disclaimer: I differentiate between writing and storytelling, but for this post I’m pretty much referring to them as the same thing.
I recently talked to a friend about creating her own blog. She’s a fellow writer and storyteller, and we spent some time discussing the benefits of a blog. (Check her out at http://vindicatorartists.wordpress.com!) She’s working on some really interesting things, and I hope she shares some of that on her blog. When we talk, I think a lot about how our friends (writers and non-writers) react to us. In my opinion, there are really only two ways the people in our lives respond when we talk to them about our writing efforts. They either encourage us or discourage us. There are a lot of variations on those two, but it comes down to positive and negative reinforcement. I’m not going to talk about discouragement. It’s fairly obvious, and I really have very little to add to it.
So. Encouragement. It sounds great, right? It usually is. Friends urge us to keep on keepin’ on. We can do it. Don’t give up. And various offerings of how rejection/failure/adversity helps build character. I’m not suggesting these things are false or pointless. They’re extremely valuable truths. I get frustrated a lot during the writing process. Writer’s block, plot holes, continuity issues, flat characterization. Lack of time/inspiration/energy. It (almost) always lifts my spirits when I’m reminded there are people behind me, rooting me on.
But there’s a dark side to encouragement. There’s the empty kind, or as I think of it–enabling. It’s when the words of support begin to reflect something that isn’t really true. (Yes, I’m sure many of you may say that truth is relative.) We’ve all experienced this, especially in grade school. Everything we did was “great” and “wonderful,” even when it was utter crap. Because at that time in our lives, we needed the positive reinforcement. But some people never left that phase of encouragement. Bad writers (and yes, there are bad writers out there) are told they’re good writers. Why? Because someone believes they need to be pushed along, even if they have zero talent. I most recently encountered this in a writer’s group I attended a couple years ago. There were a few good writers, a few mediocre ones, and a few undeniably “not so good” ones. But the feedback was all the same. This is great! Really well written. I can’t wait to read more. I wondered if I’d read what they had. Yes, writing is a subjective experience, but there are standards! You can like a really bad piece of writing, just like you can enjoy a really terrible movie (Batman Forever, Oblivion, every post-2000 Michael Bay flick.) It’s perfectly okay to enjoy bad writing. The problem is in saying it was great storytelling just because you liked it. That’s a cardinal sin, especially when you’re doing to a friend. I can understand why someone would say it, but be honest.
I’m… terrible at this. I have done this in the past, but 99% of the time I at least lied in an honest way. (I believed it was good writing–at the time.) Okay, well, that’s forgivable. But there’s the 1% when I knew it was terrible, and I said it was good, anyway. Bad me. But I have trouble, real trouble, saying that someone’s writing is bad. Not because I don’t believe it, but because I’m too afraid of the backlash of being too honest. You want my opinion? Then you should be prepared for it. But people usually aren’t. They get angry, defensive, aggressive. All of a sudden it’s my fault that I don’t like it. Well, no, that’s not why it’s bad, I explain. I’ve disliked really good writing (Chinatown, The Empire Strikes Back–though I eventually came around to that, The Dark Knight Rises), so my feelings on a piece have little to do with my opinion on the quality of it. I’m just too much of a turkey to tell you the truth. And that’s when encouragement turns bad.
Why am I mentioning all this? I guess because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the kind of feedback I give. On anything, really, not just writing. Am I being honest? Am I being positive or negative? Do I even care? I tend to take things very personally. I listen intently to feedback, even if it doesn’t seem like I do, even if I decide not to use it. I listen, and I react to it. I’ve taken a lot of discouragement over the years from family and friends. Writing isn’t a real career to them–despite the fact that they enjoy TV and movies. I should do something more practical, something serious. I should get real. I can’t do it. Whatever. Fortunately, I’ve never been told I’m a bad writer, and for a while I took it at face value. Then I began to wonder if people were doing to me what I’d done to them. Were people just stroking my ego? Was I actually a talentless hack? It’s a judgment call, I know, but I still wanted to know if people thought that. It took a long time to come to the conclusion that people were being honest with me about that. Now I’ve been told that some of my stories aren’t good. Hell, I went through that all the time in film school, when my professors would rip my scripts up. But even then, they encouraged me and spoke positively of my writing.
I don’t want to make you question. And I’m really sorry if I’ve done that. I guess I wanted to encourage you to be honest. You can say if something is bad. You can say it’s terrible. Just–don’t leave it at that. Think about why something wasn’t good before saying it wasn’t good. Think about whether it really didn’t work or if you just didn’t like it.
Trust me, we’ll appreciate the difference.