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Your genius (sung or otherwise)

September 7th, 2008 3 comments

…does not entitle you to behave like an asshole.

It’s a simple point, but one so many miss. Artists do not get special privileges. They do not get a free pass on behaving badly simply because they have the werewithal to pick up a pen or a keyboard or a paintbrush–or swing around an electric guitar or get before (or behind!) a movie camera (saints preserve us). Nor are they magically exempt from social standards because they are witty, charming, and dashingly attractive (as of course all artists, especially writers, are–the occasional glamorous clubfoot aside).

Nothing you do entitles you to father and abandon illegitimate children, spend other people’s money profligately, drive at great speeds through residential neighborhoods, get drunk and hurl household objects at hotel staff, or make public statements of bigoted stupidity about other people’s race, religion, sex, sexuality, physical abilities, or taste in cocktails.* Nothing.

I don’t care how many club feet you have.**

The converse is true as well, of course. Just because somebody else is an artist, this does not behoove us to act like an asshole to them.

If you would not march up to somebody’s front door and tell them their children are ugly, do reconsider popping by the comments section on any given painter’s Deviant Art page to tell him how much you hate his work. Also, if you spot your favorite actor having dinner with her spouse in a quiet pub, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to approach her.

I guess what I’m saying is that entitlement, either way you take it, is an ugly thing.

As an artist, if you ever catch yourself about to utter the words, “Do you know who I am?” or find yourself justifying some jaw-droppingly self-centered behavior on the grounds of your art, it might be time to reassess. Likewise, as a fan (and I have yet to meet an artist who is not also a fan–of something!) if you’re about to plunk yourself down in your idol’s mate’s vacated chair to tell them how much their last movie stank, take a moment to reflect. And remember what your grandmother told you about etiquette.

And remember, in both cases, that the universe doth extend beyond thee.

–Elizabeth Bear

*okay, maybe that last.

**although if it’s more than two, that might be a road to fame right there.

Image copyright Sean Dreilinger, used under Creative Commons attribution

Categories: etiquette, Uncategorized, Writers Tags:

on writing… groups.

December 7th, 2007 3 comments

People get awfully heated about writer’s groups and workshops–either as vocal advocates for same, or as critics. I suspect that this has more bearing on the writer’s personal experience with the usefulness of critique than whether writer’s groups, in general, are useful.

There are those who will tell you that the whole process is a time sinks. The only way to write is to sit down in a room alone with whatever devices you use to convert your ideas into black and white and scrape your brain out on the paper. Don’t talk your ideas out with anybody else. Don’t show people unfinished work. Sit down and write. A writer’s group or workshop is either going to process your work into pablum, or it will be a mutual admiration society that will tell you nothing but how good your book is so long as you return the favor.

And then there are those who will tell you that critique is indispensable, that their wise readers are responsible for them having publishable books at all, and that they can’t write without an ear to bend about the stories gelling in the back of their heads.

So who’s right?

Well, they both are.

A bad writer’s group is worse than useless. How do you tell if your writer’s group is bad? Well, if it consists of people sitting around telling each other how wonderful they are, it’s probably bad. If somebody in the group is determined to undermine everybody else, it’s a bad group. If nobody is consistently writing new things, it’s probably a bad group. If everybody keeps workshopping the same stories they have been working for the past ten years? Bad group. If people who leave the group start making strides towards getting published, it may be a bad group.

And so on.

A good writer’s group is worth its weight in gold, however. It consists of people who will kick your ass when it needs kicking, question the flawed spots in your work, and–most importantly–give you stories to read critically. You see, the big dirty secret of writer’s groups and workshops is that it’s not the critiques you get that teach you to write. It’s the critiques you give.

People come to writer’s groups and workshops hoping to get their stories fixed up and made publishable, and honestly, that’s not what happens. Because the vast majority of those student pieces are not salvageable. They’re broken, and they’re going to remain broken.

I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Which is why, once you’ve workshopped a story once and revised it, you should stop. Because running that damned story through every workshop in the country is not going to make it better. Nor are you going to learn anything new revising the same story over and over again. You hit the point of diminishing marginal returns very quickly, and painting the same student portrait over and over again is a really good way to make sure you never advance.

I’m sorry, but that’s true too. You have to learn to let go.

But what a workshop can do is teach you how to recognize flaws. The hardest skill for any beginning or intermediate writer to learn, I think, is reading critically, and accepting that yes, their work can be full of suck. (It was hard for me to accept to, honestly.)

Reading the work of other student writers, which is probably also full of undisguised suck (pros have usually learned to kick some leaves over the suck, so it’s not as obvious, and therefore harder to learn from) will help you learn to diagnose your own suck. Because you know what? No matter how convinced I am of my own brilliance, those crappy POV shifts aren’t honestly any better when I do them then when my crit partner does.

I know. Sad, isn’t it?

And there’s no shortcut to learning to do that. You just have to read a lot of broken stories, and a lot of brilliant stories, until your brain starts to see the differences in the pattern of a broken story and a brilliant one.

Categories: advice, Writers, Writing Tags: