Monday, June 6, 2011
that I might have been the 2nd willy wagtail
I live in a place with lots of beautiful walks and trails. I was having a walk around the block last week, enjoying the final touches of autumn, and stopped to admire the antics of a spry willy wagtail. He was eating miniscule seeds from the path and every so often, he'd stop to wave his tail feathers. The cheerfulness of these birds impresses me. If I had a tail as long as my body and probably even heavier, I imagine I'd find it a drag and complain about the weight of it. But willy wagtails are masters of the 'If you've got it, flaunt it' principle.
I stood watching him for a long time, but then had to move on home to get the day's work started and see what the kids were up to. Further along the path was another willy wagtail doing the exact same thing as the first. I said, 'OK, you're pretty cute, but I can't stop.'
Only later did a funny thought occur to me. I know it's too ridiculous to be true, but what if preening for passers-by gives willy wagtails their value? Then, the first willy wagtail might have felt flattered by the length of time I stood there for. He might have allowed himself an extra worm and thought, I'm quite the man. I know how to attract an audience. But the second willy wagtail might have wallowed in a flat and let-down mood with a sense of, I didn't perform well enough. No matter how hard I try, I always fall short. Yet both birds were doing exactly the same thing!
Human beings have been endowed with greater capacity, nobler brains and spirits than the animal and bird kingdoms but it comes with a down-side. We let ourselves become hung-up with the implications we read into things.
Last February, I ran a workshop about the craft of fiction writing at the SA Writer's Centre in Adelaide. During the morning tea break, two ladies came and told me, 'We just want to let you know that we're going home because this is beneath us.' Instantly, my stomach started spinning with a horrible swoopy, sick feeling that didn't stop during all of Part Two. I kept looking at the faces surrounding me, feeling certain that were probably bored but decided to grit their teeth and stick it out.
After the session, some of the others congratulated me on a really interesting presentation. That only helped ease the stomach swirling slightly. They might have just been polite. Later, the staff at the Writer's Centre reported that the written feedback on the forms was overwhelmingly positive. I was relieved that nobody had written mean comments.
After last week's walk, it occurred to me that the action of the two women was probably nothing to do with me at all. From something they'd mentioned, I suspected that they'd spent months attending many similar workshops, each time hoping the presenter would stun them with something really different. I was just the second willy wagtail (or in their case, maybe even the fiftieth or hundredth).
My willy wagtail theory explains a lot. It's possibly the reason why you may find it so hard to get positive feedback from other people in your line of work, and why University professors like to give harsh grades. It may be why food and movie critics tend to write reviews at odds with each other. Think what a difference it may make if your offering happens to fall at the end of the line. For some reviewers and critics, you might have been new and fresh while others have seen it before. The point I'm trying to make here is how sad and shortsighted it is to judge yourself harshly on the basis of feedback you receive from others, whose attitudes and history are a complete mystery to you.
You are welcome to borrow my willy wagtail principle if you like, whenever you have to deal with less than flattering feedback.
"I was probably just the second willy wagtail," is a perspective that makes you feel refreshingly better.