Criticism is Like Cancer

Ken Woolridge (AND)Cancer Sucks

Criticism, like cancer, grows rather naturally and is fully dependent on its host. It’s growth is predicated upon a relatively healthy host and a benign environment in which it can grow unimpeded.

Lest we spend too long developing that story, the important way that criticism is like cancer is that it comes in two varieties: benign and malignant. Like cancer, both types of criticism can cause mental pain and anguish, but the benign form is not harmful. Malignant forms, on the other hand, are an undesired scourge which is never helpful and hard to live with.

For the purposes of this analogy, we will leave completely positive criticism aside. Like a false positive, it offers nothing worthy of either concern or time of the creator, but it may, at times, distract from the task. A kind word from a friend or stranger about your creation gives little or no insight into the success or failure of your effort.

Malignant criticism, to be clear, seems to have proliferated recently with ever more outlets available for nearly everyone to become a critic. A few years ago, I kept a blog full of quotidian concerns and grand ambitions. It was a very minor affair that was notable to myself and probably three other people. Yet some stranger found it and offered some decidedly malignant criticism. And it hurt. And that was all it did. I tell this story in part because I like to talk about myself, but mostly because it’s a good window into malignant criticism.

Malignant criticism, in short, negates all possible positives of a work and instead aims solely to eviscerate both the creator and the creation. It asserts that the creation is not only flawed, but completely without merit. It says “This is stupid, deluded, foolish, and naive. It’s only purpose is for me to ridicule it.” (That by the way, is about the content of the strangers “review” of my old site.)

This kind of criticism is tantamount to bullying. And just as your parents probably told you, bullies have to tear someone down to make themselves feel good. Malignant criticism is, in general, nothing more than an ego trip.

Benign criticism is almost never that simple. Though it doesn’t shirk acknowledgment of the flaws of the creation, it tends to recognize that a flawed work is not a valueless one. The words “constructive criticism” are often used to encourage this benign form.

Benign criticism tells the creator (and the audience at large) what the creator set out to do, how far she got toward accomplishing that goal, and how she failed to live up to the potential that the work had. This sounds straightforward, but most amateur reviewer (like myself) often fail to do this.

Benign criticism is much harder to compile than the malignant variety. Consider “snark,” the internet created shorthand for “snide remark” that is, at base, the height of malignant criticism. One can, with a single line of “snark,” express all that is generally seen to be wrong about criticism. A dismissive “Look how bad this story is” or “See how pretentious this guy is” often passes for criticism on the internet. And though it may be criticism, it’s hardly something anyone wants to–or should have to–spend time with.

I guess that brings us back to the top. Like cancer, criticism is often confused with its malignant form. But it’s a mistake to think that all criticism is malignant, benign criticism is one of the most important features of a vibrant culture and when it’s available can not and should not be dismissed out of hand.


Considering Conspiracy Theories

Daquella manera9/11 Conspiracy

I’ve been thinking recently about conspiracy theories, and I have a theory about them. A couple in fact. I should also note that I’ve done no research, so these theories about the theories may be either well-known and verified or obscure and unlikely.

It seems to me that there are two primary reasons that people would believe that the US government was behind 9/11, that Elvis isn’t dead, or that there were really extra-terrestrials at Roswell. They are about groups and fantasy.

The first theory is the most obvious: people want to believe the fantastic is possible. You have to excuse the slightly awkward use of “fantastic.” In common parlance the word has become a synonym for “great” or “super.” Here I intend the making real of fantasy.

Surely it’s a tragedy that nearly 3000 people were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center, but it’s hard to deny that the idea that government knew in advance and carried out the bombing of the towers is rather fantastic. To believe that such a powerful, secretive, and ultimately inhuman force exists takes at least a small jump out of reality and into the fantastic.

Some people, like myself, don’t take in fiction from the pages of books we’re too lazy to read. And these instances of the fantastic are an easy time to take the flight of fancy that one may not otherwise experience.

Another related possibility is that people can’t bare to come face to face with reality. They can’t believe that Elvis really did die, or that there really are people from countries we’ve never heard of that want to, and are able to, kill us. Because those realities can be hard to swallow, what’s substituted is the belief that that reality must be untrue. That instead some fantasy is chosen and substituted to create a more comfortable “reality.”

