Commenting on Creativity

I originally started this blog because I wanted to share my creative writing with the world. I deleted most of the first posts I made, as looking back the writing I did then seemed terrible. I’m sure if I look at the writing I did a couple of years ago I’d think it awful, but that’s the point of learning and growing – hopefully, you’ll always get better.

It’s never been a secret that one day, somehow, my dream is to be an author. Or, more specifically, a published author who can earn a steady income from books written alone. I love my current job, and if I could quit tomorrow to just write books I wouldn’t – I’d rather stay in the job I have now and write books for fun. But this isn’t what I want to talk about today. No, right now I want to write about commenting on creativity, and how that can help and hinder someone.

I was talking with my flatmate the other day about creative writing, as I sign up to so many free courses to get hints and tips for writing well. There are so many documents on my computer of half-finished stories, bullet points of ideas, and even a couple of ‘finished’ books. I have so many notebooks (which I hoard to an excessive extent) with hastily scribbled musings and random scenes, as well as several jottings on the notes app on my phone. When I was in university, it made sense to me to pick a creative writing module in my second year – it was, after all, what I dreamed of doing one day and happened to be doing most days anyway.

It’s safe to say now that this isn’t exactly a happy story.

That creative writing class was one of the worst classes I ever took at university, partly due to the terrible teaching and partly due to the soul-crushing, heart-wrenching trauma of losing faith in your dream and what you love. Yes, it sounds melodramatic, but creative writing is something I’ve done all my life – from terribly written plays when I was tiny that ripped off Scooby-Doo, to the very short book I wrote when I was 16 and foolishly thought that it was good enough to be published – and to go to a class all bright-eyed and hopeful only to come out with my work torn apart with vicious comments circling around in my mind, I thought that was the end for me.

There is a difference between constructive criticism and just criticism. Telling someone ‘your characters are a bit weak, you should try building up their backstory more to reflect a more complex character as a whole’ is very different to saying ‘your characters are awful’. And that’s what that class was for me.

Each week someone would have to bring in their response to a task – there was writing a short story based around a recent news piece, or writing a story that happened over the course of an hour. We spent the class focussing on that person’s work, and giving feedback on how we found it. I ended up with the task to rewrite something that happened to you from someone else’s perspective, something that I spent a long long time on just because I was so excited about it.

I like to think I’m not completely naive. I’m not very good at taking harsh criticism as it is, and very much like the sandwich tactic where you give a bad point in between two nicer comments. Still, I went into that class and braced myself, repeating a mantra that it was all good constructive criticism. And then the teacher opened up the conversation with “So who knows who Jonathan (my main character in the story) is? No one?” She turned to me and immediately said, “And that’s why your story isn’t any good. Because we don’t know who the main character is.”

It felt very much like a slap in the face, especially as I tried to say that I had tried to gradually introduce him in a way through first person narration that didn’t feel like a paragraph of him looking in the mirror and describing himself and his life story. Still, the teacher insisted, it was very bard form that you didn’t discover his name until the third paragraph, and the fact that you don’t get his full background in a 1,000 word piece just isn’t good enough.

And so it began. On and on she went, with some of the class chipping in with “your style just doesn’t work”, “your language choice is poor”, “I just didn’t like it at all, really”. I remember being given back 15 copies of my work, with scribbles all over it. There were some kinder ones, with comments every now and then saying “I love this bit!”, but those weren’t the ones I thought about afterwards.

So after that class, I ended up keeping my head down for the rest of the module. Frankly I felt useless, and didn’t really care to continue it. I don’t like sharing my writing even on a good day, and after that I’m loathe to share even a paragraph of something I’ve written to friends who I know wouldn’t even dream of saying anything in a nasty way.

Commenting on someone’s creativity can change the way they are creative altogether. I’m very much of the belief that a comment, remark, or critique made in a way that’s meant to be positive, or rather something said by someone who means well, is always good. When 16-year-old me had an email back from an agent saying my story needed more developing, as the main character was said to be one age but came across as another, I was at first mortified. Then, after ten minutes of thinking my life was over and plenty of chocolate, I realised that an agent had taken the time to look at my work and give me some feedback. Good feedback, at that. Looking at that terrible book now (a moment of silence for ‘Fizzy’, who will never see the light of day again), the agent was exactly right. The main character does come across as a different age, but they didn’t write back to me saying ‘This is crap, burn it, your character is terrible’. They gave me constructive criticism – which really, is a critique with guidance. Yes, the character was terrible, but I was told why and most importantly how to make it better.

Creative work is a tricky beast at best, and critiquing creative work is even worse. You know, as well as everyone else does, how much heart and soul and effort you pour into creative work. I’m sure everyone in that class felt as precious about their work as I did about mine. But it’s difficult to comment on someone else’s creation in a way that is helpful without being unkind, which is something that I think my old teacher needed to be taught. She would quite happily tear work to shreds, but offer no form of guidance for how it could be better. On another person’s work she’d just occasionally write ‘no’ next to certain paragraphs, which was as illuminating as being stuck in a cardboard box in the dark.

So the next time you comment on someone’s creativity – be it someone’s song, a rhyme they made up, a story they scribbled on a napkin – take a moment to form whatever thoughts you have in something that is helpful. You can be positive and critique someone at the same time. Even if what that person has done is a flaming pile of cow dung, you can still say something nice before you deal that blow – like the fact that the flaming pile of cow dung is a really good first step, there’s just a few changes you’d make….

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