The creator’s dilemma

For the businessperson you love . . .

I used to consider the use of test audiences as Exhibit A that movies are an inferior art form—talk about lowest common denominator! plus there’s no such thing as art by committee!—then it occurred to me that I and most writers do the equivalent. All our friends’ reactions, our workshopping at conferences, our submissions to editors and agents, and our use of prose doctors of various kinds amounts to exactly the same thing, a big fat test audience.

The movie folks’ practice is so much more efficient and focused. After all, each reader offers a writer advice that falls neatly into three categories: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. Getting all one’s test readers together at once would allow you to parse the categories faster and see what’s what. Okay, I admit it, the flashback in Chapter Two doesn’t work. Of course, what writers do is more like if the movie people had only other moviemakers in the audience, not a carefully chosen demographic of actual civilian watchers. Does writing, as a superior art form, need to be vetted by a guild before it’s offered to civilians? Probably. I think every art is first vetted by practitioners.

A collaborative art like film is vetted intensely during the making itself. Plus the script, the invisible heart of the visual spectacle, was surely doctored by a guild of writers, directors, and producers. I tend to envy the more collaborative art forms, especially drama and film, because they look like such fun compared to sitting alone in a room typing. Then this week I happened to read the recent story in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell about writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Lonergan’s purported new masterpiece, the film Margaret, has been hung up and was almost destroyed by interference in the editing room by one of its impatient financiers. Love the devil you know . . .

But regarding fruitful collaboration, one of the interesting stories in Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, concerns an academic study of great musicals. It turns out that the smash hits during some golden period being studied were made by regular collaborators—creative teams, in effect, but which included a few outsiders with fresh approaches. The latter was key: unchanging teams couldn’t produce a Broadway hit any more than rookie teams could.

Related to this, Lehrer makes an obvious but true and always interesting point about writing, specifically revision: 

Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gathering such expertise takes a toll on creativity. To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a city park or a shoot-‘em-up video game, whether you’re choreographing a ballet or a business conference: you must constantly try to forget what you already know.

This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as the writer. He knows exactly what he is trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

This is an outsider problem—the writer must become an outsider to his own work. When he escapes from the privileged position of author, he can suddenly see all those imprecise clauses and unnecessary flourishes; he can feel the weak parts of the story and the slow spots in the prose. That’s why the novelist Zadie Smith, in an essay on the craft of writing, stresses the importance of putting aside one’s prose and allowing the passage of time to work its amnesiac magic.

The weakness of Imagine, by the way, is the flip side of its strength, that it’s a collection of brilliant New Yorker magazine articles smooshed together into a book. Each story has its characters, its scenes, and its focus on the same topic, creativity, but there’s no overall cohesion, no narrative building across the book. I can see why such books are bestsellers—inherently interesting, short, digestible, surprising bits, with a self-improvement vibe—paint your room blue to be more creative!—and I enjoyed parts of it but found it very forgettable.

And yet, to be honest, I was trying to raid Imagine personally, and there’s a lot in it that I imagine businesspeople might make good use of. Such as the importance of water cooler talk, and therefore of office design; of bringing in outsiders with left-field ideas; of forgetting brainstorming meetings in favor of those in which new ideas are entertained, yes, but critically. The last like a short version of the long, slow bruising writers endure as they share their drafts.


Filed under editing, film/photography, journalism, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

19 responses to “The creator’s dilemma

  1. Re that “long, slow bruising,” it is a conundrum that writers — if they are to ever have any possibility of getting published — must have at once a Rhinoceros hide, a disciplined body that constantly hurts from bashings in the gauntlet, a beginner’s mind, a hopeful spirit, and a tender heart..

    • Amen, Beth—and what a litany you’ve added! I like it: “a Rhinoceros hide, a disciplined body that constantly hurts from bashings in the gauntlet, a beginner’s mind, a hopeful spirit, and a tender heart.”

  2. Todd

    I think the difference between the kind of collaboration scriptwriters have and the kind of collaboration fiction/nonfiction writers have is that while we may workshop or get editors to critique or improve our prose, we still have to apply butt glue and revise and pull from our inner resources and skills to finish the product. Scriptwriting seems to bash it all together, at least for the mediocre films, and see if something comes out of it.

    • Good point, Todd. I’d like to know more about my favorite movies in that sense but can’t always find much about the script. And I just read the Times review of Lonergan’s “Margaret,” the subject of the magazine article calling it a masterpiece, and it was very mixed. It had very limited release last year, and the Times reviewer said the first hour is amazing and then it falls apart, which if true makes the villain of the Times Magazine piece perhaps not so villainous.

      • Olga Khotiashova

        I’ve just finished reading “My Movie Business” by John Irving – this memoir gives a lot of insights into the process of screenplay writing. I turned to this book because I think Irving’s screenplay “The Cider House Rules” is one of best screenplays ever. By the way, Irving points out that the collaborative nature of movie making has its drawbacks. He says that if he wants to be a director, he writes a novel.

