What do you mean, “it’s not original”

The first year I was in art school, one of my instructors said something that, at the time, we all thought was incredibly harsh. We resented the presumption, the “arrogance” (and I use the quotes advisedly here, as this post will show).

 

“Just do the assignment,” he said. “Don’t try to hoodwink me with flashy out-of-the-box thinking, and don’t try to expand the requirements. Don’t worry about being ‘original’. Just do the assignment.”

“You’re all under 30. Believe me, I don’t need you to re-interpret this. I don’t need your opinion, or your editorializing. Frankly, you’re just too young and inexperienced to have anything to actually say. Do the assignment and learn the damned technique.”

We were aghast. Shocked. Outraged.

How dare he?

We were artists.

But you know what?

He was, in the main, pretty dead-on.

Recently, I edited a manuscript of a novella (well, it is a longish short story, but the author thinks it is a full length novel, so let’s be generous here) that they started when they were fifteen. It’s not badly written, which is nice. They obviously have potential as a writer, which is also nice.

But it is, without question, one of the most obvious, cliche-ridden, and predictable pieces of fiction around, and very much a “Mary-Sue” product of a somewhat less than popular teen trying to rewrite their high school years to get back at those “popular kidz” and turn themselves into the hero.

And now I can see why my instructor told us what he did. The great revelations that we thought we could communicate visually were, looking back, much like this person’s writing.

We thought in simplistic ways. We did.

We were convinced that our own life was unique and special. That what we’d experienced so far in life had given us special insights into the human condition.

We assumed that because our sudden realizations about how the world worked were amazing to us, that we were the very first people to ever notice that things weren’t fair, that many decisions our political leaders made were predicated on “what’s good for me must be right”, that those decisions hurt others, that people are connected to each other, and so on down the list of well-known truisms that have dawned on every post-pubescent human since Lucy fell out of that tree and died 3.2 million years ago.

We not only assumed that we were the first people to ever notice any of this, we were convinced that we were incredibly brilliant for seeing it. This is, of course, a perfectly normal sensation.

It’s good that people start writing young, and keep on writing.

It’s wonderful that some people do know, from very early on, that writing is what they want to do.

And it is undeniably true that once in a mythical blue moon, there is that teen who really does think past the obvious and writes something worth reading – something that does shed new light on old questions, or sees this world in a wholly different way.

But the real arrogance – the arrogance that we blindly assigned to our tactless instructor – is believing that we are that person.

Now, I’m not saying that old people have something intrinsically more worthwhile to say to the world. Readers here will know how frequently I’ve pointed out the shortsighted and self-centred myopia of my own generation – how much I feel we have shortchanged both ourselves and future generations with our own lack of insight.

That bleeds into a lot of their writing, too – and I edit those mss. with as much annoyance and sarcastic commentary as I do the others. The world is awash in trite, observational, written-by-boomers fiction that is so damned self-serving  that I came very close to establishing a “maximum age” for writers I was willing to edit. Last year I edited no less than five pieces that were essentially thinly disguised rants against millenials – and the caricaturization and stereotyping was so blatant in one of them that I almost sent it back stamped with big red X’s across the entirety of every page.

At both ends of the age spectrum, it’s important – vital, even – to step back from your own ideas and beliefs, and see them for what they are.

When you are young, everything seems new and earthshattering.

It takes distance and experience to bring something new to the table.

When you’re old, of course, everything new seems confusing and dystopic.

It takes work and generosity to not fall into mental ruts.

All of us need to try a little harder to not succumb to easy writing, easy solutions, easy thinking.

And if you’re young, and starting to write, try really hard not to “write what you know” in plain terms, because if all you know is that high school is boring, and that some people are mean, that makes for really bad literature.

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Nice

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I’m not a “nice” person. I was never really a “nice girl” and I sure as hell am not “nice” now.

I’m not. We all know this.

I try to be a kind person. I try to do the right thing. I think I am fairly generous, and that I do work towards being a better human being, but I’m aware that it’s a process and an ongoing one at that, because being a good human is hard. The entirety of western culture militates against me being “good”.

But I’ve never been “nice” and I’ve never wanted to be described that way.

“Nice” is bland. “Nice” is conformability. “Nice” is not rocking the boat.

“Nice” is the lowest bar of human behavior.

“Nice” is a cover for going-along-to-get-along. “Nice” is camouflage for people who don’t want to put any effort into other people’s problems and pain.

“Nice” is sending “thoughts and prayers” instead of action.

“Nice” is the coward’s social refuge, because its purpose is to keep the nice person out of the crosshairs.

Good people fight for others. They put themselves in at least a marginal path of danger. They are willing to risk something for others, in the service of all humankind and all the other “kinds” there are.

Good people change their minds when gifted with additional information. Good people confront the darkness, in themselves as well as the world, and act to effect change in both.

