Everyone loves being told they’re amazing.
Anybody with a modicum of modesty will probably deny it. I personally get really uncomfortable with praise. I mean, I love hearing it, but I also never know quite how to react without seeming like a total idiot. It’s always tricky because you don’t want to undo that goodwill with any hint of arrogance. Maybe it all just comes down to wanting to be liked.
The thing is, I am generally pretty good with criticism, as far as my writing goes. After one of the performances of Below Babylon I had a chat to a good friend of mine, who asked if I wanted his opinion as a friend or as a highly critical media teacher. I asked for the latter and while he proceeded to deconstruct the script and point out a lot of flaws, I felt neither defensive nor offended. Constructive criticism, no matter how brutal, is only ever a good thing for a writer. It helps you get better, even if it stings a little at first.
But sometimes you get circumstances that are just awful. Yesterday, along with my cast and producer, I took my latest play, Beyond Babylon, to a one act play festival. From the start this was probably not a great idea; the festival was in a rural town and most of the other plays were quaint little community or youth theatre shows. Ours is a brutal, nihilistic thriller about the sanctity of human life, or lack thereof. Probably not what the generally 80-plus crowd was expecting. Anyway, the play went off without a hitch and I was very proud of how it came together. By all reports the audience were on tenterhooks the whole time and you could have heard a pin drop in that room.
Then we spoke to the adjudicator.
I honestly would not have minded if he had torn the play to shreds, called it a piece of shit and sent us out of there. I would have liked good feedback, but generally all I wanted was some helpful words about what worked and what didn’t work. What I neither wanted nor was prepared for was the blatant condescension with which he treated my cast and me. As someone who has been writing non stop since I was fourteen, who has had seven plays produced and has never stopped working on getting better, having this man turn to me and, in an almost pitying way tell me that ‘you’re still young mate’ and ‘writing plays isn’t easy’ was not what I needed. It made me feel like my work did not warrant being taken seriously, that I was just a kid who tried to write a play and put it on, without much success. This man seemed to think that I needed unquestioning consolation, not good, helpful feedback. And that says more than any spoken criticism. That is legitimately upsetting.
I have never doubted myself as a writer. I know I have flaws that need ironing out, as does everyone, but it has been a long time since I felt I was not being taken seriously. This man made me feel that way, and it was horrible. And yeah, it’s easy to write that off as being one person’s opinion, and it’s easy to just brush it off as being the inconsequential result of a small town festival, but it really did hurt. It was more than a criticism of my play; it was an implicit criticism of me as a writer and a person. It made me feel like an arrogant upstart who had no business taking my work to festivals and competitions. It made me feel like my output isn’t worth putting on stage.
I know Beyond Babylon is good. It’s short and sharp, it boasts two incredible central performances, it is tense and it is full of shifts in power and dynamic as well as reveals about the characters that are constantly changing what you think you know about them. It has one of the best twists I have ever written and some of my strongest dialogue. It deserves to be taken seriously, even if taking it seriously means you don’t like it.
As a writer and yes, as an artist I do not want or need your condescension. It’s not going to help me get any better and it certainly won’t make me stop doing what I’m doing. It’s just really unpleasant. And if that is all you have to offer me in lieu of legitimate criticism, then quite frankly you can fuck off. My work is not for you. Save it for somebody who has something interesting to say about it.
Just some thoughts.