      • I love that movie, Olga. I agree it is a great screenplay. Thanks for mentioning his memoir about the movie-making process.

  3. Good post. Much food for thought here! To forget what you know—therein lies the rub. So difficult to don both author and editor hats at the same time. I think Zadie Smith nails a basic principle: Like fine wine, let writing age. Her novel ON BEAUTY is one of my all-time favorites. Interesting point, too, that many current books are simply mash-ups of previously published, possibly unrelated pieces with no overall editing. I’ve certainly noticed that phenomenon.

  4. Great thoughts and commentary, Richard. I always love your ability to write succinct pieces that nail the point. Wonderful!

    I’m curious as to your thoughts about the medium of blogging for writers: Do you believe that bloggers “put the writing aside” and then post later? Is the immediacy of blogging good or bad in respect to the writer allowing the writing to ferment, then edited prior to publication for greater clarity and insight?

    Thanks so much! Blessings, Marissa

    • I guess that varies, Marissa. I think it’s good to sleep on it, at least, if one can.

    • I find that if I try to post an excerpt from my book on my blog, I go through a much more intensive editing process with the knowledge of the immediacy of an audience (in reality, tiny.) I was thinking it would be a good editing excessive to slowly post the whole book.

  5. Before I committed to writing as my primary art form, I was both a filmmaker and musician. In both forms, especially music, I often bemoaned the difficulty of creating collaboratively. So many egos, varying agendas, subjective opinions of what is good and what sucks. While collaboration sometimes resulted in exciting and surprising creations, projects could often be derailed or voted off the island altogether. Writing is strange in that it is both a singular and collaborative effort, with the emphasis on singular. At some point, you have to find a way to get new eyes on what you’ve written, but only after you have gotten it to the stage where you are grounded in your own vision for the piece. God yes, it’s hard to tell at some point if what you are writing is any good. (I wish I had a magic fairy I could call on at will to ask, “What do you think?”) A good writing partner (or partners) is invaluable, but in the end, it is up to the writer. It’s your baby. Although it can be agonizing to be a single parent, the autonomy – that delicious freedom to create your own vision – is one of the things I love most about writing.

    • This is beautifully stated, Janice. I didn’t go into in the post, but it was the clash of egos between Lonergan, the writer-director, and the money man that caused “Margaret” to languish and almost die, unreleased, despite a huge investment and a famous cast. After reading the Times review, it made me think the money guy may have had a point beyond expediency. In any case, their fight became so personal and so divorced from the work itself that it clearly was an ugly clash of egos. Lonergan is so talented that he was given enough rope to hang himself, perhaps, or at least to ignore ideas in pursuit of his vision. Your statement is a nice summation of why I prefer the devil I know . . .

  6. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s impossible for a writer to separate and become the impartial editor. Just as Lehrer states, the writer knows everything without even knowing it. The writer can never detach from the work. Time apart will make certain rhythms of the prose starkly obvious, but when we chunk out pages and grafs, we know they’re there, but will a reader who didn’t benefit (or get punished) from the earlier drafts and subtext get it? The only way is fresh, impartial eyes. The eyes of readers. I think this is why spouses who aren’t in the arts are leaned on so much when you read acknowledgements. Their eye is punishing and cruel. I know my wife will tell me what I’ve written is garbage and thanks to her, the vast, vast majority of my work resides in Saratoga County landfills.

    • So right, Brendan. My husband has become my surprise alpha reader. He knows my writing better than anyone and it’s impossible to hide bad habits, laziness and any lack of authenticity from him.

  7. Oh, come now. You “tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist.” Fair enough. But cinema, no matter how ardent a defender of the auteur theory one may be is explicitly not the creation of one artist. Cinema – which is clearly art – is inherently a collaborative art, requiring the efforts of directors, writers, actors, set and costume designers, cinematographers and any number of other artists each making their own contribution to the final artwork. The director may be the leader of this team of artists, but…well, “The Hurt Locker” represents fine work from Kathryn Bigelow, but she couldn’t have made as great a film as she did without the efforts of Mark Boal, Jeremy Renner and many, many other artists with whom she worked.

  8. Great post.

    After a year of thinking and polishing, I sent the proposal for my third NF book to an agent last week, someone who is also a personal friend. This is the first time, at the proposal stage, I’d spoken to others — not writers but people who understand my subject — and asked for their input. The agent didn’t like it at all, so I sent it to a very trusted, smart friend, a writer/editor I trust, for helpful feedback. That’s about as much “workshopping” as I am willing to do with a NF idea.

    As my last book went into production, I sent it to a friend who’s got 30+ years in commercial publishing. Her tart comments sent me back to my editor asking if she’d seen the same problems….and she had, as had her assistant. So we made some very last-minute fixes in tone. It is really, really difficult, by the time your book goes to press, to have a clue about its quality — you’ve read it so many damn times. Fresh eyes help; I’ve had five first readers on both my books, and wouldn’t want fewer than that.