“Nice” people? You are the dark underside of why we cannot have the world we need.

 

nice people

Resolutions

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We’ve all made them

We’ve all broken them.

We’ve all announced to everyone that We. Are. Not. Doing. That. Again.

And all of that is okay. We (well, most of us) never lose that ten pounds. We go five days without cigarettes, and then cave in and start up again. We forget to do that evening meditation, we let the dirty dishes pile up, we buy a gym membership and then just stop going by Valentine’s Day. We eat the donuts.

Whatever it is, the will to turn over a new leaf on January 1st is defeated by January 21st.

It’s probably because we pick the wrong problems to work on. We want the absolutes, the narrowly defined, the clearly impossible directives. It almost guarantees failure, because one slip-up dooms you.

So maybe we should word these promises differently.

Maybe they should come with caveats. Escape hatches that allow us to regroup and try again.

Maybe we should focus on more achievable goals.

 

Like: I will try to eat healthier, at least twice a week.

Like: I will try to move around more.

Like: I will do more window shopping and less actual buying.

Things that we can remember to do intermittently, in the hope that by not beating ourselves up, we can create better habits. Habits that will help us get to better places.

For me?

I’m going to try to be kinder. I’m going to try to be less judgmental, less critical of my own shortcomings as well as other people’s faults.

I’m going to try to do more for other people. To once a week maybe be unselfish and more giving.

 

And if I forget one week, I’m going to try to just forgive myself and start again next week.

 

We all need to begin with ourselves, or we won’t ever make this world better.  Hating our own bodies, our own minds – that’s no place to start changing the world.

I can do this. You can do this.  It’s not some hard-and-fast stricture: it’s a resolution to just try to be better, and if we fail one day to be less than perfect, remembering that tomorrow will be a new opportunity to be our best selves.

We can. We must. I’m really going to work at this, this year, and to hell with all the vanity-driven, shame-filled, external-gratification promises, because even when they work, we aren’t really much better off than we were before.

But, yeah – I’m going to lose that last ten pounds. This year, for sure.

The Turning of the Year

It’s written into us.

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Twenty thousand years of human history is laid down deep into our bones. We all feel it: that inchoate yearning for the darkness to end, for the return of light.

It doesn’t matter what name, or even if any name is attached. You can call it Navidad. You can call it Jul. You can call it Saturnalia. You can call it Tinsel-Time, for all the difference it would make.

What matters is that for millennia, humans in so many places around the world have, on these long nights, stopped, looked up at the sky, and hoped for a better tomorrow.

So last night I went along to Haven (an art therapy place here in Camrose) to join with a few others and meditate on the year that is passing, to recover, and to open my mind to the possibilities that the next circle around our star might bring.

Those of you who know me might be surprised.

I’m not much for the “woo”. I’m not much for labels or distinctions, or the idea that I can, as one small dust mote in a universe overflowing with dust motes, have the right (much less the ability) to overpower random chance.

But long ago, my dad warned me that Socrates was right. The unexamined life is not worth living. He taught me that at least once a year, it was a good idea to take stock, to look over what one had or had not accomplished, to note the ways in which one had done well, and the ways that one had fallen short, and to own all those things, so that one could move forward.

This is, for me, the real meaning of this season: a pause in the race we are all running. A moment to regroup, gather up your strength and your courage, and then go out and kick some ass.

Happy Solstice/Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Winter’s Turning et cetera.

Be well, and happy, and strong.

Be kind. Be generous. Be the change we need.

Be human.

This world needs more of that.

Christmases Past: an excerpt from “Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the 60s)”

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Christmas was always a big deal for my family. My mother might not have believed in the God of the Catholic Church (or any other conventional definition of “god”, for that matter), but she knew what joy was and how to expand it, how to transmute it into a living thing. Any occasion would do, but Christmas made it easy.

Preparations began after Halloween (another favourite holiday) and inched its way through carefully orchestrated stages to a crescendo of barely-contained excitement and anticipation; a stringing together of traditional customs and zany, goofy rituals she created, into a seamless fabric of happiness.

There were coloured-paper and threaded popcorn-and-cranberry chains and handmade woolly socks in red and green that joined with Santa Claus traps[12], rewritten Christmas carols, and stories featuring our own imagined characters “The Christmas Piglets”[13].

There was the annual and always theatrically overdone production of whatever Shakespeare play, ancient fairy tale or historical event my mother felt inclined to that year, invitations to which evenings were much sought after by friends, and then it was strangely echoed by attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

There was the deliciousness of tortierre, sweet potato pudding and turkey with sage stuffing, the magic of Japanese oranges, the heady sweetness of chocolate Santas, the buzz of Secret Projects and the sudden arrivals of long-lost friends from parts unknown.

