Criticism and creativity

October 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

I have to confess that I’ve been spamming my friends and followers a little on social media today, punting a music video that my kids made. But I couldn’t help it. With the simplest of tools – an A4 white board, some basic stationery and an iPad app, they produced the most awesome stop frame animation music video for Train’s Fifty Ways to say Good-byeAnd, parental bias aside, it’s amazing.

I know at least some of you are tutting and saying that an iPad app is hardly a simple tool, but for me, the marvel is to be found in the conceptualisation – in the way that they chose to illustrate the song’s lyrics. Anyone who’s ever tried to make a music video will know exactly how hard that is to do, and my daughters are just 11 and 14.

I’m a fairly creative person, but somehow I feel like they’re in a different league, and it really got me thinking about creativity and how important it is to nurture it.

As a child, almost all of my extra-murals were in the cultural arena – I sang in a provincial youth choir as well as the school choir. I sang, danced and acted in amateur dramatic productions from my second year of schooling until my last. I took part in debating, wrote plays and poems and short essays… I was really pretty creative when I think about it. But over the years, I seem to have forgotten a lot of that.

Or perhaps I’ve just had it knocked out of me. Because when I try to explore why I don’t value my creativity as I should, or have much confidence left in my abilities, here’s what comes to mind:

  • The drama teacher who went off at me because I missed a single rehearsal in ten years of attending her drama school, ending her tirade with: “You don’t have any talent, anyway.”
  • The newspaper editor who told me I didn’t have the ability to string a sentence together in basic English.
  • The person who told me my singing voice was better suited to backing vocals.
  • The constant admonition that a career in the arts is not worth pursuing; that one always needs another career to fall back on.
  • The person who said they didn’t like it when I was involved in theatre because my personality changed with my character.
  • The person I no longer show any of my creative work to, because they can’t be bothered to pay any real attention to it.

The interesting thing is that most of the messages contained in those few bullet points were throwaway, one-line comments made over about thirty years. Just a handful of thoughtless remarks, and yet they’ve burned themselves into my brain, and coloured my creativity for decades.

Of course, I shouldn’t have allowed that criticism to stop me from doing what I knew then I was good at. I have to own my part in it too. But most of it came at a time when I was young and moving out of my sheltered environment in a smallish town, and into the wider world. I was becoming a small fish in a very big pond.

It was not constructive, and I took it to heart. And I’m only starting to unpack those statements now, in my mid-40s, and attempting to undo the damage that was done.

But what I really want to say is that there’s a lesson here for all of us. First, if you’re the one who’s being criticised, it’s important to try and view it objectively and not take it as gospel – because in at least some of the examples I mention above, the criticism was a kneejerk reaction motivated by spite – I know that now. So weigh that criticism. Ask yourself if it’s valid, because it may be. You may need to work on your technique or get some coaching: raw talent is seldom enough.

But more importantly, if a child or a friend or a lover shares something they’ve created with you – especially a child or young adult – pause and think before you criticise. Be honest, sure, but be constructive. Because if you’ve produced a poem or a song or a painting or a film, putting it out there for others to view is an act of extreme courage. It’s like sharing a small part of your soul.

So, if someone brings you that small, delicate soul fragment, carefully cupped between outstretched hands, realise how privileged you are that they’ve chosen you. This is an intimate moment.

Be careful when you take it from them. Pay attention to it, examine it closely. Don’t squeeze too tightly or you may suffocate it or shatter its delicate framework. And be honest with them, always.

But above all, be kind.

He said, she said

October 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m supposed to have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics. I would, but I chucked it in, and I chucked in because I’m quite happy to do all the reading for a subject, but the data collection and writing up part of things is just deathly dull – especially when you have to write it all up according to some dusty old predetermined formula of research problems and research questions and blah, blah, blah…

Basically, I don’t have a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics because I’m intrinsically lazy. But I am an armchair sociolinguist, and I love to analyse conversations that go on around me within that framework. And in case you’ve got this far and are thinking, “But what is it, for goodness’ sake?” it is, simply put, the study of the effects that society has on language .

One of the sub-categories of study is the differences in the way that men and women use language, often resulting in huge miscommunication. And in fact, the subject of my would-be thesis was gender-related, so I have a particular interest in this area. That’s why I was highly amused by a short Twitter conversation the other day, after I tweeted that I’d fixed the loose handle on the lid of my Le Creuset casserole with a butter knife, MacGyver-style.

A female follower replied that she’d had similar issues with hers, and two male followers joined in with solutions to the problem, and then discussed the merits of each other’s solutions for a couple of tweets. And I just giggled as it all unfolded, because it fitted so neatly into the way sociolinguists have observed the way we cope with sharing problems across the gender divide.

In broad sweeps – and I think many of us know this intuitively – when women have a problem, they tell their friends, and most of the time their friends nod, listen, agree they have a problem and offer tea and sympathy. They might offer a solution or two, but they start out by just being there and listening. Men, on the other hand, leap straight into the solutions. There’s a problem – it must be fixed. Fixing the problem is all. And it’s why I love this video, It’s Not About the Nail – it sums things up so well.

