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.