Saturday, 21 April 2012

Ideas and Creativity - They are fragile things. Linda Strachan

A strange thing happened to me recently.  I was given an idea.
It was given into my care.  I can't wait to use it.

It happened when I got chatting to a chap who was sitting beside me on a plane, returning from a school visit to Cairo a few weeks ago. It turned out that we had both been on the same plane leaving from London at the beginning of the week. In fact we had exchanged a few words of courtesy, as one sometimes does with fellow travellers, while waiting in a queue.
So when we ended up sitting next to each other on the way home, we struck up a conversation. The usual thing about the reasons we had been travelling, the kind of work we each did etc.  During this conversation we got to talking about writing and he told me how he had written a story when he was at school, the only fiction he can recall writing.  He told me a little about the story and I was intrigued.

I found the central idea fascinating and immediately I found myself exploring ideas, and different scenarios started bouncing about in my head.

He told me his English teacher had not been too impressed with his story because it was not the piece of writing his teacher had wanted. They had been doing research on a subject and the teacher had assumed the essay would be about this subject and not an imaginative piece of writing.

Now, while I can understand that a teacher would be irritated by the end result not being what he had expected, although from what I understood it had not been made clear that the work had to reflect the classwork, I cannot understand why that teacher was quite so destructive in his comments.

The chap said that afterwards he had never felt any inclination to write anything again.  While he had been telling me about what his teacher had said to him I could see that there was an underlying resentment that his work, his enthusiasm for the idea that he had turned into a story, had been discarded so brutally. Not  with a comment such as   'This wasn't what I was looking for.'  which might have been fairly reasonable, but he was told that he had
" ..wasted four hours of his life, with this rubbish!"

He said he wondered why he had even told me the story because he hadn't thought about it for years . But even after all this time, it was obvious that it had been a deep cutting remark that stayed with him. I asked if he wouldn't perhaps write the story now, since the idea was obviously one he was still taken by.
But he said no, he wouldn't, but if I wanted to I was welcome to use it and if it got published, perhaps I could name him in the credits.  Watch this space!

His story reminded me of how I used to believe I had no imagination because when I was about seven my teacher had actually written in my report card    
               'Lacks imagination'. 
The problem was that I believed her and wore that description like a badge. It never occurred to me that she might be wrong. It may even have been the reason why I never considered the possibility of becoming a writer until I had was an adult with children of my own.   I sometimes wonder if teachers are actually aware how much power they have to nurture or damage that fragile creativity in children.

Creativity is a fragile thing that can be easily wrecked and shattered by destructive criticism, no matter what age you are.  It is one reason why I deliberate and use careful language when I am asked to evaluate someone's writing.   Most writers are fragile about their work, me included. It is important to get honest evaluation of your writing but we also need to hear good things about what we do, because most of us don't think we are any good, or at least not good enough.  It is not that we are looking for flattery, because empty praise is useless indeed.

A few days ago I was watching a re run of one of the Parky interviews with Kenneth Williams.  One of the other guests was Sir John Betjeman and at one point they were talking about critics and press cuttings.

Sir John Betjeman said he read them with dread because he believed anything that was said against him was true, and that anything said in his favour was flattery.  He said he never believed he was any good at all!

 How much does criticism affect you?

Linda Strachan writes books for all ages, from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing for Children
Blog Bookwords where you can find out more about her trip to MES Cairo


Ness Harbour said...

What a wonderful story! As you say I wonder whether teachers know how much damage they can do. Often it is these cutting words that we can carry with us for many years.
I love the idea that he has given you permission to take his story and make something of it. I can't wait to read it. Ideas come from some wonderful places.
As for criticism, I can empathise with John Betjamin hugely. Anything said that is good can only be flattery, it can't be real. The negative stuff, however, is always real!
What a delightful post, thank you for sharing

malrostan said...

