A few years ago, I finished writing and revising my first publishable literary novel (I say “publishable” because I’d written a lot of garbage-pseudo-literary fiction before my first published novel, and that trash fiction was thankfully never published).
While I went through the whole publishing process with my first novel – revisions, copy-editing, covers, blurbs, publicity, etc. – I almost destroyed my own mind.
How did I do this? By reading a lot of commercial nonfiction.
That might seem dramatic, but it isn’t. Reading a large quantity of commercial nonfiction was a horrible decision. Don’t get me wrong, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had a best friend who loved and recommended nonfiction to me, and I kept reading the material he gave to me. From there, I branched out and tried other informative nonfiction.
But I’m not being dramatic when I say that the regular reading of nonfiction affected me. I struggled to write high-quality literary fiction for two years after, and regularly discovered myself thinking more simply about everyday issues. As an artist, I was becoming mentally simplistic. Vacuous. Vapid.
It’s not that nonfiction is terrible writing, and it’s not that nonfiction is inherently a bad thing. BUT…commercial nonfiction is incredibly mediocre writing. If all writing is bathwater, commercial nonfiction is tepid, luke-warm, not worth getting into, and certainly not worth submerging in for long periods of time.
I know I sound harsh, but if producing great art is your goal, then don’t immerse yourself in mediocre art. Set high standards, and maintain those high standards.
Here are seven strong opinions on the topic:
1. Keep your internet visits short. VERY FUCKING SHORT.
The internet is a festering puss pond of mediocrity. Have you ever sat next to someone while he’s surfing Facebook? That catatonic, slack-mouthed, dead-eyed face he makes while he stares at the screen? That once-every-10-minutes “Whoa, you gotta see this” exclamation?
Or long episodes of hanging out on Twitter?
Scrolling through other people’s Instagram photos?
Looking up sports gossip?
Celebrity news updates?
Set a time limit with the internet and stick to it. Say, “I’ve got ten minutes to answer these two emails, post once, and get offline.” Then stick to your time limit. CLOSE THE LAPTOP.
2. Don’t read mediocre writing.
My mother raised me on the phrase “Readers are leaders,” and I love that phrase because it’s true. If you’re not a reader, you’re not a great artist. It’s as simple as that. Great books and memoirs and poetry develop creativity. They make your mind work. The metaphors and complicated structures and narrative arcs force your mind to find new connections, spark analogous thinking, enhance mental divergence. If you want to be a great artist of any kind, you have to be a great reader.
But although I love the phrase “Readers are leaders,” it’s not completely true, or it’s not completely true in all cases. What you choose to read does matter. Selection matters. For example, if you read only Amish Murder Mysteries (a real genre in publishing that sells quite well) or Paranormal Romance, for example, you’re never going to create great art. That’s a fact.
To create great art, read great art.
3. Don’t watch reality television.
The average person in The United States watches hours of reality television every week, and some of the most popular shows on television are reality shows. So reality shows are – by definition – what the middle watches. The average. The mediocre middle of America.
Most artists know that reality shows won’t help them produce great art, but what about the opposite effect? Can watching bad reality shows negatively affect you as an artist?
Bad Input = Bad Output?
That seems like a logical equation.
Let’s take The Bachelorette on ABC for example since it was listed by TV guide as the most popular show on television last week. This is a show about a young woman looking for love, and two dozen men trying to be the last man standing. It seems like a classic plot, right? But if great art is the goal, then the specifics of the art matter.
In The Bachelorette, no character has any depth, people’s lives are made up of dates, roses, feelings, alcohol, more feelings, more alcohol, talks, swimming, hot-tubbing, and eating while drinking more alcohol and again talking about feelings. Also, everyone on the show speaks in the passive voice:
“Feelings are getting intense.”
“Tough conversations need to be had.”
“Things are being said that I don’t like.”
Wait, who did what?
Why can’t those subjects do any actions?
