Friday, November 10, 2017

Author Question: Why Can the Greats Do What they Want?

“When I write poetry, I am criticized when my writing is open to various interpretation. It’s seen as too abstract or vague or unclear. Yet there are poems considered great that are telegraphic, short, vague, complex.”

So askth the confused college student, and so sayth I.

Back when I was getting my degree, I first came across this struggle. I wanted to impress my teachers, find freedom in expressing my creativity through skills, and honestly write something that I could be proud of, something “good.”

But what is a “good play?” I began to wonder.

Part of the problem was the hypocrisy of the department. At the time, I suppose, I had been convinced by academia’s assertion that there are good books—books of quality, literary acclaim—and bad books—amateurish commercial pulps and the like. This doesn’t really sound like me (I was an argumentative little bastard who wasn’t so convinced by what I was told), but when I went off to my university, I had hoped to honestly increase my ability and attempted to accept the “truths” that I had been fighting.

Yet like most people, my younger self wasn’t entirely wrong in what she was thinking, and she soon came to find that the common denominator through good works and bad works didn’t exist. My professors constantly changed their minds and arguments to suit reputations, to look smart, or to just confirm what they already wanted to believe. It took me some time and a lot of heartache to realize the truth many wiser people had been telling me all along: Subjectivity is a real thing.

So my answer to this confused student is first and foremost to remember that your existing reputation affects the impact of your work. Sometimes the difference between a good book and a great book is merely the binding. The faith that someone will have in a published author they pick up in a bookstore will change their emotional investment from what it would be while looking over a manuscript.

Before wondering why the greats can get away with something that you’re criticized for, it’s important to always keep in mind that the shallow differences are huge factors in people’s reactions to something, which is exactly why shallowness annoys the living daylights out of most of us.

Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that.

It’s possible that he has the wrong sorts of readers. I don’t like vague, open writing. I struggle to relate or connect to it. If I don’t think there’s an answer, I don’t waste time puzzling it out. If I wanted to make up what something was about, I’d just write my own piece. Progression and genuine perspective is pretty important to me when it comes to the enjoyment and impact received from something, so these Rorschach tests just don’t do it for me period. From that point, it’s hard for me to say why those who are really into Artaud or Beckett or Ionesco like them so much, and therefore difficult for me to pinpoint what makes them successful and not other writers.

But both of these things are giving more credence than what is completely honest. If I were to trust my perspective, if I were to say exactly how I felt, it would be that if your writing looks like you believed whatever thoughts you happen to spit up are a work of genius that everyone will automatically appreciate, I’m going to write you off as an inexperienced hack.

While recognizing some bias, I’m not completely wrong. One of the reasons I found my college so exasperating was the fact that the professors would praise Ionesco up and down for one thing, and then tear a fellow student to shreds for the exact same action. I could argue the difference; it’s not as though I think Ionesco is a terrible writer, nor did I find my classmate to be a good one. It’s just that my professors’ arguments never made much sense. They lacked cohesion, and, more importantly applicability.

I don’t believe if Ionesco had been their student writing the exact same scripts, they would have seen him as a genius. The factors that went into that decision seemed far more external, less about the work or the artist and more about keeping up appearances.

Which meant that despite all of my efforts to understand what made a good play in their eyes, it wasn’t going to help me gain their respect. They respected who they wanted to.

My fellow students took this to heart as well, but attempted to gain approval through sheer mimicry. One of the things they picked up on was how the greats (especially in our Absurdist dominated department) left things up for interpretation, were vague, weird, and did things just for the sake of doing it. One of the top phrases I heard from my peers was, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.”

The problem? I didn’t care enough to make it about anything. It just seemed like they were showing off impersonal nonsense. It seemed easy to write. It seemed superficially pretentious. Their productions weren’t entertaining mostly because there didn’t appear to be much to chew on intellectually. I could sit there and bullshit—the vagueness made it easy to grab random images and roll with it, but that was part of the problem. There wasn’t enough content for one argument to make more sense than another. They were right in that it could be about anything, and that’s what made it so boring.

Open writing, the kind that has multiple interpretations, can be interesting because there are wrong answers. You keep mulling over something because what you’ve come up with isn’t quite right. There seems to be more to it, so you dig deeper. If the first thought you have makes sense enough, you’re not going to keep thinking about it. This is especially true if the author admits they have no idea what they were trying to write.

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of poetry and the worst fan of ambiguity, this problem is important no matter what you write.

The greats will be doing something people tell you you’re not allowed to do, and you won’t know how to handle it.

My suggestion?

1. Make sure you that you know what you actually want to be doing.

If you don’t like something but you think it’s how books are supposed to be, or if it’s something you don’t enjoy or appreciate all that much but think that great authors get away with, it might save you some time and heartache to go a different direction.

But if it’s something you genuinely like when others do it, regardless of their time period or expertise, it’s valuable to try and figure out how to make it work for you.

2. Always factor in the level of respect between you and your critique partners.

If someone has a high opinion of you and they’re telling you it doesn’t work, take it seriously. It’s still subjective, but others might share their opinion and you might find that you at least partially agree. If, however, they look down on you or are competing with you, seek out more opinions from alternative sources and be comfortable with ignoring them if you think it might be a matter of, “You’re not good enough to do that.” People who feel empowered from the failure of others tend to pick on surface level differences instead of analyzing real issues.

3. Know their personal tastes.

You give me a vague and weird poem, I’m going to hate it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. People genuinely don’t like the same things, and if you know they’re not a fan of the style you’re trying to create, don’t be surprised when they don’t like what you’ve done. It doesn’t mean their opinion is wrong, necessarily, but it’s wise to take a fish-out-of-water at face value, but press further when the person normally likes that kind of thing.

4. Remember that criticisms aren’t always about what they seem to be.

Just because someone says the issue is vagueness, it doesn’t always mean the problem is that you’re too vague. A lot of criticism focuses on the solution to the problem, or the symptoms of the real issue.

For some, it’s not that there’s room for interpretation as much as it seems like you half-assed it. An open ended poem could be good, but this one just reads like you scratched out something off the top of your head and then want others to do the work of finding meaning in it.

Discussion about the bare bones of the issue can be difficult. It’s harder to prove, more often based on perception and opinion, arguable, speculative, and even just plain judgmental. But it’s important because even if “this is half-assed” isn’t true, it’s still the main reason they didn’t like your work. Or worse, if it is the case, making your poem less vague may not actually solve the problem of it looking like there’s no heart.

5. You’ll never learn by not doing.

If it comes down to the issue that it’s not the reputation or their tastes, it’s you, the only means to fix it is through practice. It doesn’t make sense to try and learn how to do something by doing something completely different or avoiding trying. So if someone tells you you’re not good enough to write in a certain way, they’re really not trying to help you get better.

You want to write some successful open ended poetry? You do it by writing open ended poetry and figuring out why it is or isn’t successful. Certainly skills are transferrable through different styles, but overall, continue to strive for the voice that you enjoy, not for the one that’s easy or what people think you’re allowed to do. Focus on improving, not restricting yourself to what allegedly works.


You might end up redefining what “open ended” actually means to you, or realize that you don’t genuinely  appreciate those kinds of poems. Maybe you’ll understand what’s missing, or realize that you were completely misinterpreting their complaints (it’s happened to me pretty frequently.) But you’ll only learn these things by pushing what you want to do further, not avoiding it until your reputations allows for it.



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