God, Who’d Wanna Be Such An Asshole?

31 Jan

Last week, Pete Davis said something in his songwriting class I’m taking. He said: what someone accomplishes artistically is chump change if they’re not a kind human being. Not “extroverted” or “chipper” but you know, kind.

I have been thinking about this idea a lot. My sappy little heart wants it to be true.

Here, let me ramble about it.

 

I'll try not to sound like her. Nobody wants that. She doesn't even go here.

 

Part of what Pete talked about is the immunity society gives to artists when it comes to kindness. There’s an expectation that creative types will have an “artistic temperament,” – be assholes – and meanness from artists is not just excused but given a strange reverence. Asshole-ishness becomes the mark of genuine talent or intelligence, and everybody who isn’t an artist (and therefore “special”) is expected to deal with the negative consequences of such asshole-ishness, because, well, that’s the “artistic temperament.” It’s a small price to pay for experiencing the benefits of said artist’s creativity, which is what’s really important.

I’ve been mulling this idea over and what it means specifically for writers (surprise surprise). The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems ridiculous to me that as I grow as a writer, I could become anything but kinder. Let me explain.

I think it’s unavoidable, if I want to continue strengthening my writing, that I would keep trying to improve my ability to create effective/affecting characters. Probably an obvious point, but whatever, it’s made. Friends and professors who have critiqued my writing have tackled helping me improve this ability in different ways, but from what I recall, those methods have boiled down to three things:

 

1) Awareness: being conscious of how a character will come across on the page based on traits I ascribe to them, their physical environment, what other characters (if any) surround them – really, just having a comfortable grasp on their individual identity.

2) Understanding: from this awareness of the character’s individual identity, having them act in ways that are consistent with their identity (or purposefully, well-crafted-ly inconsistent), and the ability to see instances in which I have had characters perform actions that do not fit their identities, as well as why those actions do not fit.

3) Empathy: emotional solidarity with characters, portraying them in a way that acknowledges the complexity of their identity, actions, and resulting emotions, and allows them to be imperfect without unwarranted condemnation.

 

There’ll always be room for me to work on these things. There’ll always be room for me to improve how I go about defining these things. But as I’ve become conscious that most (if not all) advice I’ve been given about characters can fall into one of these three categories, I’ve noticed my own improvement. Being able to organize those things has helped me pinpoint specific issues more efficiently and accurately. So, you know, wahoo.

Here’s the thing: It seems to me I’d be morally negligent to apply increased awareness, understanding, and empathy to characters who experience no actual suffering if I did not also try to improve my relationships with other human beings, who do experience suffering, with those same improved abilities – or, even, if I did not try to be aware, understanding, and empathetic with myself. It just seems like a matter of taking responsibility for the abilities you have and using them in the best interest of yourself and/or others – like if I were a trained lifeguard and while camping by a lake saw someone drowning, there would be some increased moral impetus for me to try to save the drowning person. Obviously what I’m talking about here isn’t generally a life-and-death application of abilities, but the idea of taking responsibility for what I can do is what I’m getting at.

So, I feel for myself that rather than less obligation to be kind to others because I’m a writer (god, just the idea makes me throw up in my mouth a little), I feel I have more, as a result of increased awareness, understanding, and empathy stemming from what I’ve learned/been taught about improving my writing.

But the question whether what an artist creates doesn’t matter if they’re not a kind person still remains. Where does that leave creative people who had pretty understandable reasons why they weren’t terribly kind – like, you know, Bukowski?


I dunno, he's being pretty nice here.

 

Or, just any number of creative people a lot of people think are assholes that a lot of people also think have done cool things?

 

Ashley Ford is Kanye West in the ways that don't include being an asshole.

 

And how in the world do you go about determining who’s “a kind person,” anyway?

 

This is how my mind is starting to feel. Also, I hear "Circle of Life" any time I look at this.

 

I guess where you land in this debate depends on whether you think creative works have value wholly independent of who created them. Given that I, and I’m guessing most people, experience music, books, film, whatever, largely (if not completely) ignorant of the moral quality of the person/people that created them and have enjoyable, valuable experiences stemming from those works that make us more aware, understanding, and empathetic human beings, I think it’s true that creative works have value wholly independent of their creators.

