Sunday, 29 December 2013

On the silence of appreciation

This blog entry is really more of an appeal to readers who know creative people. In this instance, I use the word "creative" to mean those who write, paint, direct, compose, take photos, and make films; those who create art from nothing, rather than performers, whom I think of more as "re-creative."

Definition complete, I move on to the body of the appeal...

We've all done it haven't we? Been to see a friend acting or performing in a piece; maybe she's in a professional West End musical, maybe he plays in an amateur orchestra. Sometimes what we see is incredible, and we cheer and laugh and feel hopelessly proud. Other times we sit through a proper turkey, longing to go home, wishing the misery would end! What we ALWAYS do afterwards, however, is congratulate the performer. We recognise how hard they've worked and if the show was bad, and we don't want to lie, we use phrases like "If it wasn't for you, that show would have been meaningless..."

The cardinal sin would be to walk away without making a comment - doing this would undoubtedly lead to the abrupt end of a beautiful friendship. As a result, we often queue for hours in grotty bars and church halls waiting to grab our performer friends and fill their ears with buttery compliments. It's the etiquette. It's what performers subconsciously demand.

Sadly the same is often not true when it comes to creatives. I heard the story today of the step mother of one song writer who sat down (in a studio) to listen to her step son's work and actually went to the loo just after he'd started playing the first song from his new album to her.

I remember once playing a group of friends my A1 film for the first time. We all sat down in front of a giant screen to watch it. I was really excited, but just as it started two enormous dogs rushed into the room slobbering on everyone, barking insanely and causing such an extended commotion that the entire set-up of the film was lost. I had to stamp my little feet very hard to start the piece again!

Three times this year, an even more peculiar phenomenon has happened, where I've shown someone my work and they've actually said nothing about it afterwards! Nothing at all. Not a "well done" or a "wow, that was ambitious," just a silence, before the conversation moves on to something else, and it's impossible to then charge in with a "so what did you think of it?" Type question...

It seems that people these days genuinely grasp that it's possible to badly hurt the feelings of a performer. We understand that it takes guts and skills to stand on a stage and do stuff well. When it comes to purely creative people, however, we can be a great deal less understanding.

When you make a film or write a piece of music you invest almost every part of yourself in it; years of blood, sweat and tears will often have been poured into a piece, and often rather large sums of personal money will follow the creative outburst in order to bring it to fruition.  A key moment in any creative person's journey is the handing over of their work to the wider world for the first time. It is utterly terrifying. You hope someone will like it, or "get it" as we started to say in the late 20th Century, but you won't be at all surprised if they don't because you yourself lost all sense of objectivity as soon as you lifted pen to paper! An important part in the painful process of giving birth to a creative endeavour, is showing the work in its unfinished form to friends. Having a friend read an early draft, hear an unmastered mix, or see an ungraded edit of a film is like dipping your toe into the murky waters of Joe Public. Your heart beats in your mouth. You feel sick. You look at their faces with great anticipation to see how they respond to certain passages...

...But then, after all of that, sometimes people don't say anything at all, which of course makes you immediately assume they don't like it, in fact it must be so awful, they can't think of anything nice to say just to sweeten the pill. Not even, "gosh, that's a lot of work..." or "up to the usual Till standards"!

I'm sure I don't need to say what a crashingly awful effect silence of this nature can have on a creative person. He or she simply wants to hide away, to have the work suddenly disappear. The flaws he knows exist in the draft or the edit become wide chasms which will never be filled, and he deflates like an old football on a neighbour's garage roof.

I think there's an understanding that performers, actors particularly, are creatures with rather low self-esteem, but very few people fully appreciate how complicated and emotional it is for the man or woman who actually gave birth to the art that the performer is interpreting. It's a curious disconnect which I have seen throughout my career. I once dared to play a song on the piano to a friend, who suddenly started randomly pressing keys at the top end of the piano whilst I played as though to say "gosh this is dull isn't it? Perhaps if I play something else, he'll get the message." What makes this behaviour even more bizarre is that it never seems to come from a nasty or brutal place, and I'm not sure that this weird silence necessarily comes out of someone not actually liking what they're hearing or seeing. I can only think it comes because people don't fully comprehend what it means to create something, and therefore can't think of the right questions to ask for fear of looking silly.

The only analogy that sticks here is the one I briefly referenced earlier about giving birth. Creatives have a seed of an idea which we nurture for months; feeding it, obsessing over it unhealthily, letting it grow, until finally, one day, we feel proud or brave enough to hand it over to the rest of the world.

If someone handed you their baby and asked what you thought of him, would you bounce it on your knee for a few minutes and then hand it back to the mother without uttering a single word? No! You'd say how beautiful it was, and if you couldn't think of anything nice to say about its appearance (we all know the majority of babies are mingers), then you'd ask the mother about the process of giving birth and how she found it, and perhaps even ask what her plans are for the baby in terms of its future. Just out of politeness, really!

So the next time a creative friend asks if you'd like to watch or listen to their work, remember a few things. 1) He or she has plucked up a considerable amount of courage to ask you to listen to or watch their work, and in the process has placed a great responsibility on your shoulders which you must try to take seriously. 2) If it's genuinely not a good time and if you can't focus properly on the piece, tell them, but don't forget to ask to see it again when a better time comes. The creative person will immediately feel ashamed to have bothered you and will probably not be brave enough to ask you to listen a second time. 3) Focus on the piece, and remember your face will be watched very carefully as you appreciate it! 4) Be careful with your critiquing; at this early stage, the creative certainly won't be ready to hear that what he's made or written is crap. Ascertain, before venturing an opinion, if it's too late for notes and if the creative asks for feedback, work out what level of comment is appropriate in terms of how much time he has to remedy problems. 5) If in doubt, remember the baby metaphor. Treat the work like you would a new born child (or a bride talking about her wedding day) and you won't go far wrong!

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