Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Value of Bad

When I worked as a store manager for Borders back in the mid-90s I was called on to help write, and then host a customer-service training video. The idea was to show booksellers how to help customers in a variety of scenarios, some of them difficult, and to "give them the words" to handle things successfully.

Giving people the words is of immeasurable help. Have you ever discussed—with a trusted friend or associate—a difficult situation you're about to face, and that person puts just the right spin on it, and you found yourself saying, "Oh, thanks! That's just what I'll say." I sure have.

So I was delighted to help write the script. Having managed people for years, and witnessed some terrible choices and behavior along with the good (and been the one to clean up the mess afterward), I made sure to include a common scenario where the bookseller says and does the wrong things. Then I wrote a scene where the bookseller does it right. My reason for putting in a negative example was so that front-line staff would understand that certain words and actions a) are in fact rude; and b) never achieve the result you want. When you're standing in front of a mirror, it's hard to be in denial about what you see.

But the human resources dept. manager, upon reviewing the script, cut the negative example. I believe the HR people had the fear that showing a negative example would somehow encourage negative behavior, which made no sense to me. But I was certain the scene would prompt nervous laughter and give employees insight they couldn't get otherwise. I lobbied my case, but lost that one. We shot the video, and it was a good one, but it could have been better, funnier, and more effective.

These days when I write articles or teach workshops on how to write well,

I include negative examples where appropriate. Simply saying, "Do it this way," is of limited value unless you show how crappy a result you get if you do it that way. The meta thing is that a student doesn't necessarily know which elements of "doing it the right way" are the important ones. I always remember, as a young reader, consuming Dan Keyes's innovative novel Flowers for Algernon and being struck by the scene where the mentally impaired Charlie Gordon is told to watch a baker make rolls so he can then do it. Watching, he has no idea if the position of the baker's elbows as he rolls the dough is as important as the recipe itself, or what. He cannot generalize or differentiate at all. He needs more context.

If you let students examine a suboptimal example, then present a worthy one, you have provided a huge amount of context, and their understanding and ability to translate the material to their own experience goes up by a factor of at least three. (Where did that math come from, you ask? Just trust me.)

I've been thinking about this while putting together a reading list for an upcoming novel-writing workshop. There is no perfect novel, no flawless novel out there (because of course art is subjective in the first place). Being able to point out and discuss the negatives in an acknowledged masterwork is freeing and instructive, and it's just a bunch of fun too.

[Postscript: I just Googled Dan Keyes and found he died a few days ago. RIP to somebody who gave a wonderful gift of art to this world.]

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