Writers work alone. We spend hours clicking keyboards and jotting notes, all by our little lonesome, until the finished project is ready for public consumption. Most of us have learned, the hard way, never to talk about a project before it’s done. It saps the energy you should be saving for the clicking. Talk later-write now. Sometimes, however, it gets lonely and you need to chat with your fellow humans and, often, the only thing you have to discuss is your project because god forbid you stop writing long enough to get laid.
I always feel pity for my friends who have to deal with me after a 3-4 day binge. They get to be the first person I’ve seen who isn’t a barista. My good friends see it coming, allow me to vent, and move to a mutually interesting conversation. There’s a standard/unspoken rule: if you see me looking like I downed a pot of coffee or my eyes are super wide and/or I’m talking a million miles per hour about nothing in particular and/or unaware of appropriate personal space, simply say, “Dave, you’re rambling. How’s the writing?”
After my sheepish smile, I’ll say something noncommittal like “good” or “figured out the clothes-folding scene.” We nod and go on to talk about boys. No harm, no foul. I didn’t ask for any advice, you didn’t give any. Great. But this rarely happens. All too often a, for lack of a better word, discussion takes place. Perhaps it’s the mystery of writing that makes people need to comment. Perhaps our casual mention of a project, that has burned itself into our mind’s eye, seems an invitation for constructive criticism. Perhaps we all think we could make art just a little bit better if someone asked our opinion. I mean, I have notes that could fix anything/everything by J. J. Abrams. All he had to do was ask.
Instead of complaining, I decided to do something constructive! I compiled a list of things writers hate to hear. This in no way is to avoid editing my manuscript. Not at all. (Sort of.) This list is not conclusive. It’s not researched. I didn’t poll a hundred artists. I just sort wrote it down. It was 10 things but I’m working on being less verbose (kidding). To be clearer-er-er, this is not things writers hate to hear from agents, editors or folks you have actually asked for feedback or those people who’s job it is to cover and critique. No. This is shit people say in bars, cafes, texts, parties, post-coitus, at the gym or any place that isn’t an office whose existence is literary in nature, including the giving of notes or, as we like to refer to them, the ripping apart of one’s self-esteem and reason for living.
1) Shoulds (especially ignorant shoulds)
This is so frustrating to writers I almost can’t type it. We tell a friend/acquaintance about a project and before we’re even done, they feel compelled to offer, “You should……” They have very little information about our work. They are, at best, making assumptions, at worst, have some odd fetish they want someone to sate: well hung roller disco ninjas or vegetable soup telenovelas. They probably didn’t really listen to what we said and have, for some reason, deduced the they know better than us, after 90 seconds, of what our story should contain.
It’s insulting and annoying. We say, “I’m almost finished with my short story about a burglar who falls….” They blurt, “you should make the burglar a lesbian!” “Huh? Why?” “Cause that would be cool. I once had this friend who got his car stolen by a….” It happens a lot. All the time! Here are some actual examples of shoulds I have endured:
Me: I’m writing a children’s story about a carrot….”
“my friend should do the art. Her stuff is so creepy.”
Me: “I finished my play!”
“you should shoot it on 8mm.”
Me: “I think I’m going to shoot my new short in April.”
“you should use all 70’s music but covered with brass, like a French horn”
“I wrote a short story set in the Bronze Age.”
“you should make them trapeze artists or circus freaks.”
Some of these people are well intended. Many are shadow-artists, or people who wish they created art but don’t/can’t and need to piggyback anyone else’s art with their ideas to somehow validate they have a creative side which has rotted under florescent bulbery. I get it. I like to feel artsy too. You ask, “so who cares? Why did some lame suggestion bug you?” Because we are taught to take criticism. We are expected to honor notes. Many of us were browbeaten to “drop the ego” and listen. So when you say, “You should have her hunted by a chainsaw,” when I mention my rom-com, some weird part of me thinks, “Take the note, David. Listen. Don’t react. Honor the input.” When in fact all that needs to be said is “Go should yourself.”
2) “That’s just like….”
