Monday, June 19, 2017

Acknowledging You’re a Number is the First Step to Becoming More

I do well with bratty children, mostly because I am one. Also because I’m good at arguing.

While teaching acting to six-year-olds a few years ago, there was one boy who proved a huge problem. He was unfocused, selfish (even more so than most kids that age), and spoiled. I liked him. We had a good relationship because I could be honest with him, and he liked that I didn’t talk down to him.

There was a crawl space in the corner of the black box where the light booth sat. One class I let the kids take turns going up there, looking around, using the light board. They had a blast, but it was hectic, many kids trying to take several turns, the shier students almost getting bulldozed and forgotten. If I had been actually trying to get back to a lesson, it would have been impossible, but it was the end of the day and I could focus on making sure everyone got a turn.

In the following weeks, some asked if they could go again, but I said no and they accepted it.

This boy, however, liked to push his luck. I said no once and he asked again. I continued to say no and he begged and pleaded.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it will set a precedent.”

(Sometimes at the sight of a big word they’ll clam up, not wanting to admit they don’t know what it means, or thinking they can figure it out. Brats are too smart for this and tend to be confident in what they should or should not know.)

“What’s that?”

“If I let you go up there, all the other kids will ask, and I don’t want to deal with it.”

“Just tell them no!”

“How about I only have to say no once to you instead? Seems easier.”

“Just let me go and no one else.”

“If I let you go, I would be doing you a favor and causing more problems for me. Why would I do that, for you out of everyone, the kid who doesn’t try to help me when I ask him to stop talking?”

“Because I’m your favorite!”

“Try again.”

He was one of my favorites, mostly because he kept it interesting. But what I said was true. I didn’t think it was fair to let one kid do it, and I didn’t want to deal with another episode of making sure everyone got a fair turn.

Most importantly, saying no to any other student would have been just as hard. I hate disappointing them. And it would have been even more difficult to explain why when someone else was doing it. Plus, let’s face it, if I was to favor one of them, he would have been the last kid I would have chosen. I liked him, but he hadn’t earned it. He hadn’t done anything to make me want to go out of my way for him. If it had been the girl who learned all her lines, was constantly engaged, coming up with new ideas, and attempting to make the class period go smoother for me, I might have considered it. For one thing, I could have cited her perfect behavior to anyone who wanted to know why she was the only one who could do it and enforced the merits of not being a butt.

Yet, he truly believed that he should be allowed to do something the other kids weren’t. He didn’t really understand where I was coming from—as kids often don’t—when I reminded him that I had to think of everyone and that his needs and wants were of the same level of importance as anyone else’s needs and wants.

He was one student in a sea of individuals. I loved each kid, I cared about their feelings, I wanted to help them, I wanted them to have what they wanted. But sometimes I have something that everyone wants. I have to give the lead part to only one actor. I have to choose which kid gets to have the giant pencil for a prop. I have to decide who gets to be the Narrator in Mafia. Sometimes giving that something is a lot work for me. If they want me to read something they wrote, I have to do it on my free time. If I take one of their ideas, all of the sudden everyone starts talking. If I agree to go outside, I find myself arguing with them about why I don’t want them jumping off a ledge.  Students have a hard time compartmentalizing that, that for every joy I give you, I could be disappointing someone else, including at times myself. When I make this random student happy, I turn around to see someone else asking the same thing of me. It’s no big deal to read one play, but it is when I have to read twenty. While the individuals of the group need to fend for themselves, there are those of us who have to sometimes sacrifice the desires of the one for the good of the many. Fairness, necessity, or even the question of personal cost factor into how much I can do for you.

Even though maturity tends to quench this feeling of entitlement, there are still people who grow well into their 20s, 40s, 60s, and still don’t understand that they are just a number equal to every other stranger on the planet until they do something to earn it.

People pitch their books by saying how hard they worked on them. They don’t understand why readers write off typos and bad covers so quickly. They expect you to not judge their book before you read it. “It’s only a dollar,” they insist. They are upset at the level of apathy others have for their writing. They give you suggestions on your work without any sort of explanation (demands with expectations of obedience), they just don’t understand why you can’t take a little bit of time out of your day, spend a little bit of money on their book, why you can’t just give it a chance.

The truth is, I want to. When someone posts their book in a status, I want to buy it. I want to take a few minutes to read their blog. I will like your page and follow your Twitter. I want them to feel accomplished, I want to support them, I want to do for them what I would hope people would do for me.

And if it was just one person, I would do everything that was asked of me. But it isn’t.

People try to sell books to me every single day. Because I click on the links when shown to me, Facebook’s algorithms show more of these types of pitches in my feed. (I initially wrote “bitches” here which I suppose is the most Freudian thing I’m going to do in my lifetime). I have near 3,000 friends on that site, probably 80% of whom are writers with books for sale. Think about that; if I bought one novel from each person, that would be over 2,000 dollars, and that’s not including books that go for 2.99 and especially not those for seven to ten bucks.

My Twitter page is even worse. I would argue between the two sites alone I get at least ten new titles exposed daily. Ten dollars a day? And that’s not including the ones I find that are reviewed in blogs I follow or posted in Facebook groups I frequent.

Let’s say they’re free then. If a book is offered to me and I don’t have to pay, I try to download it. I think of the thrill that helping that little number go up is worth having my kindle filled with hundreds of books. I do try to read them, but let’s face it, if I read one book a day every day for a year, I might be able to go through the number that I have now only if I didn’t add anymore.

