Sweet Clarity: N M Browne


So, it’s marking time for the Creative Writing courses I teach ie peak chocolate eating time. 

In many ways I think the feedback part of any course is the most useful: the moment when students show tutors what they can do and what they have learned, and tutors discover whether our words of wisdom have made any impact. I am not going to try to take credit for the work of those with natural talent who need no help from me, but I have come to realise that there are others whose writing ‘journey’ may be shortened or eased by the right comment at the right time. I just wish it were easier to find that right comment.

  It is all too easy to forget the vulnerabilities of other people, to remember that even the most confident, gifted people still need to be treated with careful consideration, that no one takes criticism easily and that making it useful and palatable is a gift that is all too rare. I am not going to lie, I  have often got it wrong. 

 Like so many others, I have been taken aback by the decision of the inestimable Simone Biles to step back from Olympic competition. It suggests perhaps that even when you are the best in the world at your chosen activity, criticisms, doubts and wayward anxieties can still that hijack your thoughts and get in your way.

 It is fashionable in some circles to set writers and artists against sportsmen and women as though we are all in some stereotypical American movie with geeks and jocks despising each other. I think what this Olympics has shown more poignantly than any other is that we are all the same. Whether you are a tennis player, gymnast, poet or novelist even the most disciplined can falter, even the best in the world can suffer doubt. We are all playing complicated games with our own egos, battling self doubt along with the blank page or the parallel bars.

  As a critic, I can sometimes be cutting, prioritising clarity over kindness. As I pour myself another cup of coffee and break into yet another bar of super dark chocolate, I remind myself that the right comment at the right time should be a hand on the shoulder not a slap on the wrists. 


Umberto Tosi said…
Words can be lethal, often without intention. They can also inspire and provide insights. I've grappled with the same dilemmas you describe in choosing words carefully, balancing honest criticism that you own readers and subjects, with being constructive and encouraging without being patronizing, or destructive. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
Peter Leyland said…
There's a difficult balance to be struck between encouragement and criticism. I can recall the times in my academic life when I have been sent high by the former and brought low by the latter. Very often it was to do with the relationship I had with the person concerned and I carried this idea into my own relationship with my own students. I always wanted to be positive and uncritical but I could see the flaws with this and often had to disappoint.

Yes you can do it, were the words I myself responded to best, and if I failed there was always that Beckett idea that I would fail better next time.

Thanks for an interesting post, Nicky.

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