By Jennie Jarvis
Do you remember The NeverEnding Story? While being chased by bullies, young Bastian (Barrett Oliver) hides in a small bookshop where he discovers a book unlike any of the “safe” ones that he has read before. When the bookshop owner isn’t looking, Bastian steals the book and sneaks into the attic of his school to spend his day enjoying the book. As he reads the story of the fantastical yet decaying world of Atreyu, Falcor and the Childlike Empress, he becomes so immersed in the world that the lines between reality and fantasy dissolve until they no longer exist. Being a book lover and a dreamer, this film was wish fulfillment heaven! It had everything that a young nerd like myself could want: action, academia, a hero’s journey and a really cute hero on a horse!
As I grew older, this film retained a place in my heart like it has with many others, but what surprises the most is that this film taught me one of the most valuable lessons that I have ever learned: “It has to hurt if it’s to heal.”
It’s a simple line in the movie, spoken by Urgl, a healer living just outside the South Oracle with her scientist husband. Atreyu has barely escaped the Swamps of Sadness and was brought to her care by the lucky dragon, Falcor. When she asks him how he feels, Urgl is a bit dismayed to learn that Atreyu’s wounds aren’t causing any pain because she believes the only way for them to really heal properly is for them to hurt.
Over the years, this line has stayed with me and has reminded me that, regardless of what I am pursuing, the only way for me to get better is to feel the pain of growth and improvement.
When I first starting writing, I was anxious to get really thorough and honest feedback so that I could make them better. I was so proud of the work that I had done, and I knew, in my heart, that I had a good story, but I also knew that I needed to send it out to other people if I ever wanted anything to happen with that tale. And when those first words of feedback came in… I’m not going to lie. I held a good face for as long as I could, and then I snuck into a corner and cried. I was heartbroken! Why didn’t the person reading my story point out all the awesome things that I had thought of? Why didn’t she tell me how great this one cool action was or how great this one character’s dialogue was? Why doesn’t she like me? Screw her! I’m not her friend anymore! (*licks wounds) I knew in my head that constructive feedback could only make me better. I knew that I wasn’t a professional yet, and I needed the guidance to improve my writing skills. But despite all this stuff that I knew, it didn’t change the fact that those words hurt.
As I continued to receive more and more professional feedback, I came to realize that there is a big difference to how I react to feedback emotionally versus how I react to it mentally. Even to this day, I can get some great feedback that I rationally recognize can really help my work grow, but I still might feel disappointment as well. Most of the articles that I read online talk about developing a “thick skin” so that I can take the harsh and honest (sometimes “brutal”) feedback that can come from agents, producers, editors and other professionals. I knew that the articles were right, and I kept trying to make myself impervious to the feedback that I received. But somehow, I’ve never completed mastered that task. Even though I would value the feedback that I got, I still didn’t like healing that something was “wrong” with my story. And for a long time, I thought that this meant that I wasn’t a true “professional” writer.
But then I remembered the wise words of Urgl – “It has to hurt if it’s to heal” – and I realized that it’s okay if I feel sadness or disappointment or some kind of other negative feeling in response to a critique of my work. The only way to get better is to feel those feelings and then work through them so that I can address the notes in a clear and rational way. I need to mourn the loss before I cut the characters that aren’t working. It’s okay for me to cry as I delete my favorite scene. I can feel frustrated when I’m told, after seven drafts, that the rules of my world still aren’t clear.
The important thing is to accept that both the pain and the growth are needed in order to be a professional writer.
So, the next time that you receive feedback that makes you feel a little less than smiley, remember the wise words of Urgl. If it doesn’t hurt, it won’t heal. Now lick your wounds, and get rewriting!