I was in 4th grade when I first saw the movie 20 Million Miles to Earth. I cannot stress enough the effect this 1957 gem had on me except to say that it made me want to become a writer. While I was already addicted to story from my exposure to the Robert Louis Stevenson novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island, I hadn’t yet come to understand the idea that someone actually wrote stories. But, for some reason I still don’t quite fathom, it clicked in my tiny 9 year old head that day that a person could make up stories and write them down.
The story that I wrote that day, my first, was oddly similar to 20 Million Miles to Earth, but that’s what young writers do. They begin by imitating and then slowly branch out on their own. My mother read this hand written and illustrated masterpiece and promptly pronounced the thing wonderful. This is what mothers do. They encourage with praise. What you need to balance that good-hearted affection is some honest praise.
Full disclosure: my mother is an editor by profession and she kindly edits every manuscript I produce. She loves everything I write – she has to, she’s my mother – but it’s easy to tell she loves some more than others. With moms, you don’t get something like, “This character is shallow and his actions are unmotivated. Overall, the story is slow and uninteresting.” What you get instead is damned by faint praise. Also, she’s savage with that blue pen.
How does honest praise differ from the praise you get from your mom, your friends and your family? For one thing, it has much more information than actual praise in it. “I like your voice and you manage to move the story along quickly (most of the time) but…” and that “but” is followed by several paragraphs of pushback. That pushback is what you’re really looking for from any letter that doesn’t start with, “Congratulations…”
The most important honest praise you can get comes in high school. As a teenager, your brain is suffused with dopamine, a chemical that causes you to believe every experience you have and every thought you think have literally never happened to anyone else before. As a result, you have a tendency to think your writing is not just awesome but a world altering cultural event. This is your own internal over praising engine. You can’t blame anyone but evolution for this.
High school honest praise needs to keep the dream alive while banking the flames of egotism as much as possible. For me, this came from an English teacher who read everything I wrote, found some valid positive feedback and then followed it with paragraphs of pushback. Except for one running argument about whether a drunk’s guts could scream for a drink of whiskey (Him: guts don’t have a mouth. Me: it’s a metaphor) I got a lot of good information from him. If only I had paid attention to any of that good information instead of the praise I so hungered for.
I may not have listened to Mr. Huddleston back then but I’m listening to him now. At least the stuff I can remember.