Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Write Club: the Three Stages of Artistic Development

Hey y'all.  So I was watching an old season of Project Runway, and I realized that in all artistic endeavors, there are three general stages that happen to any given artist.  Granted, this is more hypothesis than certainty, but it's a general observation that people who want to do anything artistic have three general stages they go through, each adjusted in length and intensity by the individual's personality.

Stage 1: the discovery of talent/interest, rebellious stage.

This is the time when the person in question finds out about a particular art form, and that he's talented at it.  Or at least so interested in it, he thinks he's talented.  Which is perfectly fine, because thinking you're talented in an area is a great step up in actually becoming good at it.  Sure, you might realize how awful you were several years down the line, but if your false belief in your own quality got you ahead, then hey, it did its job.

In any case, depending on the given person's personality, this stage varies a little, assuming the given person wasn't too timid or busy to give up on the idea after a short period.  This is the point, especially when he's young, that someone believes in his own unique style and voice, and that something he has is either far superior to what is common, or is simply a new angle on what has been done already.  Neither of these statements might be true, but he'll be thinking it.

(For future reference, note that simply "he" is grammatically correct for a gender unknown/unstated figure, and much less clunky sounding than "he or she."  Thus, I'll continue to use it in this manner.)

In some cases, this belief in one's unique ability or perspective may in fact be true, for better or for worse.  For example, one might have an idea about how to write in the western genre, refreshing it and bringing it into modern focus enough for the viewer of today to really understand what westerns are about.  (Seriously, it's like the modern people think that something's not a western unless it has fringe and cowboy boots).  You might say that Cowboy Bebop had the right idea, by revamping the western into a truly Japanese, futuristic bounty hunter story.  While it's not the first science fiction attempt at a western (see: 70s pulp sci-fi), it was a very unique idea.  Not that I particularly like the show, but many people do.

Other times, sadly, the new idea doesn't work so well.  Take M. Night Shyamalan.  His breakout film was the Sixth Sense, and he did have a good idea.  Y'know what he didn't have?  Base storytelling talent.  See, writing is a combination of various talents, and one of those base talents is story generation.  That is, a writer has to have the ability to manifest story out of what appears to be nothing to be a good writer. Judging from the things people say about Shyamalan's movies, it appears that he, young and inexperienced that he was, ran out of ideas after his earliest stuff.  Granted, there may be other factors in play there, but this is something that can and does happen to people of varying amounts of fame: they have a great idea, but they don't have the follow-through experience to go beyond that good idea.  Or are incapable of judging the worth of their ideas, or don't know whether the idea needs time to develop into a true story.

Even more pitiable are the people who think they can do something or have a great idea, and they don't.  What they have is either a poor idea, or a good idea ruined by a mountain of execution problems.  See, people inexperienced in an art form, particularly young ones, want to rush forward and display their abilities without refining their talents or learning what other people have to say, both about their works and writing in general.  They are varying levels of arrogant and rash, and they want success now, before getting a degree or feedback.  Or graduating high school.

I have no bitterness toward anyone with said arrogance, and neither should you.  All they deserve from the well-meaning people they refuse to listen to is a good eye-rolling, and the feedback of the people they'll have to impress before they can succeed.  Like publishers or the judges of writing contests.  While there is a glut of crap being published/filmed today, this is only a cultural quirk, and cultural periods end. Yet even now you can't expect to be lauded as a magnificent author if there isn't some form of selflessness in your work: that is, your work has to be something other people want. The wiser among them will listen to feedback, or at least take it seriously.  The less wise have to learn the hard way, but that doesn't mean they'll never learn.

This arrogance does many times have the affect it does intend -- it brings a new, refreshing viewpoint forward. While sometimes the popularity of arrogant young person doesn't last, they at least did do what they set out to do, and got some life experience out of it.

I don't think I was in this stage for too long, but definitely longer than some people.  Fortunately, I spent most of this stage writing nonsense on fanfiction.net, so my stage 1 bull is buried there with a ton of other people's.  I still have some of my emo poetry on my computer, though.  It's fun to chuckle at, and I occasionally had good imagery.

The ones that aren't discouraged or blinded to the lessons of life move on to stage two (or possibly moved to stage two a lot sooner because of humility, timidity, or uncertainty).  Stage two is the "learn the rules" stage of writing.  It's the part where the writer, having learned that his talent didn't arise fully formed and armored out of his forehead, realizes that maybe all these people who talk about artistic rules aren't idiots.  Perhaps they have something to say that's useful, and that they didn't learn everything they needed to know about grammar in the public babysitting system that is high school.

That's the thing about artistic rules.  Unlike rules in things like math or architecture, they mostly aren't concrete things (with the exception of stuff like "end your sentences with a period" and "readers must care about your characters").  In any art realm the rules are organic things that are developed over a period of time.  It's like using glass products to make a collage: you can break the rules, but only if you do so beautifully.  Since this is all very subjective, the stage 1 artist can easily get the idea that he doesn't have to listen to rules at all.

This isn't the case.  What's also true about artistic rules is that they exist because they are the product of trial and error.  That is, they aren't something that some random person decided was true, they are something the collective body of artists in that specific field figured out worked better than otherwise. They are also products of particular trends in specific times and cultures.  Thus, if a writer isn't listening to anyone, he's not going to be able to put out a product that other people want, either in the short-term or long-term.

Stage two writers get this, and also understand that their own abilities are underdeveloped.  They want to know more about the rules of grammar and style.  The downside is that they are at risk of lost confidence.  Some of them were very aggressive in stage 1, and were batted down very hard when they realized they weren't prodigies.  Some are individuals who have lacking confidence in the first place, and never spent much time in stage 1 at all before going into self-doubt.  Others humbly and calmly pass through stage two with nary a qualm, or pass through it before they noticed they did.

Still, it's important to realize that you weren't born knowing everything about writing, and that it's okay if your first attempt fails.  Writers probably notice this more often than other artists, given the whole publishing system.  True, this can be subverted by self-publishing, but sales speak for themselves.  And so do critics.  Plus, they teach writing in school more often than they teach painting or music.

...It makes me sad thinking about the lack of electronic music schools in the world.

Anyway, during stage two the artist realizes that listening to others and to the rules of the art form is important.  He takes more classes, reads more writing books (and more books in general), asks knowledgeable people for advice, and gets true critics for his work, rather than people who he suspects will praise him automatically.

While the artist is gaining from listening, he's also at risk of taking advice too much to heart.  While the rules of writing are valuable, art exists to promote individual voice.  Following trends or expectations too much can turn your story into a "machine-made" collection of tropes, as though a robot wrote it instead of you.  That, and the stage two writer might be so eager for advice, that he listens to people that don't understand writing all that well, or don't understand what he's getting at. Or he simply takes advice too seriously and goes way out of his way to avoid flaws, making his work awkward in the process.

Also, there's advice out there that seems tailor made to stifle imagination -- anyone who says there's only 10 (or however many) base plots in the world needs to be slapped out of it.  While one might logically argue a number of set plots, no writer should ever believe that this is true. That's the kind of advice you give people who have to write a story for school or to impress financial backers into making a popular but bland action movie.  Those types have no business in true imagination, and so they have to be told basic plot tropes just to get something on paper.  True writers produce their own stories with whatever structure, traditional or otherwise, seems best for the story they want to write. They should be taught to believe anything is possible if it can be set up in a way that makes sense.

That brings me to stage three.  Stage three is sort of like a balance of sorts, where the writer knows enough about his craft to understand what rules he can break, which he can't, and which he might be able to break, but doesn't want to.  He has enough knowledge to make the choices for himself he didn't know existed when he was in stage two.  It's sort of like reading other people's poetry before trying to create your own: you have to know what's out there to write your own poetry, but you're not out there to rip anyone off.

The writer doesn't have to be published to reach this position.  He just has to have enough practice and knowledge to know what he's capable of and what he wants to say.  So at the end of the day, it's not really about following rules or rebelling against them.  It's just about telling a story.  Anyone who is hung up on rules is, at best, an immature artist.  Artists are here to bring beauty, fascination, and voice to the world.  Rules exist as a support of this, not as a replacement or an enemy to be fought.

Just a musing, is all.

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