My earliest memory of receiving praise for a piece of writing I had done comes from my first year at secondary school. Obviously it was part of an English lesson but I remember it because of that. English was always my favoured subject. I always looked forward to it. Our teacher used to say to us,
‘Class, you have until the end of the lesson to write a story, off you go.’
On this particular occasion I had been having a relatively dry patch, creatively speaking, and so I was thrilled when the teacher came back to me and said,
‘Mark, this is really good stuff. I really enjoyed it. This is the kind of stuff you used to write! Write more of it.’
I do remember thinking, what do you mean ‘used to?’ Still, it was a bold move on my part. Most other people would write variations on Robinson Crusoe or other well-known classics. I wrote something about a Mermaid-man ( a Merman?) and I can remember describing his movement through an undersea tunnel, his great battle axe scraping the worn stone sides.
Another memory, a much more recent one this time, comes from a piece of fiction I wrote a couple of years ago. It was about a paramedic and his patient. I think I wrote that as some sort of cathartic release from feelings I had cultivated at work. Basically, it is very easy to make a snap judgement of someone based upon the most minuscule piece of personal information; it’s even easier to be wrong about that person. So I wrote that piece and I handed it out to a few friends. In retrospect, this was a mistake. They were all nice with their comments but not one offered any real criticism. To me, this highlights the problem with handing your cherished work to a friend, especially one who does not want to tread on that friendship. What could they say? I mean I believe them when they say they enjoyed it, and I don’t believe they would have said so if they hadn’t. Yet, I don’t think they would have offered any criticism in a negative light for fear of damaging relations. I understand that now and I shan’t be passing my work to friends again in a hurry. As much as I am grateful for their taking the time to read my nonsense, they were just too nice damn it!
My harshest critic is my wife. She’ll tell me straight if something is god awful and to be binned at once in a fiery bin. Once I gave her a sci-fi story I had just finished. I was immensely proud of it and was about to submit it to a publishing house that afternoon when I had the brilliant idea of asking her to take a look. I’m not sure what I was expecting really. I mean I loved it. I thought the plot was tight, the characters were believable and it even had an underlying theme. Yet, I still felt trepidation as I handed her my precious few pages of creative genius. She sat down and read the first page. I tried to feign disinterest but it was impossible. In the end I just sat cross legged on the floor and watched her reading. I scrutinized every expression of her face, followed her eyes as they moved across the page, imagining I knew which sentence she was currently on. Oh… she’s near the bottom of the page, I thought. She must be nearing that part where Mal the Slayer announces his big secret. She’s turning the page… and… What is she doing? She’s turning back to the first page! I’ve made a mistake?? I’ve obviously handed her the story with the pages all out of sequence. Her expression is now puzzled, confused even. She shakes her head and plods on through the second page. My insides have turned to mush. My heart has dropped out of my arse and my eyes have begun to burn in a most unmanly fashion. She doesn’t even finish the second page. She puts it all down, looks at me.
‘This makes no sense what so ever,’ she said.
I was utterly gobsmacked. I can remember staring at her in disbelief, becoming slowly aware of my own teeth grinding.
‘Your grammar isn’t very good either.’
I felt my fists clench involuntarily and thought that now would be an excellent time to leave the room. I can remember sitting down at my desk and re-reading every word over and over again. She must be wrong, I told myself. She just doesn’t ‘get’ sci-fi. I must have sat there for perhaps three hours mumbling and gnashing my teeth in the direction of the study door every time I heard her in the next room. It was then that I came up with my master plan. I am a little ashamed to admit this but stay with me. The end justifies the means.
I was convinced I had to test the theory that she didn’t understand sci-fi and that therefore she wasn’t qualified to make judgements upon my own work. So I copied someone else’s work. Ah! I cringe when I even write such a thing, but I did it. I found a short excerpt off of a blog written by an author I admire (Aaron Dembski-Bowden). I copied it, printed it, and handed it to her and then… I pretended it was my own. I’m cringing so much as I write this. I had to prove that she was wrong though. I had to prove she just didn’t understand sci-fi. I mean, if she found his work rubbish then mine must be fine right? Right?
Once again, she sat on the sofa and patiently read the piece I had given her. I could discern no emotion or reaction this time on her face and inwardly I was preparing my victory speech. Ha! I would exclaim. This has been written by a very successful author and you thought it was rubbish. You know nothing! Nothing!
She’d finished reading now and sat back drinking her tea.
‘Well?’ I asked.
She looked at me in mock surprise, clearly enjoying my discomfort. I think she could see the strain etched inch deep in my forehead though and relented.
‘It was good. Really good actually. You should write like that all the time.’
I stared at her for a few moments before standing and walking back upstairs in total silence. I presume she must have thought I was just relieved. I closed the door to my study and sat down in my chair. Then I shouted at the top of my voice, ‘Bollocks!’
I learnt an important lesson that day. Criticism, be it good or bad is extremely important to an aspiring writer. I understand that now and I take any criticism on the chin, appreciating it for what it is. I don’t worry if I get something wrong now but instead learn from it, and I’m reminded of a good quote as I write this. It’s very apt I think and a good place to finish for today.
‘I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ – Thomas A. Edison.