I have to vet my books, especially the ones I pay for. When I read a story solely because I like the author, it’s much more likely to be disappointing. The unfortunate truth is that those superficial methods we use to “judge a book by its cover” aren’t inaccurate enough to discredit. The self-published novellas with typos in the first few pages and a homemade cover don’t prove to be a genius in messy clothing, they usually prove to be exactly what you’d expect. I have second guessed myself because of an excellent hook or a particular fondness for the writer as a person, but I have to be honest, I have never read a book that didn’t care about looking professional to be spectacular in some other area. I know they must exist, but they are the exception, not the rule. If it looks like the author doesn’t know what she’s doing, she probably doesn’t.

(I’ll admit that sometimes a crappy cover has been misleading. I have picked up some stories that I enjoyed which had the typical papyrus font and stolen internet image, but even in those cases I felt that the story could have been pushed a little further. Partially, this can be attributed my distrust based on the unprofessional cover—it’s difficult to know your reaction without the bias. In all fairness, many excellent covers can be on top of awful stories. Yet, obviously homemade covers do have a least a moderate correlation with inexperienced writers.)

This is why those “I worked harder than anyone I know,” and “It’s only a dollar!” posts don’t work very well. Unless you’re a good friend of mine, you are no different than any of the other people who insist they work hard and deserve some sort of acknowledgement. You do, but I need more than just that to go out of my way and give it to you.

I need to be sold on story. If it was just the issue of one person asking me to do them a favor, sure, I could buy your book for a few bucks, sure, I could spend a few days reading it. I could bear through the pain of a bad story simply because you’ve worked hard and I want to support you.

But I know a lot of people who’ve worked hard. When it comes to writing a book, I have worked hard too. I am fully aware of how much effort goes into writing something—even something crappy, unedited, and unread by even me. I do think that work is worth something, and if I could reward everyone, I would. Yet I can’t spend the money on helping every single writer out there. There’s a lot of them. I have to have some other reason to make you, out of all people, the one I single out to support.

Why would I force myself to read a book ridden with typos on the uncommon chance that the content is good enough to make up for it? Why take a risk on a banal summary simply because they author worked hard when I have another book that I’m more likely to enjoy written by an author who also worked hard?

And let’s face it, sometimes saying you’ve worked harder than anyone you know might be more of an opinion of ignorance rather than reality. Or an outright lie. A post went around about a man who claimed he had 100-hour work weeks. Fourteen hours a day of just writing, no days off. Even if ten of those hours were spent researching and on lunch breaks, he still should have had a higher output than one book that lacked copyedits. If I wrote fourteen hours a day, I could finish a full-length novel in a week. I could read it once a day, seven drafts before half the month was up. I guarantee that if I have seven drafts of something, there would not be a typo on the very first page. Not unless I was completely ignorant of a rule, which grows less and less common every year I’ve been writing.

If you truly work hard and it isn’t apparent in any of the results, then maybe you’re putting your effort into the wrong area. Sure, good research and in-depth world building should be subtle, but I just can’t imagine a person who holds himself to high standards, puts in the necessary time and money, has a good amount of experience and/or taste, and yet still doesn’t know or care about basic grammar, a good hook, or what the most intriguing thing he can say about his story is.

Because, let’s be honest, some writers are lazy. Just like the boy who didn’t seem to realize just how bad his behavior was, who didn’t realize that his talking in class, his refusal to do assignments, his constant unmotivated arguing hadn’t earned special treatment, it’s possible that a writer didn’t put in any real effort at all compared to some of his counterparts, but still expects a reward because the project was time consuming and more work than he’d like to have put in.

Keep in mind that I can’t tell the difference if I don’t know you. You might be the exception. You might be a genius. You also might be a delusional liar. I haven’t met you; I don’t have the wherewithal to know whether or not to trust you. You shouldn’t expect me to. You shouldn’t expect me to immediately recognize the difference between you and every other writer out there, especially not without considering the little information I have at hand.

“Entitlement” is an insulting phrase commonly used for my generation, but we have to admit the label needs to be analyzed. It’s not just what people in their twenties have. Everyone gets a feeling that strangers from all places expect things from them at one point or another.

But what do we actually owe each other? What is entitlement? What is earned? How much should we expect support and the benefit of the doubt from people? Should results mean more than effort? Some people believe that they’re not obligated to give anyone anything. Some people believe we are meant to take care of each other and never be selfish. I personally believe in a balance—take care of yourself first and help others when you can. It’s perfectly acceptable to spend three thousand dollars on your own book rather than on someone else’s, but sometimes we should say, “You know what? I want you to feel good,” and spend the buck on a random stranger’s love-child just because.

The trick isn’t to stop asking for what you want. It never bothers me when a student finds the nerve to request a favor. Entitlement, I believe, isn’t about the idea that you are valuable and deserve more than what you have, it’s refusing to understand the other person’s perspective, to realize that a teacher has to consider all students, that a reader can only buy and read so many books, to care at least a little about the other person’s needs before suggesting they consider yours. We have the right to pick from the masses the book that seems the most enjoyable to us, to spend the money and time on something that catered to the things we cared about, to trust the story that looks better made than to give a chance to the one that seems like it’s never been read by anyone before publication. We get to trust our instincts over the word of a stranger when it comes to making decisions. We get to decide who we want to help and who we don’t. A writer must consider his audience if he wants his audience to consider him, otherwise we have no reason to trust he is more important than any of the other millions of people who also want to be an author. Assume that you are a number first, and then prove you’re not.

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