Happy Fathers’ Day, Mom

Not to detract from the well-earned celebrity of men everywhere who receive this single day of praise from their children, but not all of us had a man figure prominently in our childhood. For me, the only men who impacted me growing up were my grandfather (thank you) and a handful of very special teachers (thank you, Mr. Muhlstock and colleagues).

Toronto Island

My mom (purple top) was literally at the centre of all we did.

No, for me and a lot of kids like me, the leading father-figure in our lives was our mom…in my case, Jeannette or Jan.

Although Mom didn’t always meet up to the stereotypes of a father—I can’t remember throwing around a baseball or going fishing with her—she was always there for my brothers and me, ready to help us with any problems we might be facing or ensuring she found us an understanding male to speak with (e.g., Big Brother).

I remember when my youngest brother Shawn played hockey as a young kid. In a rink full of Dads, yelling support for their Lafleur, Howe or Gretzky, there was my Mom, cheering on my brother…almost completely oblivious to any of those NHL superstars.

Connected

Mom is always connected to us (even when we fight her on that).

Mom was the one who made sure we had a roof over our heads. Mom made sure we were fed and had all our school supplies. Mom was the one who made sure we never knew we were as poor as I suspect we were. Mom was the one who made sure our home life was as normal as the next kid’s.

But perhaps Mom’s greatest legacy is that she ensured her boys would grow into gentle, caring men, who respected women, less as people to be protected and more as people to admire and celebrate. And in the case of my brother Scott, also to understand the importance of your children and to be a great parent, which he is.

Mountain top

Queen of all she surveys

So, happy Fathers’ Day, Mom…and to all the other single women raising children. You have my deepest regard.

Party pooper

But never forget she is MOM first, cool Dad second.

See also:

Dads: Not just an oatmeal cookie

Death by a Thousand Meetings

Committee (n): 1) a group of individuals specializing in irreversible creativity vivisection; 2) last known location of a good idea. See also: elephant’s graveyard.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing anyone creating art is less the generation of new ideas and more the knowledge that at some point, you will have to release your art to an awaiting world; aka, relinquish control.

Now, we can (and have) discuss the illusion of control at any phase of the creative process, but there is no denying that if you want your art to be appreciated by others, you will have to pass your newborn into someone else’s hands…or worse, someseveral else’s hands.

For writing—my predominant area of interest—that moment can come quite early in the creative process, whereas for other art forms, such as sculpture or painting, it may appear quite a bit later (please correct me, if I under- or misstate things).

You must respect your art. You must protect your art. But you must also realize that if you intend to share your art, and perhaps even make money from it, you must be somewhat flexible with your art. When you bring it to the world, it ceases to be all about you.

A teacher once suggested that upon completing a play, Shakespeare merely became another critic of the work. His opinions on meaning and significance within the play were simply one more voice and held no more sway than those of any other critic. I don’t know that I agree—what self-respecting writer would?—but I see the point.

When I write a screenplay, I need dissenting and diverging voices to ensure that I am not leaving things out or glossing over important plot or character points that are clear in my head. At the same time, I must be sure that my vision is protected, lest I start writing someone else’s screenplay.

I understand, however, that if I want to turn this screenplay into a movie or television episode, I will have to relinquish some of the control to the hands of studio executives, producers, directors, actors, directors of photography, sound teams, and in all likelihood, the third cousin of the guy who runs the craft services table. I have to be comfortable with the idea that each of these people wants to (actually, must) contribute in some way to the final product to give them a sense of ownership. They too are artists.

I am struggling at this stage with several television projects I have been developing. I have a computer filled with TV series concepts and/or pilot scripts, and I am trying to decide with what production companies to share my babies. Like Smeagol, I stroke my precious and have a rampant distrust of everyone.

How do I know the company I choose shares my vision, will protect my baby, isn’t just a group of ravenous Orcs? I don’t. I can’t, ahead of time.

What helps is watching fellow writers who rabidly protect their newborns at a much earlier stage in development. Who in a reading group, spew buckets of foamy spittle while savagely defending the use of the word “vivisection”, or primal scream that their protagonist’s motivations are obvious to anyone with half a brain.

I am doing the same thing with my projects, only at a later stage and mostly in my head (and possibly with just half a brain). Just as they have to learn to let go or at least lighten up, so do I.

In writing this post, I am coming to realize that my art is in the writing of the screenplay, not in the making of movies or television. Thus, when the screenplay is ready to move on, I must let it go and hope it flourishes…even if I am not ready to let it go. The art must grow and breathe, regardless of my personal reluctance and fears.

Committees are still evil…you will never get me to say otherwise…but unless I am willing to do everything on my own, which would not do justice to my babies, committees are a necessary evil and less dangerous to my babies’ successes than on overbearing, overprotective parent.

 

For a humourous take on the evils of meetings, please also see the recent blog post by Ben’s Bitter Blog: Meeting Bitterness.

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

In Part One, I talked a bit about the challenges of asking for and receiving feedback. Below, I offer some thoughts on how to resolve some of those issues, but again, want this to be an open discussion.