Even the better reality shows, shows with more powerful conflicts, shows like Naked And Afraid on Discovery, are – unfortunately – formulaic. Since Naked And Afraid is a true survival show meaning the (contestants? stars? participants?) actually suffer physically while trying to survive for 21 days, all of the conflicts are the same show to show. While trying to survive, will the two people find quality drinking water? Will one of the people start a fire? Will either of them find much to eat? Those questions are great for a little while, but not for long. Every show is the same. And the mundane is the unimaginative.
4. Study art.
– Go to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Watch Picasso’s developmental process unfold room to room. Examine his mental process as he becomes more abstract.
– Read at least five Toni Morrison novels.
– Listen to Wu-Tang. Then listen to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.
– Go to the Vatican in Rome, and stare at each sculpture for a long, long time. Think about chiseling any of those marble sculptures out of one giant block, start to finish, no mistakes.
– Read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson over and over.
– Listen to Mad Villain’s beats.
– Read Dorianne Luax’ poetry. For something completely different, read Kay Ryan’s.
– Stare at Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” until you can see a rhythm.
– Read contemporary poetry and fiction in the literary journals Tin House and The Missouri Review.
– Listen to Bob Dylan’s Biograph collection, and dwell on the lyricism. Then listen to Adele cover Bob Dylan and sing each song infinitely better.
– Peruse a different painter online each month (Google images is an amazing and free resource for learning a painter’s body of work).
– Watch highlight compilation videos of Barry Sanders playing running back.
5. Attempt to understand other people’s lives (and/or suffering).
Although many, many TV shows are about the richest most best looking people on the entire planet, this is not what great art is about. Great art is about empathy and depth and creativity and wonder and struggle. I don’t mean that you can’t be a great artist if you grew up in The Hamptons, but I am saying that you’ll never be a great artist if you stay in The Hamptons your whole life because great art isn’t about one thing, and it certainly isn’t about a few monochromatic rich people who live in boring, daily unreality.
So try something different:
– Talk to illegal immigrants.
– Feed the hungry.
– Work with the homeless.
– Talk to people who are different from you, to people who work different jobs, to people who’ve made different choices, to people who speak different languages. And while we’re talking about languages, learn another language. Don’t be an American who’s content with only speaking English.
– Ask good questions and really listen to other people’s answers. Don’t try to interject with your own better stories or your really funny comebacks or comments. Listen to other people. Imagine their entire lives, waking to sleeping. Be in their houses. Wear their clothes. Sleep with their lovers. Raise their children.
6. Break rules.
My agent recently told me that she couldn’t sell a piece of fiction because the dialogue was a mess. I said, “What kind of a mess?”
She said, “It’s too perfect. No one uses any contractions.”
Dialogue is a careful mixture of eloquence and atrocious grammar. Correct structure and god-awful colloquialisms. The masters of dialogue break rules in perfect ways, and in the creation of great art, we must break rules often. Judiciously.
Think of Gwendolyn Brooks enjambment to break the simple rhymes of “We Real Cool.”
Or Leonardo da Vinci digging up dead bodies?
Or Jimi Hendrix with his homemade distortion pedals?
Yo Yo Ma warping time with his elongated cello swells?
Sylvia Plath going DARK in her personal narratives.
7. Finally, don’t follow anyone else’s advice.
Not even mine. You can follow some of it, sure. Some of it will work with you. But you have to set your own standards. And the truth is, I don’t always follow my own advice. None of us do. We’re all hypocrites. But I keep pushing. I keep trying. And you can too. Set your own high standards, and try to live up to those standards most of the time.
But be your own person. Do your own thing. Find your own artistic outlet and push, push, push yourself to improve. Don’t become complacent and don’t allow yourself to wallow in your own mediocrity. Work on your weaknesses. You aren’t born with talent. You earn talent through daily and monthly and yearly choices, actions, and discipline.
Finally, don’t congratulate yourself too much if you have a moment of success because what is success anyway? Success is one of those cheap 4th of July sparklers on a short metal stick. It may not light. It may not stay lit. And even if it sparks into something bright green and orange and yellow, you’re likely to burn your own hand before the process is over.