Friday, July 2, 2010

Befriending the Pressure Cooker

It's summer and my revisions are done, which means I have started to watch a lot of television. Some of it is good, like the recently-cancelled Party Down, but I have a secret love for reality television, so most of it is bad.

Yes, I know. Reality TV is the crazy, smelly uncle of the television family, the one you don't really want to invite to the reunion but you have to because he technically belongs there. I honestly don't care that it's mindless crap, because after a long day of making my carpal tunnel syndrome worse, a.k.a writing, it's nice to watch some television that turns my brain to technicolor goo.

But this isn't about the reality TV. It's about one particular reality TV show. A Bravo show called Work of Art.

The premise? "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist will bring together fourteen aspiring artists to compete for a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum and a generous cash prize." The assumption is, of course, that Bravo hand-selected the best artists from this pool of applicants to compete for said prizes, but we all know that what really happened is they picked a bunch of wacky personalities to make the show entertaining, regardless of their artistic skill. Really, though, who am I to judge their artistic skill? I can barely paint a wall.

Like nearly all reality shows on Bravo, the show is structured like this: every week the artists get some kind of weird challenge that makes some of them go "SWEET! THIS IS RIGHT UP MY ALLEY" and some of them consider jamming their paintbrushes in their eyes because they only paint landscapes and they don't know how to make a sculpture out of televisions and phone cords.

The episode that hooked me was episode 3, in which the artists had to design a book cover for a classic novel (the novel was assigned to them). The winner's design will actually be sold in stores. Clearly this is something that interested me. If you want to have a look, the gallery from that episode is here.

At first, my only thought was this: isn't this complete crap? Doesn't the fact that this is a competitive environment in which all artistic works are created within twelve hours compromise the value of the art? Can good art be created in a pressure cooker?

The conclusion I have come to is: yes. In fact, sometimes that's the only place it can be created.

I find no particular value in calling myself an "artist", although in most of my classes that's the term we used. I'm not going to debate whether it's accurate to call writers artists, because I'm sure it is, if that's the word you'd like to use. I am less concerned with accuracy and more concerned with what's useful to me, and I've always found the term "craftsman" to be more useful. We can talk about this some other time.

For a long time I was one of those people who waited for inspiration. I wrote when I felt like it and couldn't write when ideas didn't just leap into my mind. And that's fine, as long as you have all the time in the world, but for those of us who want to be published, it doesn't work, and you shouldn't train yourself to believe that it does. When you sign a book contract, you accept the fact that there will be deadlines, and that you will abide by them, no matter how you feel or how bad your writer's block is. And if you haven't learned how to work even when you don't want to and the creativity isn't flowing like it usually does, you are going to be in quite a pickle.

This, of course, kind of scared the crap out of me at first, but now I've realized that deadlines can be a useful tool for "forcing creativity." For example, the editorial letter I got a few weeks ago said (in a very nice way) that one of my antagonists had traveled too far on the antagonism spectrum, such that he was a teensy bit more like a cackling Disney villain than an actual human being. Clearly this isn't a problem I wanted to have, but I wasn't sure how to fix it, but I had to figure out how to fix it in about two and a half weeks. I believe the word for that is "pressure."

I think when we usually say pressure, we mean it in a bad way, like "stop pressuring me." But now that I've figured out how to work under pressure, I think it's a good thing. I came up with ideas to solve my Disney villain problem because I had to. I came up with stupid ideas, I came up with less stupid ideas, and finally, I came up with good ideas, and then I got to work. And I don't know how long it would have taken me to come up with those good ideas if I had no pressure.

Come to think of it, pressure has actually empowered me to do a lot of things in the past few months: to revise with deadlines, to write synopses, to outline unwritten books, to speak to unfamiliar people about my writing, to come up with three sentence summaries. Those are things I didn't think I could do, but I did them because I had to. Not because everyone was standing around me with menacing looks on their faces, or anything, but because I wanted to be capable of doing what was asked of me.

No matter what you are, artist or craftsman, writer or not, I think it's important to let the pressure become your ally instead of your enemy. When pressure is your enemy, it makes you think "I can't possibly do this." But when it's your ally, it makes you think "I have to do this. So I will." And when your brain is on hyperdrive, you'd be surprised what kind of ideas fight their way out of your subconscious.

So maybe the premise of Work of Art isn't total crap. Maybe it will make some of those artists fall apart at the seams, but maybe it will help some of them turn out pieces they wouldn't have been capable of creating before.

Either way, though, I freaking love my pressure cooker.


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