The Need to Improve

On the weekends, my intellectual father will often send an email filled with links to interesting articles he has read and music that he is currently listening to. Some of it I skim over (similar to skimming headlines in a newspaper), and sometimes I’ll find a gem and voraciously devour it and discuss the topic with him further.

This past weekend, he sent me a BBC article, Why Even The Best Feedback Can Bring Out the Worst In Us. We inherently reject criticism even if it is to our own benefits. We often automatically deflect the criticism or point out the flaws in someone else’s work in order to make ourselves feel better. By the end of the article, it suggested that we build an armor of self-esteem so that we can accept and use the criticism we face to our advantage.

This article is especially relevant for any writer or artist. The bulk of our work is receiving criticism on ‘the masterpieces’ we have produced. The successful ones instinctually know not to take the criticism personally, but use it constructively in order to hone their skills and progress in the field. The ones who do not make it (either finish a story or gain acceptance by a publisher) take the criticism personally and fall into deep despair.

In How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, he mentioned, “Many people begin their criticism with sincere praise followed by the word ‘but’ and ending with a critical statement.” For the record, I am just as guilty of this as any other reader. I have lived by the sandwich form of critiquing: mask a negative comment between two positive affirmations. Dale Carnegie countered this negative equation with, “This could be easily overcome by changing the word ‘but’ to ‘and.’ Pile on the praise and the writer will “try to live up to our expectations.” For example, a comment could be “I love the way you tried varying your sentence structure in this paragraph, and it’ll be even better when you master the rule of commas!”

When critiquing a piece of writing, I don’t know if an editor can simply not correct errors and give all praise, but Dale Carnegie makes a great point of keeping the comments more inspirational and positive so the receiver doesn’t feel weighed down by the negative commentary.

I think of critiques as valuable lessons and a way to gather more ideas for my work. The comments made on a writer’s work are purely suggestions. I think it’s important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, the writing is still yours and you can pick and choose which comments to use and which comments to trash. They are not permanent changes to your text just because it is someone else’s suggestion.

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Climbing Those Mountains

There are two basic hurdles or mountains one must climb in order to succeed with writing. One is successfully dredging the ideas from the deep abyss that is our minds and transferring them successfully to the page. Two is being able to look over those ideas that we saved and secured and polishing them until they shine.

My biggest hurdle is the first one. These ideas come and go as swiftly and gracefully as the wind. I listened to a TED talk hosted by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, (https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius)  and she addressed some of these issues. Gilbert explained:

I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia,she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first (Tedtalk.com). 

This is exactly the same battle I (and I can imagine every writer) fight(s). It doesn’t help that I have a horrible memory, and if I don’t catch the idea and expand on it then and there, it’s gone forever. At times like these, I feel as if opening a new and ominous word document on the computer is too ‘official.’ My idea is not fleshed out enough for the consistency of typed letters, and neat rows on the cleanest digital white background. If the idea that I am working with is the initial spark to the great bonfire, then it is worked on in notebooks and scrap pieces of paper (that are then shoved between other pieces of paper and sometimes lost forever anyway). To help with this, I have heard that a lot of writers keep an idea notebook or journal with the bolts of genius quickly jotted down for later retrieval. Most of them never come to fruition, but at least they’re saved for later contemplation. Also, if there is a concrete writing schedule built, then these ideas can be worked on more quickly and worked on at a faster pace because I’m not waiting for chance and luck to strike. 

The idea that I can passively sit and wait for inspiration to strike also doesn’t work for me. It is extremely rare that I am in the middle of doing something mundane, and I am then struck with the greatest story idea. I had one great “Ah Ha!” moment a few years ago, and I’m still waiting for another to strike. That was one of the best writing moments in my life. I was thinking about the fact that I have to constantly and actively think about it. 

It was one evening while I was cleaning my kitchen that the opening lines from Bemelman’s Madeline popped into my head, “There was an old house in Paris all covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”  As I was scrubbing dishes, the idea of using that premise to write about my own family and childhood suddenly popped into my head. I turned Bemelman’s lines into “In an old house in Vienna, all covered in vines, lived three little girls who thought they were lions.” I was extremely excited about this idea, and would not stop writing until the story was complete. I eventually made a little book of it and sent it to my older for her birthday. That was one of the best writing moments in my life, and it hasn’t happened before or since. Other than that precious night, I have to constantly and actively think about writing.