Kieffer’s advice on researching for novels.
I know sometimes it’s hard to receive feedback. It can even be discouraging. But know that you are allowed to take a step back and think about where it’s coming from. Don’t feel like you need to lift the donkey over your head. It’s not the smartest move anyway.
Meet the blogger:
KIERANN ELLIOTT lives and works in the Twin Cities. Her work has been published in The Fulcrum.
It was a school librarian who first told me comic books and graphic novels weren’t “real books,” exemplifying an attitude that is still all too present in literary circles. While a few serious autobiographical works like Fun Home, Maus, and Persepolis have reached critical acclaim and worked their way into the contemporary canon, a lot of comics are still dumped into the elitist category of “low” art. It’s only when we start to break down this gate-keeping that we can start to see how many works in the graphic format are worthy of the same consideration as any other book. The iconic artist Jack Kirby once said, “Whatever I do… I can assure you that it’ll electrocute you in the mind!” Hopefully these five titles will do just that.
1. Black Hole by Charles Burns
Black Hole feels like a low-budget horror movie you remember watching at a drive-in theater in a nightmare. The plot weaves through the perspectives of a group of high school kids in a fictionalized 1970’s Seattle, during an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease that causes bizarre physical mutations in those infected. Burns builds an intricate, eerie, and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story, with his swirling pen-and-ink drawings playing into an aura of dread, alienation, and unsafe adolescence. Black Hole can be purchased from Pantheon Books or your local comic book store.
2. “Habits” by Lauren Monger
“Habits” follows a cast of anthropomorphized rodent punks through their everyday misadventures. The dialogue is quick, realistic, and darkly funny, and Monger’s watercolor illustrations are alternately grimy and endearing. Beneath the humor, the characters speak to pain and ennui that runs deeper than punk-rock angst. “Habits” is published as a weekly strip on the Vice website.
3. Video Tonfa by Tim Goodyear
This is a funky one. Video Tonfa is simultaneously an eclectic collection of film reviews and a memoir, offering personal insights within handwritten criticism of hundreds of movies, accompanied by sketches of VHS covers. Scrawled on yellow legal pad paper, the book’s aesthetic is rough and personal. Video Tonfa itself is as much of a curiosity as any of the dusty Blockbuster tapes referenced within. Available from Floating World Comics or your local comic book store.
4. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates has already reached widespread recognition as a journalist and the author of the brilliant Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, and his first piece in the comic book format is no less impressive. A Nation Under Our Feet uses the characters and world of Black Panther to explore questions of government, nationhood, and power. The writing contributes brand new layers to a fascinating fictional universe, and Brian Stelfreeze’s art brings a rich Afrofuturist world to life. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is available from Marvel Comics or your local comic book store.
5. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
One of the better-known comics on this list, mainly due to a film adaptation in 2001, Ghost World chronicles a close and turbulent friendship between two young women. Much like “Habits” the dialogue is snappy and the humor hides pain. The plot is adventurously meandering, with a menagerie of weirdo side characters including psychics and Satanists. Clowes’s monochrome, fifties-style art is reminiscent of early Mad Magazine. Ghost World wanders through a strange and uncomfortable sort of growing up. Available from Fantagraphics or your local comic book store.
What are your thoughts? Was my school librarian right? Am I leaving out any great, imagination-frying books? Let me know in the comments!
Meet the blogger:
MAX FIREHAMMER is in his third year as a creative writing major as Hamline University. The last comic book he read was Sugar Skull by Charles Burns, and he’s open to recommendations as to what the next one should be.
So here’s the thing, I’ve got baggage. It’s not cute or quirky, and it doesn’t make me a tortured artist. It gets all jumbled together in the front of my brain where I’m trying to sort through the setting description for the fiction I’m writing (well, trying to write).
You may be thinking, “Jennifer, everyone’s got baggage. It’s part of being human. Don’t act like yours is special.” And you’d be right. Everyone’s got baggage. Everyone’s got issues, and that’s why I want to talk about creative nonfiction, or CNF. When I took my first creative writing class and was introduced to CNF, I thought, “The whole reason I write is so I don’t have to think about me. My life is boring. Why would I write about it?” And then I started writing about it.
