Surviving the Suck of Feedback

Feedback sucks.

Yeah, it’s great and all. It helps you refine and improve your work.

But it’s also kind of a nightmare. Everyone has opinions. Sometimes they’re contradictory. Sometimes they don’t make sense. Sometimes they make you wanna quit writing and become an accountant.

Feedback can be a storm of noise and ideas that seriously knocks your confidence or derails your work.

Spending a lot of time in a rehearsal room, working on my plays, taught me a lot about processing feedback. It’s something you have to learn as a playwright, otherwise you’ll find yourself crying in the green room halfway through rehearsal.

Here are three survival tips for holding the feedback monster at bay:

1. Remember that no feedback is objective. No one critiques in a vacuum. People bring their experience and their taste to the table when they’re giving you feedback. Learn to hear those things in their feedback. Are they trying to make your story sound like the stuff they write? Are they trying to make it sound more like the stuff they like? Are they trying to show off? Are they sucking up? Weigh that subjectiveness against the advice.

2. Pay attention to what makes you feel something. I always pay close attention to the feedback that makes me feel something. Stuff that makes me angry. Stuff that makes me feel seen. Stuff that makes me feel vulnerable. If I respond emotionally to a piece of feedback — even a negative emotion — there’s got to be something there I need to hear and process. The stuff that doesn’t move you… discard it.

3. Process feedback with you at the center. I always ask myself, “Does this feedback help me accomplish what I want to do with this story?” Because in the end, that’s what matters. Trying to craft a story or a play that satisfies everyone else’s ideas is bullshit. It will ruin your work. Center yourself. Center what you want to do with your work. The feedback that helps you do that better or more clearly is the feedback you keep. Everything else goes away.

Respecting Creative Labor

A few weeks ago, I was presenting some programming ideas in a meeting, and I was sharing an idea that a colleague came up with.

“And for this part of the day – and this idea wasn’t mine. It was P.’s idea. And it’s really good — we’ll…”

Simple, right?

After that meeting, P. pulled me aside.

“Hey. Thank you for crediting me with that idea in the group. That doesn’t happen often. I really appreciated that.”

It should happen often. It should happen all the time.

Other people’s ideas are their creative labor. And if you’re going to be a good collaborator — if you’re going to be a good leader — you have to respect the creative labor of other people.

What does that look like? Crediting people with their ideas in group settings. Including them in the execution of their ideas during implementation. Thanking them after an idea’s successful. Including them in the post-mortem about the idea for development.

This doesn’t cost you anything. But it forges deep and trusting collaborative relationships.

Demonstrating that you are mindful about who’s doing generative work — even if they’re not the ones executing those ideas — demonstrates that you respect the people you work with, that you respect the risk and effort of collaboration.

Fiction: Whiteout

This weekend, I attended the Borderlands Press Horror Writers Boot Camp. It was a hell of a weekend, and it really kicked my ass. I loved it. Our final assignment was to complete a short piece of fiction overnight, proving we learned something. Here’s what I wrote. Thought it would be fun to share. 

It was the day the snow came. They were running out of time.

Rachel grabbed the last bag from the trunk and checked the sky. Still clear. Their motel room was small, but it would do. On her own, she could lift the mattresses to block the window, but Andy would have to help her move the dresser against the door. She hoped the motel didn’t go cheap on furniture. It needed to be sturdy. It needed to hold the night.

“Mom, let me check the car again.”

Andy stood in the doorway of their room, holding Peter.

“I told you to stay inside. Take care of your baby brother.”

“Let me check the car again. Please. We’re not even halfway to Grandma’s. Let me help.”

Inside. You’ve helped enough. Forget the car. This is where we’re gonna ride it out this year.”

Rachel hated how sharp she’d become with Andy. She wanted Michael. He knew how to handle these days. He stayed calm, confident. He took care of them. Even when no one understood what had gone wrong with the snow, Michael kept them safe.

Only one year without him, and she’d messed up everything. He wouldn’t have been dumb and tried driving south. Now the car was shot. They were in the middle of nowhere. Their motel room had a big fucking window and —

Mom.”

Andy looked up at the sky. In his arms, Peter grabbed at the air, laughing.

Snowflakes.

Rachel urged the boys inside and shut the door.  

“Andy, put everything we need in the bathroom, okay? If things get bad  –”

“You think things are gonna get bad? How bad?”

“I don’t know, Andy. But if they do…”

How bad?”

She couldn’t answer. The snow brought what it wanted. Each year, it got worse.

“Put Peter in his carseat. Get him in the bathroom. I’ll need your help moving the dresser.”

They worked in silence to ready the room. She knew she should say something about Michael, about last year’s snow. But she’d end up crying, lashing out, and she’d upset Andy more. Just make the room look safe. Just make it feel safe.

