September 24, 2010

It's Raining Outside and I'm in the Forum

No new writing projects to speak of this week.  My brain has been on the fritz, quiet -- mimes in the form of god on high.  Yea, right, something like that. 

Last week’s contest win raked in $300 cash, free tuition to MatadorU travel writer’s school, and bragging rights.  That’s what I’ve been doing, writing some “evergreen” articles (ie.  “How to…” and “…101”).  That sort of thing. 

The online school has a forum where you can post your work and have others tell you how brilliant and special you are.  The idea is to judge the words, not the person.  I was expecting the teachers/editors to be harsh, kind of like an S&M arrangement.  For a writer, the payoff is pretty much the same.  Many authors provoke feedback with their posts. "Here's the story.  Now let's have it!"  Rarely do they get the full-on kick in the gut they requested.  Perhaps Takayo’s straightfoward brand of criticism has rubbed off on me. 

The problem is everyone receives a hodgepodge of positive advice. I know it’s a school, a place where mistakes are supposed to be made and learned from.  They do that.  However, my comments come across like a hyperactive perfectionist.  A typical comment for a story might be “What the hell are you talking about, and why hasn’t anyone ripped this piece to shreds yet?”  Of course, I never say that.  The grim reaper comes early. No more days on the couch in your underwear.  We're all walking on the dreams of writers in this forum.  I’ve found it works best to tread lightly, praising a single element or turn of phrase, and then let them have it. 

I met an American writer named Alan when I was living in China.  He offered to read one of my stories and edit it, so we met up at a Starbucks.  It was a ten-page essay about an experience I had with a fundamentalist Christian militant.  He flipped through it, and chuckled.  “Ok,” he said.  “You can write.”  It was a neutral statement, but back then, I considered it a notch on my bedpost.  I blew the statement out of proportion, and let it permeate the nebulous regions of my mind.  I had the time.

He returned the story two weeks later with copious highlighter marks and side notes.  There was no talk of potential.  Just doing, and re-doing.

If a story can be likened to a dinosaur skeleton, as Stephen King states in On Writing, mine was still half-covered by layers of dirt.  Sometimes you need a shovel to uncover it.  Other times you need a horsehair brush.  You pick up tools along the way.

Over time, Alan’s comment took on different meanings.  When he first handed the story back to me, I remembered his comment, and it felt mocking.  Months later, I found myself using those very words after reading another writer’s work.  Funny how that changed. 

So, I’m on the forum, offering my trade secrets to anyone who will listen.  The thought has occurred to me:  Perhaps my ideas aren’t so good. Outside the safety of the forum, perhaps I'm just stumbling, aimlessly.  After all, not too long ago I too coupled adjectives with adverbs, scouring each line with heroically bloodshot eyes.

But I’m not an editor – my comments don’t show up illuminated in orange – so people take my comments less seriously.  Which is a good thing.  Many people are afraid of making mistakes, and, as I have learned in a recent Ken Robinson TED speech, "mistakes are the basis of creativity."

Lucky for me, I am diametrically drawn to mistakes.  Nothing serious; I've never lost a finger, or woke up next to a farm animal. These are labeled under "accident," which, I believe, is the basis of "genius."  I'm not quite there yet.  Besides, I don't think my wife signed on for that.  In the meantime, come to the forum and you can find me, talking about life and creativity in ways that I can only dream of regretting.  

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