Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Not To Be This Guy

I sometimes enjoy reading AskMetaFilter questions, as well as the responses, just to get ideas for my own life, or alternatively, to indulge in my occasional strange desire to peek into the lives of other people. A few days ago, I came across this question. A little later, the same guy posted this, so I suppose he learned a bit of a lesson.

If you bothered to read through the full first question (I read it on a BlackBerry. My thumb hurt afterward), you will see some of the most overblown prose you could possibly imagine, about the young man simply describing his living situation. The kicker is, he wants/"needs" at least 3 days a week free (preferably 4) so that he can write his poetry/Literature/philosophy. As it generally happens on the wonder of the Internet, people make suggestions and comments about something outside of the central issue (he is looking for a situation that would allow him to write for at least 3 but preferably 4 days a week and still pay the rent), and actually mentioned that he might want to consider trying to write under less than ideal conditions. After people responded with those types of suggestions, he decided he was being insulted, and decided to post another question a week or so later, but with most of the unnecessary footnotes, citations, philosophy, and other extraneous details omitted. The second time around, he managed to get advice that, hopefully, applied to his situation.

Sometimes, as I'm idly reading AskMetaFilter, I come up with a few ideas for the advice-seekers, but this time, all I could think was "what a pretentious asshole." I don't approach my writing as High Art of the Highest Form. It's kind of hard, especially since I'm writing genre fiction, which is sort of seen as the opposite of High Art, to keep ones pretensions alive. But, even when I was in school and attempting literary fiction, which was not really my show, I still couldn't see it as Art.

Also, I believe that acting like one is attempting Art, they are sort of closing themselves off to criticism and suggestions for improvement. Can anyone say that The Mona Lisa has technical flaws, or The Thinker, or Falling Waters by Frank Lloyd Wright? How about Pamela? When you present yourself as an Artiste of Very Serious Literature, it's an attempt to silence anyone that might say something negative or critical about your latest Attempt.

Unfortunately, receiving criticism is how you grow, especially as an author. If nobody tells you that the plot is kind of stale and needs a twist, or that your characters act out bizarrely without reason or justification, or that no, you have to double-space your manuscripts, you will never learn. You can take what you've learned, analyze it, and discard what doesn't really apply, and figure out how to work the criticisms to make sense with your style.

But, if you distance yourself from that entirely, you'll never grow into being able to legitimately call yourself an Artist (which I differentiate from Artistes, who are those kind of people who I'll describe below). You'll still be writing the same tired prose, the same bizarre characters that an audience can't connect to, and you'll still be submitting to agents with a single-spaced manuscript that they won't bother to read. Eventually, people will get tired of trying to tell you things, and then they will start to roll their eyes at you. I already roll my eyes at these types, and I'm not even that mean.

Why do I roll my eyes? Because Artistes are boring as hell to talk to. They aren't open to learning anything, they aren't intersted in what anyone else has to say, since they already know everything they can possibly know about Art. Also, they tend to put their Work on a high pedestal, which gives them an excuse when they can't produce. They can basically ignore just about any suggestion, critique, or idea based on the fact that their Work is so all-consuming. Finally, an Artiste is boring mostly because they spend so much time focused on their Work and their Artiste-ness, that they don't really have anything else to talk about. Ask them about current events, pop culture, other artwork, travel, or just about anything, and they either can't carry on a conversation about it or all, or they play along until they can pull back to their glorious Work. If you haven't clicked the link above, go ahead, and tell me if you can successfully boil down the Artiste's mile-long stretch of blather into a succinct question. If that's what he's writing when he's trying to be clear, can you imagine the detours that his book takes?

How do you avoid becoming this guy? First of all, get down to earth. Submit your work to multiple critique groups, and see what they say. If you get the same series of critiques from all of the groups, from multiple people (concrete things, like "use more/less description" or "your dialogue reads terribly and I'm not too sure what's going on, clarify your plot," not things like "I don't like the title" and "Ruby's a bitch, how dare she break up with Rowan???"), then you have an idea that perhaps you have things to focus your attention on. Second, get out in the world, and learn something that doesn't apply to your current project. For me, it's my job, my friends, and archery lessons, which all help remind me that I might be Writing Great American Literature, but I still can't hit a target at ten paces, and I still laugh at fart jokes. Finally, read. Read read read read read. Read novels and poetry from people so insanely talented, you know it's impossible to approach them, to keep yourself humble... mine are Milton, e. e. cummings, and Jane Austen. Read work from people that you know you are better than, to give yourself hope. Mine is The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb. Read things about American idioms, soapmaking, the Zodiac, and AutoCad 2009. Read everything you can get your hands on. Not only will this help give you perspective on where you might fit in, but it will help keep your mind sharp and engaged with the world around you.

1 comment:

  1. That "question" hurt my face. I read the whole thing.

    I've been writing for about twenty years. Never once has anything the poster mentioned ever entered my mind as a necessity/requirement for writing. Mind you, I'm not trying to make Art. I just want to tell a story that people will want to read, also known as "selling out" and/or "pandering to the lowest common denominator" etc. True story: I used to be, if not That Guy, at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. I can't remember what triggered it; I think it hit me as I was slinking shame-faced from the B&N with (horrors!) genre fiction in my bag. OMG, I said - I too am the lowest common denominator!

    That was a load off, I can tell you. It's a lot less stressful to write when you aren't trying to create The Greatest Novel Ever Written. Allowing yourself to make mistakes, write badly, even goof off and be silly once in a while... well. I think I might be preaching to the choir.

    What I originally meant to say before I got sidetracked by my own cleverness was that it never fails to astound me how many people feel that unless their art is causing them anguish, they aren't creating to their full potential. I don't think I could have spent the better part of my life writing (well or poorly, it matters not) if it caused me as much stress and personal chaos as it seems to do to this poor guy. My advice to him (if I thought he would take it) would be this: all you need to write is something to make a mark with, and something to make a mark on.

    By the way, I'm really enjoying your blog :)