The Dangers of Praise

PraiseI recently joined a new writing group, The Village Writers. I attend their critique group for novelists when soccer games, Cub Scout meetings and the like permit. It’s a wonderful group with an excellent method. Instead of reading work aloud and getting casual comments, we have a rotation that calls for two writers to be critiqued at each meeting. The writers on the hot seat distribute selections in advance, so the rest of the group can read and thoughtfully review them. At the meeting, critiques are presented in both written and oral form. What’s more, the members of the group are all fine writers and capable reviewers.

Since I think so highly of this group, you can imagine how pleased I was when my first submission was met with a great deal of praise. There were suggestions for improvement, of course, which I took to heart, and corrections for things like French words whose spellings I butchered, but overall, the word on my selection was “terrific!” I was mightily encouraged.

While the feeling of encouragement remains with me, I discovered a dark side to all this good news. (I can just hear my beloved wife saying “you would!”)

The very next writing session after that positive critique I found myself tightening up at the keyboard. I was thinking about all the swell things my colleagues had said and I wanted to hear more, so I started to write what I thought they might like, not purely what I liked. Fortunately, I realized pretty quickly what I was doing and cut it out.

Then there was the danger of Big-Head disease (BHD). Of course they were praising my stuff! I was brilliant, wasn’t I? I was going to finish this novel, get an agent in a week, get a six-figure publishing deal in two weeks and quit my day job in three weeks. So, long, critique group! Have some free tickets to my workshop. Clearly there were two aspects of BHD. One, I became distracted with dreams of future glory that took my mind off writing for its own sake. Second, I started to imagine I was more talented than the very people who were lifting me up and helping me do my best work. Shame on me for both.

I also found myself minimizing the things that needed fixing. There was one issue the vast majority of reviewers agreed on, which was that I needed to clarify what the game of Dungeons and Dragons is all about for people unfamiliar with it. It’s a big problem in the opening scenes and if I’m not feeling the urgency of it, I’m going to forget about it. If I want to produce something worth reading, I can’t afford that.

The lesson then, friends and neighbors, is to keep the good, encouraging feeling praise brings you; it can help sustain you through leaner times. As for the corrupting influences of praise, keep a weather eye out for them, and if they come calling, kick them out the door.

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Wrong Reasons for Writing

BukowskiA few posts ago I shared my thoughts on reasons to keep writing. On the flip side, there are several motivations for writing that just don’t hold water. They might keep you going for a while, but in the end they’ll spring a leak and go dead flat.

Proving Worthiness. I will here admit that as a young man I felt inferior to most other people and wanted to prove that I was worthy to walk the earth. When I found I had some talent as a writer (a debatable proposition, I’ll grant you), I adopted that as one means by which I might climb the mountain of human acceptability. It failed miserably because when my writing failed, as it did at one point, so did I. Eventually, I made (or was granted) the fortunate discovery that as a child of God or, to say it another way, an integral part of interdependent being, I was worthy just as I was. Some years after letting that discovery take root and bear fruit, I am writing just what I want to and not worried about proving a thing (at least I can say this of my better self). Don’t look to writing or any other talent or achievement to fill the void of an inferiority complex. Only love and wisdom can do that, so make those your first priorities.

You Should. Some people are good at writing, which is great. What’s not so great is that sometimes people who are good at something feel obligated to do it, even if they don’t like it that much. That’s a trap and a ticket to misery. You’re a lot more than your talents. Your being is comprised of preferences, personality quirks, learnings and a thousand other things in addition to your talents. Your obligation is to do your best, do good and do no harm. That’s it. I have a wonderful and wise young nephew who scored higher on the “verbal” portion of his college entrance exams than on the “math” portion (although his scores on both were high). When an elder suggested he look into some kind of writing profession, he replied that, while he was proficient at it, he just didn’t like writing that much. He studied Management Information Systems instead and is very happy. Take that writing “should,” and all your other “shoulds,” for that matter, and throw them on the ash heap of unhappy notions. Then do what you like.

Fame. If you’re writing because you want to be famous, you’re taking a real long shot. To be famous, you’d have to make outrageous sales, and that’s hard to do, to say the least. And even if you do move the units, there are plenty of writers out there with big sales that still don’t get recognized at the gym or put on the cover of tabloids. Who needs fame, anyway? Do you really want stalkers? Paparazzi? Increased risk of IRS audits? And say you do get famous, then what do you do? Having achieved that goal you’ll be left with just your writing, and if that’s not enough, your career is done and along with it your fame.

Money. I like money just as much as the next person, but writing for the gain of it is a killer. I tried to do it once, a few years ago. I looked at what seemed to be selling best, read some of it, read some instructive tomes and then tried to write something easily salable. The result was wooden writing and an unhappy writer. Ultimately, I stopped writing fiction altogether. Writing for money cramps your creativity and it might not work anyway.

Specialness. This is a little like fame but at a more personal level. You’re writing to be cool, so you can say at cocktail parties “I’m a writer,” or so you can look down just a little from your elevated position as Observer of the Human Condition. Sooner or later you’re going to realize that many people are better writers and observers than you, and not only that, but nobody but your mother perhaps one or two other people thinks you’re so special, even if you do write. Then you’ll be stuck in the muck with the rest of us ordinary humans.

Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

The Writer’s Disadvantage

Native American StorytellerI have been a writer of one stripe or another for a long time, but I’ve been a performer for even longer. I became a theater kid when I was 10 and didn’t let up until I was out of college. Not long after college, I was the lead singer in a little soft-rock band in Memphis. That didn’t last long, but it was great fun. I got involved in working my way out of poverty after that and so didn’t perform for a long time, until I was comfortably ensconced in the cubical of a technical writer. It was then I discovered oral storytelling, a craft that allows for loose story composition and offers a lovely lack of long rehearsals. I’m still doing that when I have the chance.

The thing all these performing activities have in common is that they put you right in front of your audience. This gives you some great advantages when you’re trying to entertain people.

For one thing, you get instant feedback. If people laugh, or gasp, or lean forward, or even stop talking for a couple of minutes to listen or watch, you know you’re on the right track. If you’re in the groove, there’s a weird ethereal connection between you and the audience. You can feel each other.

For another thing, you have many tools of communication at your disposal. You have body movement, facial expression, tone and volume of voice and personal appearance to name just a few off the top of my head. You might have music, too.

When we create fiction, the goal is to get the same audience reactions the performer does—laughter, tears, attention, dollars in the tip jar (sales, that is). Alas for us, we have precious little to work with—just words on a page. I am conscious of this, at some level, whenever I write to entertain and I am forever astounded at the facility with which some practitioners to weave a spellbinding tale using only this system of symbols, devoid of any other ornament.

How can I make a prosperous journey to that lofty height of writer-dom? Here’s what I tell myself:

  • Don’t worry about it. If you worry about it you’ll just get wrapped around the axle.
  • Practice. Write as much as you can and have some discipline about it.
  • Read. Check out the acknowledged greats and the obscure folks, too. Include poetry.
  • Write poetry. Poetry demands the most of your vocabulary and your ear for language. Make it something that demands careful word choice, something with structure. Haiku is good for this.
  • Get support. Join a writing group or groups, with real people or online, preferably both.
  • Read it out loud. Does the piece work as an oral story? If not, maybe the language needs fixing, or the story itself. This is a great way to ferret out typos, too.
  • Imagine telling it live. When you’re writing, it’s sometimes fun to imagine you’re telling the tale to an audience. Try it, maybe you’ll like it.

This is all stuff that works for me. I hope you’ll find something here to help you overcome the writer’s lack of resources. I mean, overcoming that lack is half the fun, right?

Top Ten Reasons to Keep Writing

Keep on Truckin'10. You Have a Dream

I suppose there are some writers who create simply for its own sake and put the manuscripts in a box or use them to wrap fish, but most of us would like to be read. It’s grand to have a dream! A dream can get you up in the morning with enthusiasm and put you to bed at night with hope. Just don’t take it too seriously or get too obsessed with it; that takes all the fun out of it. This one is number 10 for a reason!

9. You Love Words

Words are some of man’s most ancient and entertaining playthings. To rearrange them so they hang together so that each one supports the others, to really wring the music out of them is one of the most rewarding, fun activities to come along since eating. People who don’t write may not understand this, but writers do. We love this stuff! Why stop?

8. You Honor Your Ancient Lineage

Storytellers of the written and oral varieties are part of a long line of artists going back to the first people who told tales of the mammoth that got away or the bear that attacked while they were gathering berries in the woods. For centuries, they’ve entertained and enlightened their fellow human beings. As long as you’re writing, you’re part of the lineage of poets and bards.

7. You Won’t Let Your Readers Down

Whether you’re writing for millions or just for your mom because she’s the only person who’ll read your stuff, you’ve got an obligation to your readership. They’re waiting with baited breath, or at least polite attention, to see what’s going to happen next in your riveting tale. Don’t let them down!

6. You Love Crafting the Middle

Working through the middle, finding your way from the initial crisis to the resolution while trying to provide entertainment and perhaps enlightenment, is an excellent game. It’s like going on a long, exciting adventure into unknown territory.

5. You Love Starting

What could be more fun than starting the newest work? There’s sketching and planning and plotting and then, at last, the first words of prose on the paper, the first movement of characters, descriptions, dialogue! I suppose the feeling isn’t universal, but for me the fun of starting is one of the chief reasons I keep coming back to the keyboard.

4. You Love Finishing

Ah, the finish! Dealing out just desserts to the bad guys and rich rewards to the good… or crafting some variation thereof, if your tale runs darker or lighter. There are fewer greater satisfactions in life than tying up all the loose ends in a neat package and writing “the end.” And at that point you’ve earned a martini, which is pretty sweet, too.

3. You Want to See How the Story Turns Out

It’s the wise writer—and I’m sure you are—that writes for the enjoyment of the tale. If you keep going, you get to see what happens next. Even if you’ve planned things carefully, there are still surprises waiting that will change your story’s path. Stop writing and you’ll never find out what they are; keep on and they’ll reward you.

2. You Appreciate God’s Gift

Whatever it is that sends you to the keyboard is a gift from God to be treasured and used gratefully. If you don’t believe in an objective God but are spiritual, think of your writing as a gift of the universe, or part of your particular expression of Buddha-nature. If you’re an atheist, appreciate the fact that your evolutionary path led to your having this gift. Your writing is part of the unique set of traits that makes you unique; it was meant to expressed.

1. You Can’t Help It

The number one reason to stick to your writing is that you just can’t help doing it. Not writing for you would be like a flower not blooming. In Samuel R. Delaney’s novel Dhalgren, which I read ages ago, there’s a reference to some people having “a wound that bleeds poetry.” Maybe you have a wound, maybe not, but it’s certain that stories and words are flowing out of you like water from a spring and their destination is the page. Hold them in and the earth around either explodes or rots from the inside and caves in. Keep writing because you must.