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.