Twilight Times Special Feature

 

Writing as an Art Form
by Jim Farris

 

A few days ago on the e-authors list ( e-authors@onelist.com ), one of the writers there posted something in response to a thread about criticism from family, friends, and other acquaintances. A very nice gal - her name is Eleanor. She wrote, in part, "Writers by the nature of what they do must retain their sensitivity and that makes them vulnerable. No use telling them to develop a thick skin - it doesn't seem possible."

I didn't think much about it at first when I read it - in fact, I'd pretty much nodded and moved on. As the days wore on, however, that quote kept coming back to me. I ended up giving it a considerable amount of thought.

You see, we'd just had a fairly major controversy on the list. A 'troll' (internet slang for someone who intentionally posts annoying and provocative things to get a rise out of people) had moved onto the list, and at the time Eleanor made her posting, he'd only just been permanently banished to whatever hell he crawled from. While he was there, though, he said a lot of things to annoy and provoke people - the one that got me the most was that we e-authors would have to "Grow Thicker Skin." Even after he later clarified his position as "Due to the amount of rejection we get, we need to have thick skin", I still was unhappy with that idea. Though this may seem innocuous, to me, this demand to "grow thicker skin" bothered me, yet I couldn't place my finger on exactly why until after Eleanor's post.

Eventually, after thinking about it for a day or two, I finally realized that Eleanor had hit the nail on the head. To be able to write, and write well, I have to maintain my sensitivity. Without it, I literally cannot empathize with the characters I am attempting to portray.

Let's face it - how can I, as a science-fiction writer, really even attempt to describe the trials and tribulations of someone who lives in an imaginary future a thousand years from now if I'm unable to at least relate to the character as a human being? How can a romance writer be effective in portraying the power of the passion their characters feel for each other if they are unable to empathize with the passions others have in their relationships? How can a horror writer give us that "spine tingling chill" we all search for in horror novels unless they themselves have their fingertip on the pulse of that fearful little animal that lurks within us all?

The common theme is empathy and sensitivity. Eleanor was right - it's a necessity for a writer. Writing a novel isn't merely the task of mechanically assembling 60,000 to 120,000 words - if it was, then no publisher would ever bother paying we "Content Providers", they'd simply get a computer program to do it for them for free. No, it has to be 60,000 of the right words for it to work. There is a difference between this:

'Stretching out his arm, John reached above him towards the leather sphere... Time seemed to slow, the world paused in breathless anticipation. Months of work, struggle, success and failure all coalesced into this one, single moment in time. Then, with a sharp sting, ball met glove. "You're out!" the umpire called. John stood there for a moment, stunned, as the fans began to scream in the stands. They'd done it - the Giants had won the pennant.'

As opposed to this:
"John Dimatto caught the fly ball for the last out, winning both the game and the pennant for the beleaguered Giants team."

But while obvious, what makes the difference between those two stories is what defines the difference between being a Writer and simple journalism. It's the difference between Hemingway and "How To Fix Your Carburetor". Some of the best-selling works today are the "Chilton" auto-repair manuals - but am I really going to curl up by the fire on a winter's evening (or snuggle up beneath my blankie in front of my computer screen) to read about the thrilling conflict between Disk and Drum brakes?

So, yes - I think that Empathy and Sensitivity (as well as Talent) are what makes a good writer. If a writer loses their sensitivity, if they lose their ability to empathize with nearly anyone which gives us the ability to create a believable character and a believable world for this character to inhabit, they then lose the ability to write.

Certainly, we all face rejection - not merely from editors, but from the people around us, and often from family and friends who simply don't understand that writing is work. It actually takes effort to do this. Perhaps not physical labor, but labor of the mind, the heart and soul. Often this labor is unpaid - we finish a work that we have poured our heart and soul into, only to find that it simply doesn't sell. Snoop about on Usenet and a few chatrooms that are inhabited by artists and composers - you'll hear them saying the same things that are often said on the e-authors@onelist.com list. Struggling for years to paint the perfect lily, or write the perfect song, hoping to finally get a break. They face the same things we do - family and friends who simply do not understand that the creative process is actually work.

It's harder for we writers, I think, because computers themselves have allowed literally anyone to sit down at the keyboard and type up their own book. The 'nay-sayers' in our lives look at what we're doing and think "Pfft! I could do that! Anyone can! You just need a computer and a word processor." They don't realize that the computer and the word processor aren't what allows me to write a book, any more than handing me a set of Sears "Craftsman" socket wrenches allows me to be an auto-mechanic. The computer is merely the tool. Before I can even begin to use these tools, I have to bring to them the same thing a mechanic brings to his tools - skill. The ability to type, the ability to spell, the ability to form proper sentences, and so on.

Even so, there is still more that I must bring to my tools before I can actually create a work. A mechanic already knows what the finished product is. A mechanic doesn't have to build a car from the ground up - no, he is simply presented with a problem, and works to repair it. He already knows what the finished product will look like - it stands before him. His concern isn't to be imaginative in creating a new brake system from scratch, but merely to be efficient and make reliable repairs to the brakes. When a solution isn't immediately apparent, he can simply refer to any one of innumerable repair manuals on the vehicle he's working on, and attempt various solutions the manual lists. If all else fails, he can simply rip out the defective part and replace it with a new one. This is not a creative process, it is simply a mechanical process of trial and error. While with skilled mechanics there may be little "trial" or "error", there still is no creativity.

No, I must yet bring more to my tool than simple skill: Firstly, I must bring an idea. A hope. A dream - perhaps even a nightmare. I must bring a story - perhaps one that has been rattling around in my head for years, or even one I just thought up a few minutes ago.

