Have you ever been in one of those situations where you need help with something, you actually know what you need help with, yet people insist on giving you some other sort of help because they think they know what you need better than you do? Do you hate that? I hate that. I mean, I really, really hate that.
Let me give you an example:
A couple of years ago, my mother-in-law needed help with some yard work. It really wasn't a big thing she needed help with, but my mother-in-law was (she died last fall of pancreatic cancer) very independent. Preferred to do everything herself. She had enough tools in her garage to make men salivate. A drill press. A table saw. She built things. She gardened. She never went by "Mom" or "Grandma" or anything like that, because she had a name, and that's what she went by. Yes, she kept her maiden name when she got married. The fact that she asked for help at all was pretty significant.
The problem, though, was that the whole thing got turned into this big, yard work party. In and of itself, that would have been fine, but the event got out of hand. People were doing things that my mother-in-law didn't want or need help with. Being a very gracious host, though, she didn't say anything and allowed things to just progress. Until it became apparent that the thing she actually wanted help with was not going to be addressed at all.
A couple of hours into all of this, she approached me and asked me if I would help her with something. Sure. I wasn't enthused about whatever it was I was doing, anyway. Of course, I'm never really enthused about yard work, so doing one thing was as good as another. There was a large branch in her backyard, a fair sized portion of the tree it fell from, that was too big to drag off for disposal. That's the thing, the one thing, she needed help with. She needed it chopped up into small enough pieces to go into the yard waste disposal. And, yet, there it sat in the backyard receiving no attention at all. I got an axe and started chopping away at it while she cleared the smaller branches that I chopped off.
And she talked to me about being frustrated by everything that was going on. She didn't want to offend anyone, but this branch was the only thing she had wanted help with. She hadn't wanted to need help with that, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to do it by herself. All of the other "help" was actually depriving her of several weeks worth of gardening that she found enjoyable.
At the end of the day, there was talk from a few people about making yard work at my mother-in-law's a monthly event. People were kind of excited about it. They'd thought they'd really helped, and they felt good about it. Fortunately, in this instance, people, being what they are, failed to follow through with that threat, and her gardening space wasn't invaded again.
When I was a kid, my mom often gave me "help" that I didn't want. It was very traumatic. Like this one time when she cut up this Star Wars poster that I had colored so she could put it in a frame because "I would like it better that way." I didn't like it better that way. I liked it the way it was, and she took scissors to it. No, I never did get over that.
And then there was my very first poetry assignment from school. I was in 4th grade. We had to write a poem that had something to do with food for some contest. We were allowed to have help. I didn't write that poem. I stood next to my mother protesting as she wrote this two page poem, but she wouldn't listen to me telling her that I didn't want her to do it for me. Did you get the part where I was in 4th grade and my mom wrote a two page long poem? She instructed me to tell the teacher that I wrote it. I hadn't learned to say "no" to my mom, yet, so, when the teacher looked at what I'd turned in and asked me if I wrote it (and, yes, she asked me in front of the whole class), I said "yes." I felt horrible about it, but I didn't know what else to do.
I could go on...
But I won't, because I'm sure everyone has their own experiences with this. Maybe it wasn't your mother, though. Or, maybe, it was.
I'm sure part of the problem is that parents tend to train their children in the understanding that "help" actually means "do it for you."
"Here, let me help you with that," as the parent takes whatever it is that the child is doing and does it for said child. So children learn that asking for "help" is equivalent to asking to not to have to do it.
Of course, when you're dealing with children, actually helping them takes oh so much longer than just taking it and doing it yourself, so there's a great temptation there.
I think, though, that we carry that expectation on into our adult lives. Both sides of the coin. We still mean, "will you do this for me?" when we ask for help. And, when people ask us for help, we expect that they mean that very same thing.
I'm wondering if writing makes me more sensitive to this issue than other people, though. Well, I'm already sensitive to it in the same kind of way as my mother-in-law with her yard work. If I'm asking you for help, I'm not asking you to do it for me. I mean, if I want something done for me, like unloading the dishwasher, I'll just have one of my kids do it. That's what they're for, right? But only unloading, never loading, because there is that other kind of help where you have to go back and re-do the whole job and it takes longer than it would have to begin with. Kids are especially good at that kind of help. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't let the kids help sometime, just make sure you have time to re-do the job if it doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to.
With writing, the thing that I've found most difficult to get "help" with is feedback. Even when I'm specific. "Read this and tell me what you think of it" and a lot of "do nots." Like "do not correct spelling." "Do not correct grammar." "Do not tell me how you would write it differently." Invariably, I get all of those things back. Sometimes with correctly spelled words "corrected" incorrectly. These things don't help me. If I'm asking for feedback, I'm not asking for an editor. That's a completely different task. What I want to know is story and flow. How it makes you feel. Did you get bored? Do you want to know what's coming up? Did it make you care? The details (spelling, grammar, all of that) will get worked out, but I don't care about those at all if the story isn't working.
Is it better to have bad help or no help? Sometimes, it's really hard to know. I hate having to re-do something because of bad help (like when I had to re-type a paper that someone "helped" me with, but there were so many errors in it that the teacher handed it back to me and said to re-type it), but are there times when the bad help is better than no help?