Archive for October, 2009

Handling Criticism

Unless one chooses to write only for oneself, keeping one’s writing hidden under the house, at the back of the refrigerator behind the leftover chicken vendaloo, or in a Swiss bank’s safety deposit box, criticism is an unavoidable part of the writing craft.  And for most writers, this is perhaps the most difficult part of offering our thoughts to the world for the simple reason that writing is such a deeply personal endeavor. Putting our thoughts out there for scrutiny feels as if we’re exposing our minds, if not our souls, and given how fragile we perceive both minds and souls to be, that’s a pretty scary proposition. But I think most of our problem in handling criticism comes about because we let our egos get the best of us and perceive all criticism to be some form of personal attack.  By doing so, we miss a golden opportunity to grow as writers.

I think there are three basic types of criticism: personal (yes, I don’t deny it happens), preferential, and practiced.

Quite honestly, personal criticism is not criticism at all. Personal criticism is symptomatic of an unsavory and thinly-veiled emotion, like jealousy or envy.  Listen closely to what’s being said.  Is the conversation really about your writing? If it isn’t, then you can be pretty sure that the critics’ real problem is that they just don’t like you, and by extrapolation your spouse, your pet, your politics, etc., and that you just happen to be a writer is part of the package they detest. Their criticism is as useless as flattery is empty. Solution: smile, ignore their blathering, ”write them off” — move on!

Preferential criticism is a little harder to define, but quite common. No one likes everything. We all have different tastes and preferences, from food to fashion to writing. In writing this is particularly true of fiction. Some people are enamored with fantasies — others despise them.  Some readers really dig stream-of-consciousness pieces — others admit they are simply confused by the structure and avoid the genre. Again, it’s important to listen closely to what’s being said. The person may not be ‘all that into’ what you’re writing about or they may not find your writing style engaging.  If it’s the former, there’s little you can do about it.  But if it is the latter, an opportunity for growth is presented.  Ask what it is about your style that puts them off. For instance, does it have something to do with your use of the first person, your use of adjectives, a lack of clarity, an absence of humor?  Then, especially if it is a short piece, experiment with a rewrite taking into consideration the gist of their criticism. You may be surprised at what shows up on the page. You may be delighted — you may be horrified.  But you’ll come away with a better sense of how you write and why you write as you do.  You might even discover that you are a more flexible writer than you imagined.

The best criticism, of course, is practiced criticism, and by ‘practiced’ I mean from someone who practices the writing craft. Practiced criticism speaks directly to the nuts, bolts, widgets and gizmos of our craft. When a person takes the time to discuss your writing in detail about the details, you need to put your ego aside and take note, because it isn’t about you — it’s an appraisal of how effectively the words you’ve chosen or the order in which they occur express and move forward the subject of your writing. if someone can help you hone your craft, teach you about avoiding passive voice, how to use strong nouns, develop delightful characters and build story arc, listen.  They aren’t doing so to bruise your ego — they’re there to assist you in perfecting your craft (and we are all short of perfection).

As writers, we are all enriched by good writing.  When criticism comes, set you ego aside, and you will open the door to becoming a better writer.


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Power in Words

If you pull back a few moments and think about words in an objective sense — and I’m thinking specifically spoken words, you quickly discover that they are an unusual part of our world. Spoken words are not independent bodies or objects (like tables chairs, mountains, water, etc.) nor are they representational artifacts (like pictographs or petroglyphs) nor visual prompts (where each letter indicates a particular type of vocalization). Such characteristics are those of written words — you can point to them, see them, they represent something and you respond to the prompt by making the appropriate sound indicated by the specific symbol However, each spoken word is a complex blend of sound, formed by an individual through the precisely timed manipulation of muscle contractions, dental settings and controlled respirations, to project vibrations (pressure waves) through the air to convey something meaningful to another individual and/or group (i.e., they are not arbitrary noises, like sneezes or coughs). So far so good. However, by taking one more step beyond the obvious to examine the genesis of the spoken word, something fascinating emerges, especially in the context of traditional societies, who convey meaning from one generation to the next exclusively through spoken words (societies often simplistically referred to as ‘prehistoric,’ but more precisely described as ‘preliterate’). You often hear writers speak about the power of the written word, how words can move people emotionally or to action. But in preliterate societies, spoken words have power in them. Spoken words are creators, not descriptors — they possess something of the essence of the thing embedded in them. A perfect example is the Sami yoik – a song style that contains words and meaningful sounds. When a Sami imagines a bear and yoiks bear, they are not singing about the creature, they are singing the creature. with this same thought in mind, a Sami never utters the specific word for bear, especially during a bear hunt, even though that word is known and available. To do so brings the essence of the beast into play. Using its name brings it into the conversation — warns it of your intentions. That is why the Sami make allusions to the animal via similes and metaphors. One refers to the bear as, “Honeyed-pawed One,” or “Old Man of the Forest,” or “Shaggy-Coat.” Listening to a traditional speaker, you’ll notice that the words are usually spoken evenly and with deliberation. Knowing every word has power in it, means that the person speaking must be thoughtful. To do otherwise would be foolish and disrespectful of the power of creation.

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Hello world!

This is my blog on WordPress.  For other information concerning  my writing and writing philosophy visit my website at: JaywingFuller.com

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