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.