We made it happen. Somehow the characters all met a plot point or two, perhaps climaxed, resolved and tied up arcs that would have calculus nerds wetting the bed. We tell our friend about said accomplishment and they say, “OMG that’s just like on Friends when Monica…..” OK. Most of us don’t think we’re totally original. We get it. Art is supposed to inspire art. What’s that expression: there are only five plots? However, do us a favor, if you must compare our work to something, can it be Dostoyevsky? Pinter? Lebowitz? Or any of the wonderful speakers at Hank’s homo-centric? Some television is amazing. Truly inspired storytelling. A lot of it is drivel with unrealistic plots that are so obvious you don’t actually have to watch the ending to know what happened. But that’s not the point. Saying the plot, that broke our backs to discover, is “just like” a 22 minute-ish, serialized, group-written, 3-jokes per page, episode of a sitcom is like saying a chef’s chez d’oeuvre is “just like a Big Mac.” Even if it’s true, it’s mean to say it.
(This one doesn’t count if we’ve written a spec script that is supposed to be like a TV show. In which case say “OMG I can totally see this airing! It’s just like on Friends when Monica did that thing, but BETTER!”)
3) “It’s a really good first draft.”
“Look, ___________ (insert: bitch, kween, asshole, sir, dude, or any form of address intended for those who deserve biblical wrath), do you honestly think I showed you my first fucking draft?”
4) The backhanded compliment.
Examples: “You wrote another little play!” “Are you going to do anything with this one?” “Are you gonna ever publish it?” “Is that the same one as last year?” “Finally!”
It is amazing how many people can’t just say “good job” without justifying, qualifying or worried that your ego will get so big you’ll float away. Trust me, no one becomes an asshole because people were nice to them.
My family has the backhanded compliment down to an art form. They can make sure, in some unknown or implied way, to let me know whatever I did could have been better, faster or made more money. When I was a kid this bugged and infuriated me. As adulthood fully set in, family nonsense was seen as, well, nonsense. Now I just roll my eyes or don’t bring it up in the first place. I hear you saying, “hey it’s encouraging but giving room to grow!” No. It’s patronizing and belittling in the guise of pride. If you are qualifying your pride of me, stop. That’s actually shame. And it has no place in my life or art.
Whoa. Wait. Didn’t I say I grew out of that anger? I guess not completely. Do I need praise? I’d like to think not, but let’s be real: It’s nice when someone acknowledges your effort. It makes all the unseen work, glimpsed at and appreciated. It feels good. But, here’s the gimme-gotcha, when you devalue that praise you’re doing what artists struggle with every fucking day. Trust me. We spend countless hours questioning our abilities. Questioning our measures of success. Questioning why we spent four days deliberating whether to use a definite article or not. By backhanding you reinforce that constant fight of trying shut up our inner-asshole-voice that tells us: can’t, won’t and didn’t.
Yes. I should be tougher. I shouldn’t give two fucks what anyone thinks. I should not need praise to be me. (Please see Shoulds section above.) If anyone figures out how to do this, let a bitch know. Hey, my work has been hated and loved. More than once a fan has hugged me after a show. I have also received scathing reviews; one was italicized so I wouldn’t miss it. When these things happen in the professional arena, I give them context, perspective and move on. Hanging with buds, we’re not in the headspace to protect and provide context. Our guard is down. It stings.
If you think I’m being a baby, you might never have put your heart into a piece of work that, one day, will be publically scrutinized. If the play/novel/story goes anywhere this will happen. It’s hard. Let’s make life easier on each other? You don’t qualify your praise and I’ll keep my mouth shut about your inability to decorate. Next time someone says “it’s actually good!” I may answer, “Thank you so much! It’s almost like you aren’t an asshole!” (But I’m much too sweet and gentle to utter such things.)
5) “You write?”
What the Fuck? How many Facebook invites, posts, emails, ads, flyers, casual mentions and drunken babblings have you completely ignored?
David LeBarron is a writer, in case you didn’t know, who enjoyed penning this little article, he barely edited, that’s just like everything on BuzzFeed and realizes he should have spent this time on his next play.
Addendum a week later:
My cynical writer shut up for a minute and my sweet-healing shaman of Silver Lake came out. I can see that the real frustration is not about writing. It’s about life. It’s how we interact all the time. Why is “I wanna go to the Amazon!” answered with “You should go to Istanbul!” Are we just bossy? Do we not care why they wish to go see the Amazon? Do we assume it’s to do ayahuasca? Is that bad? Are we jealous? Do we have to have an opinion on everything? I guess in all areas of life I wish:
We would listen to each other.
We let things be undefined instead of finding neat boxes for them.
We would dare to be happy, for each other and for ourselves.
Ok. Back to work Dave.