Meta-advice • 11 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
I've had a difficult history with advice. I used to take too much of it. The downside with that is that you're no longer making decisions based on your own understanding of what's best, so once you've done whatever you were advised to do, you have to go back and ask what's next. It's unsatisfactory. And that applies to writing as well. There's a risk that after you make the changes, as instructed, you then have to go back and ask whether you've done it right. It's no longer about your judgement. It's the difference between a bricklayer and an architect (and, apologies to bricklayers everywhere, in this scenario it's good to be the architect). Of course being thickskinned, pigheaded, bloodyminded or oblivious isn't good either. So many problems can be avoided if more than one perspective is involved, more than one set of eyes is applied to the matter.
My solution: it's a sort of wine-tasting idea. When given advice, you should take a sip and slurp it around to get the flavour and then spit it out. If the idea is something that would have occurred to you eventually, which makes sense to you, then you should feel free to obey it. Good advice is just about saving you time, maybe years of it, in coming up with the same idea yourself. But if the advice would take you far enough from your own personal understanding of events that you'd effectively be putting yourself on an advice drip-feed forever more, then ignore it.
One of the most important aspects of decision-making is to build up your own ability to manage your life. If you're not making your own decisions, with a full understanding of the pros, cons and consequences, then you're robbing yourself not just of autonomy but of valuable experience and the opportunity to develop. That can be a bigger risk than making the odd short-term blunder.
And I think the same applies to writing. Try to see the criticism. Try to understand why the person making it feels that way. Try to imagine addressing their suggestions in a way that makes sense to you, that improves the work in your eyes as well as theirs. But if you don't get it, then stick to your guns.
Most of the all-time top-ten movies were short-term commercial failures which went on to inspire future film-makers, change lives and bring glory to those involved (not to mention making a packet via DVD sales). Movies like The Shawshank Redemption or Twelve Angry Men would not have survived the modern test-screening process intact. Diluting the vision might have made short-term popularity easier to achieve, but it would have done so at the cost of a much more influential longer-term success.
So how to resolve creative differences where an honest attempt to understand the other person's viewpoint results in stalemate? I think all sorts of situation which are treated as though there is a right and a wrong are really a lot more akin to dating. It's about finding a good match; it's not about some absolute scale of goodness or badness. Artistically, I think it's best to let people do 95% of what they want to do, exactly as they want to do it - with the understanding that you may have no interest in what they subsequently produce. But if they work that way it helps them get better at what they do and it makes your life easier. It's much easier to go out and find good work than it is to mould it out of something you don't like. And in life I think it's best to let people pursue whatever half-baked notions they have (assuming their lives aren't put at risk) because it's the best way for them to learn about themselves and what works for them. Someone who knows their own mind and what makes them happy as a result of making lots of decisions and living with the consequences stands far more chance of leading a fulfilling life than someone who's good at doing as their told. So my advice is this: listen to advice and then do your own thing.
Agree? Disagree? Got a better way of looking at it?