But there is still more I must bring than that. There are seven or eight billion people on this planet, each and every one of them with ideas, hopes, dreams, and nightmares of their own. A sizable fraction of these people have computers - but they're not all writers. Just having a story is not all that's required.

Some think that all that remains is to simply write the story - to follow the mechanical process of sitting down before the computer and pecking away at the keys like some Skinnerian pigeon until finally a finished product appears. Those that think this usually haven't attempted it. Very few people actually can sit down and type up the stories they have in their hearts and minds - it's hard work. It appears easy when you see someone else do it or read their works, but once you actually sit down and TRY it, it's damn difficult. Many will sit down and try to write up the stories in their hearts and minds, but very, very few will ever see the process through to completion. It's simply too difficult for them. Only a very small portion of people who attempt to write a novel ever actually finish it.

And yet, there is still more. It is not enough to be able to sit down and perform the mechanical act of typing continuously until a finished manuscript appears. It is not enough to know how to form proper sentences and know how to spell. It is not enough to have memorized the Chicago Manual of Style and books on the mechanics of creating Fiction, such as plot construction, characterization, and so on. No, there is still one more thing required - the one crucial element, the one critically important factor that defines the creative process and separates the artist from the mechanic, the craftsman from the tradesman:

Talent.

So, to my mind, writing is an art-form. It takes mechanical skill in operating the computer and in typing, just as a painter requires mechanical skill with his brushes, or a musician requires mechanical skill with his instrument. It takes knowledge of literary form and style, punctuation, grammar and etcetera, just as a painter must know the physical properties of his paints for mixing and their resultant colors upon drying, or a musician requires the knowledge of reading (and writing) sheet music. It takes sensitivity to be able to empathize with an imaginary character and their situation so as to express it properly, just as the painter requires sensitivity to be able to reach into himself and produce images and thoughts expressed on canvas, and the musician requires sensitivity to be able to express the feelings the music he is playing evokes in himself. But, most importantly, it takes talent.

It is talent that separates Keith Haring from a kid with a spraycan on a corner. It is talent which separates Luciano Pavarotti from the Spice Girls (though, admittedly, they look better in a thong bikini then he does). And, it is talent which separates Hemingway from a thousand hack journalists covering the daily news.

Thus, I am an artist. I think everyone who writes fiction is. Doing what we do is an art form. An artistic temperament is a requirement, I think - and as such, we are all going to be sensitive. I found I agreed with Eleanor - I don't think it's really going to be possible to develop a "Thick Skin" as a writer.

So, if we can't develop a "thick skin", what can we do? Well, I think Leta Nolan Childers (a famous and best-selling e-author who also happens to be the moderator for the e-authors@onelist.com list) probably put it best when she said we, as authors, need to develop a "rubber skin". She said that when we receive this kind of criticism, we need to take the time to "process" it. Take the time to rant, to vent, to scream to the heavens. Get it out of our system, firstly. Then, when we've vented and are again calm, see if we can't put the bad comments to work for us. Let the negativity bounce off (hence the 'rubber' idea), then put a better 'spin' on it, putting the comments to work for us. As the old saying goes, "When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade."

Some people are always going to be negative - but we don't have to let this negativity drag us down. The greatest of artists have always had to deal with criticism, both professional and personal. It's important for us to remember that all of the criticism we may receive, no matter how dark, is still only one person's opinion, and isn't necessarily the last word. In the book "Rotten Reviews" by Bill Henderson, the following gems are revealed:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brönte:
"The only consolation we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never generally be read." - James Lorimer, - North British Review

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll:
"We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story." - Children's Books

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
"A little slack, a little soft, more than a little artificial, The Great Gatsby falls into the class of negligible novels." - The Springfield Republican

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway:
"His characters are as shallow as the saucers in which they stack their daily emotions, and instead of interpreting his material - or even challenging it - he has been content merely to make a carbon copy of a not particularly significant surface life of Paris." - The Dial

As you can see from the above examples, in the end, the negative comments we receive (even spiteful, hateful and jealous ones), are still only one person's opinion - we can, if we try, sift through the words like a Forty-Niner pans for gold, seeking something we can use for our own benefit. A cutting remark such as "why don't you get a real job?" from a family member or "friend" can be seen as simple jealousy - they don't realize that writing is a real job, though it often doesn't pay well. A scathing review by a book critic about what we've written can be used productively - perhaps we can analyze our writing style and improve it. It's even possible to simply snip out the good parts of a negative review, using what positive things the reviewer did say about our work for our own self-promotion efforts. An editor's rejection can be seen as simply one person's opinion - but if they offer suggestions or actually ask for re-writes, we should see this as an opportunity to hone our craft, not as a slap in the face. And, of course, we can try to limit our contact with those people that offer us nothing but negativity about our art. A co-worker is constantly snide? We stop speaking to him. A reviewer is openly hostile? We dissect his review to see if anything positive can be gained from it to improve our craft, then never submit our works for review to that magazine again.

But whatever you do as a writer, always remember you are an artist. Don't try to develop a "thick skin" and lose your sensitivity - you need it to be an effective artist.

- Jim Farris
Author of "Pandora's Box" available from Ebooksonthe.net
Visit Jim's web site

 


Author Bio

Pandora's Box author Jim Farris is thirty-seven, happily married for thirteen years, no children, and lives in a small college town in Southeastern New Mexico famous only for the production of Valencia peanuts. Farris has self-published his own paper & pencil roleplaying-game system, which is currently out-of-print.

He writes novels, composes and performs music for his novels in MIDI and Mp3 format, but otherwise lives the life of a hermit.

His current project is The Last God, the first novel in the Oerth Saga (an ongoing free e-serial).

 
 

 
 
 

Copyright © 2000 Jim Farris. All rights reserved.
 
This page last updated 4-24-00.

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