Directing Story Criticism

This post wasn't going to be about that, but I had a dream. And as we writers do, when we dream, we write it out. No, not that kind of dream. What kind of blog do you think this is? Sheesh. I'd actually be making money if it was that kind of blog. (Image: Strange_Dream_by_Sander_Seto)

In the dream my father stops by with a new truck. Well, it's sort of a new truck, new to him anyway. Let's just call it a different truck. It was a monstrosity of a machine. Late model American nineties when things were built “Ford tough” and not “Like a bailout.” On the back where the bed should have been was some kind of hand made shanty house. It wasn't an old shanty house that some one picked up with a crane and dropped there, it wasn't being moved. No, my father had built it.

In typical dad fashion, he didn't build it like one of those wooden tear drop trailers that some people make, it wasn't aerodynamic, didn't meet any kind of safety standards (no cardboard, no cardboard derivatives, paper's out, no cellophane or rubber . . . you really should watch the Monday funny, it was great). Nope, his knowledge of house building and applied it directly to this truck design.

I groaned but humored him when he invited me to check it out. We stepped in through a regular sized door and looked in on a kitchen area. Now mind you, it's the size of a truck bed on the outside, but on the inside there are standard size rooms. The guy's freaking amazing.

Then he takes me on the “tour” because this place is two stories with what I would say are two 12 by 20 rooms. Very spacious. And each of the rooms serves a double purpose, like kitchen and dining, then living room and sleeping. I think they were 10 foot ceilings too. He's still working on it, but what's there is impressive and I tell him as much.

Then I woke up.

I know, I know, what does that have to do with anything? Right? Well in real life my dad is very sparse with praise. He feigns interest in anything your working on just long enough to tell you about what he's working on. While my mom reads the blog, I have no illusions as to my dad reading it. It's not that he's not a nice guy, and it's not that he doesn't love me, it's just that he isn't interested and has too many of his own projects to worry about. And it also likely has something to do with his not having a father in his life when he was growing up, so he simply doesn't know how.

The dream reminded me of all of this. I'd been thinking about it a week or two ago when I was working with my dad on the garage. I noted how important it is that we give praise to others, how picking out positives can inspire a person to push forward where as criticizing will only lead to dragging them down. Often the criticism comes in the form of “helping,” we're just trying to point out the things that need work, but too much of that can be detrimental.

Then again, too much positive is also detrimental. We can't go around thinking we are the best that ever was either. That's just be delusional and it doesn't lead to growth. Or, conversely, it leads to our not respecting the opinion of the person giving it. It becomes a mother's unconditional praise (don't worry mom, mothers can get away with it, others can't) and therefore loses value.

Now, while it's all fine and well to talk about how we can encourage others in our life, this blog is supposed to be about you. How does me telling you about this help? Quite simply, you have to be able to recognize these things when you run into them in life. You have to be able to not only see it when it happens, but be able to predict it.

I no longer go into a situation with my dad hoping that he'll take note of something that I did and say, “Wow, you did that? I'm really impressed. Tell me about it. How did you get those miters to match up so well? And you say you built the entire door frame from scratch? That's slick.”

No, I go into those situations expecting this: first he's not going to recognize anything unless I point it out, and second he's going to have this kind of response, “Looks good. How long did that take? I'd of just bought a pre-made one. Why waste the time doing it yourself? Looks good though.” That's not a compliment, it's a euphemism. My ability to recognize this doesn't shield me from it entirely, and understanding why he does it helps some too, but being able to predict it helps most of all. Combine them and I can pretty much shield myself from any ill effects by avoiding the situation altogether.

Does this mean that I never go to him for advice? Not at all. I am fully aware that there are things that he knows much more about than I do. And so I ask for advice knowing that I will likely get good information that can start me off on my path, I just don't turn to him for encouragement while I'm on said path, or praise when I finally reach its end unless of course it's a path of his choosing.

As writers we need to learn to notice these traits in others, understand them, and then understand for ourselves what we need from whom. Don't open yourself up to everyone's criticism, figure out who is good at what and then turn to them at the point in your journey when you need them. Say you're all finished up with your story. You've had it critiqued a hundred times and revised it a hundred more. You can't look at it anymore. It's as good as it's going to get. Don't then turn around and take it to your most critical of friends whose pastime it is to find flaws in the Mona Lisa.

In our stories we can simply make characters act the way we need them to or come up with the appropriate character to put in the situation. In life we don't have such luxuries. We have to look around at the cast of characters available to us, figure out which roles we need them to play, and then turn to them when it's time for them to say their lines.


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