Kickstarting and Conversating

I recently asked for more critical feedback on my fiction writing, and I was called a Bitch. I’m capitalizing Bitch because it makes me feel regal.  Like a Doberman instead of a Chihuahua. (Sorry, Chihuahuas.)

It’s entirely possible that the dogged response came from how I asked for feedback. I questioned if commenters on websites ever said anything other than “I loved this so much!” or “This post made me gush; it was that good.” It is wonderful to hear, until you see that a whole bunch of posts, even ones that are just annotated links to other posts, have those kinds of comments.  Then it feels cheap.  No one likes to feel that. Much.

As an English teacher, I know that good criticism, honest and fair criticism, can help a writer improve and grow and shine.

So I basically said that on a couple of posts about on-line writing: Why does everyone just swoon over people’s stuff, even when it’s shit? (See where the Bitch may have been applied?) And I was schooled about on-line etiquette of commenting.  I think it comes down to this: If you don’t say shiny, happy things, you run the risk of being called a Troll.  And for all the “No Bullying!” posts we see, on-line folks sure can be bullies when they don’t like what someone else is saying.

So, can we have actual conversations anymore?  Are we relegated, through the fear of confrontation, to just nodding and smiling and occasionally clapping our hands in delighted support? I think we are.  And it’s not just on-line.

At a recent gathering of women-of-a-certain-age, a tense moment simmered when the topic of inviting a new member came up. One of the ladies in the group suggested that we look for a new member outside of the ethnicities already represented. Another member took offense at the chosen definition of diversity. And despite the close friendships in the group, no one else entered the conversation. It was like a slow-moving tennis match during which none of the spectators looked directly at the combatants. This would have been where I inserted Awwwk-Warrrd into the conversation, except that, as the newest member, I figured it wasn’t my place.

Race, Politics, Religion, and apparently Criticism of Writing, are touchy subjects at dinner parties – virtual or in real life. But aren’t they also the subjects that need the most discussion? Why can’t we discuss (or conversate, as my students used to say) with differing opinions without feeling the heat rise from our bellies to the tips of our ears?

These two experiences got me thinking more about Bring It to the Table, a documentary project* from a local filmmaker. It’s about beginning to break away from polarizing language. It’s about creating conversations that become part of our country’s dialogue about real issues.  I find this such an interesting project, and it’s one that can benefit us all. Read more about the filmmaker and her philosophy on Baristanet.

What do you think? Is it possible to have authentic conversations anymore? Are we all too worried about offending or seeming like “trolls” to others?

* Bring It to the Table is trying to gain Kickstarter funds to tour the country for more conversations about politics.  Check out the Kickstarter site – you can donate as little as $1!


About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to car culture, dealing with leaving a career I loved, and spouting off along the way. #RESIST
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38 Responses to Kickstarting and Conversating

  1. I think, for me, I have learned that when people ask for honest feedback, and you do that: they really don’t want that. Twice in my blogging life I have been pushed for honest feedback, when I gave it (and I’m polite and tactful as well as willing to give ideas, etc) I was sent angry emails on “what makes you think you know so much.”

    Well, because you asked me, I didn’t solicit your material.

    I’d have to say it’s the feedback that shuts us up. Do males do this? I don’t know enough enough groups of males to decide. I know that just my internet life has taught me, most people really don’t want the truth. And their minds are already made up, they don’t want to hear your input. Which is unfortunate b/c even if you disagree, you can always learn something.

    Wonderful post.

    • I know that’s true. I had a horrible experience when a colleague asked for “harsh, really harsh” feedback, and when I gave it – he stopped talking to me for a year! I can understand that. And I know that there are forums for it. For example, the Yeah Write forum is about support and encouragement. It’s not the place to tear someone’s writing apart. Highlight the GOOD! However, when someone asks, I will answer. Just like when you tell me you DO NOT want a surprise party for your birthday, don’t be surprised when you don’t get one. Say what you mean, baby!

      I am honored that the Empress stopped by. And that is sincere. 😉

    • Cathy says:

      Ditto. Recently I made a carefully worded but honest assessment of someone’s writing and I still wonder if I may have done more harm than good…

  2. Erica M says:

    I’m commenting on my phone. Forgive in advance any shenanigans.

    I loved this post and agree with so much of it. I have no answers for why people ask for honest opinions, then get angry or defensive when the answer was honest, but not what they wanted to hear. So I’ve just learned to STFU.

    I’ve also learned that some people, not all, learn better by watching others work and picking up good habits with practice. I am one of those people who can be easily discouraged when I’ve worked so hard on something and somebody (hello Hubby, hello Mom) rips it apart trying to be helpful. Putting those two concepts of learning by doing and allowing people room to grow without tearing their heads off is why the yeah write forum highlights the good in the grid without calling out the less advanced writers.

