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How to Be a Better Complainer – Lesssons from an Italian Cafè

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Seems like everyone is quick with an opinion these days. Thumbs up! Like! 4 Stars!  Winking emoji! There is no shortage of ways to show our pleasure (or displeasure) with just about anything.  Every product or service is fair game for the chopping block or golden pedestal!
 
When I was in Italy last month teaching crime writing at the university in Milan, I came across a sign painted on the wall of a quaint Italian osteria (but really, aren’t they all quaint?) It said (translation): If there are things you are not happy with, please tell us. We are not Tripadvisor!
 
I love that Il Capo (the boss) posted this message in permanent calligraphied paint on the dining room wall. 
 
I love that Il Capo took a stand against the digital world where are quick to judge and often forget there are actual human beings who worked hard to make the pasta you are eating! 
 
When we take out the human factor of face to face conversation (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Yelp), it’s easy to lean into harsh and judgmental criticism.
 
Alert! This is no way to live successfully in community!
This is a symptom that we are separating ourselves from each other. This is the way we start to lose our humanity. This is evidence that we are moving away from one another. You see it in families, engrossed in their devices over a family meal. Or young people filling therapists’ offices with their anxieties and loneliness.
 
The problem seems so prevalent, that I am tempted to despair! Until I remember the power of one! One person. You. Me. We can be agents for change and for building meaningful community! And we can start in our backyard!
 
One of my favorite communities is my writing community. I have been a part of it for over 16 years has taught me a thing or two about creating a positive, very personal, face-to-face relationships where iron sharpens irons as we encourage each other to greater success!
 
Our group has been built with lots of practice and a few guidelines and tons of coffee and pie (we meet for pie). Here’s how we graciously and systematically take the advice of that Italian osteria:  If there are things you are not happy with, please tell us!
 
1) Circle of Love – one of my first TV writing mentors insisted that we start our writer’s group with the circle of love. And we still do this. We spend the first couple minutes going around the table and expressing what we liked about the project or what is working. This isn’t for an ego-boost or touchy-feely exercise.  It’s because it’s important for us to know what we’ve done well and know that we’re progressing. Praise lets us know we’re on the right track. We all need that.
 
2) Easter Egg Hunting  – It can be tough, but important to talk about theme. I think about theme like an Easter Egg hunt. Theme likes to hide behind character motivations, symbols, tone, or place. Theme can be decorated differently based on each reader’s experiences and interpretations. In our group, we don’t even use the word theme. That’s too formal for us. We ask each other… what are you trying to say with this story? What do you want your readers/viewers to know? Then, instead of arguing about which theme is correct (or which Easter egg is prettiest), we try to look at all the eggs in their painted glory and find the one that best fits our taste.
 
3) The Big Picture – It can be challenging to know where to start when giving a constructive critique. I like to use The Big Picture principle. This means giving 2 to 3 overall thoughts about the project. Each person in the group contributes two to three things that stand out in a story and this keeps the notes sessions moving along (and doesn’t overwhelm the writer as much). This works great for a book club, too. Limit critique to a couple main things. Maybe tone of the piece? Maybe a particular character’s arc? Maybe how the piece was structured?
 
4) Heroes and Villains – What does the hero want? What does the villain want? Do they get it? How? When? What do they actually need to change (rule of thumb: heroes usually change/villains usually don’t). These few questions alone are all that is needed to spring board the rest of the discussion and reveal a lot about the story (holes, flaws, strengths, what if’s).
 
5) Don’t be a Nitpicker!  Silence. It makes us uncomfortable. We’ll do anything to fill the silence. So, when we’re at a lack of things to say, we start to nitpick. Stop it! Limit the amount of time for a critique (book analysis). 30-45 minutes is usually enough time until people run out of things to stay and start to nitpick. That’s when things turn ugly and an otherwise helpful or productive critique session can go south. Set an alarm if you need to. I usually do.
 
Readers, this is for you, too! See how you might apply these 5 guidelines to your next book club!
 
Hey… maybe we should all just take these a step further and apply some of these to our next Amazon review… kid’s band performance… Or even that friend’s political comment on Facebook (ouch!).

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