Posts Tagged ‘nonconformist’

As you can imagine, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the subject of my first Backbone Project post. I’ve decided to take on a writing-related topic (I’ll try to pick a more general interest topic next week for the non-writing inclined), and I chose this one specifically because I expect many writers to disagree with my take on it. So, onwards into the fray! (And yes, my stomach is doing lopsided cartwheels, thanks for asking.)

When I first ventured into my various writing communities, I was regaled by the sanctity of the critique. How to become a better writer? The answer seemed to be to get critiqued. A lot. Really, as much as possible. Any writer who was truly serious about their craft would join a critique group. Or two, or even three or more. Not to mention purchasing critiques from the pros at conferences and for charity, attending workshops that consisted at least partially of critiques, etc. And then post-critique, the writer was expected to exhaustively compile all that criticism and somehow use it to patch together the remaining shreds of story (occasionally there might be more than shreds remaining, a cause for joyous celebration).

I am not being conciliatory when I say that I have learned a lot as a writer from the critiques I have received. It is plain fact. And I am very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to help me learn. But another important fact that I never seem to read about anywhere in the cult of the critique is this: All critiques are NOT created equal. Not by a long shot. And what we as writers are told to do with critiques is not always what works. I have learned this from painful, critiqued-out-of-my-mind experience. In fact, I have gone months without much productivity because of the backlash from a bad critique. I don’t think this makes me a weenie. I think it makes me human; it’s natural to get discouraged from nonconstructive critiques, especially when you are a relative beginner. I mean, do I tell my beginning voice students in detail exactly how they suck at singing, complete with subtle (or not-so-subtle) disparagement, and then have their peers tell them the same thing? Um, no. That would be insane. And yet…

Here is what I have learned about critiques:

FICTION: You can expect a fair, unbiased critique.
REALITY: Some people will always hate what you do (even if you are awesome) because they just don’t dig your style. Some people will get set off by a random, unpredictable aspect of your story and be completely unable to get over it enough to say anything helpful. Some people will read your story in a sloppy manner and give you a half-assed critique. Some people just don’t know how to critique, period.

FICTION: If you’re upset after a critique, you just need to toughen up and take it. After all, you need a thick skin to succeed as a writer.
REALITY: Some critiques are harsh in a constructive way. Some critiques are harsh in a non-constructive way. Some critiques are just plain mean-spirited. Learn to deal with the first of these. The other two? Consider not getting critiqued by these people again or…

FICTION: Take all critiques into thoughtful consideration.
REALITY: Some critiques you can pretty much ignore. That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen while they’re being given, but after a while you can tell which critiques are completely irrelevant to any learning or revising you might be doing.

FICTION: You need critiques to become better as a writer.
REALITY: There are many ways to become better as a writer. The critique is merely one helpful tool among many. After all, there were still great writers before the current fad for critique.

FICTION: You should implement all suggestions given in a good critique.
REALITY: You should listen to the issues a good critiquer is having, and figure out what you, the writer, want to do about it. Often critiquers try to completely retell your story for you (although I wouldn’t personally call this a good critique). In that case, you need to work backwards to figure out what actually wasn’t working for them, and then change it in your own way. And only if you want to.

FICTION: A critique should always be followed by a revision.
REALITY: As long as you’ve learned something from a critique, it doesn’t matter what you do afterwards. Sometimes you need to revise to complete the learning. Sometimes you want to revise. Sometimes you want to chuck the story into the fire and never think of it again. Sometimes you nod, say hmm, and make a few small changes before submitting. Sometimes, if you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you submit the story before the critique so you’re not tempted to revise the life out of your story. (And oh yes, it is so possible to revise your story to death.)

FICTION: If a person is a “pro” or just has a few more credits than you, their word is God in the critique department.
REALITY: I wish. Some pros are amazing teachers and critiquers. Others, not so much. Some people with more credits than you will have amazingly helpful things to tell you about your work. Others will not. Some readers who know nothing about writing will have insights that are equally useful. And some will not. You get the picture.

FICTION: You should be involved in as much critiquing as possible.
REALITY: If you get too involved in critiquing, it might interfere with finding time to do the actual writing. And most of us ultimately want to be WRITERS, not critiquers. Right? Otherwise why would we be putting ourselves through all this?