The other possibility works on group psychology. There is, in many ways, nothing more uncomfortable than being alone. One way out of solitude is to join in the community of conspiracy theorists.

Many believe–I think correctly–that one of the primary reasons (other than belief) that people attend a church the feeling of community and belonging. Belief in the fantastics of conspiracy theories offers a similar belonging. Belief in a theory is enough to offer the feeling of being in a selective “in” group. A group that then understands those that doubt the conspiracy as too ignorant to belong.

It’s an interesting thing, the persistence of conspiracy theories. Though the theories about September 11, 2001 are relatively young, people still seem to believe the half-decade old Roswell theory with an uncomfortable level of sincerity. And though neither of these explanations strikes me as sufficient to fully explain that fervor, it does make their persistence a little easier for me to grasp.

personal, ruminations

“And Parody Myself”

I’ve become a parody of myself. I think it started–the day I was born is too easy an answer–on August 16, 2007. That was the fateful day when I made a posting schedule for this site.

Then I made the mistake of following said schedule. Looking back on what I wrote that day, I find it terribly ironic that I fiercely fought against an anonymous boogie man who would hold me to that schedule. It turned out he didn’t need to hold me to it, I do that myself.

So on Mondays I dutifully write reviews. Bad ones. About movies I’ve seen that are old enough to be easy to get my hands on and obscure enough that their age isn’t easy for the public at large to remember. If I haven’t seen any movies that fit that bill recently, I usually scramble together a review of something random that needs no reviewing. I don’t review books because, well, I don’t know how to read.

And then on Tuesday’s I usually write something about the weather. Though the day’s ostensibly reserved for “everyday” topics there are only two things I can manage to fit onto that idea: self-help tripe that I think myself better than, or harmless (and thus meaningless) blather about how the weather’s been. For someone who disdains to talk about the weather in person, the irony of this is inescapable.

By Wednesdays, I’ve usually found a moderately consequential topic of national or international significance on which I can offer vague platitudes that befit my modest level of understanding. I have a strict prohibition against saying anything that will betray my ignorance, and thus tend to say nothing at all. When I come close to saying something, I always make sure to preface it with 100 self-deprecating statements about how “this is just how it looks to me.”

On Thursdays, I desperately hope that I’ve come up with an idea strange enough to write a relatively easy installment of Dispatches. Failing that, I tend to bluff my way to “long enough” by writing something about writing, especially writing on this site. In case you’d forgotten, this was written for a Thursday.

Fridays are meant as a day where I have to do nothing. In order to fulfill that goal, I almost always steal poems from The Writer’s Almanac or passages from books I used to read when I still knew how.

When the weekend comes, I’m ready and waiting to start the cycle of unintentional self-parody all over again.


If You Get the Chance…

Ctd 2005Snow on Chain Link

If you get the chance, be sure to watch the snow falling on a mid-March evening. It may be unexpected, and it may be delaying the spring you’ve been anticipating. You should still make sure that you look out the window as the sun you haven’t seen all day sets. Be sure to notice how you can make out the pink even when you can’t make out the sun.

Be sure to look out at the still-falling snow on a mid-March night. As the street lamp and the everywhere-white of the weather makes it far lighter than it should be. Don’t be bitter about the street light, without it you couldn’t see the sight nearly so well.

Be sure to sleep late the next morning and imagine that the snow’s a foot thick. You don’t know what it will be like when you look out the window, so be sure to savor the possibility that nature has impressed you as you huddle under the covers and enjoy the accumulated warmth. Be sure, too, to appreciate that warmth. There’s no telling how hot or cold the floor of the kitchen will be when your still-bare feet hit it in a few minutes.

Be sure to avoid going outside as long as you can. And make sure that while you do so you imagine it being inhospitably cold, like the South Pole. This illusion will make the extremely temperate 34°F feel nearly balmy when you do finally have to go out.

And do be sure to go out. It’s a highly under-rated thing, trudging through a small accumulation of snow and enjoying the winter wonderland that materialized outside your window overnight.

Be sure to take some time to watch melting snow fall off a chain-link fence. It may sound about as exciting as paint drying, but it’s abstract art at it’s finest. Without purpose or reason or known creator. Watch the odd patterns that seem to drive the random size and position of the chunks as they fall. Puzzle if there’s a reason for that, or anything else.

