September 30

Criticism

One skill all writers need to have is the ability to accept constructive criticism with a smile on their face. It wasn’t easy for me when I first began showing people my stories and poems. Of course, I was still in high school then and I’m fairly certain teenage angst was partly to blame for my defensiveness.

But as I grew older – arguably wiser – I began to see criticism for what it was: valuable feedback. Speaking for myself, I find it difficult to read my work with unbiased eyes, especially when it’s something I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve read and reread it dozens of times, tweaked it a thousand times, and I can no longer see it from any standpoint other than that of an exhausted writer.

Allowing others to read your work and give you honest feedback is difficult, and I’ve known many aspiring writers who couldn’t handle it. They think that what they’ve written is pure gold, and to back that up they will tell you that their mother, boyfriend, sister, or roommate agreed. That isn’t unbiased, that enabling. When a fellow writer gives me a piece to read, I read it for pleasure first, then re-read it to look for flaws. Constructive criticism is a valuable tool but it doesn’t necessarily have to be heeded. All criticism, constructive or otherwise, is in the eye of the beholder. What one person loves, another will hate. But it’s still important for the writer to take any and all feedback into consideration.

There was an incident that occurred while I was in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State that still resonates with me. There was a young woman in one of my writing workshops, her first, who had turned in a decent story to the class for review. I don’t recall the exact premise, only that it was a good idea, but the story needed work. The dialog was stiff, the descriptions “flowery”, and the narrative was choppy, jumping all over the place. When it came time for the group to give feedback on the piece, the instructor asked the young woman if she had any comments before we began. She replied, “My story is just fine the way it is. My roommate read it and thought it was great, so I’m not changing a thing.”

There were a few moments of awkward silence, then the class went forward with the review while the young woman tried to ignore us. She ended up dropping the workshop the next week.

Feedback is essential, whether you agree with it or not. It gives you the opportunity to hear how readers respond to your work and can provide you with options you may not have considered. Most beginning writers have a hard time accepting criticism, but once you realize it – and learn how to swallow your pride – it can be of immense value.

RB

September 23

Inappropriate Fiction

I read a post at Tor.com recently that got me thinking. The post in question – Problematic Classics – discusses how some classic books don’t age well, especially when it comes to racism and bigotry. The author writes about the conflict felt when rereading something from childhood and discovering that it’s not quite what you remember. The stories that were once enchanting and mesmerizing are now dark and disturbing when you realize the way some people are viewed and described.

Stepping away from Sci-Fi and Fantasy for a moment, an example of this can be found in Tom Sawyer. This one comes to mind because I reread it a few years ago and, while I remembered some of racist terminology, I wasn’t prepared for just how commonplace it is in the text. It made me cringe when reading it…I mean, it’s a great novel, but it was definitely an uncomfortable read.

But I got through it by reminding myself that this book is a product of its time, a reflection of society, of people, of attitudes. It wasn’t written to be racist. Twain was an open-minded individual. Not perfect, by any means, but he was progressive and tried to treat people fairly. The words used where commonplace, reflected how people spoke and thought. That’s just being honest. And really, I think it shows progress that I felt uncomfortable reading it.

And I think that’s the point here. We should all be uncomfortable with how things used to be, but at the same time we also have to accept these books as a reminder of our past. “Those who forget the past…”, right?

Of course, that also got me thinking about myself and the stories I write. Most of my output is science fiction, weird fiction, or horror, and I haven’t delved into race or gender issues. But if I were to write a period piece, how to I address these things? Do I write authentic dialogue from the late 1800s or early 1900s? Do I portray women and minorities as they were treated back then, or do I allow my progressive, modern ideals to slip into the story? And if I do that, does that mean I’m not being honest?

Race and gender issues, any issues for that matter, can be addressed in any genre and in a variety of methods, but can we still be historically accurate without being overly offensive? I think it’s possible. The writer has to be careful, though, and choose their words carefully. Tone and intent matter, as well.

