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  • Mary Bergida DeLuca

How Watching Netflix Got Me to Make My Bed: 3 Ways to Write from Non-Example

Photo: Oddharmonic/flicker CC2.0. Fliters applied.

“That’s disgusting!” we reacted with smug glee again and again while watching the reality series, Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords on Netflix.

This show follows the real-life horrors of renting or leasing private dwellings in the UK, with episodes often revolving around the discovery that tenants or squatters have trashed a home before vacating the premises. Commonly, the camera pans through rooms covered in garbage, including half eaten food, animal feces, and broken objects strewn over floors, furniture, and kitchen counters.

The worst scene I recall is of a bathroom: the bathtub filled with water, or liquid of some sort, brimming with floating objects, the most recognizable being raw chicken thighs and a lamp shade. Shudder.

So what does this all have to do with writing? I’m getting there.

The scenes of Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords reveal how people are crafting, perhaps destructively, the story of their own lives. And perhaps the efficacy of the show is that it offers me an opportunity to congratulate myself on my own, garbage free home, and sit mightily over those who can’t “hold it together.” Similarly, when we read, or even watch stories on screen, and perceive flaws in the construction, we turn into critics, self-congratulators. We might sneer at the character development or find the plot overwrought, etc., and we look on with a smug superiority.

Am I suggesting that we be careless with our characters or sloppy with our plots? Not at all! But we shouldn’t self-congratulate and just move on.

Here is what happened to me the more I watched Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords: After the smugness had settled, the show actually started having an effect on my personal life. Mid-afternoons, I’d look at my own unmade bed and immediately recall the many shots of bedrooms, blankets and sheets twisting together in tortured positions, amidst the uproar of the rest of the room. Feeling horror at my own potential fall into squalor, I’d make my bed with speed and a touch of panic.

Similarly, relishing other’s writing “failures” has little benefit for us—unless we intentionally reframe that judgement.

In Warrior of the Light, Paulo Coelho observes that the person who perceives flaws in others, should use “these occasions to correct his own faults, for other people make an excellent mirror.” So next time you read a story that leaves you unimpressed with the characters or simply bored, instead of writing a scorching review on Goodreads, ask yourself these questions:

1. Ask “Why”

If a story leaves you feeling disappointed, ask why? Sometimes what we initially think is the letdown, is not. For instance, you found the plot too predictable. Okay, why? Was it predictable because you’ve read this author before, because it mimicked another story’s plot, or because “the clues” to the climax were too heavy handed?

Here’s how I’ve been using this technique lately. One of the things I often notice, and dislike in a story, is when it makes me feel anxious in a way that pushes me out of the story. So I ask myself why.

I’m discovering that I feel anxious if ALL the relationships in a story are unsafe. I am also noticing that if misfortunes snowball so briskly that there is no room to breath, I’m also thrust out of the story. Asking and answering these questions has taught me a lot about how to ground the reader, while simultaneously engaging positive emotions and creating suspense.

2. Ask “What Could Change”

If you could rewrite the story you dislike, what would you change? Maybe what “sits wrong” with us about a story only needs a little tweak to be better? Maybe a character has to go? Maybe we would change the plot all together? It’s so much easier to see the “holes,” real or imagined, in another’s craft. Why not use our observations to make our own stories better?

3. Apply Your Discoveries

What can you tweak about your current writing to make sure it doesn’t fall into the same traps as the stories we criticize? If you find a show that makes you too edgy, think about stories or shows that somehow persuade you that entering their world is a worthwhile escape from yours. Of course, it’s a bonus when that alternate world somehow makes us better able to live in our own reality.

Also, examine what impacts you in a positive way. I’ve learned so much from asking myself, why do I like, or even love, my favorite characters and stories. Of course, this can bring up deeper questions: Why do I even like what I like? (Granted, that may be a question for a therapist.)

And finally, let’s remember, while there is some writing that may be objectively cliched, gimmicky, sloppy, or untrue, there are also writing styles that just do not personally appeal to each of us, and that’s okay.

And when it comes to leaving feedback on Goodreads or blogs, especially for current authors, let’s be truthful to our reading experience, but also kind. Writing is hard, and sometimes painful and glorious, work. Let’s encourage, not shame, those who are doing the work and trying to use their words as a force of good.

Ultimately, why not appreciate “bad” writing by viewing it as an opportunity to write more conscientiously— just like those British tenants’ bad habits are getting me to see my own messes and make my bed.

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