by Jas Faulkner
Writers occasionally go through periods when the energy is there, but nothing seems to gel. An idea may formulate and at first it might seem like a sound investment of creative energy. Then the harsh reality sets in that the back space key has erased nearly one thousand words in one to three hundred word increments. No loss there. It was all so much verbal sludge to be hosed away. Maybe the initial idea was good, but this just isn’t its time. I know this feeling only too well. It sums up my week in writing.
When that happens, the Fates have a funny way of shoving a substitute right in your path. In my case, the inspiration of the understudy essay came to me in form of a person who had decided out of the blue to follow me on a social network platform.
“You write reviews?” she typed, “That must be fun! I love reviews, especially bad ones.”
Okay, let me back up here. Some of the best known quotes from critics come from negative reviews. Dorothy Parker’s assessment of Katherine Hepburn’s performance in a 1933 Broadway production of “The Lake’ was “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Funny? Yes. But it was and is quite cruel. The back story on that production is Hepburn was saddled with an inept, dictatorial director who was also the producer of the show. In spite of horrific reviews, he demanded the run continue and announced plans to move the show to Chicago. Hepburn ended up buying out her contract for $14,000, the equivalent to roughly a quarter of a million dollars in terms of 2013 buying power. The upshot to this is it gave Hepburn the incentive to take control of her career, something that was unheard of at the time. The downside is that Parker, also a very creative, talented woman would be forever linked to a phrase that was not a good example of disciplined criticism.
I bring up this example because, just as I had to do battle with my noisy brain for an essay this week, artists, writers, musicians, directors and other creative professionals wrestle with all kinds of challenges to getting their work out of their heads and on the page (canvas, staff, stage, and pedestal.)
Every creative act has a back story.
This is what I try to remember when I take in someone else’s work. There is a person or persons on the other side who is proud and hopeful and wants affirmation that they should be doing what they’re doing. I want that for them. It’s why there are times when I keep turning the pages, listening to the next track, glancing at the time counter on my video player and hoping there is some overarching vision that will explain why things aren’t what they should or could be.
Sometimes at the last moment that missing spark appears, saving the work. Revisiting a piece after a good night’s sleep or a brisk walk or a cup of tea adjusts my filter enough to see what I was missing. There are those other times when it never gels. When that happens, my heart sinks. This might be that one big shot with a mainstream publisher, or they might have invested a lot of their own money in the project.
Getting back to my online neighbor and Dorothy Parker and the art of the clever barb, I am not entirely innocent when it comes to the bad thoughts that percolate from my psyche to the keyboard. Last month I read a beautifully written biography of Frida Kahlo. The author is someone who works in graphic storytelling as well as conventional longform prose. His multi-disciplinary sensibility was perfect for the subject matter. The only misstep was a description of a tryst between Kahlo and another artist. My first impulse was to write that the scene had all the eroticism of two teen boys pretending to be women in an AOL chat room.
Clever? Maybe. A cheap shot? Yep. It takes away from the principle that I am not the story here, the work I’m reviewing is. That bite of verbiage might completely undo my intent, which is to get people to read the book and support the author. It sends the message that I regard my style over his substance. It also telegraphs very clearly that the creative chances taken by this writer and his publisher are not appreciated. I want to see more adventurous storytelling. I want to see more acts of creative hubris. That’s where genius comes from. That’s where the magic starts. I owe it to writers and publishers and anyone else whose work crosses my desk to be disciplined and fair.
If I can’t always say something nice, and I do try, I want to say something that helps. In other words, it needs to be the arts and letters equivalent of, “Go and sin no more.”
The flip side to this is the pleasure of finding work that is excellent and can be presented as such without the need for any or many qualifiers. Those classics, minor, major and lasting still do happen and it feels like a privilege to bear witness to something that can open eyes and hearts and minds. Ultimately it is finding the artful in imperfection and finding the humanity in what seems to be perfect. It sounds like a tall order, but anyone who reads or looks at a piece of art or listens to music or watches plays, television or movies does it all the time. I just get to see a lot of it first and write about it.
A recent incident where a reviewer was jaw-droppingly hateful to an actress has caused a lot of people to jump to the conclusion that critics are all about the snark. We’re looking for that least little slip so we can let loose on the people brave enough to put their work out there for the world to see. For the majority of us, it is untrue. At heart we are fans. We love to tell our readers about the next thing they should not miss and sometimes we’re lucky enough to do just that.