FICTION: If you can’t handle a critique, you shouldn’t be a writer.
REALITY: If you can’t handle rejection and revision requests from professional editors and agents (who you are doing business with), then you’re going to have some trouble. If you can’t handle the occasional critique (or even the more than occasional critique), maybe something else is going on.

FICTION: Critique trumps all!
REALITY: It’s more important to manage your writing life in whatever way works for you. And if your way is not exactly the same as everyone else’s way, that’s okay. We’re artists, after all. We’re supposed to be different.

Okay, have at it! Disagree with me (or tell me how you’ve been secretly thinking the same thing). I’m going in for more dental torture this morning (if we ever meet in person and you want to see me cry, mention dentistry), but I’ll be commenting with gusto (and pain-induced bravado) later today.


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Since I wrote my essay on ambiversion last summer, I’ve been thinking about the introvert-extrovert continuum a great deal. Perhaps even more so because that essay is by far the most popular one on this site and continues to draw in a fair amount of search traffic. This makes me think I’m not the only person who cares about such things.

What have I been thinking? I’ve been embracing my identity as an introvert, actually. I’ve spent most of my life unconsciously believing that being an introvert is a Bad Thing. Because, you know, those extroverts have all the fun. While I do believe that American culture contributes to this belief, I see no reason why I can’t be as nonconformist about this as I am about other widely held issues.

So here is my official announcement: Being an introvert is AWESOME! I get to have deep and interesting conversations with people, either one-on-one or in small groups. I get to do amazing creative projects that often require heaps of hours by myself, and it doesn’t bother me. I can be perfectly happy and content and charged without having to take the trouble to make sure I have social plans every single free moment of the day. I get to spend lots of time thinking, which means I get to analyze and learn and have plenty of “aha!” moments. And I tend to think more before I speak, which means I have a better chance of being able to support the people I care about (not to mention a better chance of avoiding saying the most stupid things that pop into my head).

Sure, being an introvert means I have to work harder at being assertive. But since I’m not down at the far end of the introversion spectrum, a lot of the more difficult aspects of it don’t bother me. Basically, I’m an introvert who can pass. (Perhaps this is the real definition of an ambivert: Someone who is not so extreme on the spectrum, so they are able to pass for the other if convenient.) This means that often I can enjoy the best of both worlds, and I’m not dodged by people’s perceptions of my introversion.

What I have realized is that being an introvert and lacking social skills are not the same thing. Imagine my surprise at this discovery! Someone can be an introvert and still have excellent social skills (or successfully develop them). Or someone can be an extrovert who has zero social skills. While there may be a certain amount of correlation between extroverts and social ability, it certainly doesn’t seem to exclude these other possibilities.

This became even clearer to me when I took another personality test based on colors (here is a version of it if you love taking personality tests as much as I do). My highest color is blue, which is the social helper type. Yes, I’m a self-esteem builder who gets the most satisfaction from work that allows me help and inspire others and make a difference in their lives. No surprise that I’ve spent most of my adult life being a teacher and writer. It even fits in with this blog of mine, doesn’t it? And yet I’m also an introvert. These two parts of myself are not in conflict. In fact, I believe that being an introvert actually assists me to better understand and inspire others. How’s that for some positive framing?

Here’s my question for you: how does being an introvert or an extrovert help you in your life? And if necessary, can you pass as the other type (be an introvert who appears to be an extrovert or an extrovert who appears to be an introvert)?

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I have a love-hate relationship with being a free spirit. I wouldn’t change who I am for the world, but it comes with its fair share of heart ache and difficulty.

Sometimes I want to be a sheep, happily grazing in a flock of other sheep and doing exactly what everyone else does. I don’t want to wander off on my own, I don’t want to forge my own path. I don’t want to collect data until I reach the inescapable conclusion that the traditional way isn’t my way. I want life to be easy, all in a straight line, with my only task being to connect the dots. I want to follow the rules, I want to pay my dues, I want to embrace a guaranteed path to success.

Of course, there are no sure paths. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that you can never predict how it’s going to turn out or what opportunities may rise unexpectedly. It’s good to ask questions and reach your own conclusions, because what if circumstances have changed and conventional wisdom is just flat-out wrong? It’s good to take stock and figure out what will make you the happiest, even if the answer is unique and makes your friends and acquaintances shake their heads.