    I’m now emotionally attached to those I’ve watched grow into pretty good storytellers mainly by reading yeah write bloggers like you. Yeah, critics like my hubs and mom have their places and I appreciate it when they tell me I’m way off base, but sometimes we just want to learn in an encouraging, supportive environment.

    Thanks for the idea for next week’s opening post! I love you this morning.

    • So very true, Erica. And I think something that you alluded to is also part of it: The shutting up/out factor. And that if *I* post something (seen as) negative, than it’s opening the door to people being super-duper-mean to me. What makes me frustrated is when there is that overly gushing response to EVERYthing. And that includes on my own writing. In Yeah Write, there have been posts that I dashed off in passion and barely edited – and they get loads of amazing comments. While appreciated, it makes me feel a little sheepish knowing that what I’ve offered up is hardly deserving of the praise.

      Then again, it may all just come from my inability to accept praise in general. Let’s say it together: Baggage!

      • Erica M says:

        I used to coast through my Honors English classes just kinda doing the bare minimum because 1) my reputation preceded me and 2) working off the teachers’ perceptions of black students in general, knowing that since I could put two sentences together without using the word conversate, they would grade my work like I was Tolstoy. I became a pretty lazy student.

        Until Mrs Pecseyne, my 12th grade English teacher, called me on my bullshit and gave me a C. On my report card. Not even a warning on a progress report. She was grading me on what she knew I knew versus my output, and she was right. I snapped to attention and gave her everything I could from then on.

        I think you grade your posts on the same steep curve as Mrs Pecseyne. And you feel guilty when we like the stuff you wrote on the bus on the way to school. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Before Mrs P, I’d get straight As on crap I’d write on the cafeteria table before the bell rang and I was at an all-academic school. Write what you want and I promise not to tell Mrs Pesceyne. We’ll still love it.

  3. I once posted a comment on a blog, disagreeing with the author. In a nutshell, I said “You’ve got it all wrong, and here is why…” Because adults do not seem to know the difference anymore between bullying and disagreeing, I was called a bully. If I said “You’ve got it all wrong, and here is why…you’re fat and should put a bag over your head and stop writing because you suuuuuck,” then yeah, that can be considered bullying.

    I think that because it’s so easy to post on the Internet through social networking sites and blogs, people who are used to living in a vacuum of friends and family that never DARE speak against them (regardless of how fat those pants make their ass look) are shocked at the IDEA of someone on The Internet™ disagreeing with them. It’s become impolite to disagree, and it’s a total joke. Some of the best conversations on my site are with people that have differing opinions of me. Even if I initially want to respond “UGH I HATE YOU. HOW CAN YOU DISAGREE WITH ME WHEN I’M CERTAINLY RIGHT ALL THE TIME. YOU ARE THE ONE THAT IS WRONG. AAAAHA THIS IS MY BLOGGGGGG I H8 UUUU.”

    I treat all my online conversations like they’re conversations with a co-worker. I am polite, vulgar when appropriate (ha), and in mostly lowercase letters. Now give me all your lunch money, Bitch.

    • That is a fantastic attitude towards online conversations – or even IRL conversations: Treat them as you would a work discussion. As Erica mentioned, family can be especially difficult because of the long history we have. And the comfort level of lovers or close, close friends can be difficult because of delivery/reception/emotions. But if we choose our words to make the writing stronger – using polite, reasoned language – it can be received in the manner it’s meant to be. “I want to help you make this better so we can all have something more beautiful in the world.”

  4. Christina says:

    Kristin, this was a terrible, horrible post. Really the worst I’ve ever read!

    There. 😉

  5. Carla says:

    As someone who works in an artistic medium that can not be completed in a vacuum (indie filmmaking) I need, crave and enjoy harsh feedback/criticism. I just don’t think The Internets is the right place to get feedback for works in progress. Anonymity, total accessibility and lack of face to face interaction doesn’t allow the web to be a completely respectful environment. You just can’t have the back and forth that one needs for successful communication. If you want true strong feedback I would stay away from it. Or just call Christina.

  6. heidi says:

    Okay, I love this. I have to admit that all the gushing everywhere gets to me every once in a while, although I’m totally a gusher. But, I won’t lie for the sake of saving face. I choose to keep quiet. If I get criticism and feedback I want it done via email or in person. And not all over Twitter.
    Also, capitalizing Bitch does give it a certain something… Like Bitch is now impressive and regal.
    Great, great post. I mean it.