When to ask. Feedback can be valuable at any stage of an exercise, but the type of feedback you need will change as your work progresses. Out of the gate with draft one, you really just need to know if the story works. After that, you’ll begin to explore things like character arcs, scene/event order (plotting), etc. Give specific direction on what you want from the reviewers.

Whom to ask. Ask for feedback from people whose sensibilities and/or writing you respect. If they think in a manner that attracts you or write in a style that you find interesting, then they are more likely to give you feedback that meshes with your goals for your work. As your skills mature, you can venture further afield and test yourself against people who think significantly differently from you.

Give direction on what you want. If you simply give someone your work and ask them to let you know what they think, then you deserve what you get. Ask for their thoughts on specific aspects of your writing so that they can focus on just that aspect. Alternatively, tell them what you worry about and let them interpret how to give feedback to address that need.

Ask questions. When you receive feedback, don’t simply say thank you and then go read it in a corner, deciding whether to commit hari kiri. Make sure you understand their feedback so that you know how to use it. It may be that they have totally misunderstood what you have tried to do—which is itself something to look at—so the specifics of their feedback may be of limited use.

Think about the feedback. In some cases, simply incorporating some feedback will make sense; however, you generally want to see what the feedback is telling you at a broader, more basic level. Does all the feedback come down to the same one or two things? For example, if a lot of the feedback is asking why your characters did certain things, then maybe the bigger issue is a need to more deeply or transparently explore character motivation. Not an easy task, but ultimately more rewarding than simply explaining away the why’s through exposition or on-the-nose dialogue.

NO FEEDBACK IS GOSPEL. If a burning bush offers you insights on your project, always remember that this is just one plant’s opinion. The smouldering conifer a few feet over may have totally different or contrary suggestions.

Don’t rely on one source of feedback, as it will include personal biases that may not be germane to your work. And even when you get feedback from multiple sources, look for patterns in the feedback. If 70% of people have issues with your climax, it’s probably time to review your climax. If, however, 30% don’t get your antagonist, you may want to look at that, but it’s not a priority.

This is also why it is important to request specific feedback. If 10 people give you 10 thoughts each and none or few of them overlap, you have no idea what is important and what is personal taste.

Remember who’s in charge. This is your work and you should be prepared to defend it while being open to ways to improve it. You DO NOT have to incorporate feedback you get. You may feel it’s off base, doesn’t really fit with what you were trying to do or the story you wanted to tell. Fine. Stick to your guns (or weapon of choice). Just because you asked for the feedback, doesn’t mean you have to take it (not even mine).

Tell your story, your way.

As my first and only tattoo, I wanted something that spoke to how I wished to be remembered

As my first and only tattoo, I wanted something that spoke to how I wished to be remembered

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Feedback is always difficult, or it should be.

When a sound system suffers feedback, it is a loud resonant noise that increases in pitch as it slowly and achingly bores a hole into your head. Feedback on a piece of writing (or any other piece of art) can feel very much the same.

Unlike the sound system example, however, feedback is vital to the survival and improvement of your art. It will help you understand the places in which people struggle to see your vision. But just as importantly, it helps you see where your efforts resonate—in a positive way—with your audience. The challenge is understanding how much weight you should put on the feedback.

When we first start writing, we tend to wait forever to ask for feedback, often for fear of being told our work sucks. And when we finally do receive feedback, we take all the negatives to heart and may never hear the positives. We then destroy our work by either shelving (deleting) it or by trying to incorporate every piece of feedback into the work. The latter effort results in a work that is either a complete mess that makes no sense, or worse, reflects the tastes and preferences of the person providing feedback and not us, the artist.

We also tend to ask the wrong people for feedback—friends, parents, partners—perhaps in the hope they’ll be gentle with us. Unfortunately, these people don’t tend to have experience with this kind of thing—the “but I know what I like” syndrome—and so the feedback runs the brevity gamut from “I really like it” to “I’m not sure I get it”, none of which is particularly useful or informative.

As we mature in our writing, we may ask a larger number of people to review our stuff, but then we run into the problem of conflicting opinions. And as with the eggs in one basket scenario, we may try to please everyone with changes—destroying our own voice—or simply shelve the whole project. There’s also the possibility that we’ll take the attitude that everyone’s crazy and we’re brilliant, but that doesn’t happen very often at this stage.

We still may not be asking the right people, but we’re more likely in the right ballpark, focusing on other writers. If those writers aren’t at our level or higher, however, the feedback we receive will be helpful but probably won’t get us to the next level. Nobody’s fault. They just probably haven’t developed the critical skills needed to help us find not just challenges but also ways to solve them.

So, what’s a poor writer to do?

In Part Two, I’ll offer some thoughts on how best to approach the challenge of asking for and receiving feedback.

I want this to be an open conversation, however, and welcome you to contribute your experiences or thoughts to the conversation as well.

My brother has his own way of dealing with feedback, but he's a pretty good guy nonetheless.

My brother has his own way of dealing with feedback, but he’s a pretty good guy nonetheless.