Myths about Creative Writing and Art

Below are some common assumptions about art and artists, with the assumption that writing creatively is an artistic activity.  Before reading these, read Tolstoy’s “What is Art?”

I want to talk about these at the start of class with the intention of getting them out of the way and thus avoiding them throughout the course as you attempt to create and critique works of art. My purpose here is to justify why I teach writing the way I do, i.e. why I emphasize communication over expression.

Note: When I use the word "Art" throughout, I am referring to any medium, including visual art (paintings, photographs, sculpture, etc.) or creative writing (poetry, short stories, novels, screenplays, creative nonfiction) or film or music, etc.

Common Myths

“It (a painting, poem, story, etc.) means whatever you want it to mean.”
        “It’s all a matter of opinion. Art is subjective.”
                “Art is meant to be confusing. It’s like a puzzle.”
                        “Art is sophisticated. If ‘regular’ people get it, then it’s not art.”
                            "The purpose of art is to express myself."
                                "Artists are random-abstract thinkers. They don't think sequentially."
                                        "Art comes from inspiration and genius.

A common theme in these assumptions is that art is meant to be inaccessible, abstract, and/or is drawn from some kind of zany inspired genius rather than careful planning and craft and conscious decision making. If it's confusing, difficult, or inaccessible, it must be good. Another major assumption here is that there is no way to accurately judge the quality of art, that's it's all subjective.

All of these assumptions are dangerous because a) they dismiss that creating art is real work and instead treat art as an accident, b) they excuse the audience (and the artist) from having to think seriously about the work, or work at the work.

I want to emphasize that the artist, from painter to poet to short story writer, is in control of meaning; that serious artists don’t want their audiences to “think” or “take away whatever they want” from their work. Serious artists are trying to communicate something, a thought, a feeling, an idea, and don’t want every audience member to take away something different. A writer writing about forgiveness probably doesn't want the audience to think the story is about the difficulties of raising llamas.

For instance, if I’m writing a short story and the theme is, “It's important to keep lawns mowed” and a reader says, “This is a story about industrialism,” and another says, “This is a story about the breakdown of the nuclear family unit in the wake of post-modern technocracy,” I as a writer/artist may think to myself: “What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Here are my responses to the myths:

“It [the painting, poem, story, etc.] means whatever you want it to mean.”

A work of art is not meant to mean whatever the audience wants it to mean. If that were true, we could submit blank paper and call it a short story and just tell the reader, "Make it whatever you want. Now pay me." A serious, sincere artist, however, has intention, and it’s the artist’s job to communicate that intent by learning the principles of craft and applying them through hard work. Even this kind of art, Jackson Pollock’s paintings, has purpose. This is not to say that audiences sometimes interpret the meaning of art differently from the intention of the artist, or that they don't sneer at it or run from it because of a lack of understanding. Overall, however, there should be more communication than miscommunication.

For instance, a person could read a poem and make the assertion, "I don't like that poem." Or, to use the Jackson Pollock example, "I hate Jackson's Pollock's art even though many like it."

However, it's not the assertion itself that proves the worth of the art, but the reasons that support the assertion, the reasons "why" you, or anyone, thinks Pollock was a terrible artist. Any of his works of art can be proven or disproven good or bad by reasons, and the reasons are based on a deep understanding of, in that particular case, of post-modern art. Without a clear understanding of that sort of art form, Abstract Expressionism, the assertion is weaker than others who base their conclusions on a more knowledgeable understanding of Abstract Expressionism.

And though it is true that many also like his work, while others don't, that doesn't necessarily mean all viewpoints about the quality of his work are correct. Both can't be correct. Some people "like" Pollack and some don't, but this is a separate issue from whether his art is quality or not. Personal taste is not necessarily connected to objective truth. A work of art is not necessarily good just because someone thinks it's good; nor is a work of art bad just because someone thinks it is.

Anyone can argue about whether a particular Pollack or Picasso painting, or any work of art, is good or not; one can argue yes and one can argue no, but both can't be right. If both were correct and all arguments were equal, then quality wouldn't matter. A painting by an elephant would then be just as good and valid as a painting by Picasso, or a piece of blank canvas, for that matter, so the real question of quality can only be answered by reasons; the best argument wins, the one most rooted in knowledge and understanding of the basic conventions of the art form -- independent of personal taste/preference. 

