Last night was the first meeting of a group I've formed called Writers & Readers. Five of us gathered in my home, three Readers and two Writers. The idea for this group started after I had an "interesting" experience with an initial writers group I went to. I tried to join in there, I tried to grow, to learn and receive critique but the experience was rather like wading into the deep end of the shark-infested ocean with steak juice smeared all over you. After a couple times there, and feeling like I needed to toughen up some, I relayed my experience with this group to my best friend. Her response: DONT GO BACK THERE! Now, my friend "Mu" obviously likes me and didn't want to see me hurt or battered about, but more than that, she was concerned that I would lose all sense of accomplishment or ability if I went to a group that seemed to breed bitterness and frustration in the members and relished beating the hope out of any newcomer-writer that they could do anything right.
So Mu became my writers group: it was just us two meeting weekly over the months. Some would say that she was biased , being my best friend, and how could she offer good feedback and objective critique? But Mu always shoots pretty straight with me, and at the same time, has a way of couching all her critique in a crème brulée coating of tenderness (without the flame).
Also during this time, I picked up an interesting book about Toxic Feedback by Joni B. Cole. It's not just budding writers that have to worry about this problem because I've seen this everywhere: among sisters, among supposed best friends, at the workplace, in the Church, and even on the playground. Toxic Feedback is any kind of response to a question that sends a double message-- a sort of of yes followed by a debilitating No. It's a response that is meant to make you doubt yourself, or make you question your capabilities.
It seems like there are two kinds of people in this world with power: those who have the power to make you doubt yourself and those who have the power to encourage and build up. (There are those who don't do either, but then that's why they don't affect your life). It's not like you have to lie and fudge and gloss over reality in order to encourage someone when giving a critique. There's always something of value in any man's work; you can always find something positive or noteworthy to highlight. You don't always have to go for the jugular--unless you're the kind of person who feels stronger when you make others feel smaller.
So this new group met last night, and boy did we have fun! It helps that we had lots of chocolate and coffee and tea. And it didn't matter that one member got stuck in our snow crowded driveway. And even though the women didn't all know each other, we felt like instant friends within minutes. We were there to discover new talent, to hear the beginning of a story, to approve the good, to note the noteworthy, to concentrate on spurring one another onward. We had a great time; so much so, that we ran late.
I keep thinking about all the things my Dad did right, lately. As he becomes a man softened by age, less powerful in stature, the things of his life are evident: the five children he raised, the players he coached, the students he taught, the message he continually spoke. In our home, you weren't allowed to criticize someone without first giving two compliments. It was my Dad's way of tempering the harshness of the dagger we wanted to throw at someone first. Usually we'd toss out something like "Your hair is nice, you've got got nice teeth- but you're a jerk for taking stuff from my room!!" It kind of defeated Dad's purpose, the way we'd rush through the two compliments to get to the meat of our criticism or attack.
But I know what he was getting at--I see this now, more than ever. There's a great need in this world for safe places and safe people. We have shelters (and not enough of them) for battered women. But there are too few shelters for battered souls. Real Encouragement is needed--not the frosting of random compliments. Encouraging someone has to do with noting their heart's desire to use talents and gifts to the best of their ability. It's pointing out what they did right-- or what they wanted to achieve, even if they didn't. It's seeing beyond--and in spite of--the flubbed attempt. It's seeing behind the string of dis-attached words, the very meaning... the message they were hoping to convey.