But I’ve been speaking from individual experience. I’m guessing either of my points – that being a writer can oblige someone to be kinder, and creative works have value wholly independent of their creators – could be argued false. Maybe you know good reasons why writers or all artistic people should get some slack when it comes to being asshole-ish. Maybe you can prove that creative works don’t have value independent of their creators. Maybe with this post I am over-thinking a simple thing/biting off way more than I can chew. (Ah no, I know I am.) But the intersection of creativity and morality (okay, anything and morality) is endlessly fascinating to me, so it’d be nice to know your thoughts.

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8 Responses to “God, Who’d Wanna Be Such An Asshole?”

  1. Tyler January 31, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Nice Modest Mouse reference, by the way.

    “Here’s the thing: It seems to me I’d be morally negligent to apply increased awareness, understanding, and empathy to characters who experience no actual suffering if I did not also try to improve my relationships with other human beings, who do experience suffering, with those same improved abilities – or, even, if I did not try to be aware, understanding, and empathetic with myself.”–Your logic here is excellent, as is most of this post. I am thinking of this “dilemma” more in terms of reason than in terms of obligations. It seems reasonable that someone who looks into his/her self and others, rather fictional or not, has an “upperhand” in dealing in human relations. When I’m a butthead, I’m like “THINK IT THROUGH.” Maybe that’s not right, but it feels right.

    I also wonder though, how do we deal with the human temperant? Meaning, aren’t all people at times inclined (and excused?) for being assholes? I’m thinking contextually. Miscommunications, personal troubles, etc. How do I deal with that?

    As I told you, sometimes I feel like i should be nicer as a person because I don’t do much that “matters” in the big picture, so I feel obligated, or at least it seems logical, to make up for that deficiency in my production in my day-to-day life.

    Also, I am well-supported by the kind words and acts of other people, and it seems logical to return the favor, when appropriate, to those kind people.

    I’m not sure if any of that makes sense. I’m reacting here. Reacting to your excellent post. Really, it was great.

  2. Layne Ransom January 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    “I also wonder though, how do we deal with the human temperant? Meaning, aren’t all people at times inclined (and excused?) for being assholes? I’m thinking contextually. Miscommunications, personal troubles, etc. How do I deal with that?”

    That exact sentiment is what prompted me asking how someone would even go about determining who’s a “kind person” and who isn’t in the first place. I mean, in class Pete gave an example of someone who seems pretty solidly like an unkind person, but I think those cases are few and far between. Which could be another argument for creative works having value wholly independent of their creators, that who’s “kind” or “good” is so subjective that it’s seems pretty useless trying to determine that status, especially in relation to the value of a creative work. Since we’re only able to evaluate and change the totality of our own actions, that seems like the most useful way of thinking about how kindness (or the lack of it) affects creativity and everything else.

    And I probably understated this, but I think expanding empathy for yourself regarding missteps, miscommunications, etc., is valuable. That sounds wussy, but whatever. That to me doesn’t mean self-pity (blegh), just not being unnecessarily harsh on yourself.

    “As I told you, sometimes I feel like i should be nicer as a person because I don’t do much that “matters” in the big picture, so I feel obligated, or at least it seems logical, to make up for that deficiency in my production in my day-to-day life.”

    Huh. I’d never thought that way, but it makes sense. I have a maybe-similar sentiment about being an upper-middle-class white college student; I’ve got some responsibility to use that privilege and wealth in a way that’s not harmful or solely beneficial to me, especially as my self-awareness about how really, really privileged I am increases.

    • tlgobble February 1, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

      I like the point you make about focusing on our own actions, since that’s the only thing we can really control. It sounds simple, and of course, is really hard, but I think it’s a nice sentiment to keep in the air. I think the way I do it, or the way I hope to do it, is to look at what’s working, either actions of myself or others, and evaluate from there. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying that’s what I do. Did my sociology teacher call this social comparison? I think so.

      I think you make a good point about turning the “free pass” lens onto oneself. Maybe writing has something to do with the harshness we often view ourselves under (we here meaning you and I that I know from experience). We constantly have to scrutinize what we produce, similar to our live-self actions. It’s likely we carry the harshness over to that as well.

      Sometimes, I feel like if I don’t fuck up anyone’s life (again), I’m doing okay.

  3. leeraloo January 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    1.) My post on Wednesday is also about assholes (the people, not the biological thing). We’re going to become the asshole blog.

