I am cynical. Very few ideas and stories can catch my attention and make me excited or enraptured. I’m so in love with story that I’ve grown picky about which stories I invest in. When I read stories by “amateur” writers, the new ones, I find myself thinking derisively simply because they make mistakes or have clichés in their stories that should be so blaringly obvious and somehow they miss them.
It’s a fault of mine, a fault I dislike to admit, but must.
I hate it.
Most of the time, I long for the days back when I didn’t care whether the story was unique or if the setting was well-described or if the characters were flesh and blood and carried through poignant arcs. Back in the days when a simple story could entertain me, when a plot I’d read a dozen times before never got old. Where I could read the same book seven times in a week and not get bored of it. Where the wonder was never lost on me.
Not anymore. Now I’m critical of everything and I dislike more than I like…
I didn’t intend to end up this way. So where did this come from, this lack of enjoyment?
The Source of Criticism
We all have our moments of cynicism. Those times where we look at something and our lip curls a little and we go “I don’t like it”. Sometimes, it’s from valid reasons: a movie is poorly made, or it’s filled with unnecessary gore and completely lacks a story. Other times, we just don’t like something. We prefer a different kind of music or we didn’t like that particular song because of its message or whatever it may be. Regardless of the quality, we don’t like it.
Each sort of criticism has its time and place. It’s okay to dislike a movie because it lacks a story (in fact, I wish that more people disliked them, so that they won’t be made anymore and we’d be left only with movies that have stories… it’d be a step up from what we have now). It’s okay to have music preferences.
Sometimes, however, it’s easy to forget that there are times and places to abandon our sense of “everything must be excellent” and realize that it’s okay for there to be things that are “so-so”. It’s okay for there to be “catchy songs” with a fun beat but lacking in ultra-deep lyrics.
It makes me wince to type that, because part of me refuses it.
I don’t want that to be true. I want there to be only good songs, with quality lyrics and well-written music and deep meanings, beautiful meanings. I want only movies that engage and amaze and rip the emotions out of you.
Criticism is an expression of a desire for excellence. It’s wanting everything to be good. But when the only thing you are is critical, you begin to lose sight of where excellence is. You lose sight of “potential”.
Early I noted that I read the work of “amateur” writers and smirk at them. Writers who are just starting, who’ve maybe written one “novel”, if that. It’s hard for me to say, because I don’t really mean to. I want to like their stories. I want to encourage them, to show them that I care and that I want them to succeed. I do. I mean… I’ve got a blog that’s basically directed toward helping them do what they do better.
I’m a critic. I’m here to say “I didn’t like this because ___”. The longer I stay in that “critic mode”, the harder it is for me to get out of it. Sometimes I’ll be stuck in it for days at a time, unable to ignore the errors and the wrongs and the imperfections in everything.
And I ignore potential. Potential is a powerful thing. It’s where excellence comes from, where the thing that critics desire most originates. Without potential, nothing would ever come of anything. As the song from Sound of Music goes, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.”
Leaving Criticism Behind
The hardest part of being a critic is knowing when to stop. When to stop pointing out problems and start pointing out strengths.
It’s not just in the realm of novels that this applies, or movies or music. It can bleed from the realm of art into the realm of life (because oftentimes they are one and the same). We criticism each other as much as we critique art and entertainment. We sum each other up and find others wanting. It’s a dangerous action, which can and often does result in pain. But we keep doing it.
It’s okay to be a critic. It’s okay. In fact, it’s fantastic to be a critic, to be able to look at something critically and realize “this isn’t art, this is meaningless”. To realize “there is no story here” or “I’ve seen this story told a dozen different times, and more originally than this”. Those are intellectual benefits that people need.
At the same time, however, criticism takes away our wonder. We abandon the potential of the things around us to chase after the excellence we’ll never find because we ignore its source.
Today, let’s practice putting down the cynicism and the criticism. Let’s look around with wonder, let’s consider the potential first, the weakness second. Today, find the wonder.