“I don’t like the way the wind sounds, Mom.”

“It sounds like that every year, Andy.”

“No. It sounds different. Sounds worse.

Rachel thought so, too. Louder. Powerful. The snow never moved this fast.

“This is not last year, Andy.”

“I know. Dad’s not here.”

“And who’s fault is that?”

Rachel regretted this as soon as she said it.

Last year was an accident. She reminded herself every day. The snow fell early, and Andy’s bike couldn’t handle the roads. They wouldn’t leave him out there, in the snow, with what it brought. Michael said it was just a few blocks. He promised they’d be safe.

Only Andy made it out of the snow.

Outside, something hit the ground so hard, they could feel it. They’ve never sounded that big before.

“We’re okay, Andy. As long as we’re inside. You know how this goes. If we’re inside, we’re safe.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Honey. Look at me. It’s not your fault, either.”

The noises outside grew. Rachel pulled Andy into the bathroom. Whatever hit the ground hit it again and again. They felt each hit. The rhythm of footsteps.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

Andy pulled his knees up, making himself as small as possible.

In the snow, the footsteps multiplied and echoed all around them. It sounded like hundreds. A herd. A stampede.  

“We just have to get to tomorrow, Andy.”

Rachel prepared a bottle for Peter to quiet his crying.  

Outside, whatever the snow brought wailed and hollered.

Why “Bandersnatch” Works

* Spoilers below, if you haven’t watched it yet.

After playing through all of the various endings of “Bandersnatch,” some thoughts about why this interactive film works:

1. Choice is what the whole story’s about. Yes, it’s about video games in the 80s. Yes, it’s about a broken family dynamic. Yes, it’s maybe about the whole world being an exercise in mind control (if you went down that path).

But down at the core, this story is about choice and how choice shapes us. It’s about the deep ramifications of single moments. It’s about what happens to us when we choose incorrectly. It’s about what happens to us when we have no choice (the film’s brilliant moment of only offering us “NO” when Mum is asking us to come with).

A film about choices makes perfect sense for a film in which you can make choices. Content dictates form. And allowing us as viewers to do and not just watch makes this work like gangbusters.

2. Breaking the fourth wall. The most entertaining track to follow here is the Netflix story track, which fully implicates is as actors in the narrative and leads us to the perfectly hilarious battle in the psychiatrist’s office or the perfectly creepy ending that pulls back on the production of “Bandersnatch.”

“Bandersnatch” is also a film about hidden structures, and this fourth wall-busting side quest brings that to the forefront. Well-told stories feel organic, but there’s really deliberate structure and craft underneath. The same is true for life: we think we are running the show, but there are cultural and political structures shaping our experiences all the time.

Pulling back the curtain on the structures behind “Bandersnatch” is a mirror for that, and a successful one.

3. The true ending says “fuck it” to everything. While the creators don’t make it explicit what the “true” ending is, the train ending feels the most complete and emotionally satisfying. It circles back to every part of the story and really gives you a gut punch of an ending.

What’s fun here is how it basically disregards what it’s been trying to say — sometimes you can’t undo choices, you’re not in control — for an “Imma do what I want” ending that feels the best.

It’s my favorite move in the narrative. It understands that Story trumps cleverness, Story trumps ideas. Let the characters walk through time-traveling mirrors to rewrite the past, not because that makes sense (it really doesn’t), but because it feels right.

I love that, in the end, “Bandersnatch” honors the part of us that wants a story to feel complete, a story that feels resolved. In real life, there’d be no happy ending.

But in a story, you can do whatever the fuck you want.

Looking forward to Season Five this year.

“In the Bones” in the UK

After a very successful run of 18 Victoria last year, Root and Branch Productions has decided to give another of my plays the UK treatment.

The company will be producing In the Bones this summer.

I’m really happy to be working with them again, and looking forward to a very fruitful collaboration.

“Burnt Offerings”

900 bucks to rent a giant sprawling estate for the whole summer.

It’s too good to be true, of course. It’s a horror movie, after all. And the house in BURNT OFFERINGS puts its summer inhabitants through hell.

A family, led by Karen Black and Oliver Reed, rent a decaying mansion for the summer. They plan to bring along his old aunt (a delicious Bette Davis) and their young son Davy.

The house’s owners, the Allardyces, are a weirdo brother and sister pair (Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith chewing the scenery), and their offer is real… as long the family agrees to take care of this elderly mother (an agorophobe who hides away in her room and takes a tray three times a day). They agree, and the summer begins.

Weird dreams plague the father and odd things begin to happen. The house is having an effect on them all, and as their family bonds deteriorate, the house begins to change, getting fresher, appearing younger.

