Filtering Feedback

by Randy Petersen

About a year ago I attended the reading of a new play. It was a rather small affair—just three actors, three other friends, and the playwright.

I was the playwright.

While I hoped for affirmation, I needed information. Does the piece hold their interest for its full ninety minutes? Does it lag? Have I unreeled the plot in a pleasant way, providing the right amount of detail when it’s needed? Do they seem to care about the characters? Do they laugh at the jokes? Do they gasp at the surprises? Is there suspense?

A playwriting professor of mine once said that, during play readings, he watches people’s butts—not in a perverse way, but to see if they’re restless, squirming. This tells him what parts of his play need editing. People will always say they like your play, but their butts don’t lie.

Talkback

Yet there’s always a conversation after a play reading, whether there are seven in the room or seventy. The questions and comments in that time can be very helpful. Or not. The best comments are “I statements.” The worst are along the lines of “Here’s how you should fix your play.”

For instance, one of the actors in my play reading felt her character didn’t have enough reason to go to the place where the climactic scene occurred. She was worried about her husband’s safety, but why? In the script, I hadn’t given her enough reason to worry, and so it seemed contrived. I found it enormously helpful to know that the actor didn’t have what she needed for that big scene.

On the other hand, a couple of others suggested adding a new scene that would clearly show how crazy another character was. I thanked them and jotted down the idea, but I have no intention of doing it. I don’t want that character to come across as “clearly crazy.” In fact, their suggestion pushed me in the opposite direction. It let me know I needed to shore up the reasonable ambiguity of that character.

I’ve attended other readings where the questioners just wanted to display their own brilliance. This happens rather often. I remember one such feedback session where a college kid was going on and on about how the playwright should have told the story—a nationally produced playwright, by the way, whose meekness in that moment was earning some kind of eternal reward. Everyone in the room recognized that this kid was just trying to impress his date, who sat cringing beside him.

What We Need

And that brings me to the point of this musing. All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed. Ignore the ones who just want to seem smart. Look for those who understand what you’re trying to do and will help you do that. You might even need to train them a bit—don’t rewrite it for me; do tell me how it affected you; don’t be nice at the expense of honesty; do tell me what parts of the piece didn’t make sense.

If you’re dealing with friends or relatives, you’ll probably need to give them explicit permission to be critical—and then respond graciously to their criticism.

What do you need most from the feedback you seek? Affirmation or information? If it’s info you need, then get it and use it—as you see fit. You don’t need to please others by taking their suggestions. Learn what you can from their responses, but then recraft the piece you want to write.

All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed.

Compete with Yourself, Not Others

Compete with yourself, not others. Invariably, when we compare ourselves to others, we rarely measure up. So change up this equation and compete with yourself. Define a personal best and see if you can surpass it. Early in my career as a staff writer for a daily newspaper, I needed to learn how to write and report as fast as possible. By competing with myself, I found that I could achieve a rate of one thousand words of original content in sixty minutes—a personal best. I impressed myself!

Tim Morgan, The Joy of Working at Home

The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.