Writing: Lessons I've Learned and the Effects of Positive and Negative Criticism
I’m the type of person who is much better at recognizing fine writing than being one who can actually write in a fine manner. I deeply admire good writing, and sometimes I feel conflicting emotions similar to the legend of Salieri (portrayed in the film Amadeus) who feels both hatred and love for Mozart's ability to produce masterful musical compositions with ease, while he/Salieri struggles with the realization that his skill may never match his desire.
While I've never felt hatred over the genius and skill of others, I do sometimes feel a small pang of despair over certain writing struggles, like trying to edit my own work. I’m great at proofreading someone else’s writing, but I’m paralyzed in trying to edit my own work. Issues of feeling inadequate have been stumbling blocks for me, but there have also been some simple yet profound lessons I’ve learned through subtle displays of positive reinforcement along with the negative criticism of others that I keep in the back of my mind. It’s those images, words, memories, and criticisms that propel me to click the “publish” button each time I write.
The Initial Spark
Most writers probably knew they wanted to write from a young age, and I can remember the very moment when that happened to me. It involved an incident when I was four years old and I wanted so badly to help my dad paint the living room wall. No matter how much I begged him to hand me the paint brush, he refused to allow me to paint. Exasperated, I finally grabbed a fistful of paper and a pencil, plopped down on my behind in the middle of the floor and yelled with all the fury a small toddler can muster, “I’m gonna write a book about YOU, and I’m gonna tell the whole world how you won’t let me paint!”
Drama was no stranger to me even at that age, and, of course, he laughed at me. His laughter, which is what I actually loved about him most, was the initial spark that fueled my desire to one day write.
Teachers and Positive Feedback
The development of a writer’s desire can take many different turns, and this desire can be nurtured or stifled depending on encouragment given by our teachers…especially our English teachers. Sometimes teachers can be overly critical and they get very hung up on the mechanics of writing which, while important, often crush the entire creative flow. That’s exactly what happened to me until my senior year of high school.
I was very fortunate to have an English teacher that year who gave me the small bits of positive reinforcement I needed. That was no easy task considering my favorite subject to write about was horror and always involved crazed, psycho killers. My villains were both women and men, and they went on bloody rampages that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, but that was my whole point…people experiencing a psychotic break who crave murderous revenge against innocent victims who suddenly appear in the story for the sole purpose of being a victim.
My writing was unsettling to my teacher, and this was evident in the way she looked at me after reading my masterpeices, like “Death Cab 57” which featured a psychotic taxi driver. On that particular day, she handed my "Death Cab" paper to me with a very worried and fearful look that caused me to feel rather concerned, yet she said, “Very interesting Pam, I give you a ‘B’ for creativeness.” These were the most wonderful words to my ears; however, from the look on her face, I was a little apprehensive that I might end up being escorted off school grounds by the police or guys in white jackets. And I did wonder for a split second if I got that ‘B’ because I really was creative or because she was afraid of my brain.
There’s little doubt that my creative writing in high school was stinky, but this particular teacher always seemed to find the smallest bits of positive feedback that nurtured my desire and attempts at writing. She affected me to such an extent that I decided I would go to college, major in English, and learn more about writing.
Desire vs. Ability
During my first few weeks as a freshman in college, I learned that the desire to write doesn’t make one a good writer. It takes work – hard work for some of us. My first experience with this involved having a peer proofread a fiction essay that I thought was a masterpiece. I was absolutely beside myself as I waited for him to finish reading my work. When he was done, he sat there for a few moments, then looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to major in English?” I was stunned by his sarcasm more than his honesty, and I could feel myself getting increasingly paralyzed by my writing weaknesses as he pointed out each of them.
We actually became very good friends after that because I appreciate honesty as much as I appreciate good writing. Honesty, whether presented harshly or tactfully, can sting like a sudden slap on the face, but sometimes it’s possible to turn that into positive energy towards achieving a goal, and my goal was to figure out how to overcome my weaknesses and learn how to write well.
#1 Weakness: Spelling
One of my weaknesses was (and still is) horrible spelling. It’s important to know that I was in college before the days of “spell check” and a real dictionary was something that nearly became an extra appendage glued to my body. It was laborious to make constant, frequent stops in the middle of writing to manually look up a word, and it took me forever to write research papers - and yes I wrote them by hand or typed them on a manual typewriter.
By the second semester of my freshman year, my American literature professor announced that he was more concerned about us writing and expressing our ideas in essays and research papers with clarity rather than worrying over silly spelling errors. He also admitted that he was the world’s worst speller since mankind began standing upright. I fell in love with him at that moment. He taught me my second big lesson: It’s perfectly alright to major in English and still not know how to spell every word in the dictionary, and it’s even more alright to not let it disrupt the flow of your writing.
