Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Importance of an Unbiased Eye

The inspiration for this week's series of posts came from my daughter. More precisely, it came from an essay she wrote for school. The essay was supposed to be about a challenge she'd encountered in her life.

She spent some time moaning about the impossibility of the assignment and about the general pain and suffering of her life. Then she sat down and typed up her essay, 236 words in all.

"Okay, mom. You can read it," she said.

I sat down, read her paragraphs and was blown away. When I finished I sat at my desk for a moment in awe of the genius that had poured forth from my child's fingertips.  I re-read it. Yep, still genius. Maybe I would have changed a few things but, overall, the essay had pathos, tension and a clear talent for manipulation of the written word.

Later that evening I told my husband to read the essay. "Amazing, right!" I said when he'd finished.

"Yeah, it's nice," he said in the same way he might say tulips in a vase on the breakfast room table are nice.

That's when it hit me.

You would think I would be a good editor. Me, the person who makes a point to read every fiction book on the best works of the year lists. The person who ruthlessly rips out chapters, characters, pretty prose and plot points in search of her own best writing. This person should be a good judge of writing, right?


You know how people in the writing industry advise aspiring writers to seek feedback from people other than their mother? Shockingly, there appears to be some truth to that nugget of advice. In the tone of my husband's voice, I could hear my daughter's writing was not genius, perfect, destined for greatness. I sat down and re-read her essay, all 236 words. I still couldn't see it. It was pure perfection in prose.

Apparently, where my children are concerned I lose all ability to read critically.

This is an important discovery. It tells me something crucial about those amazing readers who spend time slogging through my fresh work. First of all, those people can't be my mother. Much as my mother would happily volunteer to read my early drafts, my own inability to critique my daughter's work tells me this wouldn't be productive.

And productivity is important.

Writers need to be critiqued in a way that's productive. Readers who see genius in our every phrase aren't helpful. Reader's who can't find any redeeming value in our work aren't helpful either. In an ideal world, our first readers will push us to grow without cutting us down to the ground.

This is the writer's happy medium, the bowl of porridge that is just right (or write). Many of you commented on Monday about ways you've found constructive feedback through critique groups or other means. On Friday I'll talk a little bit about my first readers and the importance of careful listening.


Hart Johnson said...

I have some friends who 'praise my genius' too. And they were SO CRITICAL when I was early in process--they really helped keep me motivated. But you're right, that they aren't helpful for perfecting a work. And once you are serious, they can end up being detrimental because they give us false confidence. I think as a mom, I haven't fallen into that with my kids' stuff, though I'm not sure I have the ability to know what quality level they SHOULD be displaying. I think my standards may be over their age which makes me too critical.

Sabrina A. Fish said...

My critique group is my happy medium. They are great. I appreciate my mom and gram's feedback, but my critique group is definitely what helps me work polish to a level it can shine.

Great post.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

This is so true. And it's not about people who love you not wanting to say anything negative, it's that they really can't see it.

Johanna Garth said...

Hart, this is what surprised me. I *thought* I was pretty clear about my kid's shortcomings.

Sabrina, that's wonderful that you've found a good fit.

Rachel, yes I think it's almost impossible to have a clear vision of our loved ones.

The Bookworm said...

Very true. More than once I've called both my kids work 'genius', at least in my eyes it is.
We can't help it, as mothers we are biased.

Ciara said...

My mom would be opposite. Full of constructive criticism. LOL

Pame Brennan said...

Great insight! My kids are perfection too! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We must find the happy middle!
At least your kids know they can always come to you for praise.

Margo Berendsen said...

Maybe your husband wasn't as discerning as you were, either? Just a thought!!! But I think we do have a weakness as mothers. My weakness tends to be I'm too critical of my kids' work, though I try to balance it with lots of praise for imagination. Balance is so important!

Misha Gerrick said...

Yeah. For a long time I only let my Gran read what I've written, but when I got more serious about publishing, I realized that she wasn't all that critical. :-)

Johanna Garth said...

Naida, so true!

Ciara, that's funny. My daughter would probably say the same about me...hmmm...note to self, something to work on.

Pame, of course they are!

Alex, you would think but see my comment to Ciara above.

Margo, that must have been it. The essay was entered into a contest (with all the others so time will tell).

Misha, good for you. My gran doesn't care for the four letter words in my work.

Nicki Elson said...

Hey - my kids are artistic geniuses too! What a weird coincidence, hehe.

You are so right about that happy medium - and when you find it, it's like gold.