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Getting to Know You
cap, captain miss america
This post is inspired by LJ Idol, and might be taken as a bit of Idol Meta, but might also be appropriate to consider in other venues as well.

I've read almost all the LJ Idol posts this week, and I've noticed a few posts that got me thinking about positivity versus negativity in writing.

For those of you who aren't participating in LJ Idol and somehow missed last year when I was, it's a community that is structured around a contest, and at this point, it has about 200 participants.

Most people have one of two goals: to win or to make it to a certain "place" in the competition (say, "top 50") or to make new friends by participating, read new people's writing, and having new people read their own writing.

So, in both cases, whether you want to get people to vote for you, or you want to make new friends, you want people to like you. If you want people to vote for you, you might be able to get them to like your writing but not necessarily like you as a person. However, you will probably go a lot further if they like you as a person, too. If it's a choice between you and someone whose writing they equally admire, many people are going to go for the person they like the best. If you're looking for friends, you can probably get away with a lower quality of writing, as long as people can tell you are a person they would want to get to know. This usually involves being at least reasonably likable.

When choosing a subject for an entry, you can write an entry that is:
--Non-fiction, about something bad
--Non-fiction, about something good
--Non-fiction, without a qualitative judgment attached
--Any of the above, but fiction
--Something experimental

Pretty much all entries will fall into one of those categories. On top of the qualitative judgment of the topic you're writing about ("I fell off my bike!"), there is also the question of how your own personal attitude is reflective in the entry. You could have two stories about people who fall off their bikes, but might be "I fell of my bike; haha, I'm such a klutz!" while another is "I fell off my bike; I'm going to sue my neighbor who is an awful person for not raking his leaves properly!"

I tend to find that when the stories I'm reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, tend to focus on the sins of other people, or insult other people, or try to convince me that another person is bad, I am less likely to be sympathetic to the reader, especially this early in the LJ Idol season. It makes me wonder, "Hm, I am just getting to know you as a person: is this the first thing you want me to know about yourself?"

Remember that most of us do not know you. If you met someone at a party for the first time and you wanted to make friends with them, would you want to dazzle them with your humorous story of your own klutziness, or tell them what an awful person your neighbor is? Is trying to convince us that you are better than another person, or that another person is a bad person, or that you are certain your personal values are morally or ethically superior to someone else's among the first things you want us to know about you?

This is especially true if you use your early entries to make fun of or insult a certain group of people, as opposed to simply complaining about a specific person. What if the person reading your entry is from that group? There are 200 competitors, and many people who are not competing who like to read LJ Idol entries. Even if none of them have that particular background, you might think your joke is hilarious, but remember that it is about another human being, and remember that this is still part of our first impression of you.

If you are just here for the competition, and less interested in making friends, then you might want to ask another question: is writing an entry where you bitch about another person or group of people really your best writing? Is that the quality of writing you want to show people?

I think this is true whether or not you are really interested in the competitive part of LJ Idol, and I think it goes beyond a single competition or community. It's why so many of us on LJ lock more personal things about ourselves: we get that airing dirty laundry or bitching in public isn't really a face of ourselves that we want to share with mere acquaintances. We know that there are certain subjects that are rude to talk about at a dinner party. We are, one would hope, compassionate and considerate in the way we interact with people in our daily lives. Yeah, we're all jerks sometimes. I'm a jerk sometimes. And we all bitch to our friends sometimes. That's cool. But many of us are just getting to know each other. Is the first face you want people to see from you the jerky one?
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I have learned to beware of people who are always complaining about others. Because, to some extent, they will be complaining the same way ABOUT YOU to those other people.

There is always something to complain about in life. ALWAYS. It's not hard to find reasons to complain.

I admire those who can find positives, partly because I am bad about that myself.

I think that everyone complains! I complain! Complaining is natural and normal. And I think a lot of us use LJ to complain because we can complain to people who don't know any of the involved parties. It's less hurtful, in some ways, especially if you do really know that you're just doing it to vent.

And sometimes, finding positives can be hard!

It's mostly that I feel like when you're just getting to know a group of people, you have the choice to decide how you want them to know you, how you want to be known among them. You could be the funny one, the one who always writes embarrassing sex stories, the one who writes beautiful sad stories, the experimental one, the political one. You get to pick! Using an entry to complain is wasting an opportunity to be known as something more awesome than a complainer.

Hm, now I'm evaluating my entry for this week. Nonfiction, about something neutral, but with some value judgments from my 10 or 11 year old perspective.