I wrote about the toxic relationship I had recently left. I wrote about feeling lost without my hometown reputation dictating who I was. I wrote about the deaths I saw on a nearly yearly basis throughout high school. All my baggage came tumbling out of its suitcase, and it felt incredible. I physically felt lighter.
There are many others who have also talked about how writing about our baggage helps to lighten the load. The author of one article explained that the relief of writing it all down doesn’t come from catharsis alone. “I imagine catharsis as an evolutionary adaptation, nature’s mechanism of positive reinforcement. Catharsis feels good, so writers seek to recreate the experience, in this case by continuing to write about troubling experiences. This initial purge can lead to mulling over, which results in new ways of seeing old problems and an evolution of thought.”
Counselors have also weighed in on the topic. One decided he should take his own advice and try creative writing. He ended up sorting through the baggage that 100 hours of counseling hadn’t gotten to. Yet another article stressed that writers in particular could benefit from CNF. It states, “Authors can benefit from this because their jobs are filled with doubt and fear and imposter syndrome and all sorts of feelings that often can’t be expressed, for fear of damaging their brand, or their work or their income.”
Once I started writing about my damage, I couldn’t stop. I wrote letters that I would never send to the people who hurt me. I wrote journal entries to myself, asking my future self if we would be okay, pleading with my past self to hold on, reflecting with my present self if we were really happy. The longer I wrote and let everything spill out onto the page, words and tears alike, the more often I could say, “Yes, Jennifer, we are happy. This isn’t where I thought I’d be, and I’m scared, but I’m happy, and I think, someday, I’ll be okay.”
Creative nonfiction is in no way a substitute for professional help, and I am in no ways an expert. However, CNF helped me, and it helped me a lot. If any of this resonated with you, give it a shot. Go ahead and put your bags down for a bit.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Or if you want to see what CNF looks like on the published page, check out Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Meet the blogger:
JENNIFER FRITTON is a junior BFA student at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She’s working towards a degree in Creative Writing and is looking forward to her retirement in 70 years.
There’s a more than solid chance that you’ve heard of the names J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan. Or, if you’ve lived under a rock the past two decades, you’ve at least heard of their creations: Harry Potter and Percy Jackson respectively. Bonus if you’ve read both of their series (for Riordan this pertains specifically to his first well known series Percy Jackson and The Olympians) because if you have read them then you’ve probably noticed the three commonalities most of their characters share: straight, white, and cisgender.
The good news? Both authors seem to have realized their mistake. But how they each chose to rectify the situation matters. It’s important to for us as writers, to learn from the reconciliation–to note that the act can sometimes improve the situation, and other times make it worse.
Rowling took to twitter and post publication interviews to provide us with some insight or confirm our suspicions that, most notably Hogwarts had Jewish characters and that Dumbledore is gay. When news first broke, fans were elated that they were being represented in Rowling’s beloved universe. Mass media even cheered and retweeted when Rowling defended Dumbledore’s not-overly-present sexuality in canon because gay people “look like everyone else.”
However, as representation became more common in mass media, Rowling’s post publication edits suddenly became too little, too late. Frustrations from fans seeking representation have now only been heightened as it was recently announced that Dumbledore would not be openly gay in the new Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald movie.
Riordan, on the other hand, put his pen where his problems were, and made certain no one could claim any of his other books were lacking representation. The spin off series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians—titled The Heroes of Olympus—featured a Latino character, a Creole character, a Chinese-Canadian character, a Native American character, and had one of his most popular characters come out as gay. He would later also add a bisexual point of view character, a Muslim character, and a gender fluid character (to name but a few) to his universe.
The final character even earned Rick Riordan the Stonewall Award, an award that recognizes LGBTQ representation in literature. In his acceptance speech, Riordan acknowledged the inherent problem of giving this award to a straight, white, cis male such as himself, but used his speech as a platform to call other authors to action in addition to promising to work harder in his own writing.
