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Friday, April 24, 2015

Knowing What They Want From You

How many of us are asked to look something over and give an opinion?  In general, not limited to professional requests?  Most of us, right?  From the child who comes up to you in an outfit he put together himself and asks ‘how do I look?’ to the acquaintance who comes shyly up to you and asks if you would mind looking at his ‘story’ and telling him what you think. 

It’s a part of living, people asking for your thoughts.  To a great degree, that is what underlies a great deal of modern business.  Consulting, diagnosing, advising (financial, editorial, culinary, medical)…it is everywhere.  Say, can I ask you what you think of this? 

Years ago a friend, who posted regularly on a board I used to frequent, began a very small photography business. She was in a home situation where she really needed to make a little money to make ends meet. And since she had some ability, she hired herself out to take photos of children’s birthday parties, pets, horsey events, all on a small scale in a rural area of the United States. She shared some of her photo scrapbooks with the board and asked how we liked them.   They were good, for a beginning professional. In fact, I’d have described her work as that of a ‘talented amateur’. She needed polish and practice and the opportunity to rub shoulders with other professional photographers, but the eye was there, and improvement was inevitable.  

Most of the people oohed and aahed over the pet photos, said nice things, were supportive. But one person responded differently. "These are terrible," she said in her post. "Look at that cat photo and then go to Chanan Photography's website and look at his photos. You aren't in the same league." Nothing helpful was said, no specific criticism, just the overall, scornful thumbs-down. And she said she was being helpful to a friend. 

I’m often asked to try something a friend cooked and let him know if it’s all right.  Someone has found a new favorite type of music.  Someone is considering getting a certain type of car.  Someone wants me to read something he or she has written, whether a manuscript or a published book or a sheaf of poems. What do I think? 

I think a lot of things.  I have a decent eye for art (can’t draw at all, myself), enjoy music, know how to cook to suit myself, and I write.  The important question is this:  What is the asker looking for? 

That person standing with a happy smile and a manila folder with papers in it, the friend who emailed me with a .mobi attachment, the friend who calls me up in excitement because she has the most fabulous idea for a story and she’s just so excited!  What do they want?  Do they want me to give my unvarnished, sincere assessment of a piece of work?  Like a line-edit or a beta-read?  Where they want me to be completely factual?   

I can do that, and I can be thorough about it.  I can say, “You know, a strong man wearing a lion skin and fighting a twelve-headed dragon-like monster has been handled many times.  It’s old hat now, unless you can put a good spin on it.” To a good friend I can say, “You just told me you’ve got a deadline breathing down your neck right now: are you making excuses to fail, or has this truly grabbed you?”  Or I can say, “A new spin on Heracles and the Hydra?  That could be fun to write…  How would you have it set?  Modern times?  Magical realism? Or dystopian where the old gods and monsters of mythology return?  Hmmm…” (Note that none of these are destructive.) 

I was in an advanced Poetry class, my senior year in college.  As in writing poetry.  I’ve inflicted enough of my verse on readers of this blog, so won’t give examples. 

A delightful older woman, a part-time student, was drinking coffee with me one day after class.  She liked what I wrote and thought I might like to see her daughter’s work.  Would I mind?  I told her that if her daughter did not object, I’d be happy to. 

I saw her at the next class, and she put a folder full of handwritten sheets into my hands, beamed, and left.  I returned to my dorm room, sat down and put my feet up, and began to read. 

The poems were scraps of self-conscious emotion.  The words had no flow.  It was like listening to the disjointed exclamations of someone on the phone after a major event.  They were, for me, truly terrible.  Not at all to my taste,  nothing that I would ever want to purchase or read.  I gathered the pages, tapped them into alignment, put them in their folder, and sat back to think. 

I saw the mother at the next class, and handed the folder to her with a smile.  She returned my smile with a delighted one of her own and sat down beside me.  “Did-did you read them?” she asked. 

“I did,” I said. 

The smile widened.  “Well?  What did you think?” 

“Your daughter writes with pure emotion,” I said, and watched her smile soften.  “It is as though her pen is catching her feelings and putting them on the page.  As though I am sitting there with her as she feels things and expresses them.” 

Now she was beaming. “Yes!” she said, holding the folder against her chest.  “She is so…so spontaneous.  I knew you’d see it!” 

“It was generous of her to share them with me,” I said. “I sense that she is very private, and it probably took her a struggle to agree to it.” 

The mother smiled and put the poems away.  “She is.  I’m proud of her.” We continued friendly until I left the university to graduate. 

I could have given a critique of the poetry.  I could have told her just what I didn’t like about her daughter’s poetry.  I could have told her to check the poetry of (name any one of hundreds) and see where she fell short.  I could have given suggestions for change.  The reason I did not is that it struck me, as I was thumbing through these very emotional, very private writings, that my friend only wanted someone she thought was a good writer to look at her daughter’s work and say, “Isn’t that wonderful?”  That’s all.  Everything I said was true.  And, looking back after twenty years, I suspect her daughter grew and evolved and harnessed that emotional power into something pretty good.  You never know. 

My point is that when we are asked our opinion of another’s work or idea, we need to be certain what is being asked of us, and to moderate our response accordingly.  If a line edit is not requested, don’t give one.  Or else say, “If I run into a typo or something, do you want me to mark it?  It’ll interrupt the flow, but I’d be happy to do it.” 
…and if a friend in financial difficulties places her efforts at photography before me to look at, I can say, “You’ve got talent.  That’s a good shot.  Are you taking lessons or working with another photographer?” 

The best critics do that, and it’s always the truth. 

And this brings me to the April 24 edition of the Celebrating the Small Things blog hop, started by VikLit and now run by Lexa Cain, our fearless new leader and her two wonderful co-hosts L.G. Keltner @ Writing Off The Edge
Katie @ TheCyborgMom

Today I am celebrating two things.  First, I have so enjoyed remembering my co-student and reflecting on how very proud she was of her daughter.  I am certain her daughter knew it, too.

And this weekend I'm driving south to see my mother and speak with her, at her request about living facilitites that will enable her to be independent and still have lots of people around, and be confortable.  She's a stubborn one, but I have great hopes.

So what are you  celebrating?  (And have a wonderful weekend!)


  1. I generally don't give critiques unless I can figure out what I like and dislike about something. And recently, I've been reminded (by others and myself) that it's best to be honest and tactful.

    Good luck talking to your mom.

  2. I try to make sure I've said something constructive, because I've been on the other end of people who put their frustration of my work in their critiques, and it's not a good feeling.

    We have senior living apartments and housing communities in Delaware. I hope you have something like that where you are for your mom. :)

  3. I don't review books or give critiques unless it's from my own personal reading or viewing. That said, as an author, I've learned to take myself out of the review world. In other words, my job is to create books and to find my readers. Period. It is not my job to try and get everyone to like my work.

    I hope the senior living arrangement worked out.

    Precious Monsters

  4. Google got funny on me so I am sorry if this comment is a duplicate. I can tell you are a kind and thoughtful person by this post. I hope the visit with your mom goes well.

  5. I think you did the right thing with the poetry girl. Unless someone is your most trusted crit partner and you expect brutal honesty from each other, it's best to focus on the positive and be encouraging. Have a lovely weekend!

  6. What I love about your comments is the way you focus on the person and their needs rather than yourself. You can see outside your own skin, and it comes through in your writing.