Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Writers Can Learn from America's Next Top Model: Or, How Watching Reruns is NOT a Waste of My Vacation

I've been on vacation. I worked some, I played some, and yes, I watched marathons of America's Next Top Model. I learned a few things.

1. You put yourself in this position; now make the most of it. Young women try out to participate on America's Next Top Model. Then they receive critiques of their modeling ability. They have the opportunity to develop a portfolio with input and help from recognizable names in their industry. They compete with each other but they also learn from each other, from their judges, and from experts picked by their judges. Plus, they get a makeover!

Sounds a little like an MFA program, or perhaps an intensive multi-day writing workshop, doesn't it? My takeaway: when you are in a setting that focuses on learning, spend the time learning. Don't spend the time arguing with the judges (teachers, authors, editors, agents) or bragging about what you've done. You asked to participate; now make the most of what's available to you. Keep your mind open to the "makeover" that the situation offers.

That said...

2. Know what you're getting into. America's Next Top Model isn't geared toward women who want a career modeling only for catalogs. From what I can tell, and I know zip about modeling or fashion, the show is looking to develop modeling talent that can take a photo session to the level of art -- which will not necessarily look pretty. One of the cycles of the show distinguishes among catalog, commercial, and couture models.

The same applies to whatever learning situation you're looking for. If you want to write a killer, best-selling romance novel available at every airport, there's nothing wrong with THAT goal. But maybe an MFA program focused on literary fiction or poetry isn't the best place for you. Or maybe it is, if your goal is to write literary fiction. Just don't get confused about where you are. If you do, the feedback you get may confuse you, and the questions you ask may confuse those you're working with.

That said...

3. Judges disagree. Even Tyra's hand-picked panelists, who presumably share her aesthetic sensibility, often disagree about models, individual photos, a contestant's potential, you name it. This difference of opinion goes beyond the inherent squishiness of describing, in words, a specific artistic quality. What exactly does "bring it" mean? What does it mean to "push beyond" the pretty, to be "ugly pretty," to "show more of your personality"? It's interesting to watch the models struggle to figure it out, and it's interesting to watch the panelists debate.

Similarly, put three readers in a room and they may say different things about a story. They may suggest different issues to look at -- a character doesn't ring true in their experience, a plot point is unbelievable to them, this language is too plain for their taste, etc. Your task, as the writer, is to decipher what feedback is helpful to you and what doesn't give you anything to work with. You may need to ignore some of what they say.

That said...

4. Craft is important. Judges DO agree that no matter how beautiful a contestant's photos are, it's important that models can create the beautiful shots. That is, the model should be able to control her body and her face. She should know the purpose of a photo shoot, what the photographer and artistic director are going for, and have ideas for presenting herself (and her clothing) in physical space in such a way that she helps them fulfill their goal. As contestants are eliminated on the show, the judges keep the models who need little direction and consistently push themselves, learning from their mistakes. They eliminate models who "luck into" their shots.

Craft is vital to writers, too. Learn grammar; if you break the rules, do it on purpose. Develop an ear for language: know when a genre's conventions accept or even expect you to describe hair as "raven tresses," and choose to follow -- or not. If a character behaves inconsistently (and who among us real people is perfectly consistent), show me that you aren't just having a character take do a specific action for the convenience of the plot. For example.

That said...

5. It's hard but it's not ALL hard. As models participate in photo shoots or runway shows, they describe the experience with joy. They bubble over with love for what they do -- and if they don't, they tend to be sent home.

Same with writing: it's hard work. Love the hard work, but remember that it's not all hard work. Writing well is also bliss. It's a slog, and it's a joy. It's a privilege.

That said...

6. Remember: this learning experience will end. Even a winner of America's Next Top Model has to get up the next day (week, year, whatever) and go out into the "real world" to work, though the agency and cosmetic contracts make that transition a little easier. Everyone else has been sent home, though apparently many of the "losers" have gone on to successful careers in the industry.

Your program or workshop will end. Even informal experiences, like the intense time you've been working on a particular novel or story collection or poem cycle, will end. Eventually, it will be time for you to move on. Maybe you "won" and have a published or publishable piece. Maybe you just need to move on for your own artistic sanity. Maybe you'll revisit that stubborn essay someday, when your skill is better. Or maybe not.

Regardless, there's a life out there, beyond the reality show or "study bubble" you've been in, and in that life, you can (and should and must) continue to apply what you've learned. Even if your recent experience involves nothing more strenuous than spending more time than strictly necessary watching modeling shows -- because you might be surprised at what you've learned.
Friday, April 15, 2011

At Night, with Headlights

E. L. Doctorow, the American novelist, is famous for saying something like this:
"Writing is like driving the car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

(Some online versions include fog in the drive. It's hard to get a reliable source.)

Fog or no fog, that's how I'm working this week. I have this novel, see, and I have a bunch of pages of it, and I know sorta where one of the threads is going, but not really, and somehow the other thread and this thread relate. Somehow, sorta. I know what does not (absolutely must not, cannot) happen (not because it's too scary but because it's cliche), and I know what must happen for the characters to make any sense at all.

But what I really want is a Google Map, a MapQuest map, some kind of detailed map!! Or a GPS with the voice of the Old Spice Guy (James Earl Jones/Kevin Spacey) telling me when and in what direction to turn.

The thing is, Doctorow is right. I'm writing, and it's night, and there may or may not be fog, and I can see only a measured distance ahead. But as long as I keep moving, I can continue to see where to go next.