    • I stay silent as well. Unless I find the topic, not the writing, just wrong and offensive. And then I’ll stick to short, factual commentary. I suppose it really is about community and context. If it’s a blog link-up ABOUT criticism (which can mean positive feedback too!) of writing, then it would be expected – and specifically desired.

      I also tend to be a gusher when I really love something.

  7. I love this conversation. I have benefitted greatly from constructive criticism in supportive writing classes. I realize blog commenting is not meant to be instructional. But all the gushing when gushing is clearly not warranted is frustrating. In no way does that help the writer improve his/her skills. I’m assuming that is what we’d all like to do, improve. Sometimes I think the gushers must be commenting on the heartfelt content, which is an excellent thing to comment on, but the writing should somehow matter as well. And so I completely agree that there is too much gush.

    And on the other topic of politely disagreeing… the other day I commented on a post I disagreed with. I did it nicely. I did not tell the poster that she was wrong. I don’t agree with that, by the way. When you say, You’re wrong, that just pisses people off. They don’t read any further. Anyway, I politely said I didn’t understand her point of view and offered examples of the other side of the coin. She deleted the comment. She had only one other comment, and maybe that’s why. Thanks for the link to the Bring it to the Table. A worthy endeavor in our 24 hour polarizing, name-calling, times. Wonderful post, Kristin.

    • I’ve had disagreeing, but polite comments deleted as well. Or just never approved. In fact, it happened on HuffPo’s Parent blog twice. And I just don’t get that at ALL. Weird. So I did the next best thing, I tweeted the entire comment referencing the handle each time. Is that Troll-Like? I wouldn’t do that to a personal blog; there, the worst punishment sometimes is no comments at all.

      Thank you for the fantastic response, Steph!

  8. L.A.C.E. says:

    At least you get feedback. I posted one of my assignments and no one said nothing. Nothing good, nothing bad. I am an aspiring writer and I want something. One of the reasons I haven’t submitted anything is because I’m scrared of rejection and scared that one piece rejected will halt any further writing. I’m looking to people (strangers) in a medium I’m comfortable with and I don’t even get a, “that is really great”. I want to start my rejection in a comfortable place to help me push myself.

    As for me, I can tell which places I can post my opinion. I am also willing to hear what the author has to say with an open mind. In some cases I have to eat crow and say I’m wrong. If I think it’s shite or have nothing good to say and (I can typically tell by the way something is written), that all they want is praise for shit. I do as I was taught and say nothing at all.

    People pull the bully card as much as the race card these days. It’s down right embarrassing to be an intellectual human being these days. I hate having to pussy foot around everyone. But then, I’m blunt. and unfortunately because I don’t want to upset the masses, my blog doesn’t even show how blunt I can be. So it lacks a lot of my personality. Thank goodness I have so much of it, so no one notices lol

    btw, this was a great post 😀 for realz

    • Based on the experiences of excellent writers I know (both in person and virtually), there is a helluva lot of rejection. Because really, how much space is there? We don’t have time to READ it all, let alone print it all! And sometimes a piece hasn’t found the best audience. And sometimes it hasn’t found the best time. I strongly recommend a few years of middle school or high school teaching to thicken the skin. After being called out for wrinkled pants, frizzy hair, eye goop, and misspelled words on the board (it’s really hard!), I can hear just about everything. And that doesn’t even count the physical comments about my skin and body! 😉

      Oh! And thank you for mentioning the bully card. It minimized the true cases of bullying – of which there are too many. But being mean is rarely being a bully.

  9. Mayor Gia says:

    Hmmm…I definitely don’t criticize someone’s writing STYLE unless they really really want to know. However, I will respectfully disagree with someone. Unless they’re just so polarizing and I realize it’s not worth it.

    • Yes, absolutely. The first situation happened after I asked for feedback on a specific post. I realize that many people are just putting themselves out there for the sharing, and that’s different. But I fear that we are losing the ability to actually HAVE the conversations (like in my second example). As you mentioned, do many people have the ability to respectfully disagree? That’s why I like the Bring it to the Table project.

  10. Eloiza says:

    this really is a great post, really. no, i’m serious.
    jokes aside, i love that you bring up powerful questions about honesty, integrity, authenticity and truth-telling. the only point where i differ is that i think it is impossible to never feel “the heat rise from our bellies to the tips of our ears” when we are telling a difficult truth. i do think the intensity of the heat diminishes the more we practice. but i’m not sure we ever want it to go away– it is a signal that there is an emotional charge and that can be good. xoxo

    • Good point. And no, I don’t want to lose that emotion, and I don’t want others to either! But when our ears fill, we don’t listen as well. And I fear that most people either strike out or turn away. And that not only saddens me, it scares me.

