Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Everybody-Gets-A-Trophy Generation Comes Of Age ...

I'm thinking about elementary school. Every year, we had a day that was like a mini Olympics, minus the talent and athleticism. But it was intended to be fun. And, no doubt, to fool us into thinking that we enjoyed exercise.

I remain unconvinced.

But I remember making the "ribbons" for the event, which, if memory serves, were a combination of doily and construction paper. Specifically, I remember using bottles of Elmer's glue to "write" 1st, 2nd, and 3rd onto the doilies and then douse each of them in glitter, shaking off the excess and setting them aside to dry. Blue, red, and yellow ribbons. First, second, and third.

The Olympics, of course, award gold, silver, and bronze. All those years of training deserve more than glitter, after all.

But I'm thinking about our makeshift ribbons because I'm remembering that we used to award them based on outcomes. If you came in first in a race, you got the blue ribbon. If you came in fourth, you got bupkis, kid.

And that seems to have fallen away.

I have been to a lot of soccer games in my day. Not World Cup events, but standing-on-the-sidelines games played in both blazing sun and freezing rain, cheering on kids. I'm sure a lot of people can relate. When I was wee, mom toted me to my brothers' Little League games. Now, soccer seems to be the ubiquitous sport. Which is weird, since so few people in this country follow soccer. But I guess expecting small children to submit to the tackles of football or the wild pitches of baseball would be a bad idea.

What I'm remembering from those soccer seasons, though, is that every kid on every team got a trophy. They were cute, the trophies. And every kid received one. Every kid on the winning team received one. And every kid on the losing team received one.

The message was "Good for you for trying!"

And trying is important.

But if everyone receives the same level of recognition regardless of achievement, what message does that really send?

Some will strive because it is their nature to strive. But I suspect that others will hang back, figuring, "Hey, no matter what I do, I'll get a trophy."

And then they'll grow up.

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend wrote about going to see a friend's band. The musician friend asked for feedback. Critique. Which my Facebook friend, having a bit of a background in music, was happy to provide. The friend in the band shared the feedback with his bandmates.

One of the bandmates was not pleased. He lashed out at my Facebook friend, attacked him personally.

Ouch.

I've been there. Going along, minding my own business, and – wham! – suddenly knocked back on my heels a bit by a blow I never saw coming.

What I learned from that experience is that it's about the person doing the hitting. Their lashing out is about their shit, not yours.

The bandmate didn't like hearing that he wasn't perfect, that he had some room in which to improve.

But that's a good thing.

All of us have room for improvement. If you're at the top of your game, ultimately, the only way to go is down.

Unless you're Springsteen. If you're Springsteen — and only Springsteen is — you're probably going to remain awesome forever. But I digress.

Much is said about this electronic age. It is the great equalizer, right? It gives most everyone a voice. No longer are writers constrained by the whims of publishers. Now, everyone can publish!

Yes, everyone can publish, talent be damned.

Which is not to say that publishers are infallible. They're not perfect at separating all wheat from all chaff. Some books are blockbusters, some books are duds.

Some writers these days just eschew publishers from the get-go and find their audience online. Interestingly, though, those who find success that way are often then picked up by publishers.

Some are picked up because they're truly gems.

And some are picked up because they're potential cash cows.

Fifty Shades of Grey has made a mint for Random House. But everyone I know who has read it – or who has tried to read it – says it's crap. I read a few paragraphs on Amazon. Those told me all I needed to know. Yeah, it's crap.

So why was it such a publishing powerhouse? Because people were intrigued by the topic? I expect so. But bad writing is bad writing.

And I know Twilight fans are very protective of Stephenie but the woman can't write. She can imagine a story, so it seems, but her delivery of that story? I couldn't get past page 23.

Don't get me wrong, encouragement is good. Early on, there's no point in bashing someone's dream before they've really found a footing. But at some point, it doesn't serve anyone to keep piling on the praise if it's not warranted.

Did the offended band member never hear anyone tell him anything other than "You sounded great!"?

Do writers who start off showing their work only to their inner circle do themselves a disservice by setting themselves up to only ever hear "This is so good"?

I am the first person to own up to the fact that I cannot write fiction. Well, no, that's not true. I can write fiction. But I cannot write good fiction. And the world does not need more bad fiction. It has enough of that.

In college, I took a couple fiction-writing classes. They were valuable because having my work read by a varied swath of people, most of whom were total strangers to me on the first day of class, allowed them to be more honest than, say, my roommate would have been.

Most of them were kind, mind you. But some of them were certainly blunt. If they thought something was crap or unbelievable or ridiculous, they said so. And that set up an interesting scenario for all of us: writers who really believed in their work would defend it but they would also refine it. Meanwhile, writers – like me – who were taking the class because it was required, would take our lumps and face the fact that, nope, it wasn't our strength.

Of course, some of us take criticism too much to heart and let it stop us in our tracks. Some of us want confirmation of our talent before we'll proceed. But even that doesn't always matter. Our psyches are fine bricklayers.

But for those who have surrounded themselves with only those who offer praise, the day a voice comes along and shatters that glass house, ooh, that's a bad day.

I feel for the guy in the band, but resistance is good. Having someone tell you that you're not as good as you think you are can make you wither into a place of "Yeah, you're right" but it can also set you up to say, "Yeah? Watch this."

It's not a bad thing to earn the third-place ribbon. It can either fuel you to strive for first place, or it can teach you that your first-place efforts lie in other pursuits.

But treating everyone's efforts the same is a disservice.

I am not a good fiction writer. But you know what? I am a really good baker. But even within baking, I surely do not know everything. I keep finding ways to improve. I've only just recently perfected a cookie I've been baking for more than a year.

I admire folks who persist in pursuits purely for the love of pursuing them. The woman at the open-mic night some years ago who could barely carry a tune was awesome because she stood up there and sang because it struck her as something that would be fun to do.

But I also believe that we've diluted the meaning of talent in a lot of ways. The democratization of the Internet has given a lot of people the ability to put their work out into the world but it has also flooded the field. It's nice to think that good work will always be rewarded but it has to be found first.

Along the way, we've created a culture in which mediocrity is good enough. Or worse, in which bad behavior is rewarded. I flip through channels and see promos of bitchy women screeching at each other and I cringe. Why are we rewarding people who act that way? Why are we sending the message that a reliable pathway to "success" in this country these days is to, well, be the cast of "Jersey Shore"?

Whither talent?

Perhaps I expect too much. Even the Oscars no longer seem a reliable barometer of achievement. Ben Affleck is cleaning up at all the pre-Oscar award ceremonies but he wasn't nominated for Best Director.

His film was nominated for Best Picture. So how can the man who made said picture not be nominated, too?

On Oscar night, no one's going to hand him a "just because" trophy.

But happily, he already has one at home.

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