Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Write Badly, in Ten Easy Lessons

A misère game is a game that is played backwards, in "misery" or "poverty." That is, it is played by the conventional rules, except that it is played to lose. The object is to lose the game, or to force your opponent to win. Misère game strategy involves reverse thinking, backwards expectations, upside-down logic. By extension, misère advice teaches us what not to do.

By that token, when we make art we can also play to lose. We can play to play, not to succeed, not to win, not to compete against any standards, internal or external. This is a potentially valuable lesson to remember for any artist. We can opt out of the usual games, assumptions, and economic-political battles that make up the commercial art world of galleries and fame. We can just ignore that.

One of the best cards in the Oblique Strategies creativity advice deck of cards says, simply, "Go outside." That is the likely solution to fully half, maybe more, of all creative blocks: just go outside. Go out and play, and forget about those usual competitive strategies we employ.

Competition is built on an assumption of lack rather than abundance: the assumption that there can be only one winner in any game. That one must dominate, and all others submit, and lose. Competitive game theory is a theology of warfare. Most games are built on competition, and designed so that only one can win.

By contrast, games which are designed to be cooperative, even confocal, strive to maximize the number of winners. Such games require team-building, trust-building, and partnership. Cooperative strategy invests in the values of power-with rather than power-over. In fact, some cooperative games are completely non-hierarchical.

Naturally there are those who think cooperation is unnatural, and not humanly possible—well, they're half-right, since if you've convinced yourself that competition is "the natural order of things," you're going to completely miss noticing other paradigms such as cooperation. This is a case study in which belief does in fact create reality, because what you believe to be the truth of human nature is going to color how you interact with others.

I've recently run across some misère advice for writers, coming from two different sources, one for which I have no attribution, one quite well known.

I recently picked up the 1958 edition of The Langston Hughes Reader, a thick anthology containing Hughes' poetry, prose, autobiography, short stories, novel excerpts, and much more. There were specimens of writing I had not encountered before, and was very pleased to read for the first time. Of course, this volume being published in 1958, there is no post-modern-critical-theory slant to the editing; nor is there any mention of homosexuality, etc. That's not a loss, really, as those more contemporary theoretical discourses can be easily misused on a writer like Hughes; and the book is otherwise quite comprehensive to that date.

Near the back, there is a short satirical (or not) essay, originally published in The Harlem Quarterly, that I can't resist repeating here. (Note: I won't update his language here; remember this was written in the 1940s or 50s.)

How To Be A Bad Writer (In Ten Easy Lessons

by Langston Hughes

1. Use all the clichés possible, such as "He had a gleam in his eye," or "Her teeth were white as pearls."

2. If you are a Negro, try very hard to write with an eye dead on the white market—use modern stereotypes of older stereotypes—big burly Negroes, criminals, low-lifers, and prostitutes.

3. Put in a lot of profanity and as many pages as possible of near-pornography and you will be so modern you pre-date Pompeii in your lonely crusade towards the best seller lists. By all means be misunderstood, unappreciated, and ahead of your time in print and out, then you can be felt-sorry-for by your own self, if not the public.

4. Never characterize characters. Just name them and then let them go for themselves. Let all of them talk the same way. If the reader hasn't imagination enough to make something out of card-board cut-outs, shame on him!

5. Write about China, Greece, Tibet, or the Argentine pampas—anyplace you've never seen and know nothing about. Never write about anything you know, your home town, or your home folks, or yourself.

6. Have nothing to say, but use a great many words, particularly high-sounding words, to say it.

7. If a playwright, put into your script a lot of hand-waving and spirituals, preferably the ones everyone has heard a thousand times from Marion Anderson to the Golden Gates.

8. If a poet, rhyme June with moon as often and in as many ways as possible. Also use thee's and thou's and 'tis and o'er and invert your sentences all the time. Never say, "The sun rise, bright and shining." But, rather, "Bright and shining rose the sun."

9. Pay no attention really to spelling or grammar or the neatness of the manuscript. And in writing letters, never sign your name so anyone can read it. A rapid scrawl will better indicate how important and how busy you are.

10. Drink as much liquor as possible and always under the influence of alcohol. When you can't afford alcohol yourself, or even if you can, drink on your friends, fans, and the general public.

If you are white, there are many more things I can advise in order to be a bad writer, but since this piece is for colored writers, there are some things I know a Negro just will not do, not even for writing's sake, so there is no use mentioning them.

—Langston Hughes

This is true misère advice for writers. I am reminded both of some of Mark Twain's more scathing commentaries, and of similar reverse-advice pieces from other writers. I especially like Hughes' little tag comment at the end, disguised as a throwaway, which opens up whole new cans of worms only to let them wiggle free and be ignored.

Hughes' No. 6 on his list, about having nothing to say but saying it at great length, is one of the biggest problems I have with contemporary literature, both poetry and fiction. The main reason many writers pad out a novella into a novel is because publishers like to sell novels rather than short story collections; they believe that's what people want to read. But this only strengthens the tendency of bad writers to over-write. What's wrong with a great deal of contemporary literature is that it's over-written in the extreme. And there are lots of writers out there right now, some of them with shiny new MFA degrees, who love the sounds of their own voices, who are addicted to writing, but who really have nothing at all to say. Far better to be silent than to write another pointless book of poetry, or another new novel about nothing.

