Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Being Right versus Being Stubborn

I had a personality change in college. High school, the time when I started writing, filled me with confidence, ingenuity, and self-importance. College gave me empathy, ability and self-doubt.

I was a serial third place winner. And I’m not talking the sort where everyone gets a ribbon. I’m talking cash prizes. Every single art contest I applied to I would win third place or sometimes second place. Ratherly worse, never better.

Yet after the event I would have judges and spectators tell me my project was their favorite. They loved my piece.

So why didn’t I ever win? Because my work was crappy. I always had something far different and stranger than the rest, but the execution revealed exactly how much thought I put into it: the bare minimum. Because I didn’t care. I was lazy, and I thought the idea was enough. I slapped things together, thought I was fated to do well, and left it at that. My community was not big on “winning” or competition. Though I wouldn’t change all my experiences to help learn how to push yourself and play the game, I would have liked to know now, as I face failure or success, how to compete.

But then I went to college where I grew more aware of the world and myself, and the desire for success came with the understanding it was not necessarily going to happen. I started to focus less on the idea and more on the quality. I wrote with less importance on the concept and gimmick in favor of pacing and word choice. A person might think that this made me a more well-rounded author, but what it really did was take my qualities and flaws and flip them.

Balance is an extremely important part of the arts. Everything in moderation, as we say. And as I ignored one aspect in favor of getting better on another, I was not being as efficient as I could. Of course, talents don’t just go away and if I was to change my attention to the opposite, I would fair very well. But there was one portion of me that I have struggled to find again, and that was self-confidence.

We all have faced this problem before: someone gives a piece of advice that an author doesn’t want to take. If you refuse, are you being true to yourself or egotistical and ignorant?

In high school, I would have trusted myself. In college, I would have trusted other people. In different contexts, both could save me, both could destroy me, and both could do nothing at all. More importantly, I would not know which until after the chance to change it has passed.

Knowing when to stay and when to fold is the entire issue in “constructive criticism.” It’s situational, and the best answer is the one that works. This is often impossible to know. Over the course of the years, I have come across three rules I use to determine when I should hold my ground and when to hear them out.

1. Keep what you care about, change what you don’t. (And realize that you don’t care about as much as you think you do.)

If it really bothers you to make a change, then it’s probably not the right thing to do. Entertainment is about emotions, and if you’re emotionally attached than it’s a good sign. The important part that makes this harder than we’d like is understanding why you’re attached, and realizing it might not have anything to do with a love of what you’ve done. Refusal for change can be attributed to many things, some having nothing to do with how you like it. We are often stubborn because 1) it’d be hard to change it or 2) we perceive changing it as admitting you’re wrong (see below). It might not be obvious at first, but if you can admit to yourself that either of these are your main reasons (or you can’t figure out your reasons), having changed it will answer the question of what’s best for the project.

2) Sacrifice your right to be right.

Humans have an obsession with being right. This innate trait may cause a good number of arguments, but it is a part of life, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This need to prove ourselves is a huge reason why we might not want to make a change, especially when we’re not wrong.

A common criticism I receive is when I am using a word improperly. But I didn’t. I used it strangely.  I could agrue creativity and style in keeping it, however, I often know that the word, though prettier than its more basic sister, isn’t the best option for me.

The question becomes not about what the word means, but what are the rewards and negatives to using it. It comes down to these concepts:
1) What do I get out of keeping it?
2) What do I lose by changing it?
3) How common is this reaction going to be?

The last one is tough to answer, but an (honest) educated guess will probably lead you to the truth. Do you think that, for example, the critic is more or less aware of the word’s definition than the average person? If you foresee this being a common problem not worth the benefits, then it is the easiest way to know if you should get rid of it.

3. Consider who the speaker is.

The obvious part of this being, does he know what he’s talking about? But I personally don’t consider expertise as a clear indicator of truth because gut reaction from a layman is what most authors have to contend with. We’re trying to make the masses happy, not the experts.

The important aspects I consider:

            1) How do they feel about you?
            2) What are their tastes?
            3) Do they believe what they are saying?

A person who hates you personally, or worse, sees you as an amateur will change the way they judge a work. Our perception going in will drastically affect our judgment coming out, and a person who wants you to fail or thinks that you will has a very different response than the average reader. A reader who doesn’t like you will look for things to hate, which might make you think they’d be the best critic. But the subjects they choose to talk about are not usually about problems as much as choices.

“Normal,” in terms of writing, is anything the viewer ignores or pays little attention to. For instance, a kitchen described has having chairs and a table, will not be considered as much as one with a cauldron and a coffin. A writer often pays as much attention to the norm as a reader does, and rarely do we make conscious choices about innane things; our brains will insert “the normal” for us.

The point being that conscious choices that go against “normalcy” draw attention to themselves, like the coffin in the kitchen. That makes those things an easy target. So instead of commenting on more problematic and arguable topics, (“It was boring.”) they pay attention to more obvious elements (“You’re not Rocky and Bullwrinkle; you don’t need two titles”). Of course, that’s not to say they are wrong, but it is to say they are more likely to be a jerk than helpful, and jerks are more likely to stifle creativity then solve issues. On that note, it is also important to check your feelings and realize when you are not going to take their advice simply because you hate them.

When someone doesn’t think you know what you are doing, he will criticize you for small, inane (and obvious) things, often making mistake as readers and attributing them to the writer. For example, they may think a word spelled correctly is wrong. When we see something like that in a published book, then we assume it’s our mistake, but when we see it in a draft, we think it’s the authors.

Unlike someone who hated you, even those who look down on you can love you, and that makes it an even bigger problem. Their nitpickiness might be pointing out little details that most readers will be annoyed with, or they might just be driving you crazy. But if you strangely want to keep something the way it is, then realizing they’re treating you differently can give you a good reason to keep it.

Lastly, we come to lying. People don’t out and out do this for this sort of thing, but they will often give you advice they don’t believe. If you disagree with a response that a) they wouldn’t do themselves, b) they just heard from somewhere and repeated it because it sounded good, or c) they want to be true, it might be best to stick with your gut.

You know yourself better than anyone, and it is your vision you’re trying to follow. By remembering that you want to succeed above all, you can deal with your own ego and other’s accordingly.