Writing Excuses 9.20: Creator Versus Creation
Key Points: When you create something, and give it to the fans, it takes on a life of its own. “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” Once you put it out there, you don’t have any control. Try to imagine the different ways it can be perceived, but don’t overthink this. Let the fans speculate and have a discussion. Don’t tell them they are wrong, it is their honest reaction, not yours. “… we create art to provoke emotions and to explore the human condition.” But don’t let the fans own you, too! Fans will “depart the text,” they will tell themselves stories about your characters. “The reader reaction is not wrong.” Do you separate the art from the artist, especially if the artist has politics you dislike or is personally loathsome? The art stands or falls on its own merits. But… sometimes the taint of the individual makes it hard to see the art. You may not want to spend your money on this person’s work. Being exposed to work from people who hold different views is good, but I don’t want to encourage actions that I consider reprehensible. As a writer, you need to consider how vocal you are going to be, and how you are going to present your personal views.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, creator versus creation.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we are talking about two general topics dealing with creators versus creation that seem to tie in well, at least in our own heads. We’re going to start with the idea that sometimes you, as a writer, will create something. When you give it to your fans, it will take on this life of its own. Even if your fans are only your local friends. I can remember when I was first writing books, Dan and I were at The Leading Edge, a magazine at BYU. People started reading my books. My unpublished ones. Then suddenly there was this weird thing about my books. It was the first time I experienced it, where they were talking about them externally to me. It’s almost like my friends at the magazine claimed my work, and they claimed me. But my work… It’s my first experience with my work going outside of me. Which is a weird experience that I’d like to talk about and see if it helps you as listeners think about your writing in a new way or if it just prepares you for what may come.
[Mary] One of the things we say in the theater, and it applies across this, is “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” Which is basically that whatever you put out there is what the audience will see. And that once it leaves your hands, you don’t actually have any control. You can’t go back and adjust the audience’s response. That’s one of the things about fiction is that everything that leaves… Everything you write is going to have some sort of life of its own. So you need to kind of look at what you’re putting on the page and try to imagine the different ways it can be perceived and make sure that you’re… You don’t have to make sure… Like you don’t have to overthink this. But also, don’t be surprised when someone comes to you and says, “Oh. This thing that you did! I…” And you’re like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
[Howard] So as a web cartoonist, I have a… I think I have a much different experience with this, in that when I started, I had this thought that… And a lot of web cartoonist had this thought that in order to maintain an audience, in order to grow an audience, you have to foster a community around the project. In order to foster that community, a community needs a hub, and so you should be there and be active. We actually see that a lot with writers today who are building Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and whatever else. What I have only really recently, I think, matured into is this idea that I should not be in those places, talking to those people about what I really meant, because that shuts the discussion down, and what they want to do is speculate and have a discussion.
[Brandon] I agree with you 100% on that one.
[Dan] I had a great lesson in this with… I can’t remember which of the John Cleaver books, I think it was Mister Monster. But I have the chance for two stops on the book tour to double up with F. Paul Wilson, who writes in a similar genre. In one of the locations, somebody came up to him, and she obviously had this incredibly deep personal connection to his books. It was obvious from watching her talk to him that he didn’t know what she was talking about, that he didn’t share that connection, that he didn’t feel whatever it was she felt. But he was incredibly open, and he was… He let her talk, he let her have the moment she needed as a fan, and thanked her very much and signed her book. She… The two of them had different experiences, but they were both beneficial.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the things that we would say in theater a lot was, “I’m so glad you noticed that. I worked really hard on it.” If they were excited about something, and you had no idea what they were talking about… Honestly, some of this is because… Like I would go into schools, and third-graders would come up to me and they would say things that were incoherent, and recognizing that what they want is for someone to understand… That they connected with it deeply, and they assume that you as the creator have connected with it as deeply as they do. Sometimes that’s not true.
[Brandon] I’ve had fans come and say, “Thank you for writing Elantris, in which people have this chronic pain. I know it’s obviously a metaphor for cancer, and I was going through cancer at the time.” To which I’m like, “Wow!… I’m so glad my book helped you.”
[Mary] Yeah. Yeah. Don’t tell them they’re wrong.
[Dan] The one I’m getting right now with Ruins is a lot of soldiers who were stationed in Afghanistan will come to me and say, “This speech by this Partial soldier is exactly what we felt like over there.” I did not plan that. It was not on purpose, but that’s what they’re getting out of it.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s one thing that you need to realize, is that the reader reaction is not wrong. Even if it’s not something that you ex… You planned. Even if it is a reaction that you really don’t want them to have, it’s not wrong. That is still the honest reaction that they had. The surest way to piss someone off is to tell them that they’re wrong about the reaction that they had to your book.
