Friday, December 11, 2009

There's a BIG Difference

I can’t help but ponder the similarities and differences between sharing artistic and literary endeavors with others.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

See this painting? What do you think of it? Do you like it? Of course, that all has to do with perspective. If you were my mother, or even a close friend, it wouldn’t matter if it were stick figures, you’d think it was wonderful. That’s like sharing our literary efforts with family and friends, our alpha-readers. They make us feel good and provide the needed reinforcement that moves us forward as writers.

An avid appreciator of art will come along and recognize that the medium is watercolor; they’ll observe that it’s not typical of the ‘genre,' but it seems to work. They may even notice the little bit of reflected backlight on the bottom side of the egg, and say ‘cool.’ But they are just as likely to say, 'what’s left to the imagination?' 'The composition is good, but it feels stagnant'. They are our beta-reader who may not be writers themselves, but know what they like and why they like it.

At some point, a fellow artist with a discriminating eye will come along. They may recognize all the above, but they may also notice the ridge of the copper kettle, how it trails off in distortion just above the spout, and think—what went wrong there? Or how the folds of fabric are overworked and muddy. They may object to the incongruities of the background and foreground. Thus the fellow-writer beta-reader.

Those are the similarities; now the differences, and in my opinion, they’re are huge.

• The painting is finished and I’m never going to go back and change any of it. No revising.

• And here’s a real biggy: How long did it take you to make a decision about the painting? Maybe 2 seconds? If you have a discriminating eye, maybe, oh, say 5-10 seconds—okay, I’ll give you 30. Less than one minute to decide if, in your opinion, it’s any good or if you'd hang it on your wall.

How long did it take your beta-readers to make a determination on your literary work? Especially if it’s a novel? Hours and hours. Not to mention the mental expenditure. We are asking them to trust us for a long ride that may or may not be to their liking.

And here’s a final difference

• What does this painting reveal about the artist? She has an eye for detail. She may have some control issues. Perhaps she likes domesticity and old stuff. Maybe she’s studied art—maybe she’s only read how-to books on painting. What else does it truly reveal?

Now think about how much of yourself you reveal when you write. Ever feel naked? I know I do.

Just sent my manuscript to a reader I don’t know, for technical support, but when he’s done, he's going to know a whole lot more about me than I ever will about him.
Feeling a little naked today…


  1. I get what you are saying, JB. I think as time goes on, you'll feel a little less naked when you're sending stuff out.

    When I started off as a reporter and would turn in a story for editing, I felt exactly the same way. My editor is going to hate it! He'll see that I can't write or report and toss me out of the building! I used to stress over every story I turned in and fretted up a storm over any mistakes or things the editor felt need mending.

    Over time, I still cared about my stories and getting raked over the coals never felt good. But I developed a thicker skin and generally could take constructive criticism without too many worries.

    I suspect in a few years, after you've completed several manuscripts, you'll feel the same way.

    As for now, I've got your back. Anybody gets too nasty with you, and I'm coming after them ;)

  2. Yeah, Scott—I always anticipate hearing ‘The gig’s up girly—we know you’re an imposter.’
    I know a little about this new reader, and he knows as little about me. Feels different than sharing with you guys, with whom I’ve had an ongoing acquaintance for some time now. Besides that, we’re all writers. We understand the gig. It’s exciting too, because he’s closer to the ‘average’ reader—but with that extra bit of boat knowledge. I’ve been hoping for this sort of reader since I began writing SfaS.

  3. Amazing post. I am not a bit artistic, but I love the painting. The kettle and the window evoke my childhood home. It may not take as long to form an opinion on art as it does to read a book, but if you hang it an your wall, your investment is even greater.

    Bridget, there is an award for you over at my blog today.

  4. Thanks Liz. It is hanging on my wall, and when I actually pause to look at it, I have no idea how I did does, however, remind me that I used to paint and possibly might again—that if I stick with something long enough, I can gain a level of proficiency.

    And...that’s a lovely award! Thank you. I’m so glad you absolved me of the rules, which I will follow to a certain extent and at some time in the undisclosed future!

  5. Why do I insist on calling you Liz? sorry Liza...

  6. Love the painting and the analogy. I would definitely hang the artwork on my wall. Seriously, watercolour? Excellent.

    Good words and advise from Scott. And if we need to get up a posse, count me in. I tend to think, however, that you have no cause for concern.

  7. Much of my writing is processing the half-formed thoughts and fantasies and emotions that have patterned my past life. The things I write about in my fiction are often reproductions of or recastings of my own experiences. Thus, yes, there is an aspect of self-exposure to sharing my work.

    The great thing is, readers more often than not take stories at face value. And even if they don't, they're often too polite to say anything... :)

    Hang in there, good lady. I think the skin will thicken with time, with a concomitant reduction in feelings of nudity. At least, I'm hoping mine will...

  8. Deb, I think he has a whole posse of Bilge Rats—maybe considerably larger than my posse; therefore, I’m treading lightly…

    Simon, As always thanks for the new word—CONCOMITANT: existing or occurring with something else, often in a lesser way.
    Honestly, You’d think us writers were a bunch of nudists for how eager we are to share our stuff.

  9. I love the painting. You are incredibly talented. I know what you mean about being naked. I also have someone I barely know from the internet reading my ms. I feel naked too, so I get it. I'm much more comfortable with you reading.

  10. Susan,
    I know you know how I feel...thanks for commiserating...

  11. Very good point. I love that painting, but I'm not an artist. An artist might have a more nuanced critique of it (but I still trust myself on this one--it's lovely and I can't believe it's a watercolor--wow). I feel totally naked when I give my mss to others--it's important to give it to at least 5 or 6 people so that one person's critique won't devastate you. You need those people who will say I love it! and have just a bit of criticism, as well as the tough-love types who give you much more thorough critiques.

