Don’t Be Corey Feldman
Why (and how) to seek honest criticism before you embarrass yourself
All week, I kept seeing this video on my feed. Garishly pink and black, a hooded figure dancing creepily across the screen...
Wait, this is Corey Feldman? And he made a song? Why is everybody making fun of it?
Eventually I gave in and clicked on the live performance Feldman gave with his band on the Today show (if you haven’t seen it, go watch, it’s not long).
I viewed the video with a vague sense of unease. Honestly, I was a little let down, and a little sad, and a lot uncomfortable.
It wasn’t really all that weird, not as weird as everybody seemed to be saying.
But it also wasn’t very good.
And that’s what really bothered me: the sheer mediocrity of it.
Like Corey Feldman, I was in a band, several years ago. We had a label and distribution and we went around doing shows.
But here’s the thing: we sucked.
It was that weird time in the early 2000s, when the recording industry was clearly trying to pump out as much schlock as possible. We were creating some of that schlock. It was bad music, and we didn’t perform it particularly well.
Part of me knew this, as I shimmied on stage in a tight dress. My instincts cried out: stop, you’re embarrassing yourself.
But whatever my instincts told me, nobody else seemed to agree. People said we were good. The producer, the label, even the audience (which was mostly our moms and some drunk people who wandered near whatever stage we were on). Everybody seemed happy enough with our performance. Was I judging too harshly? How could I be so sure this was bad, if everyone around me said it was good?
And now I look back at it, and I really do wonder. What the hell happened? Why didn’t anybody tell us what we were doing wrong, so we could do better?
Watching Corey Feldman’s performance, I really only had one thought: this just isn’t good enough for the stage he’s on. It wasn’t the worst performance, but it wasn’t the best. Clearly, he was given this opportunity because of who he is, not because of his current work.
If he wasn’t already famous, he wouldn’t be allowed to perform this.
So, wouldn’t it have been nice of somebody to tell him that, before he got up there and performed it?
This is the fear that keeps us up at night. The fear that stops careers, that cuts ambition off at the knees.
The fear of public humiliation, of the type we see happening to other people constantly. It’s very, very real.
It happened to me. That band I was in. We were about as good as Corey Feldman’s, and finally we got some honest reviews, and I was so mortified I quit performing for the next decade.
I was right. We weren’t good. Why didn’t anybody say something?
These days, I work a lot as an editor. So obviously I see a lot of unfinished work. But I also see a lot of work that is so rough, so raw, that it can’t even be edited yet. I see so many good concepts, first drafts that have tons of promise—but their authors have no idea how amateurish their work is.
Just a few minutes ago, I saw an author begging for a literary agent to represent his books; clicked through to his Amazon page; and saw that he’d published three books with ugly covers and weird titles, and no reviews. Totally unread, and from what I saw at first glance, probably unreadable. (Note to self-published Amazon authors: in your author bio, try to avoid using emoticons, and spare us the discussion of which of your own books is your “favorite” and why.)
But although this level of amateurism is widespread, I don’t think it’s the artists and authors of the world who are to blame. I don’t think there’s any “blame” to be assigned. Rather, I think we need to learn how to seek honest criticism. For some reason, this is the step we skip—and we pay the price for the oversight.
You can picture how someone like Corey Feldman, who is probably surrounded by various types of sycophants and paid friends, could have trouble getting any feedback other than “amazing bro.”
But I, a totally non-famous person, made the same mistake. I never really asked anybody whether they liked my band. Probably because I suspected they wouldn’t have liked it, and wouldn’t tell the truth about it.
This is why you don’t ask your mom for her opinion about your work. Or your sister, or your roommate, or your coworkers.
You’ve got to get it in front of strangers.
Because the whole point is to get it in front of strangers.
And because strangers will be honest with you.
Back to that fear of criticism, fear of failure I mentioned earlier. The very real, very present fear that somebody is going to see your work and hate it.
(Or, to be more accurate, that lots of people will see it and hate it)
I’m not saying you should seek out the critics, the people who take some perverse joy in breaking you down. The Internet is full of those, and you should ignore them. They will tell you six ways to Sunday how you could do better, how you’re inconsistent and unreliable and shouldn’t be calling yourself a professional.
All those people, right now, are focusing their petty energies on Corey Feldman and his mediocre performance. They’re calling it “bizarre,” saying he’s crazy. The poor dude is bearing the brunt of all that criticism, and here’s the worst part: it’s probably the first time anybody has criticized his work.
With all that in mind, I want to offer you my guide to getting real, honest feedback. Do this, and your work will be stronger—and more importantly, so will you.
1. Don’t share your works-in-progress with people you know or like.
Am I blowing your mind yet? But really, this is the most crucial step. Your friends and loved ones are not your peers and cohorts. Don’t show them anything until it’s finished. They mostly won’t know how to react; nine times out of ten, their feedback will do more harm than good.
2. Make alliances with fellow artists.
The people who are going to give you the best feedback are the ones who understand where you’re coming from, what you’re working to overcome, and what you can accomplish with the right information. Seek out the people who will support and share your evolution. Also find a few people who are just slightly more successful than you; they’re amazing sources of inspiration/aspiration, especially when they take the time to give you real feedback.
3. Take a damn class.
I’m pretty tired of the old “self-taught” trope. You know what successful “self-taught” creatives do? They read books. They take courses. They join creative circles. They do not just have an idea, and toss off a draft, and think it’s a stroke of genius. If you want to do creative work, study the craft. There’s really no excuse not to.
4. Listen to your inner critic, then share your work anyway.
Real talk: back when I quit that band, it was because my own self-consciousness and self-criticism got the best of me. It sure would’ve been helpful if I’d gone and talked to another musician about what was going on, and gotten some advice. But I just shut it all down, decided I sucked, and walked away from a potential career (and into a long period of creative turmoil).
This happens with some of my clients: they write and rewrite and never, ever publish their work. Their inner critic won’t let them. They are completely at its mercy, and it sabotages their progress.
You have to make that inner voice shut up—or rather, push past it even while it yells at you. Push through the pain and fear, and share your work with a peer. Hey that rhymes.
5. Learn to take a critique.
This isn’t something you’re born with; you really do have to learn how to process criticism. And it’s different for everyone. We’ve all heard the stories of writers who pin their rejection letters to the walls. Criticism doesn’t mean you suck. It doesn’t mean your work sucks. And it isn’t always right, or even fair. But when it is honest, it’s valuable. Learn how to deal with that, however you need to.
6. Learn to re-work.
The big one, for me: things need a lot more fine-tuning than most of us expect. You might have to completely re-do something from scratch, but more often you’re going to tweak the details, over and over, until it’s unrecognizable. There is no such thing as doing it right the first time. Creative work happens not in the flash of inspiration, but in the process of refining. Learn to love that process.
7. Publish when it’s ready.
Wait until somebody you trust tells you that it’s ready. Or wait until your instinct tells you—it’s not usually wrong about this.
But when you get the message that your work is ready, don’t delay. Pull the trigger. Send it out.
Imagine if Corey Feldman had followed these steps.
His song isn’t that terrible, it just needs more work.
His concept isn’t the worst, it just needs fine tuning.
He could have done something groundbreaking, or at least pretty cool, if he’d gone through the process like the professionals do.
So don’t be like Corey, and don’t be like most creative amateurs.
Don’t surround yourself with people who can’t be honest about your work.
Don’t put things out that aren’t finished.
And don’t beat yourself up because you’re only listening to your inner critic.
Get out there and figure out how to make it stronger. You do have it in you. You can do the work. And, with the right critiques, you can create masterpieces.