When it comes down to it, writers are artists, and artists can’t be afraid to express what’s on their minds. I feel that we also have a responsibility to be as honest as we can, to use the right context for the story we’re telling.

Racism and sexism, offset by acceptance and equality. Writers have to be able to tell their stories. On the other side of the page, readers have to consider the writer’s intent. What are they trying to say? The words on the page are not necessarily what the writer thinks or feels. They are conveying a character, writing what the they hear in their heads. Readers can’t judge the writer on the content of his or her story.

What it comes down to is that we can’t censor the past, nor can we censor the present. A book like Tom Sawyer or The Once and Future King contain language that, today, we find offensive. But we can’t let that stop us from enjoying the story for what it is. They are snapshots of our past, for good or ill. They broaden our horizons by showing us how we used to be and reminds us how far we’ve come.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

 

September 5

Neil Peart

One of my early inspirations for writing was Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the band, Rush. I discovered his words when I was a teenager, probably no more than 13 or 14 years old. A guy that sat next to me in one of my classes let me borrow a cassette tape of Caress of Steel and I was hooked. I quickly became a fan and began my life-long love affair with the band. And while the musicianship of all three members is something I admire, it was always Neil’s lyrics that got into my head and inspired me.

Early Rush songs were what you’d expect from a progressive-rock back in the 1970s – fantasy and science fiction themes, which obviously appealed to someone who read those types of novels. But as the band matured, so did their themes, and soon Peart was writing about freewill, passion, and the quality of humankind. For someone who was full of teenage angst and in search of direction, I found guidance and began to develop my own personal philosophy and code of ethics.

These themes continued to develop in their music through the 1980s and into their later career and I continued to feel as if Peart were writing my thoughts and beliefs into the songs. Everything from Marathon and Heresy, to Faithless and The Larger Bowl, all made me think deeper, gave me ideas, helped me to understand and see things from another point of view.

An example from Natural Science, the last song on Permanent Waves (1980) –

“Science, like Nature
Must also be tamed
With a view towards its preservation
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely serve us well

Art as expression –
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely help us along

The most endangered species –
The honest man
Will still survive annihilation
Forming a world –
State of integrity
Sensitive, open and strong.”

In the late 1980s, Peart published his first book, The Masked Rider, a travelogue of a bicycle tour he took in Cameroon, Africa. I’d never read a book about a travel adventure before, and it ended up being more than what I expected. The book not only told the tale of his tour – the beauty, fear, and excitement – but also examined his fellow travelers (hence, the title). I’ve reread the book several times over the years and still enjoy it.

Peart has continued to write books in a similar vein – him, traveling by bicycle, motorcycle, car – relaying the adventures had by him and his companions, as well as examining the people he meets and the places he visits. I recently finished reading Roadshow: Landscape with Drums – A Concert Tour By Motorcycle, which covers the band’s 30th anniversary tour. Peart and his riding companions travel across the US, then most of Europe. It was interesting to read about the contrasts between US and European cultures, the differing landscapes, attitudes, and obviously, the strange similarities. In other words, there are crazy people everywhere.

I’ll admit that this isn’t high art and Peart isn’t going to rank as one of the greatest writers of all time, but he is a good writer. His prose is clean, simple, direct. He writes as if he’s talking to you. It reminds me a bit of Stephen King in that the prose has a conversational tone that’s easy to follow. Also, Peart’s observations on the people he encounters are always interesting. By nature, he’s not a social person. He’s quiet, likes to keep to himself, but he also realizes that he’s well-known, a celebrity, and he understands the issues that come from being in the spotlight. As he so succinctly wrote in the lyrics to Limelight (1981):

“Cast in this unlikely role
Ill-equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact”

Hell, I think everyone can relate to that at some point in their lives.

Peart has now officially retired from touring and quite possibly drumming. He’s pushing seventy now, his joints are tired, and he has a young daughter and wife at home. And while I accept that I’ll never hear a new song by Rush, I hope that Peart will continue to travel, to have adventures, and to write about them.

RB