  11. Hmm…interesting post for sure. I’ve often wondered at people gushing for posts that just aren’t that great to me, but then, writing is very subjective. What I may find horrible you may like and vice versa. That’s not to say that some posts are not just objectively horrible due to a number of reasons (poor grammar, poor development, etc.).

    With communities like yeahwrite and other online writing communities I’ve been a part of, I’ve found it extremely hard to offer constructive criticism. Again, I find writing to be completely subjective, and I quite honestly have a hard time criticizing anyone’s attempts…unless there are just blatant errors and typos. I always think, “well, who am I to tell them how to write?” because ultimately, it’s just my opinion. And so, because I have a hard time offering up constructive criticism, I’ve created my own brand of constructive positivism (which is an incredibly hard word to say.) Basically, I look for the good in a post (in a writing community in which I know it’s important to offer up a thoughtful and helpful comment), and I tell the writer why I like a certain sentence or a certain character or whatever. I find it hard to just say, “This was a great post!” without adding anything with any substance to my comment. Now that’s not to say that I haven’t done that before, because I’m nothing if not a gusher, but I never gush just for the sake of gushing. I gush sincerely. And if the post doesn’t make me want to gush, well, I either move along, or I offer up a comment that points out what I DID like about the post…which I think is helpful and educational in its own way.

    I have thin skin. I’ll be the first to admit that, but as a writer, even a thin-skinned writer, I’ve had to get used to fair and honest and yes, helpful constructive criticism. I may not like what a commenter has to say, but it does ultimately help me. That being said, I suck at being that commenter for someone else. I’m too much of a people pleaser, I guess.

    • I love that! Constructive Positivism! And that’s the key, isn’t it? Just saying that something bites isn’t helpful, but pointing out if something is unclear or wordy (my usual sin!) and explaining how and why, forces a writer to go back and really look at what s/he has put into words. And that’s something I don’t think most blogger do.

      Now, what about the second half of the post. Are we losing the ability to converse about anything at all?

      • Probably. I think, in general, the world is much too sensitive these days. And that’s coming from poor sensitive little me 🙂 There seems to be a real problem with people being able to disagree and not hate each other. I have a friend whom I disagree with about almost everything, and yet, we get along…mostly, and to be honest, I’ve had some of the most insightful and amazing conversations with her, despite our very different opinions and minds (maybe because of?).

        As one of your other commenters pointed out, I think we throw around the word “bully” much too loosely these days, and it has come to encompass anyone who goes against the grain or disagrees with the masses…or more importantly, disagrees with you or me or whoever has the opinion. That’s most definitely not a bully. We should be able to embrace our differences and the differences in our opinions; it’s what makes humanity so beautiful and so flawed. If everyone was exactly the same, going around saying, “Oh, I loved this post!” none of us would ever grow, and we certainly wouldn’t be bringing anything to the table.

  12. Carrie says:

    I think commenting on blogs is a risky endeavour and should be done with a light touch. Most people write personal essays on their lives, so although your critique maybe directed at a person’s writing or opinion they could very well take it as a personal attack. No one wants to be told that they are wrong (even when they are). I think when people write about wanting an “honest opinion” what they actually mean to say is “agree with me and like what I have written”.

    That being said the people in your English class depend on you for an honest opinion. They have built a rapport with you. Your goal is to make them better at writing and critical thinking etc. You are there to help them so there is a level of trust there, and thus criticism isn’t taken as harshly (or at least in theory this should be true).

    In the blogging world this just isn’t true. It’s hard to build trust and rapport amongst people you have never met. Quite frankly when a “writer” asks for an opinion; I take it very tongue and cheek. If they were truly looking to improve their writing to a competitive degree, I think they would find a better means to do so than through a blog comment or two.

    • True, but the reason for the initial interaction was because I asked for authentic feedback – in a writing forum. I’d like to trust that people who come together to write are doing more than sharing a personal story for the emotional tug-of-war. There are many other forums for that – many more than there are for writing development.

      I don’t believe in just running around (surfing around) suggesting improvements. I don’t have time for that. But if people in a writing community are taking the time to read your writing – with the intention of helping you improve said writing – seeing all shiny, happy comments is frustrating. And I don’t have time for that either! Speaking of which, thank you for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment.

      • Carrie says:

        Oh sorry, I didn’t realize you were in an actual writing forum where those kind of comments were encouraged and in fact necessary for constructive feedback. In which case I think you do have a point and in general people seem to be hypersensitive now-a-days!

