Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Kindness vs. Honesty

A friend posted the following on social media:

“Brutal feedback tends to shut us down as #actors & #writers. So let's be kind when we're giving critiques to others.”

Generally, I'm all for kindness but more than anything else, I place a much higher premium on honesty.

Everyone's a critic
(CC BY-ND 4.0) Alex Pepperhill
No matter how much someone might try to prepare themselves, honest, constructive feedback can still feel brutal, even when those offering said feedback have absolutely no intention of hurting anyone’s feelings. Of course, I can’t think of a situation where any decent person would deliberately try to inflict emotional trauma onto another by offering malicious feedback.

Some might conflate “kindness” with “sugar coating” when it comes to offering notes on someone’s work but I think this can be counterproductive. Especially if doing so negates any chance for the person receiving the notes to actually implement them.

I would much rather be subjected to a brutally honest critique, stated cogently—passionately even—than to get the critical equivalent of a pat on the head for my efforts all because someone wanted to be kind instead of honest.

From time to time, I participate in a writers group that focuses it’s efforts on screenwriting. I’ve submitted a number of screenplays to this group—as well as an extended essay that I later published—and received a great deal of very helpful feedback from them. There have been occasions when I’ve gone home feeling somewhat demotivated–even a little depressed–after listening to the critiques. Those feelings even carried over into the following days. It’s not a pleasant experience but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I consider the members of this group to be my friends and they know a lot more about screenwriting than I do so in addition to the great deal of affection that I feel for them, I also have a great deal of respect for their knowledge and experience and I know that taking their notes seriously will improve my storytelling and make me a better writer.

I’ve attended other writers groups, including one that existed for the sole purpose of encouraging its members to keep writing—there’s nothing at all wrong with that but one of the ways they did this was to require that critiques be gentle and encouraging so that members are not discouraged from continuing to write. For those who enjoy writing and just want to write for its own sake, this is fine. For those who want to become better writers, it’s not going to be very helpful.

Sometimes I find myself contentedly engrossed in a movie or TV show until somebody says something that I’m pretty sure was INTENDED to evoke a relevant emotion in the audience but instead winds up just sounding stupid and does nothing to develop the story or the character. There have also been times when I’ve seen an otherwise talented actor pretty much phone-in their performance at a key juncture in the plot. It’s times like these that shatter the precious suspension of disbelief I rely upon to enjoy the viewing experience and I wind up feeling annoyed, even angry, for reasons that are completely unrelated to the story.

For the lazy acting, one can blame the actor and the director. But when it comes to bad writing, I have to ask, “Who’s the idiot in charge who signed off on this draft? Who didn’t get pissed when they read it and have the human decency to cross out the offending line with a red pen and send it back to the writers’ room? Why do I have to be the one who gets pissed off by lousy spoken dialogue that could have been fixed when it was only lousy writing? What brain-dead, no-talent suit green-lit this project as is, let alone allowed the script to even get into the hands of the actor and ruin an otherwise okay story? Especially if I was intrigued enough by the concept to take the time to watch it?”

I’m not going to lie, I’ve written crap before. Dialogue so trite that the nicest critique I received was a hand written “REALLY?!?” in the margin. Prose so insipid it pissed off more than one reader that didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. As someone who takes their pursuit of writing seriously, I want to know about these reactions. If I write something so poorly that it angers a reader to the point that they want nothing more to do with the story that I’m trying to tell, it’s going to affect the audience in the same way and I really don’t want to risk that happening. Better that I piss off a handful of my friends in private with what Anne Lamott called a “shitty first draft” than a vast audience of strangers with something that wasn’t ready for public consumption all because the preliminary readers were too nice to tell me the truth about how offensively awful my writing was.

Writers and actors have a responsibility to emotionally affect their audience in a way that drives the story forward, not take them out of the experience of the narrative. If a reader or viewer comes away from the story feeling any intense emotions, it should never be because of how poorly it was written or performed.

All that being said, a kind critique may do no “harm” to an individual’s emotions–or their ego–but it probably isn’t very helpful to them if they’re at all serious about pursuing their interests professionally. Honest critique can feel “brutal” but to the person who endures it well—puts their ego in check, really listens to what is being said about their work and applies it immediately to their next draft or performance—the benefits can be invaluable.

(After going through a few drafts myself, I was going to ask a friend of mine to critique this before I posted it but he looked kinda busy.)