“But I am a Writer!” The Pestilence of Praise

Hot Takes (noun)
Definition:
“A quickly produced, strongly worded, and often deliberately provocative or sensational opinion or reaction (as in response to current news)”
Merriam-Webster (1st use 2012)


Nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental…

Has anyone noticed how often these emollient adjectives pop up in the descriptions of writing courses, classes, critique groups, and workshops?

Writers do suffer from touchy and tender sensibilities, don’t they? And that’s before they get those rejections. It’s weird. Writers are expected to come up with stirring plots filled with characters who overcome daunting challenges and tackle vicious villains but need to be emotionally coddled to write them. That soothing vocabulary of the world of writerly advice got me thinking…

 

I

Of course, I’d like to be nurtured, supported and encouraged as much as the next five year old, but I am not. Five years old that is. I do have a nodding acquaintance with several languages, but I didn’t start learning English until I turned fifteen and can have a tin ear for its syntax, tenses, and articles. And I do write scenes that just need to go. Far away. Fortunately, I’ve found people who show me—and I mean show exactly—all the places where I laid eggs.

Over the years, I’ve also read and graded my share of crappy undergraduate essays. Those, too, taught me a lot. They were produced by young things who all got A’s in high school English but wouldn’t know a verb if it bit them on the ankle, couldn’t accept that their purported sentences at some point needed one, and their creative prose never came near the assigned topic. They wrote word salads.

“But I am a writer!” exclaimed The Writer once upon a time when a Mercy C landed on their document.
“Yes, and not a very good one,” the Merciless Professor replied.

Many arguments followed, to no avail.

Praise me Not

Lately, I sat quietly (almost) through a few writerly workshops, and occasionally had been asked to read and comment on other writers’ writing. Some of it has been workshopped, beta read, critique group groped, edited, and reportedly praised—and it’s bad.
Bad at an undergraduate essay-level, and bad when it came to what the writer aimed to describe or express. Why is that, I wondered, chagrined.

Then it came to me.

Could these Authors-in-Waiting have all received nothing but nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental clap trap about their writing?

Has it ever occurred to any of the writing gurus out there that what the Authors-in-Waiting really need is someone to be, well, actually honest with them? For once, I’d like to see this sort of a writing workshop or critique group advertised:

This workshop will slaughter on the spot your darlings. We will judge harshly your word salad, your clunkers, wrong words choices, non-sentences, scenes that go nowhere and everywhere, that repeat the obvious, are overstuffed or undernourished. We will skewer your plot that has holes to drive a truck through, and your characters with no hint of a character. Unless you write fantasy or sci-fi, your characters can’t walk through a steel door or do any of the things that the laws of physics, logic, and the spiffy attire you gave them prohibits. No, we don’t care if ‘that’s your style,’ or if ‘that’s the way you write,’ or because ‘writing is subjective.’ You write crap, my friends. This workshop will tell you and show you how not to.

But Hana, you wail, there are ways of crushing egos the diplomatic way.

Death by Diplomacy

Yes, of course there are ways of being diplomatic. After all, the definition of diplomacy is saying the nastiest things in the nicest way. However, that’s for diplomats. They understand the lingo. Many aspiring writers don’t grasp the lingo of writerly advice or are in de-Nile about it.

The result is that instead of telling—and showing—how not to keep re-writing the same crap, the actual advice comes swaddled in all that nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental stuff. And the Authors-in-Waiting keep taking classes and writing the same crap which is great for the gurus/faculty, workshops and writing classes.

But not their writing.

Yes, I do realize that kind of pellucid comments would conflict with the business model of writers’ workshops, based on the imperative of ‘student retention.’ People don’t pay to hear that their stuff is crap. They pay to hear that it has a potential.

You Too Got Potential

Speaking of which…. Consider the couched comments from a writing ‘academy’ offered by a famous literary agency. For a modest charge (depending your definition of modest) those with a work-in-progress who had already committed up to 30,000 words, it is “Offering an honest, no-nonsense assessment of whether your work in progress has potential.”