Further, if all art were equal, and all opinions on art were the same, there would be no art history, no study of literature. In fact, there would probably be no study of anything because study wouldn't matter. All viewpoints would be about equal, meaning there be no reasoning to challenge any viewpoints. This sort of aligns with Tolstoy's view.

My main point to the class as we begin, and a conclusion I think all artists -- creators of art -- understand and accept is this:

not all art, or judgments about it, are equal.

Some opinions ARE better than others.

Not all art is ultimately judged by subjective opinion; instead, some art is objectively of high quality and some is not, and it's the study of the art forms that make those determinations possible, and the viewpoints more sound than others. In the same way, the more one knows about the conventions and elements of art/writing/literature, and all its forms, the more one can determine with some assuredness that there are degrees of quality. Specifically, if one is to understand Pollack and formulate a sound viewpoint about his art, then it's necessary to have a general knowledge of abstract expressionism and cubism (a specific form of abstract expressionism) and also Postmodernism. The same holds true with different forms and movements of literature.

Not all opinions are equal. Nor all all interpretations (conclusions on the "meaning" or "big idea," if any. imparted by a work of art). The meaning of a work of art is not “whatever” an individual viewer or reader wants it to be. First off, what one “wants” is not always what “is.” This is idealism versus truth. Second, if this idea were true, then I could throw a bunch of words together randomly, without thought or intent, and claim that I’ve just created a work of art. I haven’t, though. Instead, I’ve sold you a bill of goods. This is insincere art (read: Tolstoy’s “What is Art?”, which argues that one key element of good art is the sincerity of the artist.) To see insincerity, check out these artistic elephants.

Here is a line, and I mean that in the negative sense, from one of the humans selling the elephant paintings:

As painters, elephants are masters of the rapidly executed, spontaneous gesture.”

See the trickery there? Who exactly isn't a master of the "rapidly executed, spontaneous gesture?" By this definition, anyone who flips you off on the freeway is an artist. Hell, anyone can do that, even little kids. Have you eve been flipped off by a little kid before? I have.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the elephants are insincere. They're just doing what elephants do: moving their trunks around. And I'm no biologist, but I'll bet elephants move their trunks around whether or not some salesperson sticks a paint brush in them. Instead, I'm saying that the people selling this stuff as art are con artists.

“It’s all a matter of opinion. Art is subjective.”

First of all, every kind of response to art is a matter of opinion, so that’s not news. What the phrase implies, though, is that all opinions are about equal in value, and that’s not true. Some opinions are better than others. For instance, are these opinions equal: “It’s okay to let dogs kill each other for entertainment” and “I think dog fighting is wrong.” Are they about equal? Good opinions are those that are based on good reasoning; bad opinions are those that are based on bad reasoning, or no reasoning. Claiming that all opinions are about the same is not logically sound, and it takes away the necessity to have to use reason, or think, period. This fallacy is the core of the "anything goes" philosophy of art and it's also a load of elephant doo-doo. It's a cop-out for the lazy.

The second assertion that "art is subjective" is also faulty. Not all art is subjective. Some art is objectively good, and some art is objectively bad. The correct judgment depends on evaluation of the criteria, not on the whim or personal taste of the audience member. And there are rules for how to reason and evaluate. (See, for example, Criteria for Good Literary Narratives.) The rock band Aerosmith is a good, quality rock band – by the criteria that determines what a good rock band is -- but I don’t like them, for a number of reasons. However, just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they aren’t a great band. They are a great band, whether I (or you) like it or not. There is a big difference between personal taste and objective truth, and we will reemphasize this a lot throughout the course. What we "like" is not always what is "good" and what is "good" is not always what we "like."

“Art is meant to be confusing. It’s like a puzzle.”

