Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Project Runway Taught Me About Explanations

If you've been watching Project Runway with as much dedication as I have, you know who Elisa is. She's the wacky designer who marks fabric with spit and sort of seems like she's always tripping on acid, but just a little bit. She also seems like a really nice person, and that counts for a lot in reality television these days, at least for me. However, I've never really liked her work:

I am of the opinion that you can always learn about writing from television, and Project Runway is no exception. The reason I bring up Elisa is that what I learned about writing a few episodes ago, I learned from her. And this...garment:

Basically, that is a bathing suit with butterfly sleeves. The sleeves have writing on them. My initial impression of this was a stream of thoughts that went something like this: BATHING SUIT ugly fabric butterfly sleeves where the hell would I wear this and how did it take her two days and what is that crap on the sleeves? Basically, you could summarize my reaction with just three letters: W. T. F.

Obviously Elisa was in the bottom three, so she got the chance to talk about her look. And she launched into this semi-philosophical explanation of the look, involving circles and energy and how, if you put the sleeves together, they tell a complete story. I found it to be really thoughtful and interesting, given her particular belief system. But there is a distinct mismatch between what she said and what her look says. You would never get her explanation from that look. You would have to read her manifesto first.

 But before I get all judgy, let me say that I think a lot of writers, myself included, have the exact same problem. People read our work, whether it's critique partners or editors or book bloggers or everyday readers, and they make their assessments, and we sit there thinking "but that's not what it says!" or "well, that's not what I meant!" or "you totally missed the point!"

When I was in writing class in college, there were rules for critique sessions. The most important one was: the writer is not allowed to say anything. Yes, that's right: an hour of people picking apart my story, which I crafted lovingly over a period of weeks, and I was not allowed to say a single word. I couldn't defend myself. I couldn't explain anything. There are many reasons for this, but for me the most important one is that my defense and my explanations were unimportant. Useless, actually. If something doesn't come across in the writing, it's not the reader's fault, it's mine.

Sure, there are times when it's clear, even in those critique sessions, that someone was not reading my story at all carefully. And I couldn't blame myself for someone's misinterpretations if they just glanced it over while walking to class, because the reader has to assume some responsibility. But if someone read through my story at a reasonable pace, and they didn't "get" it, it was not because they were stupid. It's okay if your reader has to work a little-- some reads are more challenging than others, after all-- but they should not have to do most of the work, or even a lot of the work. The story should do it for them.

I feel like I've started to say something dangerous, so let me back up. I'm not saying that, in order to make sure that the reader "gets" something, you should try to be really heavy-handed and obvious about it and sort of shove it in their face. Noooo no no. I'm saying that sometimes, what people don't "get" shows you exactly what you need to work on as a writer.

Let's say I write a book written in first person about a destructive friendship. I write it, critique partners say "this book never indicts the friend for being controlling/abusive/condescending/etc.! In fact, it glorifies the destructive friendship. WTF?" And I get all huffy and say "well, I couldn't portray the friendship as unhealthy because I was writing in first person and my narrator wouldn't stay in a friendship she knew was unhealthy, obviously! So you just weren't reading it right."

The thing is, there are ways to communicate something to the reader in a first-person account that the narrator herself is unaware of, almost like the story is talking around its own narrator. Some authors do it extremely well. So my defense of my own work, above, is not particularly valid-- instead of getting huffy about what people didn't "get," I should be working on how well I communicate with my reader.

This happens on a small level, too. When reading the rough draft of Insurgent, someone confused one character with another to the point that it changed her interpretation of a substantial part of the story.  My first instinct was to say "no, no, she read it wrong, that was someone else," but my next thought was, "you know, if she didn't realize that she was mixing characters up, I probably didn't make them distinct enough." And making each character feel distinct and separate and unique was something I worked on in my next round of revisions.

This is why I sometimes ask non-writer friends/family to read a story and tell me what they think about it. If you want to try it, you should make a list of non-leading, specific questions to ask them. Some examples are: can you describe the main character to me, or, what did you think when this character did this thing, or, what kind of thoughts did the story leave you with, or, who was your favorite character, what was your favorite scene, which characters do you not remember very well, did you ever feel confused....etc.

Anyway, the lesson here, to me, is: if you have to explain something, don't assume it's the reader's fault, assume it's yours. And take it as an opportunity to learn something about what you need to work on.


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