Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting in There

“I was thinking about your fight,” my friend Jim said to me.

It was one week after the fight. I had lost. Everything was great for about five days. I went to sparring class the day after the fight and sparred as well as I ever had. I couldn’t stop eating like I was cutting weight. Nothing but steamed vegetables and small portions of lean meat seemed like food. I couldn’t bring myself to drink more than half a glass of water at once. I kept waking up in the middle of the night wanting to do pull-ups. I was as high as a roundhouse kick to the head.

Then on Friday came the crash. I could barely pull myself out of bed. I couldn’t stop crying. I was sure my cat was going to die. And I was right—she died two weeks later. Everything was totally, totally messed up. I was a failure.

I ran into Jim while I was running errands on Saturday. The last thing I wanted to talk about was the fight. “Yeah, so I was wondering,” he asked. “How come you never kicked the girl really hard?”

I didn’t know what to say. Because she was flitting around really fast like a 110-pound girl can do and it was a little tricky to kick her at all? Because it was a tournament scored on points, so I was trying to kick her often, not hard? Because it looks a lot more impactful when you kick someone standing still holding a pad than a skinny little body in constant motion?

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. Truthfully, I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t kicked her hard. It was like asking a stand-up comedian why he didn’t tell any funny jokes.

I told one of my coaches about it later. “It’s easy to criticize someone’s fight," he told me. "What’s hard is to get in the ring and do it yourself.”

That’s something fighters say a lot: you have to give a person respect just for getting in there. Before I competed, it was one of those abstract things I understood in principle. It’s brave to fight a stranger in front of an audience. On that level, I understood it well, because I was too scared to do it. But afterwards, it meant something different. You can prepare as much as you want for a fight, but you have no idea what will happen once you are in the ring, who you will be fighting, or how you will be judged.

Martial arts teachers have to remind their students of this because the potential for thoughtless shit-talking is so high in a situation where new students are learning to critique their own form and technique. I’ve seen people running their mouths after tournaments: Bill should have kept his hands up better, a new student will say, shaking his head in disappointment. If the teacher overhears this, he’ll raise an eyebrow and say, I didn’t see you in that ring.

I have to be that teacher myself in my writing classes, talking students out of making comments that are thoughtless, insulting, or inane as they critique each others’ essays. Students who will readily admit that they don’t know how to use a comma and have never read an entire book are happy to slam away at other people’s writing with all the contempt of a New York Times critic. Anything that expresses an opinion is a rant, anything with complex sentence structures is torture, anything from before World War II is Old English.

They’re even worse about each other’s writing. On their peer response sheets, I had to make a rule against answering nothing to the question, What is the strongest part of the essay? Granted, there are many students who love to praise their classmates’ writing with as much unilateral enthusiasm as others like to criticize it. Neither approach will provide much useful help for a writer trying to improve a draft.

It’s easy to criticize other people’s writing—much, much easier than writing something oneself. Many of the things that aren’t working in writing are glaringly apparent, just like the things that aren’t working in a fight, and both give bystanders a sense of entitled outrage:

This paragraph doesn’t make any sense!
That guy kept punching you in the face!
You don’t have a main point!
Your kicks weren’t landing!

It’s easy to spot these obvious design flaws. Giving constructive feedback is more challenging. I know this as well as anyone. Constructive feedback is my job, and the fact that I give it quite well means I get paid one of those cushy, union-inflated government salaries. It’s not easy to look at a rough piece of writing, relax enough to make out the contours of what the author is trying to say, determine which parts are creating that meaning and which are detracting from it, and advise the author what to keep and what to change. I don’t want the students to be perfect at it. I just want them to turn off that automatic voice, the one that feels entitled to understand everything instantly and takes a confusing idea as a personal affront.

I think people are extra crotchety when critiquing writing because writing invades our brains, and so we take it very personally when we don’t like it. When we disagree with it, it has violated the sanctity of our thoughts by making us narrate the offending words. When we find it confusing or unclear, it has exhausted us by making us work to decode it. If, god forbid, we are forced (like my students) to read the entirety of something we dislike, we consider it as a waste of our precious time and brain cells, viewing it with a sense of persecution that we would never aim at reality television, marijuana, or Farmville.

Now that I’ve written a draft of a novel, I’ve gotten all kinds of responses, many positive, many critical. I’ve been lucky not to get too many mean ones, because the novel is only being read by people I know and who care about me. Occasionally I get one that hurts a little, though, because the person has rejected the novel wholesale:

I wasn’t sure what the point was.
I just didn’t like any of the characters.
I thought, why am I reading this?

Even though this kind of absolutely critical feedback is a little painful, I don’t mind it or feel upset at the people who voice it. When you put a piece of writing into the world, you expose yourself to far, far worse than that. Just like when you fight, you potentially expose yourself to be the idiot who got the crap beat out of him in front of an audience.

These are legitimate reactions when reading a book, and I’ve certainly felt this way about many books I’ve read. I probably wouldn’t tell them to the book’s author, though, because I can’t imagine how the author would fix these problems, or that they should. There’s no way this book will ever appeal to me. Like many books, including many of the world’s most celebrated works of literature, it’s not about people or things that interest me. If asked, I would probably say, “I just couldn’t get into it,” or “It wasn’t the kind of book I like” and be done with it.

I didn’t used to be so diplomatic. When I was my students’ age, I did at times rip into a work that didn’t suit my liking, whether amateur or celebrated.

That guy’s essay was total pretentious gibberish.
Jane Austen? How can anyone stand all that quipping?

Once I became a writing teacher, I stopped subjecting works-in-progress to this kind of criticism. But published writing, writing that was projected out into the world for public consumption and critique, was fair game.

Now, having experienced a taste of the other side, of being the writer as well as the consumer of writing, I think I will be as careful when I speak about someone’s writing as I am when I speak about their fighting. Even if I don’t like what they wrote, I will respect the fact that they wrote it and remember that it’s easier to pick apart a fight than to get in the ring yourself.