        Why can’t people have open discussions in todays world about topics that don’t revolve around weather? I think it might be because Political Correctness is constantly changing, evolving, and becoming broader in scope. I think it’s nearly impossible to hold a conversation without worrying about what that person finds offensive. So to reply to your tweet – I do think we’ve lost the ability to speak freely and to express opinions liberally and I think in some instances this is needed. But in general I think it’s a shame. I think we cut ourselves off from true communication and real response by avoiding topics of conversation out of fear that we might hurt someones ego or feelings.

        I think if you are secure in yourself and in your abilities then you should be able to have an open dialogue with anyone – and most importantly admit to being wrong – when and if – you are.

  13. Anna says:

    i couldn’t agree more, but i can hardly remember the days when i wrote what i thought instead of what i though the blogger wanted to hear. personally, i love a different opinion – and if done well enough, could even persuade me to their side! so yes, take a risk! say what you mean!

    i have left some comments along the lines of factual corrections – and even those are not received well, so of course i don’t bother any more.

    as to creative writing comments, if someone is willing to take the time to edit my work, why wouldn’t i want the suggestions? i have never understood people who bristle at suggestions/improvements – every writer can benefit from another point of view.

    speaking of which, your post needs some work. (sorry, couldn’t help myself.) oh, that feels good!

    • It’s interesting, but I realized recently that I rarely find out how someone has responded to my comments. It’s so difficult to go back and see where the responses are, and I never subscribe to comments because it hurts my inbox to be stuffed so full of emails. So what does it matter to me if my suggestions are taken badly? I’ll never know!

      Please submit your suggestions as to how I can improve this post to my editor.

  14. Robbie says:

    You raise some interesting questions and ideas. I suppose if you are specifically seeking constructive criticism or writing advice it is one thing. I don’t read to critique others. I read to hear their stories, find out about how their experiences have shaped them, read the struggles and their triumphs. If I don’t have anything nice to say I don’t say anything at all. Clearly there is a wide range of skill in telling our stories.
    There are certain styles of writing that just don’t appeal to me so I just don’t read them. The blogosphere has such a diverse audience and just because it makes my skin crawl to read someone’s blog doesn’t mean it isn’t an absolute favorite of someone else.

    • That’s definitely true. The initial experience was in an on-line writer’s forum. As I responded to another comment, I felt like it was a waste of effort to just get a whole bunch of “I love this!” comments; it doesn’t help people improve writing or story-telling. Who has time for that?

      I’m actually more concerned about the second situation I mentioned. Have we lost the ability to have conversations about topics other than the weather or poopy diapers? Did we ever have that skill?

  15. I get annoyed by the gushing “loved this so much!” comments, too. Even on my own posts. Not that I want to be flamed, but I do appreciate comments that show a reader has actually read what I wrote and put some thought into their reply as opposed to just dishing out a pat response. Isn’t that what blogging is all about, after all? Conversation?

    That said, I think what the conversation is really depends on what kind of blog you write. I tend to stay away from controversial topics on my blog (because I’m a wimp like that) and this wouldn’t expect too many dissenting comments (but would – and have – read and appropriately address any I do/did get). But as I said above, I do expect – and give in return – conversational ones.

    On the other hand, if I read a blog that addresses a social, political, or just plain controversial opinion with which I disagree, I’ll do one of two things: 1.) Diplomatically express my disagreement in the spirit of honest and genuine discourse, or 2.) If I don’t feel like I have anything nice to say, simply log off and not comment. And I have done both in the past – the former to mixed results (as it turns out, some people really do just want you to blow sunshine up their ass).

    I don’t read any fiction blogs, but if I did I would handle any critical feedback the author solicited the same way. My motto when it comes to blogging is basically, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all… but don’t be an enabling suck-up, either). 😉

    • I have to say, this post, even more than some of my favorites, has been my very favorite for the comments!

      I think the consensus is that if we don’t say anything nice, we zip it. A good rule to follow in most cases. Thank you so much for commenting!

  16. Hey there! Like folks have already said, you raise solid points in this post. Truth told: I rarely leave comments on blog posts. Blue-moon rare (so look up to the heavens right now!). When I first started my blog two years ago, I remember reading that a good way to get your name/voice “out there” was by commenting on others’ blogs. However, I noticed two things about the comments pretty early on: They’re either gushy or downright nasty. (The nastiness by way of the anonymous avi is the reason I swore off reading ANY comments on stories or essays I’ve written. I know a good handful of other writers who also steer clear of the comments section.)

    So… guess the Blue Moon is setting right about now. 🙂

    • Yowza! I was just reading comments in reaction to the Wellesley teacher giving a speech that (to me) was a reality check. People are nuts! And people also find controversy in the strangest places. I’m honored, and I’m checking out the skies tonight.

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