Be sure to notice how unremarkable it is to be back inside. Notice how that unremarkableness differentiates a March snowstorm from a January snowstorm.

And finally, be sure to watch through the afternoon as the winter wonderland melts away. How quickly it goes in the March weather. How thorough the illusion was that morning, how absent it was by the evening. Consider what, if anything, this means to your and your life.


The First Draft

Syma Sees (AND)Cartwheel

Finding Forrester was one of those movies. The kind that I enjoy, but can easily see why so many others don’t. It’s the kind of movie light on logic or reality, and heavy on the emotion. And Sean Connery’s character is, well, odd.

However you or I feel about it, there’s one thing I do remember. Sean Connery’s character looking up from the typewriter and saying, “You know what the best feeling is? When you’ve finished your first draft…” He goes on to say that it’s reading the first draft that he likes. That leads me to think that whoever wrote that doesn’t write or at least doesn’t write like I do.

It’s not reading the first draft that’s “the best feeling,” it’s right after you’ve done it. After you’ve gotten all the thoughts out but haven’t gone back to determine if they’re all in order and said as well as they can be. The reality that your writing is flawed, which is what the first reading always unveils to me, is usually a time of disappointment.

The first draft–most of the time–is the easiest to write. If it’s a good topic–one about which I have something to say–it comes quickly and easily. And afterwards, there is a warm afterglow that might merit, well, a cartwheel.

After a first draft, at least one that comes easy, there’s a certain confidence. A self-assurance that comes from knowing that you said what you wanted to say exactly as you wanted to say it. Perhaps, later, you’ll realize that many of your phrases are awkward and that your message is a little muddy, but before you read it you’re not aware of that.

For now, all you know is that it’s done. That deed that at other times takes all the time and effort you’ve got has been completed. That weight that made you pick up the pen or keyboard in the first place is gone, and you have the opportunity to relish the new-found lightness.

But those are the good first drafts. The first drafts that come easy. There is another kind. And the other kind are, I would contend, the kind of first draft you shouldn’t be writing. The kind of first draft that takes studious effort and prodding and pulling and suffering. If the first draft doesn’t come easy, it shouldn’t come at all. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a deadline and no control over your topic.)

Perhaps I’m being unrealistically absolute. No, I am being unrealistically absolute. But after you finally write the first first draft that comes easy after fifty that come hard, you’ll know why I’m so willing to be unrealistically absolute.

personal, ruminations

Thinking About Thinking

CMP73Purple Thinker

I noticed recently that I do this rather strange thing. I’ll think thoughts, and then I’ll restate them again as if I were speaking them. Even when I’m not speaking. Even when I’m the only one around.

It’s as if I have to “say” everything in order for me to have really thought it. That is, if I have to choose what to do, I immediately know that I have three options, about dinner for example, and what they are. But not until I articulate those options as if I were saying them aloud am I “done” and able to make the choice.

Certain that I’d noticed this phenomenon before, I went looking for it. This is how I explained it about two years ago (my apologies for it’s roughness):

for example, i do this thing where while i’m brushing my teeth or something my brain has two separate things running. one is basically what i would be saying out loud. it’s rather articulate and reasonable. and then there’s the lower level that comes up with where the articulated streaming is going to head next. and if something goes through the lower level and sounds reasonable i have to repeat it on the upper, more articulate, level. i don’t know why this is and i think it’s rather strange. i already know exactly what will come out of the more articulate string and yet i must MUST go through the act of thinking it or i may have never thought anything at all.

i think the whole thing is rather strange. and i sit there thinking about politics. and then talking to myself about politics [though usually without speaking]. and then thinking about how it’s weird that i have to say all the thoughts i have twice.

i want to know if other people do things like this. when i was pretty young and i did this is kind of made sense. because the more articulate strand would, for example, be talking to a room full of stuffed animals (they listened far better than anyone i ever knew). but now there is no room of stuffed animals getting my articulate presentation and the more articulate strand is still there.

do all people think like this? do they realize they think like this? do they think about why they think like this?

