14 October 2011

THE TYRANNY OF PRAISE – WHAT DO WRITERS WANT, OR NOT, FROM EACH OTHER

It seems possible that a recently expressed honest opinion of mine may have lost me a developing friendship that I had high hopes for.

Like many of my friends, this one is a writer and a lot of our talk has been about writing, other writers, books, ideas, etc. Our talk was always straightforward, honest and filled with our opinions about the subjects at hand. I encouraged this person (who shall remain nameless and genderless) to send me some of their writing. (I offered to send some of my works in progress in return as I am always on the prowl for intelligent, honest, blunt criticism of my own work.) I got sent a short story.

While I liked the writing in general, I didn’t particularly like the story. My opinion – I know, we’ve all got them just like assholes – was that it didn’t work for a couple of big reasons (macro-level) and it had some other stuff wrong with it for more specific (micro-level) reasons. I said as much, giving the two major reasons and offering to go over the others if that was wanted.

It wasn't wanted. My friend did not take my initial criticism of the big picture problems well, not at all. To the point where I’m concerned that it may have ended our friendship.

This has made me think a lot about what us writers want from each other, or not and how to be clear about it.

All of us want praise, of course, who doesn’t? It’s encouraging, stimulating, pumps us up and pushes us forward.

But praise is easy to come by, whether it’s honest or not, whether it’s informed or ignorant. I’m very happy that I’ve got supportive family and friends. My life is better because of it. I’m certain that I have more self-confidence in everything I do in life because of it. It’s an important component in making me who I am. And because of all that it even helps make my writing better.

It’s not enough though, not nearly enough, to help make my writing as good as it can be. I need the addition of criticism for that – solid, intelligent, insightful, honest and blunt – sometimes hard to take - criticism.

Believe it or not, sometimes I write crap. (Hell, a lot of what I write is crap, at least at first.) So does every single other writer. The only difference between a good writer and a lousy writer is the ability to keep working through the crap, to recognize it for what it is and to make it better.

And that part of the process can be very painful because one of the reasons why we all keep writing is that we know in our hearts that we are good at it, that what we write is good, and that it’s worthy of being read by other people, by strangers. So when something we write is crap, or someone else thinks that it is, that punches us in the gut.

I am not saying that my opinion is the be-all and end-all when it comes to recognizing crap, or problems with a story or a manuscript or anything else. It’s just my opinion. Try and nail down the opinions of any dozen of us writers, and you’ll probably come up with several dozen different conflicting opinions.

But listening to those opinions, weeding out the ones that are due to some sort of twisted personal problems or that stem from an ill- or misinformed reading, or all too obviously have their heads up their asses, then giving consideration to the ones that are left, is the only way any writer ever gets any better.

Sadly, getting honest, well-informed, blunt, pulling no punches opinions and criticism out of someone is an extremely rare and precious commodity.

I’ve never been a member of a writers group. That is because in my experience they almost all exist as a means to provide support, encouragement, incentive and praise to their members and to do that they fail to provide the really hard to hear criticism that all writers also need.

If I ever do hook up with a writers group, it will probably need to be one in which none of the members know each other outside the room where they meet. (Or maybe we should all be masked and disguising our voices.) Where we aren’t trying to maintain or create friendships. Where the only thing we want to do in there is help to make each other’s writing better by being as shitty and unpleasant and brutally honest with each other as it takes.

One of the most important lessons of my life as a writer came when I was a new hire on a business magazine in Hong Kong. I came up with what I thought was a great idea for a story. It was a monthly magazine and I worked my ass off on that story for three weeks. I got some great interviews, I unearthed some remarkable facts that hadn’t come to light before, and then I sat down and wrote the hell out of the thing. I turned it in to the editor in the full glow of knowing that it was the best thing I’d ever written – prize-winning material.

I got it back a half hour later with a note scribbled on the first page: “This is shit. It’s not why I hired you. Rewrite.”

I wanted to walk into his office and quit. I wanted to throw things, break windows, slug somebody, anybody.

I took a walk. I had a bowl of soup noodles with fish balls into which I ladled nearly an entire jar of extra-spicy chili paste.

When I got back to the office I took several very deep breaths, picked up my article and walked into the editor’s office to ask him what was wrong with my piece.

He looked at me and said, “I don’t have time to explain. Figure it out.”

I went back to my desk, mumbled and swore and grumbled and cursed my editor and every generation of his family all the way back to the apes.

Then I got to work and I figured it out and it was a much better article for it. (But he was still an asshole and I would have appreciated some clue as to what he thought was wrong with it.)

So what is it that we writers actually do want from each other? And how do we make it clear that’s what we really want and aren’t just paying lip service to what we think we should want?

2 comments:

Cafe Noir said...

When someone reads something of mine I always tell them, I don't care if you like it or dislike it. But either way I would like to know the reasons. Even if someone likes something it does me little good just to hear general praise without hearing what works. And, in most cases, there are things that work and things that don't. So it's good to hear both sides, but again, with backup as to why. Because to just hear that they like it or don't is useless either way.

Eric said...

Agreed. A simple "liked it" or "disliked it" does me no good.