Writing isn't the only life arena in which I've desperately craved a map. I've written before about my brother, cancer, his need for a stem cell transplant, and the fact that he has a donor. He and his physicians are evaluating his recent chemo. A transplant schedule may come soon.

Or maybe not. Doctorow's rule applies to my brother's healing, as well. We have had only a rough approximation of a map -- a sketch on a napkin. As my brother reaches each milestone on the path (a second opinion and consultation, a new round of tests, a new form of chemo, more tests) the next milestone appears in the foggy dark. Maybe the transplant is still a few headlight-lengths away.

Fortunately, Doctorow's also right about this: you can make the whole trip (write the whole novel, make the whole journey back to health) that way. As long as you keep moving.
Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Opposite of a Platform

Today I spent several hours in a church hall selling a Haitian artist's painted metal artwork. To set up the sale, I exchanged a few emails with the woman who is his representative in Canada. I also put together some information about the event for the local newspaper.

During our email conversation, the Canadian representative cautioned me about releasing too much personal information about this artist, especially if this information is available online. The artist is concerned about attracting too much attention.

How many North American artists do you know who want to remain relatively unknown? My answer: none. I bet most artists have practiced the Award Acceptance Speech a time or two, in the privacy of the shower at least. (You google yourself. You know you do.)

Also, this particular artist isn't concerned about "selling out," or becoming somehow more important than his art, or any other idealistic notion.

His reason is purely practical. His community lost one of its vital young leaders in a shooting, a robbery-gone-wrong. The artist and his Canadian representative suspect that the leader's association with Canadians gave others in Haiti the illusion that he was worth robbing. People in Haiti are desperate; aid isn't getting to every place that needs it. A Haitian with a tie to North America is a good target for robbery -- or kidnapping and ransom.

How different it is in Canada and the U.S.! Here, writers "must" have a platform before (or while) writing a nonfiction book, so that your future readers pre-order your book from stores that feed data into the New York Times Bestseller calculators. If your platform is big enough, your publisher can expect more sales and therefore may invest more in marketing and promoting your book. (Yes, that's correct -- if you have been an excellent marketer, you receive more marketing support from the publisher than if you haven't marketed yourself and thus could actually use marketing support from the publisher. Those who have, receive.)

Writers are "supposed" to use Twitter and Facebook and blogs (ahem) and websites to develop this platform. In the olden days a few years ago, writers built platforms through op-ed pieces, newspaper columns, and speeches to civic groups about their expertise.

Those who write fiction hear similar advice. Agents prefer to take a writer as a client if the writer has a website and an online presence. Print-on-demand, self-publishing, and ebooks may all tweak the specifics of the advice somewhat. Also, the media through which you develop a platform has gone social, but the need for a platform is apparently beyond question.

I'm not bemoaning the need for a platform or saying it's wrong -- in fact, it's impossible to escape. Platforms are part of the landscape, just "how it is," a required part of a writer's life today. Accepted, not dangerous.

But in some countries, being an artist is physically unsafe, such as China, where artist and public intellectual Ai Weiwei was recently detained by government authorities.

And Haiti, where any success makes you a target -- literally.

So from my wee, golf-tee-sized platform, I wish this artist great success in maintaining his opposite-of-platform. I'd like him to be around to share his artwork for many years to come.
Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nobody Told Me

This week has had its share of good news.

The main thing for today is that my husband received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to write a novel he's been puzzling over for years. While the cheque is nice, it's the support that he appreciates most. (Truthfully, we appreciate the cheque a whole lot. Especially because this is tax time and therefore budget time.)

He found out maybe Tuesday. Since then he's cleaned his office, which he calls the den, and tackled a couple of other big projects (NOT his novel). Today he decided he needed more file folders. This need required a trip to town, which engendered other errands. Of course.

I know what he's doing. I've done it and I still do it. He's clearing his mental decks. It looks like procrastination. It may even feel like procrastination. (In me, it usually IS procrastination.) However, in him, it's really preparation. He doesn't multi-task, and he can't be pondering other obligations or decisions while he takes this guy he made up through this series of things that he's got planned for him, bwa ha ha.

Also of course, I am fighting the urge to say, "A year from now, you're going to wonder where this time went. You're going to look back on this time and wish you'd done more in the early days. If you set yourself the discipline now, you create a habit of hard work that will stand you in good stead."

In other words, I am on the verge of officially becoming my mother. Although I wish I could say, "Nobody told me to make the best use of my time," of course someone did. Repeatedly. Her death ten years ago did NOT silence the font of good advice I got from her and am apparently now capable of giving myself and others. But at least I am fighting that urge.

Because the line between deck-clearing and procrastinating is a fine one, and it's different for different people. My husband will find his line. I am closer to finding mine. And THAT is actually what nobody told me: that sometimes, you have to shed things before you can begin something bigger, and sometimes, that shedding process looks like goofing off, but you can tell the difference if you're honest with yourself.

Speaking of "nobody told me": This is the coolest thing I've seen in some time. Austin Kleon lives in Austin, Texas (postmodern? meta? something, anyway). He makes art/poetry using a permanent marker and the New York Times in a process called "Newspaper Blackout," which is also the title of his book.

Here, he shares How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me).

Go look at it and at his other stuff there.

Also, celebrate Poetry Month. Take your own newspaper and a marker and get to work!