Charles Yallowitz kindly tagged me for the first post challenge. (You can read his first post by clicking on the preceding words.) But since I was too lazy to think about who to tag or even to search through the files for my post, I’m going with this post instead. Thanks anyway, Charles.
A few days ago, my sister-in-law and I watched one of those reality shows—Four Weddings (which always makes me think of the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral). On this show, four brides-to-be agree to attend the wedding of each of her fellow brides and critique it based on a point system. The highest scoring bride gains a dream honeymoon.
Well, you can see the conflict already. Since each bride vies for the honeymoon package, of course she’ll sabotage the others by voting down perfectly reasonable choices. And though you’ll hear comments like, “Oh, I LOVED that she had a bacon bar at her reception! LOVED her gown—soooooo beautiful,” when asked to vote on the overall experience (with 10 as the maximum), the critiquing bride-to-be will say, “I gave her a 5 out of 10, because she had an outdoor wedding, and I hate the outdoors.”
I got angry while watching the episode, because the person who scored everyone else the lowest and was generally the most caustic won the honeymoon. Guess her tactical maneuvering paid off.
Ugh. This show gave me flashbacks to some of my undergraduate writing workshops where we were supposed to critique each other’s work. The professor was the editor-in-chief of the campus literary magazine. Some students inclined toward toadyism were blistering in their critiques. “Insipid,” “dull,” “terrible dialogue”—you name it, I’ve heard it. Thanks to that experience, when I graduated, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write again. Amazingly, I continued, but not right away.
So you can imagine my trepidation upon entering a graduate school writing program. I don’t claim to be a masochist. But I can understand someone thinking I have that tendency, since workshops are par for the course in the program.
Recently, three people called my attention to this Buzzfeed article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.ae0XKlORe
Though humorous, this post encapsulates my belief about workshops when I signed up for the program. I dreaded getting this kind of feedback when I attended my first workshop. To my relief, however, rules were given about the constructive criticism expected. One of the rules made a huge impression on me (and I’m paraphrasing it here): “The goal is to help the person to be excited about diving back into the piece after it is critiqued.”
To foster this, everyone had to comment on what was good about the piece before any comments of a constructively critical nature could be made. This was a nice way to build up an author. Perhaps that’s why many of the published debut books I’ve seen from graduates of the program were books started during the program. Now, that says something about the power of words to build someone up instead of words to tear someone down.
Yes, there’s value to constructive criticism. Posting caustic comments, however, has become a sport on Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, and other places. Many people are angry for various reasons, and seem to delight in tearing someone else down with their words. Words that blister say more about the speaker than they do about the person targeted. If we have to rip someone apart to get ahead or gain attention, what do we really gain in the long run?
Bridal bouquet from home.adelphi.edu. Thin skin meme from memecenter.com. Mother Teresa quote from sawdustcityllc.com.