[Brandon] Right. That’s the nature of art. That’s why we create art, is to provoke emotions and to explore the human condition. If they’re reading your work and it’s provoking emotions and exploring the human condition… I mean, that’s our job. That’s what we’re doing. So yeah, I agree 100%. My question then, the natural segue is, how much do the fans own the art and how much not? We get into the problem, the issues where… Neil Gaiman posted “George RR Martin” to paraphrase, “does not belong to you. He may do what he wishes.” But at the same time, I went through this thing where the Wheel of Time, I was brought in as the writer on it, but I felt that at that point, with the creator having passed away, that it wasn’t mine. And to an extent, it wasn’t even Harriet’s, his wife. It then had passed into fandom’s hands, and I was a short time steward for it. So there’s this dynamic of how much do you feel that the fans own your art? Howard, you’re creating a consistent, persistent story.
[Howard] They… Honestly, they don’t own the right to tell the story that airs on the web, and they don’t own the right to make money on it, but I can’t think of anything else that they’re not allowed to own. They will read that… I know I do it. I read things, I watch things, and I tell myself stories about these characters. I go way bey… I depart the text, to quote Berke Breathed. Depart the text all the time. As I said in my comments earlier, I feel like I’ve only recently matured into the point where I’m okay with this. Somebody posted on the Facebook page… Schlock had been offered the opportunity to… Or somebody had called attention to the fact that they could only get him to do what they want him to do if they give him the opportunity to perform excessive violence. In the last panel, he’s saying, “Oh. Oh, yes, please.” And his hand has reached around the panel border, breaking the fourth wall as he’s pushing himself closer to them to talk. Somebody said, “I love how Schlock’s hand on the panel is using excessive force to make more room for himself as a metaphor for what’s just been said in the comic.” My first reaction was that was very clever of me.
[Howard] My second reaction, and what I actually wrote was, “Achievement unlocked: Decoder of subtle visual metaphor.” Everybody loved that response. This comes back to what Mary said. “I’m so glad you noticed that.” Did I put that in there on purpose? I put that in there because it felt funny, and it felt right. Maybe subtly that was what I was saying, but it has taken on a meaning that they own. I’m okay with acknowledging it.
[Dan] Every one of us has gone through this from the audience side with the Star Wars prequels, where we felt like we owned Star Wars and it was our thing and we grew up with it, and then new prequels came out and it’s not what we would have done with it. I think that more than anything else… Say whatever you want about the quality of the films or the art, it’s the fact that it’s not what we’d been imagining in our backyards for 20 whatever years. That’s ownership.
[Howard] There were people for whom it was what they wanted and what they expected, but those people are all dumb.
[Mary] The reader reaction is not wrong.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. Those who have listened for a while know that Terry Pratchett is one of my very favorite writers. I was exhausted on tour that I just got back from, brain-dead after a very long, get up early, do a bunch of signings, and I needed something that I could read that would just be pure joy. I had been saving this one. I had never read it before. It was absolute joy. It is Terry Pratchett’s take on the legend of the young woman who dresses like a boy and goes to war. But it is hilarious. It is amazing. If you never read a Pratchett book, it stands very well on its own. A great place to start, if this sort of concept, someone poking fun at both genders by using someone pretending to be the other one is interesting to you at all. I think you will love this book.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, grab a copy of Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett for free, and have somebody read it to you. That’ll be awesome.
[Brandon] All right. So the second half of this podcast deals with a perhaps delicate topic, which is the idea of, since we’re talking about the creation versus the creator, how right is it, or… I don’t know if we need to put a value judgment on it, but what are the ramifications of separating the art from the artist, to the point that you, if there is an artist who is creating art that you love but personally has politics that you dislike a great deal or is as an individual, someone that you learn that you would probably loath? How does that affect the art in your mind, and what is the relationship here?
[Dan] I will start here because I consider myself to be on one end of the scale, which is considered the art as its own thing. If it is good art, then it doesn’t matter what it’s about or who it comes from. It is good because of itself.
[Howard] I’m in the same position, except I recall, and I need to relate this anecdote without dropping any names, I recall being at a convention and spending a lot of time around a voice actor for a program that I love. The more this individual spoke, the more I became convinced that he was just a horrible human being. He was doing impressions of the characters the whole time. Now every time I watch that program, I hear him saying things that I hate. It’s really, really difficult for me to separate it. Now that’s probably different than writers, except for the writers blog or say things on social media that you find offensive and they are using turns of phrase that are common in their work, you may find it difficult to separate the two. Because you’ll read their work and you will find that voice still there saying the things you don’t like.
