Morning Coffee: Making Feedback Matter

RevisionsI recently had the opportunity to judge a writing competition. I’ve critiqued before, but always friends, people I know, and I was sitting with them at the time. I was able to look them in the eyes, answer questions if I wasn’t clear, see if I was too rough and needed to maybe tone it down a little. This time I was emailed eleven blind entries. No names, no identifying information. And I didn’t give just comments, but actual number scores. Some would rank higher than others and it would be me who made that decision. I’m not the only judge for these entries. There are several others for each entry and an average is awarded, with the lowest thrown out for good measure. I know that if no one else agrees with me and I’m the lowest score, I’ll be the one set aside.

It was a fun learning experience. I got to have a taste of eleven different works-in-progress. Several were wonderful and I was sorry I didn’t get to read more. Several needed a lot more work.  A majority of them fell somewhere in the middle. But all were worth my time and I was glad for the opportunity.

Constructive criticism is not easy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first attempt at cooking the family holiday dinner, painting a bedroom, sewing a straight seam, or, yes, writing a book. Criticism can take all the joy out of someone. Not everyone’s book will be a best-seller. Not everyone’s painting will be bought by a wealthy collector. We can’t all be JK Rowling or Rembrandt, but we all deserve to be happy with who and what we are.

When you’re asked for your opinion here’s a thoughtful three-part approach. Start with something good. “I love your strong, confident, but down-on-her-luck heroine. The way she told off her mean boss, even though she needed the job to pay for Christmas presents for the orphans, made me want to stand up and cheer!” Then point out something bad. “I didn’t like her foul mouth, though. She dropped way too many F-bombs for a department store elf, especially in front of all the children waiting to sit on Santa’s lap. I don’t care how mean Santa was to her.” And finally, something you’d change. “How about your heroine waits until the end of the day and then lets the grumpy-old-man Santa have it in the back parking lot?”

By starting with the positive you let them know they’re on the right path. Their effort has worth. If you start out by telling the bride-to-be that she really hit the mark with that lovely shade of pink for her bridesmaids, she won’t be quite as hurt when you nicely point out the big bow on the back is not a flattering look for her over-weight sister, the maid-of-honor. Then, when you give a suggestion for a fix, you give the person something to think about. It shows you care and you don’t think their effort was a total waste of their time and yours. “I bet the tailor could just remove that bow and then you’d be left with simple lines that will be flattering for all your attendants.” By no means should you smirk, or gasp, or let slip an outright guffaw.

It also works for those unbearable family dinners. You know what I’m talking about. The ones where your uncle drinks too much, your mother can’t stop asking when you’re going to settle down and give her grandchildren, and your niece insists on bringing her new boyfriend that everyone hates. The one with multiple piercings (some of which, thank God, you cannot see but have no doubt are there) and a plethora of violent and vulgar tattoos. I’ll let you imagine how you’d handle the three steps for constructive criticism with each. Consider it your homework for this week. It’s never too early to start practicing.

Morning Coffee: Journaling

Healing HeartDo you journal? I don’t. At least, not in the traditional sense. I’ve tried a few times but I always end up destroying the few pages I actually write because they either sound boring to me, or I’m afraid of who might find and read them after I’m dead. I’m never sure that’s the lasting memory of me I want floating around out there.

In a way this blog is my journal; my very public journal. I’m not going to write about any traumatic childhood memories I believe scarred me for life. I’m not going to bore anyone with tales of mean co-workers or nasty bosses. (None of which I currently have, I assure you. So if any of my readers are co-workers or bosses…I’m not talking about you…all purely hypothetical.) Instead, I can put down my thoughts in a way that’s both, I hope, cathartic for me and enjoyable, or even occasionally educational, for you.

There are many kinds of journals out there; a style for just about anyone. You have your standard notebook (spiral or not), a fancy-covered blank book, or even special computer software programs. Some, most specifically those aimed at young girls, even come with their own lock and key to keep out the prying eyes of parents and annoying little brothers.

A couple weeks ago I took to keeping what is called a “bullet journal”; although, I didn’t know it was called that at the time. I’ve always been a list-maker. Not every day, but whenever I have a number of time-sensitive tasks and I don’t want to forget one. Like when we’re planning for a party, family dinner, or house guests and I have to accomplish certain tasks on certain days to be ready. The whole point of a bullet journal is a daily to-do list. I’ve been planning mine out a week in advance. I’m certain to include my work schedule, meetings or appointments, errands, household chores, exercise, and, of course, my writing. Once it’s on the list, I’m less likely to put it off because then I’d be reminded of my procrastination every time I saw a task not checked-off as completed

You can make your bullet journal as fancy as you like. Google it and you’ll find all sorts of ideas: a simple list or a categorized list, whole lexicons of symbols representing types and stages of completion, and then there are plain pages or pages decorated with your artwork. There are books divided into daily logs, weekly logs, monthly logs, and future logs. Some are so involved they need several index pages in the beginning to help you find things later. While I chose to use a decorative blank book because it feels more official than a notebook, my pages consist of simple lists. I don’t have time to categorize my lists and there’s no way I’d be able to keep track of all the symbols. I might take the time to decorate some of the pages, should I feel in a particularly creative mood, but that would take time…and then I’d have to put it on my to-do list…and I’d have to assign it a symbol…and I’d have to put it in the index…you get the idea.

The point of my bullet journal is to balance my life and work with my writing and exercise, not to become my life. So far it’s working well. Yes, there have been a few days where I over-planned my time and something had to give, but not too many. If anything, that’s another thing I’m learning, how long it actually takes me to do something.