#2 Weakness: Punctuation
Another temporary weakness for me was punctuation, and I was constantly struggling with where to put commas and semi-colons. I must have been dreaming about boys or Micky Dolenz from The Monkeys in my high school grammar class. No, I didn’t like Davey Jones who was lead singer for The Monkeys; I was attracted to more eccentric types of people, and this brings me to my next inspirational English professor and a profound lesson about using the comma.
My punctuation hero was a Poet Laureate and a genius with very long silver hair who wore sandals with socks year round - even in the snow. He was eccentric, and he had a firm reputation of being a very tough English teacher who never gave anyone an “A.” I was instantly captivated by him and his brain, and I spent an incredible amount of time thinking of excuses to knock on his office door so that I could approach him with questions or observations or anything that would give him cause to just talk to me.
During one visit, after running out of decent literary questions, I asked him a question about punctuation and the appropriate placement of a comma. His answer had such an impact that I have never forgotten it. He said that a great writer doesn’t always use punctuation, like a comma, in a strict grammatical fashion. Many times it’s appropriate to simply put a comma where you want the reader to take a pause or to leave out a comma when you don’t want the reader to pause. Sometimes a sentence simply flows better without the break of a comma even when the standard rules of grammar say you should use one. He was even eccentric with his comma usage, and I adored his artsy philosophy about punctuation.
Writing Fiction - My Crash and Burn
I’ve come to enjoy using a combination of his advice along with what I know is considered to be correct punctuation. It depends on what I’m writing, and my writing has taken many different directions since having that conversation about commas. In fact, my desire to write took a huge crash after taking a class called “Writing Fiction” which was taught to me one-on-one by a published author.
After my first session with this author, I was very excited to start my first project of writing a short story. She had me read some of her own writing which was some of the most flowing, entertaining, and engaging work I’d seen. One article in particular was written about an event that happened when her daughter was selling Girl Scout cookies. After reading it, I was in complete awe over not being able to put down an article about a kid selling cookies.
The second session didn’t go very well. Immediate conflict was reflected in the fact that my writing was very dark and brooding where my teacher’s was very light-hearted and inspirational. She was very bubbly and cheerful while I was more, well, dark and brooding. I think this difference made her uneasy, and I wondered if she was even capable of being fair with me.
My first short story was slashed to bits with red colored remarks like, “This isn’t believable!” “Why is this character doing this?” “Who is this person and how does she feel?” and the list went on. Instead of trying to understand her reasoning, I was consumed with feeling misunderstood and I wondered if she would ever be so brazen to ask the same silly questions of Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.
One thing became clear, she hated my writing, and I was instantly deflated over the whole idea of even trying to write. While she encouraged me to take my writing in a different direction, which I did, and I was able to produce writings that satisfied her, I still felt like the desire to move forward with any notion of writing creatively was completely sucked out of my heart.
I graduated college with no desire to engage in any form of creative writing or teaching, so I entered the field of editing and technical writing. It seemed safer, and I truly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to bring anything to life, all I had to do was write instructions about how to perform various computer hardware installations, write reviews on software, and proofread the writings of others. That was in the computer dinosaur days when Windows didn't exist and everything began and ended with the DOS prompt. From there I entered the field of developing websites and writing content for those sites, and now I am here, full circle, working to develop my skills with different types of writing.
Finally Understanding 4 Writing Basics
The words and advice of the author who tried to teach me how to write fiction are still with me over twenty years later, but there’s a difference…I finally get it. I understand. At our last meeting she said:
- Read everything you can get your hands on. Reading fine writing helps you understand how to write well and reading bad writing helps you understand what not to do.
- Write about what you know.
- Always incorporate real feelings and experiences into your writing especially when you’re writing fiction.
- Don’t use clichés.
I only wish I could have understood this better then. I now see that it wasn’t the subject matter of my writing that was failing so miserably, it was my inability to draw from real experiences and real feelings and incorporate those things into my words. I’ve learned that no matter what I write about, there is always a real event, memory or feeling that can be used to bring life into words. Her four tidbits of advice are the basics of learning to write well, and her lessons are ones that I now value most.
I was inspired to write this after reading a hub written by Robert Sloan about positive criticism, which I enjoyed and identified with very much. Positive criticism can come in the smallest of forms, but the impact can often last forever. Finding the tiniest positive comment to give someone can make a tremendous difference. Negative criticism often creates an opposite reaction, and it can take a long time to understand the real value of what is intended behind harsh words. I appreciate the positive reinforcement of the community here, and I’m thankful to all of you who have nurtured my baby steps towards writing again.
Links to Related Hubs About Writing
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- Positive Criticism
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