What a wonderful, fragile gift - looking forward to reading his/your story. Took me 20+ years to 'get over' being told by a teacher that my heartfelt piece of writing about Stevie Wonder 'left her cold' - but I've never forgotten. Great post, Linda!

Penny Dolan said...

Well, if ever there was a post that needed to be written, this was it. Well said!

Savita Kalhan said...

I still remember some comments teachers made to me when I was little - unfortunately I don't remember all the good ones! It's the comments that get under your skin that seem to fade the slowest. Great post, Linda, and I look forward to reading the story you were inspired by 30,000 feet in the air!

Sue Purkiss said...

It's not just teachers, though. Labels are such dangerous things - "Oh, he's the clever one in that family." Or: "She's just like Auntie Jean. Always jumping from one thing to another" - that kind of thing.

But you're absolutely right; teachers'comments - and judgements do stay with you. Luckily, sometimes they're nice ones too!

Good luck with the story, Linda - great post!

Karen said...

Linda, yet again your beautiful writing and generosity of spirit blow me away. Bless you for encouraging that man to write down his story. What a great exchange on a plane. Feedback is such a crucial and challenging part of what we do. Agents and editors who know how to feed back constructively and with care should be treasured. Actually, some of the best editorial feedback came from my teacher in my last year at junior school. She could see I loved creative writing, but I would become so consumed with the detail of my story I would never finish one! She'd drum it into me, "Karen, a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end! You have to get to the end!" Good advice and still relevant all these (many) years later!

Paeony Lewis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paeony Lewis said...

Great blog. I so empathise, Linda. Though nowadays I find silence the most demoralising and most comments make me want to try harder and prove people wrong.

However, at school comments could be more damaging. The only two pieces of fiction I enjoyed writing were both squashed and, like you, I didn't write fiction until I had children.

An early school report said my English was atrocious! Ha ha, the report might have been correct as I now realise I was trying to cope with being mildly dyslexic. Back then lots of words muddled me, although I was pleased with a short poem I wrote in my first year on autumn mists. However, my English teacher informed me it was obvious I hadn't written it. Pah! And several years later I became carried away writing a long science fiction story that I thought was brilliant and my teacher felt deserved my worst mark ever. OK, it probably was dire. However, it's one reason I stopped teaching adults on a uni writing course - I'll critique work but I loathe giving marks.

PS I deleted my previous comment as I noticed several spelling mistakes. I didn't realise Blogger records deletions. But at least it didn't mark me on my spelling!

Linda Strachan said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments. I'm looking forward to writing the story but I'm letting it brew at the moment!

So sad that so many have had a similar experience.

I agree, Sue, labels are dreadful even those which seem positive at the time can cause stress when trying to live up to the expectations of others.

Malaika, that is exactly the problem, your teacher not recognising how deeply you felt about the subject.

Paeony, I don't think a lot of people who are not fans 'get' science fiction at all and just don't know how to deal with it. I had a similar problem with an essay at senior school which was about an out of body experience / paranormal theme and the teacher was not impressed at all but I think she couldn't get over her own feelings about the subject. She was a nun, so perhaps she felt it was not appropriate or something like that!

Karen, thank you! Sounds as if you had a great teacher.

I can't help feeling that a lot of teachers are lost when it comes to their own creative writing and feel threatened with something that is not easy to quantify and mark in the classroom.

But we all know there are some great teachers out there who cherish and encourage the creative souls they come across. I raise a glass to all of them - keep it up.

AVY said...

A little sad yes.


Stroppy Author said...

I don't really remember taking any notice of what my teachers said. Or if I did, it just spurred me on to be provocative. I do remember getting into trouble once for writing a pastiche of a comedy series as part of my RE homework. It was deemed blasphemous and unsuitable. It clearly didn't have the required impact, as I've since written a book that has been banned in parts of the USA.

Whether I take any notice of reviews or critiques depend on how much respect I have for the author of them. An irate nobody on Amazon - more likely to republish it as laughing material than worry about it. A proper reviewer/other writer - will look for useful advice in it.

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