The pace is a little slow, and the film can get a little ponderous. But the story is solid.

This one’s a real gem. Some terrific performances sit at its center, and the ending is an effectively creepy conclusion. It’s got style. And it’s worth a watch.

“TerrorVision”

A movie that really leans into the horror-comedy hybrid, TERRORVISION is a campy monster romp with a killer opening theme song.

A suburban family who’s a wild collection of extreme 80s spoof stereotypes gets a satellite dish. While the thing’s getting installed, a weird electrical bolt from outer space hits the dish and infects the family’s TV with something alien.

A space alien monster with a goofy grin and google eyes is trapped in their TV sets, and it’s got a hankering to kill. The monster dispatches some folks in some gruesome ways and is about to dispatch a trio of kids when the movie takes a wild turn.

Mistaking one of the teens for his monster caretaker on his home planet, the monster warms to the kids. They teach him to watch TV, and the movie veers into a twisted E.T. spoof.

We eventually get back to horror-comedy, and an alien cleaner and a TV horror host come through to try and save the day.

TERRORVISION tries to do a lot. It’s got some commentary on technology and our obsession with TV. It drops some mid-80s pop culture references. It even pokes fun at swingers. And it tries to make some knowing meta-points about monster movies themselves. But thankfully for us, it doesn’t try very hard. It’s mostly interested in delivering some goofy fun. And it succeeds in that from the very beginning.

“mon mon mon MONSTERS”

A quartet of maladjusted and sociopathic high school assholes frame a fellow student with stealing class dues. Their teacher assigns community service for the framed student… and makes the asshole quartet join him. Their assignment: assist elderly folks who are living in a strange underground apartment complex that’s pretty much absolute squalor.

But the elderly don’t live here alone. Two sister monsters — a weird hybrid of vampire, zombie, and cannibal — live here as well, feasting on the elderly and sleeping in cardboard boxes in an abandoned elevator shaft.

While the students are attempting to steal a safe from one of the elderly tenants, they stumble upon the two monsters, scaring one off and chasing another into the street to be hit by a car. This monster becomes a prisoner of the students, and that imprisonment becomes the center of the film.

The framed student struggles with the moral rightness of what they’re doing. And the escaped monster moves through grief in a search for her captured sister (a narrative thread that precipitates one of the film’s best sequences, on a city bus). As her grief-fueled rampage roars through the city, the framed student tries to help the captured monster.

When things come to a head, the framed student has to decide which of the monsters he wants to align with, and what kind of justice will be served in the end.

What mon mon mon MONSTERS does so beautifully is subvert all of our expectations about monster movies. In this world, the monsters are are our sympathetic focus, and the students are the agents of the film’s real violence, cruelty, and horror. It’s a unique morality tale wrapped up in monster tropes, and it’s highly engaging and unusually smart.

The film makes us question what makes a monster. Are the monsters in our world the vampires and zombies? Or are the monsters the humans that make compromised moral choices? Our female monsters kill — and in spectacularly gory fashion — but they also exhibit kindness (one offering a heart to the other to eat) and depths of sadness. And our students are capable of theft, torture and a gory murder of their own.

Their menace and maliciousness provides more horror than our vampire zombies. And that subversion of the genre is what makes the film so interesting. When all the film’s monsters crash together in the last stretch, easy moral answers evaporate, and and the film embraces human (and monster) ambiguity in all its messy glory. And the film’s final scene is a gut punch, beautifully distilling everything that came before in one perfect image.

The answers aren’t easy here. But neither are living and dying.

“The Suckling”

THE SUCKLING is bonkers.

Playing like a horror film made on the fly by a few amateur pro-life filmmakers, this movie is one of the weirdest flicks I’ve seen in a while. It’s an anti-abortion missive wrapped up in a monster movie/exploitation film hybrid.

A teenage couple get pregnant, and they decide to get rid of the baby. They head to this dilapidated house that’s the neighborhood brothel. Abortions come cheap (and wholly unsanitary) here, and when the deed is done, the fetus is flushed down the toilet and ends up in the sewer.

Luckily, the fetus falls into some toxic waste and is transformed into a monster hell-bent on revenge. The monster fetus encases the brothel in a giant placenta (including its parents, who have been resting inside), and begins to murder the brothel staff and customers one by one.

This is a low-budget enterprise (you can tell the placenta is just painted rope), but its weirdness makes up for it. The performances are atrocious and deliciously amateur. The script is a jumble. There’s a monster fetus running around. And it tries so hard to be scary that it practically has an aneurysm from the effort. This movie is a hoot, from top to bottom.

And the film ends on such an unexpected “oh no they’re not really going to go there” note, that even if you hate it, it’s worth sticking through it.