Day 446: Criticism is easy. Good is hard.

Have people heard this death-bed quote, allegedly said by Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his time, in the 19th century?

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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.*

I use the word “allegedly” in that introductory sentence because:

  1. I have trouble believing that anybody, on their way out, would have the presence of mind to say something that pithy, witty, and ageless.
  2. I have some skepticism about people’s ability to hear, remember, and quote accurately what other people say, especially for moments of high emotion, and
  3. References to that quote —  like here and here — raise doubts about the truth of that story, as well as who said it. Other pithy and witty dying suspects, regarding that quote, include Edmund Gwenn (who, by the way, played one of my favorite fathers in literature, Mr. Bennet** from Pride and Prejudice):

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As often happens when I’m writing a weekend post, every move I make brings me further away from my original intent, which was to write about how difficult it is to tell good stories well.

To try to get us back on track, let me tell you this:  Last week, several times, I  quoted something I heard, in the 1980s, at a Film Criticism writing class.

It’s a lot easier to write well about a bad movie, than about a good movie.

My memory is failing me, regarding what the instructor,  Nat Segaloff, actually said, in that film school class. But I can picture Mr. Segaloff, standing in front of us, saying something similar, as he gave us this very memorable assignment: Write an interesting, well-written review for a great movie you really like.

Or, to cast that film-school writing assignment in the light of a dying actor’s witty quote:

Criticism is easy. Good is hard.

And that WAS the most difficult piece to write well, for many of us.

Yes, dear readers, it is difficult for me to write or speak effectively, about the good. I find it much easier to be interesting — to tell a “good” story —  about things that are going wrong and about things I don’t like, than about things that are going well.

This issue came up for me, several times this past week, when I tried to communicate well about these stories:

  • My intern, who is leaving in five weeks, is doing a wonderful job in her training as a therapist.
  • Many people I work with, as their therapist,  have been telling me they’re feeling markedly better.

This past week, I struggled, several times, with telling good stories about the good. In each case, I was neither pithy nor witty. Instead, I said … almost nothing. I gave up, because it felt too hard.

It helps me to remember, today, that I got a great grade on that film school writing assignment.

Thanks to Edmund Kean, Edmund Gwenn, and other dead or witty actors named “Edmund;” to Jane Austen; to Nat Segaloff;  to funny fathers;  to those who have names difficult to spell; to people who struggle with telling good stories for whatever reason; and to you — of course! — for reading this story, today.


* You very well may have heard this quote, especially because of a recent celebrity feud between Shia LaBeouf and Jim Carrey, after Jim Carrey used the quote at the Golden Globe Awards, in January:

Neither Shia LaBeouf nor Jim Carrey were on my mind, when I started writing this post. Thanks to HollyscoopTV, for posting that interesting story on YouTube.

* Another reason that “Comedy is hard” quote has been on my mind: my son has been performing stand-up comedy, lately, at Open Mic nights.

** I looked high and low for a good list of Mr. Bennet quotes, from Pride and Prejudice.  That IMDb link to 1995 and 2007 productions was the best I could do, for now.

Categories: inspiration, Nostalgia, personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “Day 446: Criticism is easy. Good is hard.

  1. Great as ever. If you change your mind about accepting awards let me know. Hope your son has a great success at stand up.

    • Thank you, Alex! I appreciate your great comment, very much. This is my policy on awards: I am selfish enough to be grateful for a nomination and lazy enough to do nothing else.

      • Ha. Don’t worry, I know they can take a while to properly accept.

      • The award, for me, is your wish to give me one. Actually, your readership and your comments are gifts enough. So thank you for all of those, Alex!

  2. wonderful reflection!
    i can relate
    to having a mind
    that gives more credibility
    to the negative, than positive 🙂

  3. Criticism is easy, but Good is so worth it! I work hard to live a life of gratitude and infuse as much good in my day as I can! And while most of my stories are about bad things, I always try to find the good, the silver lining 🙂 Have a great Saturday!

  4. People hear what they want to hear, Ann, unless, of course, they’re a trained listener, like me. I’ll call your film instructor and raise you 10 journalism professors saying: “Get the quote exactly right.”

    I learned how to listen carefully and write without seeing my pad, often in the dark at a concert.

    Regardless, I agree that passed-down classic sayings were most likely stretched, bent, and adjusted at one point or another in the chain of communication.

