Of Pirates and Constructive Criticism

June 11, 2009

This year, I’ve been stretching myself by exploring a different format of story-telling: stage plays. I figured, why not? I’ve been getting so involved with community theater that I’d be a fool not to parlay those experiences and connections into another chance to get published.

My stage play-writing experience thus far has been limited to a one-semester course in college and one ten-minute play that I submitted to a specific market. I also have experience with radio drama and screenplays, but those are different formats that don’t entirely prepare one for writing for the stage.

In any case, I’ve spent all of 2009 so far writing and refining a two-act comedy stage play about pirates who take over a Caribbean cruise ship in a misguided attempt to gain more respect for pirates because they’re typically lampooned in movies and at Halloween.

Yes, I realized halfway through the first draft that the timing of this idea is a little off. Damned Somalis. Last night, South Park‘s episode was all about how Cartman and gang dress up as buccaneers and travel to Somalia to join the pirates there. It was a brilliant episode, full of the kind of humor I’m trying to capture in my own play. I’m glad I saw it because it convinced me to take the Somali pirate issue head-on during my revisions.

Anyway, as I said, I’m a newcomer to stage play-writing and so have not been wholly steady on my sea legs, so to speak. So I took what I thought was a very sensible step of hiring an expert, Jon Dorf out in Los Angeles, to critique the script. He walks the walk and talks the talk, and I was satisfied with his service. Afterward, he convinced me that my next step in the revision process was to hold what’s called a “table reading,” where I assemble actors into a dark, smoke-filled room to read the script aloud and then critique it.

Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the table — critiquer as well as critiquee. I’ve learned that giving and receiving constructive criticism is an art, and it’s taken me a very long time to learn how to do both. Just because someone is a good writer doesn’t mean they know the first thing about coaching somebody else, for instance. It’s all too tempting to tell somebody how to “fix” his story, which translates to telling him how you would have written it. This is an important concept. The story is not being written by the person giving the critique, so telling somebody, “You should have this happen,” is going to meet more resistance from the writer. Better to guide him to his own solution. Unless you have an absolutely stunning idea for how to rewrite something (and a few times while coaching I’ve felt like I have), it’s better to just tell the person things like, “I was confused why this was happening in this scene,” and, “I didn’t understand this character’s motivation.” Or, if you’re Jon Dorf and reading Matthew Warner’s laughable attempts at French phrases, you say things like, “You spell ‘yes’ as oui, not qui.”

So, my apologies to all of you whose stories I’ve critiqued and edited where I’ve done it wrong. I’ve been writing seriously for publication for nearly 20 years now, but only within the past year do I feel like I’ve learned the right way to give feedback.

On the other side of the table, as I said, it’s a learned skill to receive criticism. As you can imagine, it’s all too easy to become defensive and depressed. Opening one’s self up to criticism is an act of courage, I think. What we’ve written is us, in a way. It came out of our heads and hearts, and when somebody says anything negative about it, it’s like they’re attacking us personally. So the first step, the hardest step, is disassociating oneself from the product, to look at it as a car in your garage that may or may not need some work on the engine. The people giving feedback are nothing more than other mechanics of varying skill who are peeking under the hood. It helps to remember what your motivation is going in to this. Did I really solicit feedback on this story because I wanted to make it better, or was I secretly just hoping for validation, for someone to pat me on the head? I still struggle with this.

Beyond that first hurdle, there’s still a right and wrong way to receive constructive criticism. It hinges around a particularly difficult aspect of the process called, “Mouth shut, ears open.” When Jon Dorf was talking into my ear for an hour a couple months ago, and on Monday night when a room full of people were talking about my play, I had to keep reminding myself to keep my mouth shut. For one thing, I had incurred considerable costs of time, energy, and money to arrange these opportunities to receive their thoughts. To argue with them would have been totally pointless.

But that’s a tall order to fulfill when the comments may come from people who don’t know the proper way to give feedback. Their comments can seem completely worthless or at least off-base. “You didn’t explain why so-and-so happened,” they might say, when indeed I did, explicitly, right there on page 1 and a second time on page 15. Or the dreaded, “Why don’t you have another character who does this?” I got a lot of feedback like this at my table reading. Many times, I thought that people just weren’t paying attention.

I’ve found that the key in these situations is just to take it all down and stew on it for a while. Once I’ve had time to distance myself from things is the right time to go back and sort through the comments. Indeed I might decide that someone simply wasn’t paying attention or is flat out “wrong,” but many times there’s something in there that’s worthwhile. When I do the current round of revisions, I’m going to make a special effort to pay attention to the comments or suggestions that are “wrong” and try to diagnose why they were said to begin with. If I disagree with someone’s comment that I don’t need the foreign words in my script, I shouldn’t just throw the comment away and not think about it again. Maybe what he was really saying was that the foreign words were just confusing to him — in which case I can do things to un-confuse them.

For now, at least, I’m thankful that I think I know how do deal with well-meant criticism. But the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting. I’ll let you know when the meal is served.