  12. Still confused on the Matilda vs Mary Jo thing, but…
    This last critique will make it about 5 or 6. He’s a guy about my age—late 40’s—probably not my target audience (but I have a hunch he’s kind of a softy). He is primarily helping me to keep anyone with an ounce of nautical background from rolling their eyes right out of their sockets and sending me ‘Lame-o’ emails if it ever gets published, (I mean, when it gets published…)

  13. I had a singing teacher once who said that that to really connect with the audience, you had to be willing to "pull down your pants and slide on the ice."


    But the notion's the same - *actual* artistic expression is public nudity. What and how your write/paint says a whole lot about who you are. Paradoxically, it's when we're not willing to be nude that artistry evaporates into self-referential posturing.

    And that brings up the question of the artist's motivations. So long as the end you're trying to achieve has real merit, it's a lot less troubling exposing your own "end" in the process. ;)

  14. Tom, as usual, you give me a lot to think about. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was unacquainted with the term, ‘self-referential’; looked it up and see there? Even more to think about...

    As someone who is in a constant state of motivational self-analysis, I am ever asking myself why I produce what I do, and I am never entirely comfortable with the answers. Perhaps that’s part of why I’m never entirely happy with my product.

  15. Hmmm. Another of my music teachers said that the performer's first duty is to serve the music. Not to draw attention to their own splendid technique, creativity, whatever ... but to acknowledge that *they* are really quite peripheral to what's important.

    The same is true of writing, I think. You're wanting your work to mediate an experience for your readers, which they'll only have if they're not distracted. By missed details (+1 for sending the manuscript to a technical beta-reader!), or by you ... being inadvertently present as The Author. It sucked when I realized I couldn't ethically (or artistically) take center stage anymore as The Musician.

    I *don't* necessarily think you're doing that! But I think it's important that while public nudity is one useful metaphor, another is transparency. In both cases, they essentially amount to some form of self-denial, in favour of the audience's artistic experience.

  16. “...while public nudity is one useful metaphor, another is transparency. In both cases, they essentially amount to some form of self-denial, in favour of the audience's artistic experience.”

    Very well stated, Tom.

  17. This comment may be a bit tangential, but your great post made me think of it, so here goes. I have a poet friend who can be very critical of some of the things I write. He'll write notes like "ew" and "poke out my eyes" for lines that he really doesn't like. At the same time, I've gotten him to enjoy reading Tolstoy. And, he will never say anything about Tolstoy. My poet friend has placed this classic writer among his pantheon of Greek gods, and even if there's a decision that he wouldn't have made in the writings of these gods, he considers it "good" because he has decided that these gods know what they're doing and can make up their own mind.

    I think at some point, we become content enough without abilities that this sense of vulnerability goes away, even if we were to write something deeply personal. At some point, we know enough about our art to make our own decisions, and even if we get criticized, it's more based on differences in opinions rather in lack of skill. Your painting is exquisite. You can probably take quite a bit of criticism and it doesn't bother you because you already know your good. Maybe with your writing--and keep in mind I'm not familiar with your work at all--you don't feel as confident yet. I think over time that will go away.

  18. Davin,
    Thanks for making me chuckle. I haven’t gotten "ew" and "poke out my eyes" yet, but there’s still time.

    I think you’re exactly right regarding the contrast between my abilities in question. I admit, I like my paintings, and even if an artistic ‘god’ gave harsh criticism, I’d likely shrug it off. As you know, from my posts here and at The Lab, I am on the upward climb of the learning curve, fraught with insecurity. Either I’ll get over it, or I won’t, but I suspect you’re right, that over time it will go away.

  19. I often think about this when I critique a ms from a person I have had very little contact with. I give honest feedback and at the same time remember that a person has poured their heart and soul into their writing and I think that helps to attempt to convey my thoughts in a compassionate and mindful way where I take full responsibility for what I say. That is what I strive for. It is a very personal thing to share our art and to view others' art.

  20. Paul, I think that as fellow writers we take everything you mention into consideration when we beta-read—we know how it feels to be on the other side.

    I have been specific about my expectations with my new reader, and I sense that he understands my desire for honesty—just the same, I doubt he’s ever done this before, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s wondering, ‘What the heck have I gotten myself into?’
    Poor guy…

  21. That's a gorgeous painting. It has such a solid feel for being watercolor and I love how you reflected the light. I honestly would feel welcomed in that kitchen.
    Every time I share anything I write, even blog posts, I feel naked. If we are open that is the price we pay.
    Glad Liza nudged me here today.

  22. Tricia,
    Thanks so much for stopping by! I love playing with light, changing ‘perspective and perceptions.’ I guess the ‘naked’ thing is also in how you perceive it.

  23. Hmmm... I mever considered my writing to be self-revelatory, with the exception of revealing my opinions about politics, sociology, etc. I'm not sure that much of anything really personal comes through, so I've never had that 'naked' feeling you describe. Maybe I SHOULD... it might improve my writing, but I'm not sure that I have all that much to hold back.

    Great artwork, Bridget!

  24. Norm,
    I think when your opinions about politics, sociology, etc., come thorough in your writing—in your novel or on your blog—it reveals a great deal about you as a person, about how you think and feel, what your mind is willing to conjure for your reader. We may not gain intimate knowledge, but it is revealing nonetheless.
    Perhaps in your case, self-confidence outweighs self-consciousness. In my case, the scale tips the other way.
    And by the way, the excerpt you posted on your blog today is very effective.