    Talking about the good isn’t as difficult if you’re thinking about the unique characteristics that make it good.

    And, Ann, writing about the bad is more difficult when you explain why with sound reasoning and without mean and cheap shots.

  5. I think this post relates to a lot of life in general. I think we do have a tendency to have trouble expressing ourselves when things is good. I noticed this in myself when I was going through a lot of issues with my alcoholic father I used to talk to people all the time about it. Trying to understand, trying to work through my feelings. But when life got better, it all of a sudden seemed I had nothing to say. Anybody in the field of psychology can tell you that a lot of the science was predicated on understanding how the mind works when something is wrong. It is only within the last 20 years that psychologists started studying well being and happiness. In some ways this makes a lot of sense because if something is wrong then you want to investigate to find how to make it right. I think in general we as individuals are better at searching ourselves for deeper understanding when something is wrong, because we obviously don’t want to feel bad. There is value of course to knowing what “healthy and happy” means both physically and mentally. Because if that is the goal then it is worth understanding people who are healthy and happy just as much as it is important to understand why people are unhealthy and unhappy.

    Mark Twain said the “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven”. The supernatural aside, I think Mark Twain is dead on, that it is the fact that we feel bad that humor is there to make raise us up and to try to make light in bad situations. So I think it is easy to criticize. It is easy to determine why something did not make us feel good and how things could be different to make us feel better. When a story is great however I think we are much more happy at the totality of the experience and are less apt to break it down into components and learn about how each one might have contributed to our enjoyable experience. “Why did you enjoy that movie?” “Who cares, I feel great after watching it”. I think that’s sort of our general attitude. So I think that it’s possible to breakdown happy experiences but I don’t think that’s something our minds tend to do easily.

  6. Criticism is easy, good is hard tells us a lot about human nature. I mean, look at the news. They’ve even tried showing good news in the past, but it didn’t work. People want misery and tragedy. My wife and I were looking for some love songs for a skit we were part of one time and realized that almost all of them aren’t happy! Their poignancy, if you will, was in the heartbreak, the breaking up. lamenting love lost rather the joy of love. You’ve lost that loving feeling, etc. We’re an interesting lot, aren’t we!

    Btw, my wife’s all-time favorite is Pride and Prejudice, especially, the Gwenn version (He’s right up there with Andy Hardy’s father!). The funny thing I noticed in that film was the specific music ditties for each character. I laughed whenever Mr. Collins shows up. And, yes, I’ve been Austen-ized over the years. Now, that’s love…but it’s good… 🙂

    • We are interesting lot, indeed, and I appreciate having Jane Austen and Mel Wild in my life,commenting on people and other things, too.

      • Thanks, same here. Your insights are a blessing. Life is good when we can appreciate and enjoy the company of encouraging friends.

  7. Yes, criticism is easy, because we can flesh out our words with attention-grabbing nouns and verbs, and because we’ve been conditioned to pay more attention to the negativity. It is easier to focus on the broken parts of our lives, as we all tend to be united in our various miseries. The usual and good has a way of going unnoticed. We collectively like to witness all those varying disasters, because it reinforces the idea that our own lives are bearable. Interesting post.

    Here’s a Mr. Bennet quote for you: “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

    • Great quote, great insights, great comment. See how I had trouble using attention-grabbing words, there? Thank you!

  8. Woah…same wave length. I just wrote a blog post about the criticism I’ve been hearing since, well, forever. I’m not really sure it makes sense but that was the original thought.

  9. Terrific quotes. And you know, it doesn’t hurt to just believe it was said as described. Does it make a difference? It is still clever. And I have been known to be a total smart ass when I am barely conscious. A group of nurses complained to me once that they were having a hard time getting me to bed after I collapsed because I was insulting an intern none of us liked. So, I’m thinking that we should give Edmund Kean the benefit of the doubt!

    If you’re a big Pride and Prejudice fan, you might want to read Longbourn. It is the downstairs story to the upstairs of Pride and Prejudice. And while that sort of thing wouldn’t normally appeal to me, this one was brilliantly done. It can stand alone, easily, as a fine novel. But it pulls together characters and events we all know and love. A terrific book!

    • Elyse! Thanks for all the gifts you gave me in this comment. I agree that quote is wonderful, no matter who said it and how. I can only hope that I’m a smart ass when I’m barely conscious, just like you. And I will definitely look into “Longbourn.”

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