“Never ask people about your work.”
— Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
I’m quite fond of the film Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen’s batting average has been spotty lo, these past 2 ½ decades (I mean, c’mon – Match Point was wonderfully atmospheric, but it was hardly the great Dangerous Liasons-esque masterpiece it was made out to be) and this film still suffers from most of his classic trappings (particularly his tendency to either put a woman on a pedestal or show her as a distaff Antichrist), but this gentle fantasia of wish fulfillment and nostalgia fetishisation was definitely one of his better recent outings.
One of the film’s more intriguing prospects – particularly for someone in the arts – is the concept of actually having the opportunity to meet the artists who’ve inspired you. Our screenwriting protagonist, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), breathes deep the rarified air of such Roaring ‘20s luminaries as the Fitzgeralds, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, TS Eliot, and – in a scene-stealing cameo by Adrien Brody – Salvador Dalí. What could be better than seeing your heroes at their artistic primes (and hedonistic height)? Why, having said heroes critique your latest work, ofcourse. So our protagonist does, asking the opinion of no less than Ernest Hemingway.
“My opinion is: I hate it,” says Hemingway of Gil’s manuscript, sight unseen. “If it’s bad,” he continues, “I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.” Hemingway does, however, pass along Gil’s manuscript to the only person whose opinion he’ll trust with his unfinished work: Gertrude Stein. Naturally.
I’ve always been fascinated – nay, obsessed – with the idea of artists mingling amongst one another, authors in particular: the “United Artists” of Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford; CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and their “Inklings”; HP Lovecraft and his “Circle” of Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and Clark Smith; Isaac Asimov’s numerous friendships with Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), Arthur C. Clarke, and Gene Roddenberry; Harlan Ellison’s mentorship of Octavia Butler; the “Film Brats” of Lucas, Spielberg, DePalma, Scorsese, and Coppola; the Sisters Brontë… I mean, c’mon – the Sisters Brontë! Hell, two years ago I myself took part in a staged reading about mingling artists. I played James Baldwin (I know, right?!) during the writing of Giovanni’s Room, at which time he seeks the artistic counsel of close friends Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright.
But I digress: once I finished drooling over the ideas of the great innovators of their age rubbing elbows, I became aware that they were simply artists (i.e. people wracked with insecurity and idiosyncrasy who craft imaginary worlds out of thin air and surround themselves with fellow insecure indiosycratics) with nary an inkling of the great impact their works would have on future generations; they were more concerned with the “is this any damned good?” factor.
It’s hard to say which stage of the artistic process is more difficult: creating from scratch or getting feedback? I mean, hey – staring down that blank page is no damned fun (I swear to God, it mocks me with its emptiness), nor is the act of tearing open your chest to throw your heart onto it; appropriately melodramatic, I know. But having it criticised by others whilst the wound is still fresh must qualify as some form of self-flagellation, should it not? Creating work to then have it critiqued is akin to cutting open a major vein just to prepare yourself for the firing squad.
Yet if one wishes to be not simply an “artist” but “a good artist”, then one realises the value of critique very soon. Yes, the world, characters, scenarios, and dialogue made perfect sense to you whilst you were crafting them, but what is the point in sharing something that makes sense only to you? Only a child is foolish enough to think that someone giving their opinion their work is just “a big ol’ meanie who never got to where I am, so they’re takin’ it out on me!” I can’t say that I’m on speaking terms with the people who professionally review work like mine on a regular basis (but, for the sake of full disclosure, I know that there are no more than two degrees of separation – if that – between me and said people). I will say that I’ve always felt the critical profession and my favourite critics are eclectics that hold a work to high standards whilst appreciating – or, at the very least, recognising – a work’s mass appeal. On the other hand, the person an artist would choose to view a work-in-progress should have two characteristics: 1.) be someone who knows the artist’s work well enough to know that of which the artist is capable; and 2.) be of such candor as to give the artist their honest opinion.
Personally, the greatest difficulty in finding people to critique my work has been getting them to actually believe that I want a serious critique. Usually they will simply ignore me altogether or patronise me platitudes that are no help. In my quest to become a better storyteller, I cannot emphasise strong enough that 1.) I am not made of glass and, as such, will not shatter at the slightest unfavourable word; and 2.) I am no masochist looking to be “beaten down”, as it were, for the sake of some indescribable form of gratification. Let me say simply: I recognise that I’m surrounded by many incredibly talented artists – storytellers in particular – and I would just like their honest opinion of my work so that I may one day become a storyteller of their calibre.
Having said that, I hold the same standards to which I would like my work to be held. I have a theory that the reason no one wants to give their opinion to me is because I can be rather frank in my opinions, especially when it comes to art.
Last year I had the opportunity to attend the stage reading of a work-in-progress play. To say that “it needed work” would be an understatement (hell, the first half offended me to the point of uncontrollable anger – luckily the SF theatre scene likes its audiences liquored-up, the one thing that kept me from flying into a tirade). I could have left immediately after the reading and gone home – foregoing the post-show talkback – but I didn’t want to look back on that night and think “I shoulda said something, but I didn’t!” My anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that the first audience member to speak was a beloved member of the SF theatre community – and she practically raved about this piece of shit. Nevertheless, I gave my honest, articulate, and even-tempered opinion whilst the actors stared bullets into my skull.
As I write this entry, the play in question has recently completed its critically-acclaimed premiere run, for which it was extended multiple times. At the risk of stroking my own ego, I dare say that my frank opinion of the original reading had a (positive) hand in the play improving the play.
THAT is my hope in choosing people to review my work, and vice versa. When I look at another artist’s work-in-progress, I don’t want to patronise them because I fear that our friendship is at risk, nor am I looking to bring them down a notch because I believe “[they’ve] got it comin’, they have for a long time!” I just want to tell them truth so that their great work can get better. If I could get the same in return, then I’d feel a helluva lot better about what I’m doing with my work.
It’s the difference between a guy who listens to advisors and makes American Graffiti, as opposed to the guy who tells everyone to fuck off if they don’t like The Phantom Menace.