I'm talking more about the entries where the entire crux of the entry was "this person was bad" or "this group of people are so stupid!" Where the overarching tone of the piece was negative. To me, for example, looking at your entry, one line saying your sister was whiny serves to ground the story in a realistic framework; you could have written an entire piece, using the same story, about how you appreciate the importance of history and your sister doesn't and that makes her an inferior human being, and then that would be the kind of thing I'm talking about.

This makes perfect sense - except that I'm having a really good week in the polls and my entry is probably the most whiny, negative thing I've ever written in my life. A total vent-fest, and quite unlike my usual modus operandi.

But it doesn't come across as negative, I don't think, because you wrote it as a story, represented in a very reporter-y manner, without really attaching much in the way of value judgments. Like, you still considered how to present the story and presented it in a way where you're also criticizing your own perspective. You could have taken the same set of events and written "I met this guy online and now he's not calling me back! What the fuck; he's such an asshole! I hate men so much! Men are horrible people." The same set of events, presented in two different ways, could come out reading like a more universalized set of experiences or come out reading like a bitch fest, and I think you achieved the first. Does that make sense?

I should also say that I think this is slightly less true for veterans, because, for example, you have a core group of people who already know you, and know that's not what you usually write. Even if you wrote something that was really super whiny, I think you'd still get a certain level of forgiveness from the other vets, because they'd be like, "oh, no, tigrkittn is having a bad week!" You'd only have to work on charming the new folks. Whereas the new folks are new to everyone except maybe a limited number of friends they knew before.

Edited at 2010-11-15 05:43 pm (UTC)

I don't mind reading about sad and serious things, but I'm likely to ignore people if they seem unhappy and bitter all the time. Not entirely fair given how I can be unhappy and bitter myself, but if those are the first qualities I see I probabaly won't look deeper.

Yeah. And I think people can write about sad or unhappy or frustrating things without sounding mean-sprited. I think tigrkittn's entry that she mentioned above is probably a good example of that. Things can be presented in different ways. The same story can make you sound thoughtful or make you sound like a jerk.


So much this.

'Cause wow but I, personally, am less likely to vote for (let alone finish) an entry wherein someone just feels like it's okay to just lay into someone else for whatever's wrong with the object of their scorn/derision/sarcasm/smugness.

But, let me tell you, "I'm great because X sucks" is just not the same as "I'm fun to read because [element]" when it comes time to get me interested.

I guess it all comes back to show, don't tell.

ETA: smugness

Edited at 2010-11-15 05:59 pm (UTC)

It is a kind of show, don't tell! Evoke an emotion, don't tell me how to feel!

I know I dont like to read posts where the person seems very negative, even if theyre talking about themselves. Im guilty of it, though.

Hee, I like you responding to this what with your username and all. Oddly enough, you tend to be a pretty positive person in spite of the username!

Hm. What do you think of negativity as it applies to fiction? Are happy stories better than sad/angry ones? Are ones that have less conflict better than those that have more? How do you judge people that write fiction?

Again, I think it has to do with whether the story is intended to have a value judgment attached.

For example, two people could write stories about a single parent who loses a child. One of them would be a first-person story going through the emotions of loss, guilt, etc. Another one would be a third-person story that talks about how single parents aren't fit to raise children. It doesn't matter what the subject of the story is: it can be a sad story, a story about something bad that happened, an anger-inducing story. It's when the story reveals that the storyteller considers themselves better than other people, or has derision for other people, or something like that. If a person who fit the description of the parent in my example read both stories, they would be able to read the first one without feeling like someone thought they shouldn't be a parent, like someone was looking down on them. But in the second example, it would be hard not to take the value judgments personally. The reader isn't engaging with the sad things that happen in the story; they're engaging with the negative attitudes of the writer, and that shouldn't happen.

Sometimes that whole situation shows a stark lack of empathy for other people, or you can tell the person can't look at things from different perspectives. Hey, maybe the guy had to hire someone to rake his leaves because his mom is sick, or something.

That kind of negativity turns me off, because I feel as a writer, you should be able to understand different perspectives and that you know, the universe does not revolve around you. Unless you are the black hole at the center of the galaxy. Then maybe.

Yes, this! If I see a lack of empathy in someone's writing, I assume that's going to be turned on me if I interact with that person.

Negativity is wearing thin for me. I just don't have the patience for it anymore--nor the desire to invite it into my life. Sure, everyone complains... but you're right. Complaining to strangers and new acquaintances is super off-putting.

And I know we were talking last night about how insulting whole segments of the population can be really off-putting or downright offensive. I think a lot of it comes down to presumptions/assumptions. People forget that their audience might include the very people that they criticize.