The sad truth is, sometimes people are judgmental. We emphasize the need to fit in during high school in YA novels and movies, and act like this social need doesn’t continue past a certain age. But does it disappear on our eighteenth birthdays? No. Life is not so simple and clear-cut as all that.

The result is, if we decide to be a free spirit, if we make nonconformist decisions or hold nontraditional ideas, we’re going to catch a certain amount of heat, whatever our age. Not only that, but we’ll be making our own road maps as we go, which can be a solitary and scary endeavor. Sometimes we’ll fail spectacularly, and our failures will be all the more visible because we were trying something unusual — something people didn’t think we should be trying, or something people assumed we couldn’t make work. Even when we do succeed, people will try to belittle what we have accomplished.

The conventional advice on this subject is that we shouldn’t care what people think, but sometimes we are going to care, no matter how hard we try to deny it. Therein lies the dark side to living a life outside the normal boundaries. It takes courage and self-respect, and sometimes it will sting in spite of ourselves. Sometimes we may weaken a little bit and wish we could be like everybody else, happily following the Pied Piper and playing it safe.

But we are not like everybody else. We cannot convince ourselves to be. It’s so much more exciting and fulfilling to question, to think, to decide what we honestly want and plot our own route to achieve it. It’s exhilarating to take risks and feel the buzzing, growing vitality of being alive and creating our own life stories. When I falter, I remind myself of how happy I am to have the power of choice, to be able to do what I love so much of the time, and to belong to a network of people who trust me to be me, no matter what choices (or even mistakes) I’m making.

What do you do when you falter? How do you stay strong in the face of judgement?

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Looking at the title of my blog, I began to wonder what a free spirit is, exactly.  I know the stereotype in the movies: Summer from (500) Days of Summer, or Sharon Stone’s character in The Muse, or Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I’m not really like any of those women though, so there’s got to be more to it, right?  (Also, what about the free spirit men?  Why can’t I think of any movies about them?  Help me out in the comments, please.)

I turned to the internets to help me out.  Apparently, a free spirit is someone who is not restrained, for instance by convention or obligation.  Or it’s someone who has a highly individual or unique attitude, lifestyle, or imagination.  Or it’s someone acting freely or even irresponsibly (I guess that’s where the practical part of my blog title comes in?)  All the definitions agree on one synonym to describe a free spirit: nonconformist.

Oh, right.  Thank you, dictionaries everywhere, for reminding me what I’m talking about.

Here’s my definition of what it means to be a free spirit:

  • A free spirit thinks for himself, observing and collecting data in order to form his own opinions.
  • A free spirit does what she thinks is right, not what everyone else tells her is right.  She puts a high value on free choice.
  • A free spirit cares about getting to know both himself and the world around him.
  • A free spirit isn’t generally swayed by arguments of what one is “supposed” to do.  She tends to avoid, ignore, or become upset by people who are judgmental or controlling.
  • A free spirit has the courage to test life’s boundaries and limits, and to try things that other people think are impossible, unimportant, or impractical.  (These other people are often wrong.)
  • A free spirit often has her own unique vision of life and the world.

This does not mean a free spirit is a trampler, i.e. the kind of person who doesn’t care about other people’s feelings.  Nor are all free spirits incapable of compromise and discussion.  They aren’t inherently flighty or irresponsible or train wrecks on wheels.  Free spirits can be any of these things, just like everyone else, but they don’t have to be.

I also suspect there are those to whom free spiritedness comes easy, and those for whom it’s very difficult.  Or maybe there are just people like me who swing back and forth between the ease and the struggle.  There are noisy free spirits and quiet free spirits, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts, free spirits who engage in risqué behavior and those who think risqué is passé and so go to the other extreme.  (Ask me sometime why my ears aren’t pierced and you’ll see what I mean.)  Some of us are stubborn while others are fickle, some of us are dedicated while others drift from thing to thing.  We can be challenging, yes, and difficult to understand, but we love life with a passion that makes it all seem worthwhile.

Whatever our shortcomings, we make the world a more varied and interesting place.  We are agents of change and opponents of inertia.  As Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a 19th century British poet, said:

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.


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