NaNoWriMo update; success! I just got to 50k about three minutes ago, and I wasn’t going to let myself post this until after I had won. This was a good strategy because I couldn’t tick “post final November blog” off on HabitRPG, which in turn would give me enough gold to buy the right to get the NaNo winner’s shirt… and I’ve just realized that my internet reinforcement systems have become recursive. I see nothing wrong with that.
As a writer, I have many fears. I fear that the stories I write won’t be good. I fear that they will be good, but unrecognized. I fear failure. Most of all, though, I fear becoming one of those writers who has a hit, but then fails to live up to it afterward. To be briefly good and then reviled for the rest of your career would be so much worse than simply being unknown, because at least the mistakes of an unknown writer are unseen.
In short, my worst nightmare is to become M. Night Shyamalan.
His story is fairly well known by now, but I’ll recap it. He made a few small, obscure films, and then made The Sixth Sense, a financial hit and genuinely brilliant piece of artwork. From there, though, things went steadily downwards. Unbreakable and Signs were still generally liked, but each one more criticized than the last, and since The Village every one of his movies has been a flop. He’s now regarded as a hack who somehow managed to churn out a good film once. Furthermore, he’s become infamous for having a “woe is me,” attitude towards his own failures. He says he doesn’t understand what’s wrong with audiences and that critics are out to get him.
Personally, I don’t think he’s a hack in the sense of a talentless person just out to make money. I think he has real writing ability. I also think he genuinely wants to create great works of art, which is why at times I feel a bit sorry for him. What I think is that his declining quality of work and his attitude toward that declining quality of work are tightly bound. Over time, I think he lost his ability to be objective. His art became inseparable from his ego, and as a result he lost the ability to accurately evaluate his own work.
George Lucas is another famous fallen artist. The original Star Wars trilogy was not only entertaining, but very good in an artistic sense. It used archetypal ideas and plot structures to build a science fiction story that felt both mythic and modern. The recent trilogy was terrible, too trite and childish to be entertaining to anyone older than ten and, from a more writerly perspective, a sloppy mess of plot holes and wooden characters. Again, when you listen to him in interviews, an incredible arrogance about his own abilities comes through. He refuses to listen to any criticism, whether it’s coming from critics or fans.
To some degree you do need the ability to brush off criticism in order to continue to create art, but it’s another to never listen to anyone who says they are disappointed by what you made. No writer, or artist of any sort, is equally good every moment of their career. Every artist starts out bad, gets better, and then goes through relative peaks and relative troughs their whole life. One of my favorite learning how to write resources, the Writing Excuses podcast, makes a big deal of this. The writers are very open about their highs and lows as writers, about the drafts their works go through that are terrible and the times that they struggle with a work because, in order to write it the way they want, they need to work on one of their weak areas some more.
I like to think that if you are able to take this attitude towards your craft, you might rise and fall, but you aren’t likely to truly slump. As evidence for this, may I present Joss Whedon. Buffy was wonderful, but had some rough seasons. The same goes for Angel and Dollhouse, and if Firefly hadn’t been tragically cancelled it probably would have had its moments (I know, blasphemy). However, none of those rough spots have signaled the beginning of a terrible spiral downwards. If he creates something bad, his next work will probably be much better. Now, look at this interview he did about The Avengers. He’s talking about one of the most well received, financially successful works he has ever made, and his reaction is, “I could have done better.” He doesn’t trash his work, and he expresses some personal love for it, but he’s able to admit its flaws without flinching, with an intention to do better next time.
I think many writers, published and unpublished, are stuck in a mentality that being brilliant is a thing you are rather than a thing you do. Or perhaps the mentality is that being brilliant is like your video game character achieving a level. You can start out not brilliant, but once you have achieved brilliance level work you are just there, and failing to write in a brilliant-consistent manner is evidence that either you have somehow died and gone back a level, or that you had never really achieved brilliance level to begin with. Real life isn’t like that. In the real world, masters of their craft, in all fields, still have really bad days. That’s okay. Those days suck, but they are also learning opportunities that will help you get back to the days when you’re brilliant again.