Of course, there are plenty out there who would argue that Riordan isn’t doing that great, that he has jumped the shark, that his first series was the best and he’s only writing representation now for the sake of representation (not totally certain what the problem is there, but whatever). What a lot of people don’t know is that even his first story, the super straight and white one, had its roots in representation. See, Percy Jackson started as a story for his son who, like Percy himself, suffered from ADHD and dyslexia. Riordan wanted his son to know that, even with learning deficiencies, he could be a hero, too.
So writing diverse characters to show kids everywhere that they are strong and capable of doing amazing things? That’s kind of always been Riordan’s modus operandi.
This is not meant as a condemnation of Rowling. Really, Rowling probably wouldn’t have any problems if she simply admitted that her books are products of their time. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the series, was published in 1997. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, was published over ten years ago, in 2007. In terms of societal change and the rise of representation, that’s a *long* time ago. Rowling can acknowledge this and, as Riordan did, simply promise to do better and use her notoriety to encourage other authors to do so as well, because if the representation isn’t prevalent in canon, then what good is it doing?
Meet the blogger:
SKYLER KANE is a junior at Hamline University studying Creative Writing. Fully under the belief that living just one life is sad and boring, Skyler has found a home in storytelling. She spends her days collecting books, imagining that one day she might see her name on one.
Sometimes finding time to write is tough, especially if you work full-time, or go to school full-time and work a part-time job too. Finding time while doing that is hard, but imagine when you have a child. Time is nonexistent; your day is full of mommy chores and baby stuff. Sometimes writing can’t fit into your schedule, like mine––I work full-time, I’m a student full-time, and a mommy on top of those two things. Trust me, I know it’s hard squeezing in time to write. I know most people’s advice is, “Have a notebook ready or in arm’s reach when you have an idea or something you need to write down before you lose it!” But that’s not always the case. Sometimes having a notebook and pen in arm’s reach isn’t always the solution, because either you’re too busy doing mom stuff, chores around the house, or just plain busy making sure your child doesn’t get into something they shouldn’t.
Mommies, having a child doesn’t mean you no longer have the time to write like you used to have. When it comes to being by yourself and writing to your heart’s content, it means making sure your little human is taken care of and happy. I’ve learned that being with your child and noticing the smaller things can make a beautiful poem that others can enjoy with you. Here are some examples.
Watch a movie with your child and notice how they’re reacting to the movie, the music, and the characters. Do they pick up any mannerisms from the characters in the movie? If so what is it they are mimicking? Use that to make a poem that embodies that moment. Let us, the readers, live through that moment with you, let us feel what you felt when you noticed this smaller thing that most don’t.
This can be an exercise to help with a poem; it helps you notice small details like body movement, and facial expressions. This should get your creative juices running, if it doesn’t then try this exercise next.
I know all of us listen to music no matter what genre, or where it comes from. I listen to whatever music sparks my attention or gives me a feeling that I need to get down in paper. This can also be linked to the first exercise with movies, depending on the movie––many kids’ movies have fun, upbeat music for our little ones to be entertained and not be jumping around (let’s hope, but not always the case) like my daughter, Rocio, who loves Coco because of the music. If a piece of music or lyrics bring something to life inside you or bring back a memory that’s been itching to get out, use that opportunity to write it no matter how messy or sloppy it can get. It can always be cleaned up. No matter what music you use to write with, even try to write to the beat of the song if you can and make it into a spoken word piece. If you can, experiment with the music and writing you are doing while listening to the song.
I actually use music a lot to write some of my pieces, I find sanctuary when it comes to music. It gets me to a place in my head and heart that helps me write what I need to write––not what I necessarily want to write. Later on I add what I want but first I try to write what needs to be written.
Both options can also buy you some quiet time from your child to write some ideas down (if not a whole piece) because they’ll most likely be too entertained from the movie or music. I’ve been doing this with my child and it’s gotten better now that she’s older; she’s able to be entertained for much longer periods of time than when she was a year old. I hope these exercises and prompts help spark a poem or piece that you’ve been wanting to get on paper!
Meet the blogger:
BLANCA CRESPIN is a recent Hamline BFA graduate now studying in the MFA program there. Her current work centers on being a mother and issues influencing her everyday life. Blanca spends her time working at Avalon School, writing, being with her daughter, and waiting for a new adventure to begin.