And then, there was The Day itself which never disappointed, and there were all the days leading up to it that created a sense of both chaos and order, equally amazing in their turn. It was, in short, the best time of the year because she made it so.

 

Footnotes

[12] These were mousetraps, carefully decorated with glitter and ribbon, and baited with bits of candy cane. When I was very small, my mother would spring the traps after I was in bed, and use my father’s galoshes to make ashy footprints leading from the fireplace to the tree and back again. Apparently, I went utterly insane with joy at the sight of this on Christmas morning.

[13] I can’t describe this. Trust me: they were loud, vulgar, lovable and occasionally sort of gross

Who’s in charge here anyway?

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I’ve written before about how I think a lot of writers ask the wrong questions.

Like here: https://morgansmithauthor.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/how-should-my-character-die/

It’s a serious problem.

Because it feels as if the writer asking thinks there is a “right” answer to things that someone who is not the writer should be able to tell them.

From “What should I name my Main Character?” to “Should the villain be allowed to have a pet?” – writers keep asking other people to do some serious heavy lifting for them.

First off, there is rarely One True Answer to any writing question…even the thing about “Use ‘said’ as your only dialogue tag” comes with editorial caveats, because there are occasions when that is not the answer at all. (But – mostly it is. Never mind what your grade nine English teacher told you. Unless they were a working editor for a major imprint, they have no more idea what editors like than you do, and very likely, a whole lot less.)

The writer should LOVE naming characters (and have an idea about how to do it. I mean, at the very least, you can google baby name sites, right?).

Writers should know their villain so thoroughly that they know that the meanie has a cat named Jewels and that Jewels is the only being on earth that Miz Nogoodnik cares for.

They should not be asking someone else to make those kinds of decisions for them.

The problem might go a lot deeper than the usual response I get when I raise this issue. Most of the time, I am chided about being uncharitable and too demanding when I point out that the whole joy of writing is in deciding for yourself about these exciting bits of trivia, and in the way that those bits inform not merely the characters, but the theme and the plot.

I am told that “beginners need help, not criticism”.

And – as you might have guessed – I beg to differ.

What concerns me is not that beginners might get discouraged by my words. Since every one of them assures me that not only have they known in their bones that they were a writer since they were in diapers, but that writing is as to breathing for them – they simply could not exist were writing to be taken from them – I am certain that no words of mine can deter them from their path.

 

What concerns me is that they think that someone else can and should be able to answer these kinds of questions, which suggests that they see “story” as some kind of analyzable, quantifiable *formula* that can be worked out, parsed, and then faithfully reproduced.

 

What concerns me is that they view writing not as an exploration of their own internal soul as a metaphor for the eternal human condition, but as yet another advertising algorithm that can be “mastered”.

And that’s not where any of us want this all to go, is it?

 

How’s the weather out there?

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There’s a piece of advice that gets traded around on writers’ FB groups, attributed to various famous authors (but mostly Neil Gaiman) that “beta readers” can tell you what is wrong, but editors tell you why and then how to fix it.

And I always nod and not comment because my tried-and-true betas are really good about this: they’ll note that something seems off (and even say, in comments, that they have a PhD. In whatever, and can offer details if I need them, but leave the subsequent queries up to me). They know better than to tell me *how* to write it.

But, then again (keeping in mind that this was the first run at the scene, in the first draft of a novel):

One time, I threw out a general request for some people with some experience in something to read a short snippet and tell me if the terminology was all right, and if it “felt” realistic enough.

Most of the people that responded ignored the specifics of the question and jumped in with anecdotes that were not even slightly pertinent, given the parameters I asked for.

Most gave me advice about what the characters “should” do, ignoring the fact that – being a short excerpt with no surrounding context – I hadn’t asked for solutions to avoid the situation, but for whether or not, given some poor decision-making, the feel of the scene was accurate.

I pointed that out.

I got two more people chiming in with what the characters ought to have done to avoid the problems.

And then, several people gave me contradictory advice, anyway, which suggested to me that perhaps some of them knew a whole lot less than they thought they did.

But the real kicker was that one person gave me a long screed that was essentially an edit. They objected to a descriptive phrase, not because it was inaccurate, but because it seemed out of place to them. They ignored the really salient details, and gave advice about a different environment that I specifically said this wasn’t. They felt that the reader would need to know a lot of details that are, in fact, treated much earlier in the chapter, but were not germane to my writer’s dilemma or to the question I had posed.

It was also an edit that suggested that they would hate, hate, hate my books because frankly, in no reality whatsoever would I interrupt a scary, life-threatening action scene to deliver a lecture on meteorology and how storms form over the North Atlantic (which is not where my characters were, anyway.)

My instinct is this: that open queries are a mistake, and that people need to read those queries really carefully when they do come up.

Because now I have a whole lot less respect for some people’s reading comprehension skills, and that’s a little bit sad.