Nope. Not true. Sincere art is not intended to confuse the audience. Insincere art is intended to confuse, or sometimes shock, an audience. Wordy, abstract, obtuse poetry, for example, has the effect of making an audience mad. The only time this works to achieve an effect on the audience is with some post-modern comedy, such as the stylings of Andy Kaufman. His purpose was to confuse, to vex, to irritate, but all in order to entertain. He had an artistic purpose and achieved it. Some could question his sincerity, though. (See #2 above).

“Art is sophisticated; therefore, if ‘regular’ people 'get it,' it’s not art.”

This assumption comes from the false idea stated in #4. It’s also intended to let the audience off the hook, ergo, if this is true, why bother having to think about the art? Here’s the dealio: all art is understandable, but some art demands more education of the principles and features of that art form in order to understand it. See Post-Modernism, which is not random and subjective, but also with purpose; we as audiences need to understand the conventions of the form before being able to appreciate it, or accept is at art. Remind me to give you the “wooden blocks as art” example.

"The purpose of writing is to express myself."

Various artistic crafts have been used and appropriated by the personal-growth or self-improvement industries. As a result, whether for good or ill, many people view writing, for example, as a means to self-discovery and personal therapy, and that a writer should then "express" his or her emotions to the public in order to evolve emotionally. However, if writing is used for personal growth and self-discovery, it should remain private. Writing for personal growth is a private affair whereas writing for the public is an artistic affair -- because the purpose of public writing is to communicate with others, not to u unload personal feelings. The two kinds of writing are by necessity different, and should be kept that way. Even the purpose of a well-crafted, artistic memoir, such as ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY isn't meant for the writer's own personal catharsis, but instead to communicate to a broader audiences personal experiences made universal by thoughtful writing, which means that even writing memoir is MORE than self-indulgent writing about the self, much more.

Creative writing isn't about spilling emotions or letting the audience know how you feel at a particular moment; instead, it's about creating narratives that connect to larger audiences. As a a writer of fictions, I want to check my own emotions at the door when I sit down to write; they can only get in the way of the story. If I'm having a crappy day or year, I don't want that negativity to influence my art. I want my art to be just as good on a crappy day as on a good day. Readers don't care too much about how I'm feeling on a particular day; instead, they want a good story, and if I'm telling a good story with rich characters and a compelling plot, the reader should not notice "ME" at all. That's the apex of craft, for the writer to remain invisible while the story itself sweeps the reader away.

Sometimes, the best writing, especially fiction, demands that the writer get away from self-expression and observe and record and express the world rather than emote on a personal level; sometimes, emotions can get in the way of good writing. Most readers don't want to hear about a writer's feelings, even in poems. Instead, they want a good story, and it's the writer's job to communicate.

"Artists are random and abstract. They don't think sequentially."

This is another cop-out from people who don't want to put in the work of the artist, mostly from those who want to appear artistic or writerly but aren't necessarily interested in doing the real work. In addition to being able to create art, artists are also able to organize and shape and revise their art to make it more communicable, and good revision skills demand good organizational skills, sequential logic, a respect and understanding of structure, and a workmanlike effort. This is true of all art forms, from music to theater to writing. Art doesn't just happen; it's created and shaped and re-shaped is very systematic approaches; it doesn't just fall from the sky, which leads to the next point:

"Art is borne from inspiration, talent and genius."

This view also is born of laziness, perpetuated by those who want to be considered artistic but don't like the work part very much. Inspiration, by my definition, is any outside agency that sparks a creative idea in the artist. Basically, responding to inspiration is a reactive process. This means, then, that there is a real danger in waiting for inspiration to strike. That's not how it works. instead, it's the writers job to create inspiration, to make it active rather than reactive. If a writer can do this, and he or she can, then there is no such thing as writer's block. Anyone can have a good idea, but it's the hard working, dedicated artist who can execute the idea.

As for talent, there may be some truth to the notion that some folks are born with a knack for certain things, but any skill can be developed through practice. Art is borne of passion and dedication more than it is from inspiration or talent. If you care enough, you'll work hard to create good art. If you don't care that much, nothing much will happen. Art demands energy and good work habits.

From this basic philosophy, I have a top ten-list of my basic approaches to tackling the craft of creative writing.