Keeping It Secret: Thoughts On Criticism and Fledgling Ideas.

In many careers or hobbies there is a level of superstition. In some it is more obvious than others: many have heard of the superstitions of fishermen and sailors. Even modern fishermen, such as the late Phil Harris (best known for the show Deadliest Catch), have unshakable beliefs. Harris believed Friday was an unlucky day, and reportedly said, “I don’t leave on a Friday, ever, because the last two times I did I blew up the main engine. So I just don’t do it.” (q.in. E!Online). Baseball players are also know for this, especially in the case of the “Bambino Curse,” thought to be the reason that the Red Soxs went so long without winning the World Series. As I have come to both know more authors and to know myself as a writer, I have found some interesting “truths” that seem to be persistent. The largest of these is one that I have spent some significant time thinking about lately: the idea that a project should be kept secret until the very end.

After I became upset after criticisms of a story idea, I was speaking with a friend about the struggles of even getting an idea off the ground. She sympathized with my plight, and then told me that she never told anyone her story ideas until they were written. If she did, she always seemed to lose the desire to write the story at all. It was something that I had experienced myself; if I dared tell a story idea to another, suddenly my pages stayed blank, my interest wained, and the story never got told. The same thing happened if I posted stories in sections for others to read. While for a while I could keep up the momentum, suddenly my will to continue the story would fade, even in the face of good reviews where the commenters were asking for more. So why does this happen? Is this some way that our muse punishes us for becoming over-excited and revealing our blessed ideas too soon?

While the mental image of a muse snatching away an idea, huffing with anger at some author’s head, and flittering off with it is somewhat amusing, we began to delve into the more realistic reasons that it might be. The first we came up with is one of the most dreaded fears of a writer: criticism. For many of us, writing is a profoundly personal thing, and every piece of writing seems to hold some delicate piece of us. When we let that out into the world, especially when it is half-formed and new, any harsh words seemed to be magnified in our head. I once told my mother that it was like taking your baby to a mothers’ group and fearing everyone else was going to call him ugly. To show off a piece of writing to the world, you have to be, to some extent, in love with it: otherwise you would have never had the inspiration to put it down on paper at all.

Few of us take criticism of someone or something we love well. This is why many, many writing books will tell you that one of the first things you need to learn is how to handle criticism. Criticism can help a creator grow in whatever field they are in, and help them refine their art. That sort of education, however, is very tough to get through. My mother was an art major, during her college days, and she told me that fine artists have much the same problem: “The first time someone gets their art critiqued they just lose their minds. They do not know how to handle it.” Many writers, even those that “handle” criticism just fine outwardly, often struggle with hurt and doubt after having a piece, or even just an idea, harshly judged.

While criticism is an extremely powerful tool for writers, it is often a tool pulled out at the wrong times. My friend mentioned that few would look at a sculptor’s work and critique it when the artist had only just finished molding the feet. Plenty of the population, however, feels perfectly at home listening to a hundred-word synopsis of an idea and critiquing every flaw. Everyone seems to have a way it can be done differently, some even getting to the point of taking the story away from the writer and telling them how it should end. No words have yet been written on down, the greater explanations and build-up that can take hundreds of pages are not yet existent, and yet somehow these listeners think that they can completely comprehend the scope of the project and “fix” all of its flaws.

Many writers’ answers seem to be the same as my friends: do not tell anyone until the work is completed. After that it can be read, critiqued, made to bleed with red pen; the raw emotion of creation is gone and one can step back from it, taking the criticism in a calm, rational manner. One of the writers in my critique group, Duke Pennel, echoed this sentiment when he leaned over and told me that I should not tell family about my writing until it was done and I could hand them a finished piece. To a large extent, I do believe they are right. At the very beginning of a project, an idea can be too fragile and too easily crushed, especially by those close to you. Any criticism they give seems to be valid, even when in truth they likely do not have all the information needed to make a well-educated decision. At least for me, however, this is a double-edged sword. I grow extremely excited and involved with new ideas, and often I want to share them with others. It reminds me of a quote I found in The Write Type by Karen Peterson, credited to John Irving:

It’s my experience that very few writers, young or old, are really seeking advice when they give out their work to be read. They want support; they want someone to say, “Good job.”

This is often how I feel when I have a fledgling idea. I do not want criticism, not then. I want someone to say “That’s cool!” so I can cling to those two little words and brandish them against my self-doubt. It is a bit contradictory: how can someone be certain it is a great idea if they do not have enough information to say that it is a bad idea? The answer is, they cannot. At the end of the day, that is not the point. The point is that everyone needs someone to hold their hand once in a while, to say, “You can do this.” That person has no idea what the future will bring, if the person they are reassuring will be able to overcome the odds or not. Yet all of us need that irrational faith, to know there is someone right behind us that thinks well of us, whether it is a parent, a friend, or even a stranger. It is our protection against ourselves, to fend off that self-editor just long enough to get our words down on paper. Maybe then we will be strong enough to hand our stories over to the red pen and let the real process of refinement begin.

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  1. I can’t talk about ideas, but once I’ve started writing it doesn’t bother me to throw it out there. If I try to talk about ideas, they seem to wither away and die. Every time.

    Another superstition about writing I have is that if you are gifted with an incredible idea, and do not immediately do something to capture it (notes, sketch, scribble – anything) it floats off into the ethers for someone else who may be receptive at the time it’s ready for conception.

    • I have to wonder why that is. I rambled about how others might effect us at the idea stage, but I wonder if there’s something in ourselves, as well? Maybe it’s that the prime directive of a writer is to tell a story, and if we let out all of an idea, we’ve told the whole story and our work is done. What’s the use of expanding after that?

      I don’t blame you for that superstition at all. I carry index cards around with me now to write ideas down on, and I’ve (very recently, even) dragged myself out of bed to go type a single sentence that came to me before I fell asleep.

    • Madison Woods
    • July 31st, 2010

    Oops. I was logged in at my herbal blog when I made the previous comment – aewisdom is me… LOL.

    • Madison Woods
    • August 2nd, 2010

    Yes! I’ve done the single sentence thing, too. Even if not a very coherent sentence, it captures the essence, lol.

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