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.


  1. I've never thought of Willie Wagtails in that light before. Great - much to think over. As writers we tend to be a sensitive, precious lot, don't we?

    As for the WWs, they generally wag their tails to stir up insects, which they then snap up for lunch. (They are primarily insectivorous.) So when we "wag our tails" by sending out our precious stories into a hostile world, we stir up all those annoying bugs. Just snap them up, gobble them down and twitter on happily.

  2. Hi Trevor,
    I like your insight into both willy wagtails and writers. Their tails are another great combination of beauty and utility.

  3. I love how we can draw things from nature around us. This is a great example. I will try to remember it next time I get that swirly feeling in my stomach from something someone said! Thanks. :)

  4. Love the photos and the insights its is a good lesson. I had a funny thought which would be wrong but wondered if the first willy wagtail flew to the spot where the second one was and was infact the same bird.

  5. Just downloaded Firefox to see if it will let me leave comments :)

  6. Hooray, yes! It just occurred to me that using Firefox was the only difference I had to you, Nicole. So that was it!

  7. Amanda, I agree with you about nature's lessons. And Jenny, imagine if that little sneak did have one up on me.

  8. Look at that Paula. You learned a life lesson from watching animals! :o)

    While I agree that it could be a case of you being the second--or thirty second--Willy Wagtail, I can't understand why they couldn't find a less rude way of letting you know why they were leaving. I also think they probably had a lot to learn from you, but it would have required actually listening. I've found I can glean learning from any situation, even when I have heard the same talk hundreds of times before. It sounds like they were not open to being students.

    I know this doesn't soften the pain of negative feedback--believe me, I know--but I hope you remember that the reason I return to your blog and other writings time and again is because I am humble enough to know I can always learn something new here!

    Peace and Laughter,

  9. I agree with you, Cristina. I was challenged by my pastor during a message once on this subject. He said, "If God can speak through a donkey, I'm sure He can speak through me."

  10. You have such great perspective - thank you for sharing this analogy


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