I’m now wondering, much as I was then, if this is normal. I think that it can’t be too abnormal because outwardly I seem to function nearly the same as everyone else. People seem about as fast or slow to respond as I am.

Part of the problem with this whole thing is that I have no terms to describe the phenomenon. The closest I can think of is that the lower stream is, essentially, the “subconscious,” while the repetition takes place, and translates it into the “conscious” mind. Perhaps psychologists really do use these words to mean these things, but I’ve never heard it.

I guess the whole point of this might be–and both parts of my brain are telling me I need a point–is, perhaps, how little I know. The fact is that I don’t often notice this odd dual-stream nature of my brain, even though I must assume that it’s always happening.

Perhaps, then, this whole thing is another lesson in paying attention. About how much we can notices if we just take the time to do so.

personal, ruminations

The Coming Spring

PowiSpring Dandelions

It happened yesterday for the first time. For the first time in months I recognized that winter was fading and spring was coming. It’s not coming quick or earlier than usual, but it’s coming and the first signs were there.

The mid-morning walk offered some clues. It’s been getting warmer out. Recently, a hat and gloves have feel extraneous rather than absolutely necessary. But more important was the light: the gray and bright fading in an out as clouds blew around overhead. And as much as I know that this is a local weather pattern and not anything that it’s wise to extrapolate from, I couldn’t help it.

But it was later, when the hot air in the kitchen was interrupted by the cool air from outside that I was sure. Sure because of that key sign. The air outside was cool; not cold, not biting, not frigid. It was cool. Surely, a meteorologist will tell you I’m unwisely extrapolating again. Maybe I am, but I know it’s coming.

There’s a certain anticipation which should accompany every season. A change in the weather, in places fortunate enough to get changes in the weather, is the surest sign that time is passing. A gentle reminder that days do unavoidably become weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, and lives.

The new season gently asks by it’s difference, if you’re ready, if you’re satisfied, if you’re sure. If, indeed, you’re willing to enter the next season and the next year the same way you’ve lived this season and year.

Some people think that these questions are best asked between December 30 and January 2, but I’m sure they’re not. The two days that we use to mark the passing of the old and the arrival of the new are just that: days. If you blink you can miss them, and blinking through the new year is an underrated thing.

Perhaps people use those days because it’s hard to miss all the pomp and circumstance with which we mark 12:00 am on January 1st. But the passing of winter into spring can be missed. Its rarely noted and almost never celebrated. And worse, we spend so much time indoors we can easily forget we live in a place where the temperature isn’t always 68°F. A place where seasons pass. Where winter gives way to spring.


Of Ideas and Word Counts

MousyBoyWithGlasses (CC-ASA)Feel Life Poem

I think that every person at every time has only so many words they can spend on an idea before they end up repeating themselves.

A quick example: consider the stereotypical young male bachelor. When he’s single, the number of words he can or will spend on the topic of romantic love probably doesn’t go above 15. When newly smitten, he’ll spend hours to the topic and for any ear willing to hear. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but I think you can infer the point from it.

And this has implications far beyond the amount of love poetry that exists in the world. This relation between ideas (which we could also call topics) and word counts regularly affects what I do here. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve started writing something only to find that I had only a few paragraphs of stuff worth writing on it.

Sometimes, I can’t even write more than a sentence. And I’d like to say that this means that those topic go on some shelf to wait for me to have more to say about them. Usually they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes, for lack of a better idea, I feel the need to pad an idea I don’t have much to say about. To pull and prod it and hope that suddenly I’ll find something new to say. I rarely do. But somehow I find my way to rather imaginary line of “long enough”–I’d estimate that for this space it’s about seven paragraphs, though it really depends.

Given how much poking and prodding I have to do to my ideas to get them to that relatively short length, I can’t imagine what anyone ever manages to write a whole book about. I’d estimate that a days writing here is less than a page in an average book, and I’m sure that a year of this somewhat-random writing wouldn’t make a very coherent book.

One of the things I’ve always liked about poetry is that it’s the purest distillation of ideas you find almost anywhere. The word count of most poems is even less than my average word count here, but done well it easily eclipses what I do in terms of depth and thoughtfulness.