So here’s a fun bit of useful information (and I don’t recall the study that I read at university many years ago, but I know it exists). Did you know that men and women use agreement words and sounds like ‘Yes’ or ‘uh huh’ in conversation differently? Women use them to signal that they’re listening. Men, however, use them to signal that they agree. So, if you’re talking within your gender group, everyone understands each other. In a mixed gender situation, however, women get frustrated because men use their ‘yes’ less, and women therefore assume they’re not listening. Conversely, men get frustrated because they think women are just agreeing with everything they say and not thinking things through.

And I saw this demonstrated at a 60th birthday party last night, where my friend’s husband stood up and made a speech so full of details about her life that she was gobsmacked. “How did he know all of that stuff?” she asked me. “He must have been on my computer looking it all up.”

“Nope,” I said. “You’ve been married for 38 years now. He’s just been listening all this time.”

She shook her head. “It’s not possible,” she said. “Men never listen.”

So we quizzed him. And you know what? He had.

* If you want to read up more on this subject, Deborah Tannen is the guru in this area and writes very accessible books for the general public.

A glimmer of hope

October 16, 2013 § 11 Comments

If you live in South Africa, and rather like the idea of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation – as I unashamedly and possibly idealistically do – then the last week or so will have left you feeling like a limp, wrung-out rag.

On the one hand we had the members of “Red October” who marched in their hundreds to protest what they call the “white genocide” that’s happening in South Africa. (For a debunking of that myth, read Nechama Brodie’s excellent article here.) The racist slanging matches that erupted on Twitter and elsewhere online were something to behold. I’ve never been more ashamed of being white, frankly.

And then, at the launch of EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), a new political party, some supporters were seen toting banners that said “Honeymoon is over for whites” and “To be a revolutionary you have to be inspired by hatred and bloodshed”. To their credit, the party apologised; you can read the full report here. Sadly, however, at least on my Twitter feed, there seemed to be a lot less outcry about the racism exhibited by those EFF supporters than there was about the Red October brigade.

Whether we like it or not, race is going to be an issue in South Africa for a long, long time, and understandably so. For all the policies and laws that are in place, black people continue to bear the brunt of too many years of institutionalised, sanctioned racism, and white people continue to benefit from it, no question. We’re going to have to work very hard to change all of that, and having public, racist slanging matches is certainly not the way.

Frankly, white people need to check their privilege at the door, and stop telling black people to let go of apartheid. That would be an excellent start. Because unless you were a black person growing up under apartheid you have no clue about what the long-reaching effects of that experience are. And I won’t presume to speak on behalf of black people, but I do think that everyone in this country, black and white, also needs to disabuse themselves of the notion that racism can only be perpetrated by white people.

What we need, instead, is to learn to discuss race-related issues with maturity and sensitivity and kindness, with a view to understanding others and nurturing tolerance and inclusiveness, because these issues are not going away. How can they when they still, if you’ll pardon the expression, colour so much of what happens in South Africa? Until we can find a way to engage meaningfully around the long-reaching legacy of the abomination that was apartheid without attacking each other, we won’t attain the elusive liberty, equality and humanity we so desperately need in our country.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are small signs that things are changing, and in the meantime I choose to focus on those little glimmers of hope. Like the cleaner I saw in an upmarket shopping mall yesterday – who was white. In South Africa, that is almost unheard of. And my first thought upon seeing that was honestly: “At last!”

And then, last night, attending my daughter’s choir concert, I noted with relief how in many of the choirs (all of which were from private schools, in many ways one of the bastions of white privilege) the demographic had changed. Yes, one or two were predominantly white, but the at least four of the seven choirs there featured a veritable rainbow nation of children, with just a few white faces peeking through. That honestly gave me hope.

And when I heard those 480 children and their parents sing the national anthem into conductor Richard Cock’s cell phone so that a frail Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo*  could hear it, I couldn’t stop the flow of tears. That moment washed away a lot of the ugliness I’d witnessed online, and left me hoping again that with some effort, some kindness and the will to really listen to our fellow South Africans, we can overcome the blight of racism and its legacy in our country. It’s just going to take some work.

* Note: Professor Khumalo headed up the committee that put together the national anthem for post-apartheid South Africa.

Content in the shallows

October 9, 2013 § 10 Comments

My daughter is working on a huge project for English, so big that the teacher insisted that each child hand in a section halfway through to ensure everyone was making progress.

My child is diligent and creative, and she spent hours painstakingly putting the first part of her project together, and making a beautiful cover that I know I couldn’t even have conceptualised, let alone executed. And on the appointed day she took her partial project in for its first assessment.

The teacher, by all accounts, cast a cursory eye over the content of the project, gave her 9/10 for the work submitted so far, and sent her away with the admonition that she needed to work a bit more on her presentation.

Even with a good dose of parental bias thrown in, I was gobsmacked. First, what kind of message does that send to a child – that 90% is not good enough? No wonder we have kids committing suicide over school marks.

