Monday, 25 April 2011

on writing, critics and being a delicate artist

When I was 13 I wrote a book. It wasn't a particularly long book but it had a beginning , a middle, and an end. It was utterly ripped off from all the fantasy books I was reading at the time ( Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander and especially Susan Cooper) and it had some serious plot flaws because what does a 13 year old know of the world? Still it was a book, with illustrations in pencil . I was pretty proud of it and showed it to my dad who read it and then wrote me a book of a critique in letter form as was generally my dad's way.  He was very honest and I didn't take it very well at the time. Because I was 13 and I had written a book. I hadn't wanted a step by step analysis of what was wrong with it I wanted a gorram pat on the back. I tell you this so that you all understand, critiques in my art world started off early.

However, as upset as I remember being, I was also drawn in. What he had done was a huge labour of love, just as my book had been and it taught me so much more than a pat on the back ever would. Once I had recovered from my pain of being critiqued I re read his words and he had been right. I never touched the story again but I learned from it and from him.

At 13 I suddenly learned that just writing a book isn't good enough, it also has to work, make sense and be right. Gotta tell you this was a hard lesson to learn.

All the way through high school I wrote stories but apart from a nibble here and there I didn't get much interest from other people. I had two amazing English teachers who encouraged but the way things went I ended up having to concentrate on other parts of my school life and because of some class switching that had to happen so I could get a math teacher who understood me I ended up with a not so great English teacher and my stories stayed hidden in the closet, so to speak.  I don't ever recall being told I was a good writer with promise so I never really thought much about being a writer, I was often told being an artist of any sort was not a good way to make a living ,better put those aspirations aside and get a real job.

I did write a  couple more little books and one I entered into an under 18 competition. It came top 30 out of 500 or so, I can't recall the exact numbers any more but I got a nice letter after their 2nd re read which made me feel very vindicated for the late nights hammering away at the typewriter. ( and I can't type) 

I wrote all the way through my 1st stint in university, small stories fueled by daily events and unrequited love and a very Canadian pop / rock musician. I also drew and illustrated and generally lived inside my brain because I loathed university so much I couldn't wait to get through it.  Somewhere along the way I let the artist in me die.

I ended up re finding it again through the art of verbal storytelling. I would tell folk tales and my own creations at SCA events and sometimes I think people even enjoyed them. I LOVE the art of storytelling it's massive.  We've lost that camp fire story telling magic somehow in this modern day so it was a gift to have this pocket in time, to re. discover words. Words and I have had a long relationship, I won a poetry competition in primary school and since I was a late reader this is pretty cool. I love words, I love their taste, their feel, their magic. I love words in other languages too. I should have studied linguistics but that's an alternate universe life and I hope that me is happy with it.

But we weren't talking about words we were discussing critics.

The giving and taking of criticism is, in itself, an art form. Good criticism informs and constructs rather than derides and tears apart, tearing a part someone's work no matter what isn't very helpful. It's my opinion that even the very worst art, writing, music has something to offer, even if it is a jumping platform of what not to do. Just saying "this sucks" isn't useful it's hurtful. And I sometimes wonder if the "this sucks" style of critiques is not more about personal power bolstering rather than trying to help someone better themselves.

At the art college I went to critiques and being a critic was par for the course, not only from my teachers but also my peers. You put your work up there and it's hard. Especially for fledgling artists who are madly in love with their creations. You think you've created this wonderful imaginative unique work of beauty only to discover that's not the case. It's a fantastic lesson to be taught though, to be on both ends of the critic bench. How you give and receive criticism is incredibly important and will often dictate how people move forward or not. Artists have delicate egos and developing a thick skin is not so easy. We put our souls out there for the world to see and hope someone likes it or gets it or is inspired by it.

I'm pretty tough skinned when it comes to my writing, might not seem that way but trust me I am. I learned young. Not quite so tough skinned about my actual art but that's my insecure spot. So when I was in charge of scribes in the SCA in this kingdom and I would get new people presenting me with what amounted to not very good art work, I did my damnedest to make sure I didn't "that sucks" but rather "It's a start now here's where it can be better." I have no idea if the people I had to critic ( because the kingdom has a standard or at least when I was signet I wanted it to have a standard) walked away feeling and or if they could look at my words and think yeah she's right I see the mistakes now.  Critics don't tend to get much feed back on their work.

One of the THE most important things I learned from my dad's letter about my 1st little book was words have to make sense. This also applies to criticisms. So if you critique a work and you want the person on the end of your sharp stick to take your critiques seriously and not just get hurt or pissed off, then you have to make sense.

You didn't like the piece ( written visual or otherwsie)  then explain why not. Just saying "I didn't like" it is not a criticism it's an opinion and just like orifices, we all have them. What didn't you like and why not? Ask yourself these questions when you dislike a work before you write anything. You'll be surprised at what answers you get and so, maybe, will the artist, author, musician.

There is a massive difference in how things are perceived based on how they are worded.  Negatives will be negative and positives are just that positive.  "I don't like this chapter because it's boring." negative. "I would have enjoyed this chapter more if there had been more action and less use of the word "like" " far more positive.

You get the idea.

It's always a good idea to ask first as well, unless this is the professional world then somehow it seems to be expected that stuff gets critiqued, but on a smaller more private scale especially if no money is being made and stuff is just up there. If the creator doesn't ask outright for critiques then before you shoot off and tell them and the world what's wrong with everything they've done, you might want to ask first if they want you to do this. Not everyone welcomes some random stranger telling them step by step where all the perceived flaws are. I have a great deal more respect for critics who at least introduce themselves, or ask me first if I want their opinion than when someone just randomly writes negative comments on stuff I've done without context first. I'm also more likely to take the critic and the critique more seriously when they have some respect for me first.

A really good critique is really useful. Clear and concise explanations of why something doesn't appeal, work, feel right can go a very long way to bettering the work or the follow up. I know this from a very good critique I had for one of my scrolls in this kingdom. There were flaws I didn't see and when they were pointed out it was like a light going on. Thank you Caitlin. It made me a better scribe and it was done in a way I understood without making me feel like crap.

While it can be hard to have your beautiful creation smooshed to bits it can also be very insightful for personal artistic growth. I don't mind people telling me what's wrong with something I do as long as they explain why. It has to make sense, it should be useful and constructive and you should walk away from it not feeling as though your soul has been slashed but that you now have a whole lot more to think about. Good critics expand the world of art in all its forms because they strive to better the artists/writers/musicians/ cooks etc... not because it makes them feel good to tear an artist to shreds.

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