Saturday, October 9, 2010

The power of a critic: writing lessons from ... my mother?

When I was about seven or eight years old, there was a kids’ radio program that aired every Saturday morning, featuring local children. I was invited to participate. The first week I said a simple nursery rhyme:
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?
I frightened the little mouse under the chair

When I returned home all excited, my mother demanded, “What foolish poem is that? You’re too old for that. Do something better.”
The next Saturday, I read a story. It was a bible story from an anthology with excruciating details of the plagues and Moses and the Isrealites escape from Egypt. The story was so long that we ran out of airtime. When I returned home, my mother again criticized me.
“What long epistle was that?” she said in her usual derogatory tone. “You can do better.”

The next week I cited a poem The Waterfall, that got a different reaction from Mother. It went like this:

Pretty is the waterfall
As pretty as can be
It showers like the rain that falls
On the deep blue sea

I love to see the water fall
It’s a wonderful sight to see
It looks like water coming from a wall
And it’s just as nice as the sea

The rumbling sound that it makes
Sounds like a rumbling jet
And who made it made no mistake
So don’t you dare forget!

My success with eliciting a compliment from my mother this time had nothing to do with length or complexity of the poem. In fact it was quite simplistic. But it was a poem I composed. My mother was pleased. Finally I got it right.

Sometimes I thought that my mother only criticized me, and nothing I did was good enough for her. Once while in 6th grade I represented my school in an area wide general knowledge quiz. Our school came in second place, which I thought was great as we advanced to the national competition, but my mother expressed her disappointment. When we competed in the national competition, our school won. Only then did she express pride in me. She hugged me and lifted me up placing me on the cabinet, not a small feat for she is only 4 ft 10 in.

Now I realize what Mother was trying to do. She wanted me to excel. She knew I had more potential than I realized and she accepted only excellence from me. In doing so she brought out the best in me. She also taught me one important lesson: to accept criticism and learn from it.

I find myself copycatting my mother a lot these days with my seven year old. And of course she complains that I am never happy with what she does. One thing I notice though is that she tries even harder and asks, “Mommy, are you happy at me now?”

Like my mother, I am realizing potential in my daughter that she doesn’t even see in herself. I’m also trying to teach her to accept constructive criticism and learn from it.

KeVin recently blogged about lessons he learned from his uncle, an author. My mother is not a writer, but the life lessons learned from her have become quite useful in my new career as a novelist, especially the ability to accept criticism. From my first readers who said to me, “you are too longwinded” to the editor who slashed chunks of story I thought were so essential, to the reviewers who find my characters or story less than stellar. I have learned to accept the critique and improve my writing.

These are just some of the lessons I learned from my mother, that have shaped my writing and my life. I know you must have someone in your life whose life lessons you use in your writing, your career, or your life in general. Tell us about it.


Phyllis Bourne said...

My Dad is the one who helped me most. When he got home from work, no matter how late, he always looked over my compositions and essays. If they weren't up to snuff, he woke me up (even at 2 am) to work on it again together.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Sounds like you had a dad dedicated to your success as a writer. I know you must have hated to be awakened at 2 am, but it contributed to your success..

Charles Gramlich said...

It's a hard line to walk for a parent. you want to be supportive but also give the child honest feedback. I always tried to couch it in terms that had both positives and negatives. Such as: you did a really good job with X but you seemed to struggle a little with Y. What do you think might have happened with that?

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, that is very true. As a parent myself I have to walk that fine line. Some kids can handle the brutal honesty more than others. So it is also child specific.

One thing I learned from my mother, is that I have to temper my criticism so that it builds up not tears down.

Liane Spicer said...

Weird, your mother sounds a lot like mine. Is it a Caribbean parenting thing? Of her three children I was the one who excelled academically, yet I'm the one who always got the harshest criticism, up to this day. I just don't get it. o_O

I don't respond well to harsh criticism. I find constructive criticism that stresses the positive worked best with my students, my son, and also with me.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, it must be a Caribbean thing. I do respond to harsh criticism with the attitude that I will "show them". I guess it takes a certain level of conceit to allow harsh criticism to mold you rather than break you.