[Mary] Yeah. There’s… Besides the… We’ll say the taint of things that you dislike…
[Howard] Taint? Taint’s a great word.
[Mary] Isn’t that a good word? I’m a writer. There’s also the money issue. Sometimes it’s not so much that you have to stop enjoying a book… That you have to stop enjoying the thing, but sometimes you may just feel like you don’t want to give that person money.
[Howard] That’s the boycott.
[Mary] Yes. Well, it’s not even the boycott. It’s not… It’s the… I mean, it’s capitalism in action. It’s the… Where do I want to…
[Brandon] Where do you want to put your money.
[Mary] Where do I want to put my money. Sometimes it’s like, you know what, I’m just not comfortable with that. I think it’s very much an individual decision. Even with a person… Like person A. If person A had said something objectionable, I may go ahead and buy project 1, but I’m not going to buy project 5. Some of it will… Some of it is going to just depend on where you are, how excited you are about the project. It’s okay to not want to give them money, and it’s okay to say, “You know what, I do want this thing.”
[Brandon] Now, see, one thing on this. I fall into a different place than Dan. I would say I’m kind of somewhere in between, because if it’s someone’s politics, I will not let that influence me. In fact, I think it’s important for me to be reading and experiencing art created by people whose politics and views on life are different from my own. If I’m not doing that, then I am insulating myself. So in that case, I don’t… If someone is passionate about something and I disagree 100%, that’s a good thing for me to research. However, if the person themself is acting in a way that I consider reprehensible, then I err more on the “I’m not sure I want to be involved in this, because I don’t want to encourage this sort of thing.” That’s a hard line, because you can’t call simply believing differently than yourself reprehensible. Like an example of this is when a writer treats their fans in a way that I think is a bad way, when they’re mistreating their fans. That makes me want to never associate with their art again.
[Howard] When they tell their fans they’re wrong. See what I did there, how I tied the second half of the cast to the…
[Brandon] Right, right, right. Good job. But this is very individual. The reason we wanted to talk about this on the podcast is these are issues that you, as a writer, you are going to have to decide where you stand on it, how vocal you are going to be. Because no matter what you say, someone will be offended by it. How quiet do you want to be, how important are your personal views to you, and how can you present them in a way… I would suggest that you can present very strong views without being offensive to people who disagree with you.
[Mary] We should, in fact… I’m going to suggest that we can-of-worms that and do a podcast on how to have an opinion as a writer.
[Brandon] Okay, okay.
[Dan] Ooo, that’s a good one.
[Howard] We have opinions on how you should have opinions, and you should listen to our opinions on your opinions.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, that and what we are currently discussing are both a big deal right now in the science fiction/fantasy community.
[Brandon] Yes, they are.
[Dan] You go online, and it is… It does not take you long to see various fights and things that go on and it’s important to think about.
[Mary] Well, I have to say that this is something that is not just in the science fiction/fantasy community.
[Mary] And it’s also something that’s been around for a long time. Like if you go back and you look at a lot of the fanzines, you’ll see this sort of verbal fisticuffs.
[Dan] Well, one of the… We’ve been very careful to avoid naming any names as we talked about this, but I will bring up an example that’s a good 50 or 60 years old, which is the movie On the Waterfront. Which is considered to be one of the classics of American cinema. The director, whose name I can’t remember now because I’m a moron… He has won all kinds of awards for it. But the movie is kind of about a defense of naming names during the McCarthy era. So there are many people who object to it violently. So this has been going on for a very long time.
[Howard] I come to the science fiction/fantasy community from the web cartooning community. On the one hand, every so often I look at our spats, our kerfuffles, our whatevers, and I think, “Oh, you bunch of light weights.”
[Howard] But I also recall something that somebody said about some of the arm wrestling and mudslinging that goes on in academia.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] And what goes on in the corporate world, and how academia seems so much worse. What he said was, “Oh, you know what. The lower the stakes are, the harder they fight.” That has always stuck with me. I don’t want to have a… I don’t want to be squabbling because I disagree with somebody over something that really doesn’t matter all that much.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that that’s a gross generalization, but…
[Howard] Almost certainly.
[Mary] But I do know… I’ve certainly seen that. I will say nothing about my term of office.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop it there. I actually have a writing prompt for us.
[Howard] Oh, good.
[Brandon] Our writing prompt is one of your creations, listener, has gained a life of its own in some way. Now write a story about that. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.