Poetry and books feel like the opposite ends of the spectrum to me. A poem–at least the kind I like–is as succinct as it possibly can be. A good book, on the other hand, is extremely verbose. Exhaustion of it’s topic is, generally, the goal.

For now, I’ll probably stay where I am. In the middle of these two more common forms. Not sure which, if either, would better fit my style than what I’m doing right now.


Be Your Own Protagonist

jquizOptimus Prime

I was walking past a bus stop about a year ago, and there in front of the bench (which was all this bus stop consisted of) was a blue graffito. I saw that it was blue, that it was clearly made with a stencil, and I kept walking.

When I actually realized what I’d seen, I doubled back. Indeed, there on the ground in royal blue spray-paint was a robot–think Optimus Prime, who is pictured at right–with these four words underneath:

Be Your Own Protagonist

I took a picture with my cellphone. And for the last year that picture has been the background on my phone, a little reminder whenever I flip the phone open to place a call or use the calculator.

Others have seen it, but they don’t seem to understand. Or perhaps they do. But “Be your own protagonist” strikes me still as among the most profound graffiti ever to have been sprayed onto the sidewalk.

There are so many messages conveyed in those four words. It could mean that you should turn of the television, get off the couch and go about living a life worthy of the dramas you would otherwise be watching.

It could mean that you should recognize that you–like most protagonists–are far more powerful and important than you realize. That you really are bound for great things even while it may not look that way at the time.

It could mean that you should begin to root for yourself, as you root for your favorite superhero. After all, your self doubt serves no one but the evil antagonists of your world.

It could mean that while you may be going through seemingly impossible trials today, it’s only because you–like the classical hero–have a brighter and more important future ahead. And that you’ll be better able to meet that future because of these trials.

I wonder sometimes how the artist–yes I’m comfortable calling this act of vandalism art–intended for it to be read. Maybe they meant it one of the ways I’ve thought of. Maybe they meant in the more absurd ways I sometimes want to interpret it. Like that we should all realize that we’re robots and embrace that fact. Or maybe that we should all set out to live out our most absurd dreams of–benevolent of course–world domination.

However they meant it. I’m glad to have found it. And I want you to know, Ms. Artist, that I try every single day, to do as you recommend. And I’m certainly thankful that you were bold enough to recommend it.


Writing is Useful

This is the second part of a two-part argument that I seem to be constantly having with myself. The first half, Writing is Wasteful, was posted on Tuesday.

bookish in north park (CC)Shakespeare

The idea that all writings a copy of a copy of a copy is easy and convenient. And because of that, we should be especially careful about accepting it without careful thought.

Surely it’s easy to come to this conclusion. Try this: read five random pieces of coverage or commentary on the presidential campaign written in any 24 hour window. You’re more likely to win the lottery than to find that those five pieces are all innovative, useful, and distinct. This problem is only magnified if you try to watch more than thirty minutes of continuous campaign coverage on television.

But–and this is critical–the “conventional wisdom” which all those pieces are likely regurgitating probably came from some speck of innovative writing or commentary. It doesn’t randomly coalesce without someone conceiving of it, translating it in a form that can be shared (read: words), and then transmitting it to others. That is the crucial tool of writing and the crucial thing that your example seems to miss.

And the idea that others may have spoken more eloquently of something in the past by no means says that others are reading what they wrote. It’s hard to argue that Shakespeare–to the extent that such a man existed–wrote some of the best tragedies of all time. But there are only so many people who will read or watch a Shakespeare play. However, reimagined by a modern author in a modern setting, such stories can be–and are–understood by a far larger contingent of people.

Nor is this to say that the only modern writing worth doing are adaption of great works of the past. There is also some value in writing that correctly harnesses something about the times in which we live. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s great historical value in such works.

But they’re also useful for their time. Good writing can be an incredibly useful–if not the only–way to spread valuable ideas about the state of the world. Abraham Lincoln famously called Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the book that started this great war.” Writing has undeniable transformative power, and though not all of it can start wars, all of it can have at least some impact.

All of this is essentially to say that writing is important and useful to the extent that it resonates with others and allows for better understanding of the past, present, and future. Surely there’s value in writing well for a small audience, even if you don’t see it at the time.

It’s easy to get down when you toil without external reward or recognition, but that’s no reason to drag the whole act in which you’re participating down into the mud.