Morning Coffee: The Wearing of the Green

RevisionsIt’s March 17th, St Patrick’s Day! A sea of green can be seen in every office, every school room, and every bar. Parades will be held in all the major, and some not so major, cities. Little girls with bouncing ringlets and green ribbons galore will don their traditional Irish step costumes and dance their way into the hearts of onlookers. Inevitably, someone in an oversized leprechaun costume will toss gold-foil wrapped chocolates from a pot and wave to the crowds. Bands will play and toasts with green beer will ring. The Chicago River is dyed green every year in honor of the day. My point is that it doesn’t matter if you are Irish or wish you were Irish; you will probably be wearing something green while eating corned beef and cabbage or a hearty Reuben sandwich today. Although, you might be surprised to learn this traditional meal began with the immigrants to America. It was never the custom in Ireland.

St Patrick is the foremost patron saint of Ireland (AD385-461) and March 17th is believed to be the date of his death. He is not a true saint as he was never canonized by Rome, nor did he drive the snakes from Ireland because there are no snakes in Ireland (other than pets and zoos). There never have been for the simple reason that they cannot get there. What he is truly known for are his successful evangelism efforts across the Emerald Isle.

St Patrick was born in Dumbarton, Scotland (not even native Irish!). At the age of 16 he was captured and enslaved in pagan Ireland. For six years he clung to the religion of his grandfather, the beliefs he initially ignored, and prayed while herding sheep for his master. Supposedly because of a dream, he escaped and returned home to Scotland; but he returned to Ireland in his mid-40s to replace the failing evangelism efforts of Palladius. Palladius was the first to attempt to convert the Irish people to Catholicism. St Patrick had an advantage over Palladius; he was familiar with the Irish clan system. His former master, Milchu, was a Chieftain. The plan was to first convert the Chieftains, who would then convert their followers by example. Milchu was one of the first Chieftains to convert. St Patrick was quite successful in his efforts, although not the only missionary to Ireland, and soon Ireland was one of Europe’s Christian centers. This was important to 5th century Christians who believed Ireland to be one of the “ends of the earth”.

St Patrick’s Day began as a religious feast day but has become an international holiday to celebrate everything Irish. Boston has the honor of claiming the oldest US celebration going all the way back to 1737 when Irish immigrants brought the holiday with to their new home.

To all you Collins and Colleens out there, here’s a little Irish Blessing:

“May your troubles be less
And your blessing be more
And nothing but happiness
Come through your door”

Morning Coffee: The Fickle Month of March

Healing HeartSpring is a very fickle time of year. One morning you wake to a sunny day with temperatures rising into the low 60s, and then the next the clouds roll in bringing harsh winds and snow. In between you’re likely to have a strong front barrel through with severe storms and the threat of a possible tornado. March, the month that holds out its hand in promise, only to yank it away again, is the worst of all the fickle ladies of spring. We’ve seen it all and we’re only a week and a half in.

Yes, autumn can be fickle, too. Despite the occasional look forward to winter, when October takes us back to a taste of summer it’s like a good night kiss; teasing and hot with promise. On the other hand, March is your first kiss. It lets your heart flutter with the hint of what could be only to betray you with an old love, leaving you shivering in the cold of your now empty arms. You don’t know whether to dress for the dance or another night home alone in front of the television.

March is the lover your brain warns you to let go, while your heart urges you to give just one more chance. Here’s a peek ahead to ward off the uncertain times.


Morning Coffee: Imagination

Healing HeartImagination, something we’re all born with. Two year olds can spend hours stacking their toys to see what will happen. They have long, detailed, conversations with their dolls and stuffed animals. Remember playing house when you were little, or maybe cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers? So why is it so many of us lose that sense of creativity as we get older?

Children today don’t exercise the imagination portion of their brains. They play video games, watch movies, some even read books, but that’s not the same. They don’t need an imagination to watch a movie like “Star Wars” or “Avatar”. The imagination side of creating those movies has all been done for them. While a video game might help hone their problem-solving skills, again, the imagination portion of the story has been done.

When my son was young Transformers were all the rage (the first time around). He wanted them and he wanted them in the worst way. But I knew that if I bought him one I’d have to eventually buy him more; and not far down the line he’d set them aside for the next fad that caught his attention. So, I said no. He had plenty of toys and I’d have to say no. I didn’t disapprove of them; I just didn’t want to get caught-up in the hype. After he got over his disappointment he disappeared into his room only to reappear a little later to proudly show off his new Lego creations. He’d engineered his own Transformers. While over the years I have on occasion backed down to both him and his sister on other fads, I was always glad I didn’t back down on that one. He used his imagination and he got a lot more joy and pride out of those simple Lego creations than anything I could have bought him at Toys R Us.

As a writer, I get to use my imagination all the time. I’ve gone from making up stories about Ken and Barbie to making up a life story for Mary Bishop, and now Alice Armstrong. I take the characters that grow in my head and place them in different time periods and locations. I can put them in dangerous situations I hope to never have to experience personally, and then get them safely out again…all with my imagination.

Have you ever heard of a round-robin story? Try this the next time you have a snowy, or rainy, afternoon and your children are complaining they’re bored; or the next time you’re on a long car trip and they’re starting to “touch” each other in the backseat making the other scream or cry. A round-robin story is when each person takes a turn making up a part of a story; simple as that. The first person starts with “once upon a time there was…” and goes from there to set up the characters. Then each person in turn adds to the plot. You never know where the story will lead and hopefully the whining and poking will stop. I remember doing something similar in grade school where you drew a monster on the blackboard. Each person drew one part of the monster until it was done. Colored chalk made that one even more fun. If you’re in a position to do something like that, you could start out creating your monster(s) and then go right into a round-robin story about the monster(s). You could even do a little improv where each person takes on a specific character and you play-act the story, making it up as you go.

That’s just a few ideas. There are so many ways to keep imagination alive. It will make your children more well-rounded and creative-thinking adults in the end.