Well, ok. Shouldn’t it be ‘whether or not’? But I digress. Why the need to assure the Author-in-Waiting of ‘an honest’ appraisal? Here is a multiple choice:

a) They were going to offer a dishonest assessment otherwise

b) It’s a warning to fragile egos that honesty is coming their way

c) It’s a CYA in case the Author-in-Waiting suffers trauma from inadvertent or actual honesty

d) An assurance that we are really not just taking your money in exchange for telling you that you’ve got potential

e) All of the above

f) None of the above

Why add ‘no-nonsense’? Isn’t it the same thing as being honest? And about that WIP ‘potential.’ Potential for what? Anything has a potential. Consider that egg. One can lay one but no amount of sitting on it will make it hatch. Same goes for writing. Sometimes you’ve just got to scramble the whole thing.

Here is another thought. If the Authors-in-Waiting plucked out of their souls 30,000 words (that’s by my count 130-ish pages, double spaced, 12 Times New Roman) and still don’t know where they are going with them, chances are they have just laid a clutch of 30,000 eggs. Now what are the chances that their oeuvre will always show that ‘potential’?

For the Author-in-Waiting...

How about before writing 130 pages, one reads a lot of stuff? A lot.

Then get some basic ‘how to write stuff’ books’ They are out there, and some are better than others. You will know after you read a few. Take notes and study them like you would for a test. Because you are. If you don’t, you just haven’t done your high school homework and are paying for admission to an undergraduate class.

If you did ten years of research for your novel but haven’t bothered to do basic research on how a novel works, you will just continue to lay eggs. They could get nested in a hay stack of that nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental appraisal that may sound sort of like this:

I think you have the beginnings of an interesting idea here. There’s certainly a strong concept at the heart of the novel, and it’ll be interesting to see how you can develop this. It’s essential, though, that the worldbuilding is done properly, and that early issues with character and perspective are ironed out as you continue.

Well, yes, that is all interesting. Let’s dump the hay load.

  1.  The beginning of an interesting idea? Really? After 130 pages into it?
  2.  Does the reviewer think it is an interesting idea?
  3. Or is it in fact an interesting idea?.
  4. Isn’t it the same thing as ‘a strong concept at the heart of the novel?’
  5. Listen. Your worldbuilding (aka setting) doesn’t make logical sense. You’ve got issues with your characters straight out of the gate, and you head hop.

There, wasn’t that simple? Of course the Authors-in-Waiting won’t hear that. Instead, what are the chances they’ll get a pitch for an ‘advanced’ class?
So what to do, what to do…

Writing in Groups?

Here’s my take on writing classes/critique groups in general.

Writing classes serve principally as social occasions for us solitary scribblers. Which is fine. They do bestow a sense of validation that we ‘really mean to finish it this time.’ They do give us a reason to plant our butts in a chair since we’ve paid for it and/or have to produce something by the next meeting. Yes, group accountability is a great thing but doesn’t guarantee that the writing will get better, and better, and better.

That’s because the usual mode of a writing class seems to be the reading of each other’s pages, often out loud, and then commenting on them. Here is the problem as I see it.

  •  Most people sound dreadful when they read out loud.
  • You get comments from people who know as little or less than you do about writing.
  •  The comments are expected to be nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental. It’s the only prerequisite for the class. So next week, five more pages of the same crap.

On the flip side, a chorus of beginning writers who have ‘been told/read somewhere that’s the way you are supposed to write it,’ can suck out an aspiring writer’s unique voice, creativity and originality. Those first drafts aren’t always crap, but they can be turned into one by too many mediocre cooks.

But I am a Writer!

What about that “But I am a Writer”?

We’ve all heard of authors who enjoy the schadenfreude of telling a story of how someone once told them that they would never be a writer, almost crushing their writerly little souls? And lo and behold, they became one?

Here is a thought.

Is it at all possible that since then they had in fact chopped, chiseled, and honed their writing until it was good enough not to choke a gopher, most of the time? And maybe somewhere along the way that involved less of that nurturing, supportive, positive, respectful, encouraging, non-judgmental stuff and more of a hard scrambling of the eggs they laid along the way.

For all I know, that student could have become a best-selling author. I hope so.

 

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
This entry was posted in writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “But I am a Writer!” The Pestilence of Praise

  1. Superb! Unfortunately, too many Snowflake personalities who identify themselves as writers have no courage for truth about thrir writing. This is why I’ve given up on irganizations about writing. Sad.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s