Author, Actor, Playwright, Excellent Parallel Parker

Rules of the Lake and Ashes to Water are now available for Kindle and Nook!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In Which I Invite Criticism and Get a Pantload

I'm staring at this big pile of ironing I have to do. My summer wardrobe is mostly linen, so I iron it. Usually I don't mind ironing. I just strap on a feedbag, turn on The Golden Girls, and dive in. But today, meh. I'd rather go wrinkled.

This attitude may be because of that earthquake yesterday. The epicenter was about 40 minutes away, so we probably got the brunt of it. As I cowered beneath my desk, I remember thinking, "I didn't get the ironing done." Pathetic,right? So I've decided not to give in to my anxieties.

There's another anxiety I'm going to let go. I sent off a first draft of my new play to a small group of trusted and brilliant friends, and asked them to comment. I asked them not to feel obligated—only if they wanted to. The reviews are coming in. They're mixed, and that's okay. In fact, it's exciting. I love the revision process, especially those moments when the penny drops and you say, "Eureka!" I love that.

But today, I am now officially short one friend. Not because he hated the play (which he did), but because he was insensitive, rude, and cruel. And how's this for irony: the play advocates for civility.

I will pause while that sinks in. While critiquing a play about civility, this person could not have been less civil.

His critique arrived right after another friend's, and she loved the play. (She has since ascended in rank and will receive for the holidays, a beautiful hand-painted picture of my left foot).  And I could tell she "got it," too. She got what I was trying to say. So I felt like a skeet. You know, one of those discs that gets launched through the air like a jet-packed frisbee?

To spare others that feeling of being blown to pieces and landing in a swampy abyss, I thought I'd remind you how to write a sensitive critique, so if a friend asks you to critique something they wrote, you'll know what NOT to do should you decide to say yes. Here we go:

1) When critiquing a friend's play, do not use the words like disgusting, insulting, long-and-boring, or recommend they start over, then admit you are in a bad mood because you saw a play the night before and you hated it.

2) Do not attempt to rewrite your friend's play, especially if you recently wrote a play you think is great, and think all plays should exist in the same realistic world in which you set your plays.

3) Do not admit that you don't read plays anymore, then attach a document about how to write one.

4) Do not berate the author for a character's "insulting" broken English, then launch into a story about a city youth speaking Ebonics.

5) Do not ask questions that indicate you skimmed the play, at best.

6) Do not malign one-person shows because in them, people talk about their lives, and you think that other people's lives aren't interesting unless they are Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson.

7) Do not spew venom, then end your diatribe with a smiley face.

8) Do not ask "Are you sorry you asked?" because that tells your friend that you know you're being an asshole.

Now for the flip side. I've been asked to read people's work before, and offer a critique. It's hard. Some people, like Josh Olson, who wrote the screenplay for the movie A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, will not do it anymore. (If you want to read his screed click here, but be warned: you haven't seen this many f-bombs since David Mamet spilled hot coffee on his own crotch.)But if you agree to read someone else's script, you want to be helpful. You want to be encouraging. You want to keep that friend. But critiquing requires a lot of time, not just to read the work, but to comment with intelligence and sensitivity. You know it's important to them, so you want to do a good job.

And if you do think the plot is weak, the characters bland, or the theme of the story murky, you use "I" statements. I was confused. I didn't like this character. I figured out the ending perhaps before you wanted me to. "I" statements are respectful, and acknowledge that this is your opinion.

Am I afraid of the truth? No. I'm afraid of arrogant, mean people. So if you agree to tell me what you think, please don't shoot me out of the sky. It hurts, and it makes me not like you anymore.

It also makes me not want to do laundry.

Thanks for listening.


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