Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Volume 2, Number 2: Judgment Calls

(Note: This is a re-posting of an entry I made in 2007 on a Yahoo! GeoCities blog.)

I hear a lot of talk about just how rough and mean "American Idol" can be to its auditioners. A recent MSNBC poll says 60% of viewers believe that the judges (mainly Simon Cowell) are being too mean. Thing is, where some of these awful, off-key, tone-deaf, no-rhythm auditions are concerned, there's nothing else can you say other than what Cowell dishes out ("Bloody awful... was that even on the same planet?").

Where do you draw the line between telling someone that they are wasting their time and telling that same person about what they need to improve? Remember, the judges have to sit through thousands of auditions in a short span of time, so it's no surprise that they have to tell hundreds of them, "Singing just isn't for you," or "You can't sing," and be done with it. How much time can they spare towards telling the best of those who failed about tone, pitch, key, and other elements in the art of singing? And just who fits into that "the best of those who failed" group?

Really, the judges aren't only helping the select few who get to go to Hollywood. They're actually doing favors for those who are still young and do not yet have the maturity or experience to look back and say, "What was I thinking?"

Let me give you an example from my own personal experience.

I first tried my hand as a science fiction writer in 1984, when I was almost 12. I had ideas for stories centered around a mad scientist and his two teenaged assistants, but unfortunately, I had yet to have a clue about character development, internal and external conflicts, imagery, themes, and so on. To make matters worse, whatever was in my imagination, I had trouble putting it on the page. So my stories had next-to-no plot, characters that had little more than names, and well, poorly described action. (Example: My mad scientist's time machine, which looked like a flying saucer from the outside, spun in place as it worked. Today, I might say "As the time machine spun in place, pinning us against the walls, Dr. Studebrenner explained that it used centrifugal force to generate the time travel field," but at 12, I said, "We were spinning." Geez, what was I thinking?)

I don't recall if I ever showed those stories to my friends, but if they did, they might have said they were "good" or "OK." My father came across them and said things like "just doesn't make it," "boring" and "the same thing over and over." (It took me a long time to understand that last one, since not all six stories had the same plot, but in terms of structure--the mad scientists and his assistants set out to invent something, they do it with next to no explanation about how they made it or any problems they came across, weird things happen, they get resolved in some way or another with next to no explanation, the end--they were the same.)

My efforts to become a science fiction writer were put on hold for at least several years after a particularly heated exchange with my father. At one point, he said, "He spends so much time in his room doing nothing," at which point I mentioned that I spend a lot of that time writing, to which he retorted, "Your stories are HORRIBLE! They're boring!" I was simultaneously ticked off and depressed: Depressed because my extracurricular activity was being viewed as a huge waste of time, and ticked off because I thought my father was just flat wrong.

Still, in retrospect, my father did me a favor. If he said they were OK, what would I have done? If he had said, "Put them in a time capsule and don't look at them for 20 years," when I had not even lived 13 years, would I have listened? No--I might have wasted still more time writing crap, instead of applying my time and energy to more important stuff.

As J.K. Rowling wrote towards the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The truth is generally preferable to lies. (Albus Dumbledore said it during his speech about Cedric Diggory's death.)

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