03 July 2007

A for Effort

3 July 2007

When I was a youngster I had very little tolerance for criticism of other’s endeavors.  Whether it was a school play, a book, or a Hollywood movie, if I heard any critical comments of a work I felt required to defend it– regardless of whether I liked it, simply because someone had made the effort to bring it forth.

I don’t have a good memory for specifics and cannot recall a particular piece that I defended on principle rather than merit, but I do have a very strong sense of what I felt like when hearing criticism of someone else’s work.  The odd thing is, I have no memory at all, specific or otherwise, of how I responded to critiques of my own work. I know I received such critiques– I still have the paper that I wrote for a high school composition class where I received an 'A' for content and an 'F' for spelling and grammar.*

However, I now see a clear connection between my need to defend the works of others and my own struggles to be creative.  I over-empathized with strangers because, while I wanted my work to be the best, I knew that I had a tendency to put assignments off and crank them out at the last minute (as many teenagers are prone to do).   By doing it at the last minute, I virtually assured that it would not be as good as it could be regardless of how much heart and soul I into it.

Over the years I have worked on my writing and on learning to critique the writings of others (with the particular goal of giving constructive feedback).  As my ability to spot plot holes and inconsistencies in a text grew, my willingness to excuse shoddy or inconsistent work shrank.  

This intolerance on my part also stems from twenty additional years of experience with various storytelling media.  In addition to developing my own specific preferences, I learned that my time is a limited resource, and that just because someone made it, doesn’t mean it is either well-executed or worthy of my time.  I can now discern, within the first chapter of a novel, whether it is well written enough to be worth the effort of reading it.  

When I was younger, I would read anything that came into my hands. I wasted a lot of time defending works that probably weren’t that good, on behalf of people I had never met, and who may not have put much effort into their work.  It took time to learn what was creative and what was derivative.  I also did not fully grasp that a work should be able to stand on its own once created.  In my hypersensitive-teenaged-state, I perceived an attack on the work to be an attack on the creator.

Now that I am older and more experienced, I am more picky.  I have certain standards that I use to judge what I am willing to read and what goes into the recycle bin.  However, I do miss the exciting sense of novelty and freshness that I enjoyed as a younger reader.  Then, there were no tropes or cliches because I hadn’t encountered as many variations on the same themes as I have now. 

Seeing writers riff off each other over time is exciting and reminds me that one of the benefits of experience– I get more of the jokes.  I exchange novelty for understanding– which is no bad thing.  I don’t award “A’s” for effort any longer.  I award good and interesting work with my time and attention– two things that are in limited supply and worth more than any letter grade.

* I wrote it long hand the night before, I was pretty pleased with the “A” and not terribly surprised by the “F”– this was before spell checkers.  Also, I still firmly believed that good grammar and spelling were unnecessary– people should ‘just understand’ what I wrote.  While I still make errors in both spelling and grammar, it is not because I do not try to correct them.