From another direction, a friend of mine recently sent me a short list of advice on "How to Be Miserable as an Artist." This too is misère advice (oh whoa is miserable me!), and it's also quite funny. It sticks a pin in those self-inflated Sensitive Artist types who are all about the pose of being an Artiste, and not about the quality of the actual artistic work. I have to say "ouch" to some these quips, as they hit rather close to home (especially the ones about familiar approval), in terms of where one often finds oneself, early on in one's artistic career.

I have no attribution for this list. It strikes me as one of those Internet jokes that an artist made one day, out of frustration, and the sense of gallows humor one sometimes needs to cope with living the artist's life.

How To Feel Miserable As An Artist
(or, What Not To Do. . . .)

1. Constantly compare yourself to other artists.

2. Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on.

3. Base the success of your entire career on one project.

4. Stick with what you know.

5. Undervalue your expertise.

6. Let money dictate what you do.

7. Bow to societal pressures.

8. Only do work that your family would love.

9. Do whatever the client/customer/gallery owner/patron/investor asks.

10. Set unachievable/overwhelming goals to be accomplished by tomorrow.

Every one of these can be painful to read, as they're all mistakes I've made, and seen other artists make. Sometimes these sorts of attitudes can take a long time to overcome, and choose to do differently. That's why this is gallows humor: it's something in which many of us can see ourselves reflected. I have to say, No. 8 really makes me both squirm and laugh at the same time: it speaks directly to truth that it's never wise to go looking for love (or approval) in all the wrong places.

I do feel the need to point out that, truth be told, in terms of being a professional graphic designer or illustrator, No. 9 on this list is in fact good advice that you need to follow—as long as the project you are working on is a commercial, marketing or advertising project. Your own personal, fine-art work should not be directed by others, but it's all right, even healthy, to let go of your ego and expectations when you're working on a commercial illustration project.

Although, true also to be told, the chances of your working for an art director with less intelligence, skills, and experience than your own are very high. Most of the time you just have to pretend not to care, let it go, and move on. There is no shortage of people in the commercial art and advertising worlds who have risen beyond their levels of competence. I've even once heard an art director say, without irony, "I'm not an artist, I'm a concept person."

So keep that in mind: for the sake of your own sanity, it is often wise to compartmentalize your fine art and personal projects away from your commercial ones. Just don't get them, or their expectations, confused.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

Wise advice here Art, however much tongue in cheek. It probably does us good not to take ourselves too seriously all pf the time when it comes to our art. We need to be able to play and I agree with you play often times involves shedding the rules.


3:08 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All good points, Elisabeth. I especially agree about not taking ourselves too seriously. It seems to me that lots of the drama writers inflict upon each other, and themselves, is all because they take things too seriously.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Losing is just winning under a pseudonym. The object is to succeed in your objective, i.e. to lose, and therefore win. I don’t play games anymore, haven’t in years, unless you count the odd game of Pacman or Snake on the computer to distract me. But I hate being in competition with others. My wife and I have never played a single hand of cards or opened up a board game in all the years we’ve been married. I play to win and I believe in playing by the rules. My last wife played games to have fun. I never got that. What’s the point in having rules if you flaunt them at every opportunity?

I don’t do well in team events. At interviews I say I work well “on my own or as part of a team” but that’s just what you say. I much prefer to be left to get on with my own thing. I’ve very rarely been able to but for a few months in my last job I got an office with a door and was left to get on with my projects. Lovely.

I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had to go on any team-building events. I would, of course, do what had to be done but it would be a chore to be got through. I don’t think cooperation is unnatural but what I do find, at least I did for a very long time, was that in groups I always ended up as the team leader and really I have no interest in the position. I’m quite happy to be the boffin in his wee office and let other people stand out front and motivate. I’m a rotten manager.

As regards you wee list of things to make one miserable as a writer I’ve been quite good in avoiding most of them but still managing to keep a healthy level of misery on the go. No. 10 is the closest to what I do. I set standards that no one could achieve and then beat myself about the head when I don’t achieve them. I do that in everything, not just writing. I have only one acceptable standard – perfect and the fact that I’m an imperfect man trying to achieve it is just an inconvenience.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"Losing is just winning under a pseudonym." Well, yeah. In game theory, that's as good a description of misère play as any.

In terms of competition vs. cooperation, some of that is expressed in how the actual games are written. Board games, like contemporary video games, are often conceived as There Can Be Only One types of dominance. Like you, I don't really have any interest in playing those kinds of games. But that's not the only kind of game there is.

There were some children's games invented by Native Americans, for example, recorded by anthropologists, that were team-play games in which, even if one team won out over the other, the lesson of the game was that survival requires cooperation. I'm thinking of some hoop games and team guessing games that I've read about.

James Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games in which he points out that finite games are designed to end, to be won, while infinite games are meant to keep the game in play. Riane Eisler has written about the difference between paradigms of domination vs. paradigms of cooperation, as well.

My point is that I don't really like competition, either. I don't like "winners and losers" situations, although in terms of playing board games, I don't feel as strongly as you do about it. I enjoy Scrabble, for example. When I was a kid, our family used to play Yahtzee all the time, too.

I've found myself in managerial positions more than once, and I didn't like it any more than you did. That's partly because I don't like to manipulate people, or lie to them, and I felt like I couldn't avoid doing either, in those circumstances. I sucked at it, basically. I also sucked at office politics wherein someone would turn a misunderstanding into warfare, and rather than talk about it, go to battle. I'm no good at that because I don't like doing it.

10:48 AM  

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