Another day where the confluence of several events leads me to pen commentary.
Last week I had a note from the International Student Adviser. She had been contacted by two students from China who were on visas to study in the U.S. An unnamed small college in a little town in Iowa had suggested to these students that if they came to Nameless College, they would not have to take English classes, and could hop right into their majors. One of the students was begging to come back here and pursue her English classes on the students’ behalves. The students had discovered that their English wasn’t quite where they thought it was. Well, that makes sense. A quick check of their ability levels indicated they were ready to take the advanced intermediate class, not even the beginning advanced class.
At least these students swallowed their pride and came back. Rather than clinging to their pride and forfeiting their education, and perhaps failing their class, they have made a wise decision to study English again. It’s not a glamorous or sexy decision, and it’s not part of our culture’s (and theirs) constant goal-driven forwardness. No, they decided on mastery.
So too we artists, eh?
In lots of jobs, you climb a ladder. In creative endeavor, you practice, and people keep saying no. Until someone says yes. And if we are used to moving forward, we are frustrated. We sometimes just want acknowledgment, even in little increments of our increasing progress. It’s…kind of an all or nothing game with the creative professionals who judge us. So, we swallow our pride and we keep practicing and learning from knowledgeable peers or workshops or books. More like the journeyman process of old, you’ll keep not being good enough, until you are.
This of course does not prevent us from getting frustrated with the learning process. And we twist ourselves sometimes into pretzels to try to tell ourselves that this rejection is something wrong with the other person.
Well, it is. And that’s okay. There’s a certain thing they’re looking for, and if you don’t have it, tough tacos. That doesn’t mean that you should stop working toward your unique artistic vision. Artist gotta make. It’s not a matter of artist needs everyone to condone process.
Yet, I realize that it is nice to be appreciated. I like that too, and sometimes that slows up my creative process. But again, nothing you can do will make someone value your work if it’s not for them.
I could end here with that idea, and have before, but this time I need to go a little further.
My friend Leslie, who writes intellectually about fan endeavor, points out recent commentary from Howard Jacobson about the lack of good readers causing the death of the novel.
Look, Howard, I feel your pain, but I find this sort of claptrap to be exactly the kind that the academy used when valuing the worth of novels we English types should teach in literature class. Are my students less literate because they read Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie, as opposed to The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway? Or Native Son versus, say Walden?
What gives anyone the right to assume that some things are quality and some are not is beyond me. The requirements for an educated person are culturally infused whims. A “good” reader is one that pays attention to the prose and can make some sense of it. But not every good reader is going to have the taste of an individual writer. In short, just because a reader doesn’t like your book or other books that are similar to it, that does not preclude the reader from having the skills necessarily to read, analyze, discuss and draw conclusions about a text, which is pretty much what dictates a good reader.
Skill. Not taste.
I will admit that some books don’t have a lot to run with. I just finished a book by one of my favorite UF writers. Not too deep, but a lot of fun, with some fun relationships to discuss. But not a book I’ll be teaching in class any time soon, because honestly, not a lot of deep universal truths in there. Class discussion would be very short.
So there it is. Part of defining our worth is also pride. In Jacobson’s case, pride has become intellectual snobbery.
So, as artists, then, we need patience. We need mastery. We need a thick skin, and we have to realize that not everyone will like what we do, and that’s okay. Otherwise, we we can suffer from poor misunderstood me syndrome. No one likes a whiny artist.