More concerning, though, was the emphasis on presentation over content that I’ve seen before: a book review earlier in the year had to be presented as a scrapbooked page, for example, and some children were made to redo their page because the scrapbooking wasn’t up to the teacher’s standards. I would be far more concerned with which books the kids had read, and what their impressions were given that the subject is English and not Art, but perhaps that’s just me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person to suggest that things should be presented in a slapdash way. But it got me thinking. All of this is a microcosm of the world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a world where form seems to be trumping content more and more, and I find it desperately sad.

As one wag quipped on Twitter recently, it’s depressing that some people have a favourite Kardashian. Paris Hilton is famous for being famous . People who can’t really sing are making money hand over fist as singers, but they are autotuned in studio to such an extent that their ‘live’ performances either feature them lip syncing to everything, or singing live and making a mess of it. And let’s not even begin to talk about politics, which is all about smoke and mirrors.

I’ve even encountered it in my own career – a few years ago I gave up paying work when a magazine asked me to take the little parenting column I’d been writing for them for years and “make it more boutiquey – feature cute prams and dresses and stuff”. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I could go on, but there are too many examples. I think it suffices to say that we appear to be getting more and more shallow, and on a global scale.

So, it’s taken me a while to get there, but all of this has relevance for business communication. Think about some of the company websites you encounter. They’re beautiful, they have all the bells and whistles and features that open and shut, until you try to find some useful information, or engage with the content in any way. Within minutes you find yourself floundering in a sea of business buzzwords and platitudes that say precisely nothing and leave you feeling bewildered and confused.

Here’s the thing: if you focus too much on what things look like, and less on what they say or how they work for those reading or engaging with them, one thing is certain – people will move on, and they will move on quickly. The distractions of modern life mean that we imbibe an enormous amount of information daily, and if something is confusing, insubstantial and not useful to us, we move on to the next thing very quickly. And when that happens, you’ve lost a potential client, or perhaps even an existing client.

So I’ll just continue to beat the same old drum in the hope that someone out there finally gets it: content is king, plain language rocks, and adding real value to your clients’ or customers’ lives is what you should be aiming for with your business communication.

Once you’ve done that – and only then – do you start to worry about making it look pretty.

PS. Here’s a free tip: if you have a ‘contact us by email’ form where people can make enquiries, do make sure someone monitors it at least on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve asked to contact me about a product or a quote and the deafening silence continues years later.

Jack of all trades

October 2, 2013 § 24 Comments

A curious thing happened to me yesterday: two small events, seemingly unrelated, that dovetailed neatly in a way I could never have predicted.

I was having lunch with a friend whose 10-year-old son has been having some difficulties at school. When I enquired how he was progressing, she said they’d had something of a breakthrough: “We started focusing on what he could do, rather than what he couldn’t do, and it’s made all the difference,” she said. By focusing on something he was passionate about – art – everything else had improved without any specific input. His marks in Maths, for example, had risen to an impressive 89%.

And then, in the afternoon, I got a message from another friend, someone who is a master at what he does, and whose opinion I respect enormously. I don’t want to go into details here yet; I haven’t processed it properly yet, but I’d sent him something I’ve been working on, and his response, in essence, was “You’re good – you should take this further. Anything’s possible. I dare you.”

I wish I could describe accurately how I felt. I sat in the car park at the school, blushing furiously – to the roots of my hair. I felt light-headed, sucker-punched. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I replayed the voice notes several times to make sure I’d heard correctly. Later at home, I listened again, and I cried.

Why did I react like that? Well, because for at least 20 years, I’ve listened to all the negative criticism and brushed aside any praise. I’m still not sure why, but there it is. I’ve worked like a demon at my writing because of the editor who told me I couldn’t string a sentence together, even when I had evidence to the contrary. Every time I’ve thought about singing, I’ve heard the voice of the person who told me I have a voice far better suited to being a back-up singer, despite having sung in choirs and shows and groups all my life. I’m a pretty decent cook, but I always apologise for my food while I’m serving it to people. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

I’ve also clung to the notion that I needed to stick to one thing, give myself a label. I am a journalist. Or I am a writer. I couldn’t do more than one thing.

But yesterday, those two little events flipped a switch in my brain, after a year that has seen me rediscovering who I am in the strangest of ways. Why have I been focusing on all the things I thought I couldn’t do? And why do I have to do just one thing? Why can’t I be a Jack of all trades and a master of the whole bloody lot of them? Why do I persist in hiding my light under a bush?

In some ways, the idea that there was more to me has always lurked beneath the surface. I am always furious when people pigeonhole ‘celebrities’ who move into other disciplines – a singer or model who goes into acting, for example. Why shouldn’t they be capable of doing both? We aren’t all born with just one talent, and we all have the potential to do more than one thing.

I’m writing it all down here so you can keep me accountable. I’m going to need large amounts of courage and self-belief, and possibly some cheerleaders, because I’ve spent at least two decades telling myself I was useless, hopeless, lacking in talent, unimaginative and unexceptional in every way. That has to stop. It stops here.

And so, (forgive the ‘might’ – this is still a process for me, and I’m trying to undo 20-odd years of negative self-talk) here’s a list of the things I think I might be good at: writing, editing, life/writing coaching, songwriting, singing, organising, cooking, baking, teaching, acting, emceeing, public speaking. I might just try my hand at all of them.

Watch this space.

Where Am I?

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