As part of my desire to improve my writing skills, I often attend an informal meeting of writers who live in our small and significantly creative community. At such meetings, we share examples of our work, and offer constructive feedback to one another. A wide variety of material is brought forward, and it’s very interesting to experience such different perspectives, subjects of study and styles of writing. Having once worked as an adult educator, I have a strong drive to offer feedback in a constructive way, although most of the time it is flavoured with a strong sense of “I’m not sure I have the right to be saying this...”.
At our most recent meeting, fellow writers were rehearsing pieces of work which they intend to read out at a forthcoming writing festival event. A ten minute time limit is strictly enforced for this event, and so everyone had exactly that time to present their piece in rehearsal. As usual, several people stepped up and read out some powerful passages. Some were funny, one or two were very funny and one or two were the kind of pieces which make the listener sit quietly for a little while after they have finished, absorbing the import of what they have just heard.
One of the people present was a stranger to me. He immediately struck me as someone who considered himself to be the comic wit in the room, interjecting at multiple points to share his idea of humour with us. After the third such intervention, it became irritating. By intervention number twelve, I was in danger of crushing the spectacles I’d been fiddling with.
Relief of a sort came when it transpired that he was here to read out his own piece of work. As he stepped up to the lecturn, I braced myself for an avalanche of hysterical ‘humour’. What followed was prefaced by a preamble which rambled from conspiracy theory about 9/11 to an indecipherable explanation of the background to the passage he was reading. A feeling of dread came over me as the phrase “…what really happened in the days before nine-eleven.” reached my brain. Oh God. The reading then proceeded; what it contained doesn’t really matter here, but trust me, it was not good. I’m being too gentle here: it was bloody awful.
At the conclusion, a smattering of applause politely filled the silence. I confess to being more on the side of smattering than applauding. Every part of me wanted to offer constructive feedback to the man who had tried to make ‘jokes’ about everyone else’s offering, but I found myself withdrawing from doing so. I’d been enthusiastic in my praise for other pieces and had offered what I considered to be gentle, positive feedback about the presentation of the work, but here I found myself unable to offer anything of value. I stared at the floor.
Part of my difficulty was that over the years I’ve developed the habit of giving developmental feedback in the form of what we called a ‘shit sandwich.’ That is: positive things either side of the developmental feedback (the proverbial ‘shit’) in order to protect those with delicate self-esteem, and to ensure that development is free to happen. In this case, I felt that I had before me not a shit sandwich, but a tower of excrement with no bread-based product below or above it.
Faced with nought but a runaway list of things he could have done more effectively, I decided that my best strategy was to keep my mouth closed in case I put my foot into it. What made it worse somehow was the discovery that he obviously didn’t understand the feedback he was receiving from others. My feedback gland went into spasm, which was a good thing as it induced a fit of coughing and prevented me from contributing in any way to the critique of his work (which, he was at pains to point out, was a five hundred page novel and in the film version, was to be translated into twelve languages). The word ‘fuckwit’ began to loom large in my thinking, a sure sign that silence was best advised.
It’s a new thing, this critique-ing of creative work from other people. Usually, I’m inclined to be impressed, which is something that’s easy to share, but when the work is so bad it’s painful to listen to, I find that I have few options available to me. I have a serious problem with not telling the truth, for one thing, and my face tends to tell the story that my mouth is trying to find a way around, for another. Perhaps, on reflection, saying nothing is the best option of all; maybe it’s best to keep quiet and avoid hurting the feelings of another person – even if that person is a dyed-in-the-wool, no holds barred, confirmed fuckwit.