The Artist’s Way…

…I was thinking about American Idol on the way home, actually looking forward to watching it, because I enjoy music and hearing a good singer is a pleasure not to be denied. There is perhaps a bit of schadenfreude in the watching of it, but that’s as far as my reality TV viewing goes. I like watching American Idol and hearing these people get honest critiques. Especially in the audition portion. I have to agree with host Simon Cowell when he tells these people they cannot sing. Truly, they can’t.

I’m not a bad singer myself, you know. I can carry a tune, easily mark out a harmony and find the note. Frankly, I never trained; I just have a pretty good ear. It is what allows me to play the piano in a rudimentary way; I don’t take lessons, I am bad at reading the music, but I know when I am right and when it’s wrong. I would never pass myself off as being any kind of musician, though, nor singer. My eldest calls my piano-playing “plinking,” because that’s about it — I can plink out a few tunes and follow the notes enough to play some very short and simple pieces. I like to sing. I am not bad in the car and used to be awesome in the shower. But guess what, folks — that’s as far as it goes. American Idol I am not.

Advice to writers, singers, artists of any sort: Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses. Work at it to improve your craft, but please, please, do not suffer from the hubris of the stage or the printed page. If you are not good, there is no hiding it. Simon said, “There is no underestimating the self-delusion of the American people when it comes to their own singing voices.” I could say the same for some writers, too.

I used to be the publicist for a large, well-loved theater in the Bay Area. They put on three summer musicals per year and I would go every April to watch auditions. The director was an elderly gentleman who had performed on Broadway and had been directing forever. He was — and still is — an amazing talent. He could hear a couple of bars of a song and that was enough; he could hear everything he needed in just that. This gentleman made the “cruel” Simon Cowell look like Mr. Nice Guy. The thing is, onstage, you either have it or you don’t. Auditions are brutal, and if you can’t take it, you won’t make it. I would sit there and listen to these talented singers perform a verse from some Broadway show, and either it was a great pleasure or it was painful. And he would cut them off and say, “Thank you,” and move on to the next. It’s a cutthroat business, and you’ve got to be really good, and a little different, too. Gotta stand out in some way, and be really skilled to boot. Much like writing, to which I will return in a moment.

Watching American Idol auditions reminded me of the April theater auditions — these seasoned performers with their patience wearing thin, and so many wannabes turning up to try to get discovered — shoom, sent on their way with no ceremony, no politesse. Just adios, amigo, and on we go to the next contestant.

I think writing is like that. Try to get yourself an agent, or a few minutes with the editor of whatever journal or zine or publication that you want to get into, and believe me, friend, your song and dance number had better be polished; it had better shine. In other words, your entree — your cover letter, your query, your opening lines — had better be the best thing you’ve ever written, or it will not be read. And you will not be published.

Case in point: Recently I received a request from a would-be writer who wanted to write for the newspaper. His offerings included no newspaper writing, but rather a poem (a fairly frightening example — an ode to water), a critical paper dissecting a beloved poem, and a cover letter. The first problem? Typos in the cover letter. Try using capital letters when you begin a sentence, for one thing, sweetie, and try using this neat thing we call a period. Oh, and commas — they’re very useful, too. The applicant had apparently no knowledge of these useful tools, and no, friends, it wasn’t because he was going for an e.e. cummings sort of deal.

Further note to aspiring writers: You can break the rules if you know you are breaking them. If you don’t know the rules and are merely lazy or illiterate, don’t expect any assistance from those of us who work in the field for a living. It is hard to be impressed by your sloth and ignorance.

Furthermore, in re the aspiring applicant, his critique was not well written and he called the poem “The Ancient Mariner,” rather than by its correct name, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” throughout. Hmm. So you want to write for a newspaper, which demands well-crafted articles and accuracy as cornerstones of its success. And your clips are sloppy and inaccurate? Hmm. Even a piddly little weekly like mine (and I say that fondly, not disparagingly) needs the best we can get, not whatever dregs fall through the mail slot. So, adios, amigo.

Back to writing: Aspiring Writers, all, please heed my advice. You can improve. You may not be perfect now (none of us started out perfect, and guess what? None of us are perfect yet.) but you will improve if you take the advice of more seasoned writers to heart. Please, proofread your work before you send it out, and get someone else to help you if you aren’t good at catching those errors. Know your weaknesses; with care, they can be overcome.

Alas, my pleas will fall on deaf ears. Simon’s did. He and his cohorts were forced to sit through a cross-country tour of baaaaad singing. If you watch this sort of show, or Star Search, or whatever, think back to your writing and, better yet, turn off the telly and go apply your ass to the chair at the desk. It will be time better spent.

More on this topic later.

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