For me, I have started to really feel like to some extent that we create our own realities. Which means that I'm doing my best to construct a world of love, compassion, understanding, wonder, learning, adventure, positivity, etc. Putting out too much negativity just serves to reinforce a sense of negativity in one's own life--at least in my experience.

I agree. I think the times when my life has been most negative has been not when the worst things have been happening, but when the people in my life are reflecting negative attitudes. I've been through times when some bad stuff happened but the people around me were positive, and times that were pretty good but the people around me were negative, and the worst memories are definitely of the latter.

I had a hard time with this last season. There were people that I even thought were great writers, but their attitude towards others was so overtly negative and distrusting, that it was difficult to relate to them as a writer and a person - and I think that's an essential element of LJI. Yes, you can get very, very far on well-written fiction or non-personal non-fiction, never interact with anyone in the GR or other entries, and never reveal a thing about yourself, but when it comes down to crucial votes, I like support people that I've gotten to know beyond their writing - or more that, I like to support people who have given me a little (positive) something of themselves in their writing - be it fiction, non-fiction, essay, etc. You can write essays all season and still give me something of yourself.

Yeah, there is definitely a point where, if you're reading two pieces of writing and you think both of them are good, you're left thinking "well, which one of the people behind the writing would I like to see continue?"

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To be honest, I tend to judge people based on their writing skills a little, too, but I think that in general, most people are less concerned with that than they are with how nice someone is, if they're just trying to make friends. There are a few people I've met through Idol whom I rarely, if ever, voted for, but whom I like a whole lot! It's not that their writing is illegible, but I don't think they're the strongest writers in the bunch. They are super nice people, though, and that matters more to me in making friends.

I wonder how much of this type of writing comes from adopting what the writer thinks is an appropriate persona (me vs. the world that doesn't understand me)? I also wonder if some of it might be the nature of the prompt; this one seemed to present an awful lot of challenges, and I've noticed in my reading so far that many read "deconstruction" as "destruction," which is really not the same thing.

I guess that's part of what I'm questioning: what persona should someone writing for LJI want to adopt? We all get a chance to pick the face we want people to see; do we want to put forward the "No one understands me!!!" face? Is that really the best face for making friends? Some of the faces I've seen haven't been "nobody understands me" faces but "I'm so wonderful; watch me make fun of people who aren't as wonderful as I am. I know you will laugh along with me because I'm wonderful and they're terrible," faces.

With the prompt, that's another interesting question: alephz and I were talking about it the other night. Most of the time, my opinion is that I don't judge a piece for not fitting the prompt because I usually assume that the writer got to the prompt through some natural thought progression I don't understand, eg "Deconstruction makes me think of that philosophy class I took Freshman year of college, makes me think of that girl who sat next to me in class." But this time, it seems to be much more obvious that people either didn't understand the prompt, or didn't look it up t begin with, and I don't think that fits the same criteria. But that's a whole big other question!

I was trying to think about my entry in this context, and while I feel like I was a little bit negative, I hope that the humor of the piece won out.

Re: this specific topic, I didn't specifically use deconstruction but I hoped that my intent came through - I de-construct stacks of paper and in the process have come to hate staples :-)

This does give me something to think about for the coming weeks.

One day I will make my meta post about tactics, and then Talonkarrde88 will be entirely vindicated in his round 0 post.. *grins*

But seriously, I agree with you. Hell, last season I REALLY disliked a few of the participants at the start, and later realized that oh, it had been fiction that they wrote. Not true stories.

First impressions last.

It's interesting looking at this sort of thing from my perspective, because I'm here to write fiction and no one knows anything about me beyond what I write - so I can't help but wonder what that fiction is saying about me (whether right or wrong) to the people who read it.

Well, talon wrote fiction last year, and so did joeymichaels and I think both of them still managed to help people get to know them as people. I drew comics, although a lot of my comics were autobiographical early on. But I also made an effort to comment on as many posts as possible, and comment back to everyone who commented to me.

I think it's very possible to write fiction and still help people know you as a writer, even if you're not delving into details of your personal life, just like I think you can be a relatively private person and still do well in LJI. As a fiction writer, though, you might be more concerned with telling people about how you see yourself as a writer through your writing: write the kind of writing that you most identify with, or that you feel is your strongest. I guess that's what I'm getting at: someone only focused on quality of writing wouldn't write a piece that would cast them as a weak writer, so someone focused on helping people get to know them shouldn't write a piece that casts them as a jerk.

And I don't mean they shouldn't write about doing something jerky: that can be funny! But they should make sure they don't sound like a jerk in the way they tell it.

Edited at 2010-11-15 09:06 pm (UTC)