    2.) I think that artists (writers, painters, photographers, actors, etc.) are weird when it comes to being “assholes,” because I find that people who are artistically inclined do tend to be more knowledgeable about issues and I’d say yes, anyone who creates characters and inhabits other people’s minds for a hobby or for a living is more empathetic. It’s just our natural disposition to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. For example, my mom always gets irritated with me because she’ll be telling me some story about something awful someone did or said to her at work, and no matter how awful that thing is, I still try to explain it away. “Maybe they were having a bad day.” “Didn’t their dad just die?” “Isn’t their kid sick?” Stuff like that. She just wants me to side with her – and that’s perfectly natural – but I have a hard time doing it.

    HOWEVER, people who are artists and live around/are friends with other artists are constantly talking about THEIR work and comparing it (even if just in their own minds) to everyone else’s work and eventually it’s really easy to become a stuck-up asshole thinking that you’re better than everyone or you’re a one-of-a-kind talent and you couldn’t possibly get any better.

    ALSO ALSO, and I’m not even sure that this has a lot to do with this post in general, but it made me think about this phenomenon called “hipster racism” (there’s also “hipster/liberal sexism”). It’s where people – often younger white people or men, often artists or people who consider themselves socially aware – will make awful race jokes or will hold on to certain viewpoints regarding sex and gender that are antiquated, but they believe they’re allowed to do so because they’re “liberal” and “socially conscious,” so OBVIOUSLY they don’t REALLY mean it.

    http://meloukhia.net/2009/07/hipster_racism.html
    http://fyeahpdd.tumblr.com/ <– kinda related, but mostly just hysterical

  4. pete January 31, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    o, and i want to say, i do think works of art are independent of the artist and people can still appreicate the work of a dickhead. i know i personally appreciate the works of some dickhead artists.

    but, i mean, for us, the artists who make the work, what’s the point of being successful if it doesn’t lead to being a better, kinder person? if becoming a good writer means “being special” and thus, outside of things, what the point? or something like that…

    • Layne Ransom January 31, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

      “but, i mean, for us, the artists who make the work, what’s the point of being successful if it doesn’t lead to being a better, kinder person?”

      I’m gonna agree with the implied answer of “nothing” here. I’d just been viewing the issue from the end of someone experiencing art and not making it, so thanks fer bringin’ up this point.

  5. thenerdynegress January 31, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    First of all, FANTASTIC POST. Made me think a lot about what I like and why. As you know, I love Bukowski’s poetry, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be his friend. I love Kanye’s music, but I couldn’t be cool with that Ninja.

    I don’t think artists who are assholes like being assholes. I don’t think it’s something they love about themselves. In fact, I’d argue that most hate it about themselves. I bet they hate it even more when the “artistic barnacle people” attach themselves to their art and feign assholism to be more “in”.

    Most artistic assholes are also intelligent people. I have to think they realize their emotional intelligence is not where it should be. It makes me wonder if artists don’t become assholes, but assholes become artists to express themselves in a way they can handle. A way where, most often, people will be comfortable not understanding it, and just feeling it. A way that keeps them from having to explain themselves too much, but still allows them to find a connection with other people.

    I don’t really know anything about being an asshole. When I try to be an asshole, I feel bad and cry and apologize all over myself. When I’m not trying to be an asshole, I offend the fuck out of people.

    Maybe, I just need to get better at being an asshole when I need to be.

  6. Nora February 3, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Hmmm…. well I’m not artistic but I’ll weight in as an engineer. Scary, I know.

    People tend to be assholes for one of two reasons, in my experience:

    1. They just haven’t had the life experiences to understand another point of view – and very little of our educational system bothers to try and teach us to think through how others might think/feel. We are taught rules and what is black and white, but not how to deal with all the grays that the real world is made of. Empathy is, unfortunately, usually something learned from personal experience in hurt and failure, and by being the recipient of unlooked for compassion and forgiveness when least expected but most needed. It’s a “pay it forward” type of situation – showing someone empathy is the best way to teach it to them.

    2. They are scared. Being a truly kind person means opening up and extending yourself to another person. It means being vulnerable to being rejected and hurt – even if just by some stranger in the grocery store. So it’s easier for some to be an asshole and protect themselves emotionally. I’ll admit I’ve done that in situations where I felt threatened and scared about people I didn’t really know. I put up walls and then blamed them when they didn’t approach me or open up to me. And now that I know this about myself, I am amazed at the change. I make an honest effort to reach out, even when nervous or anticipating the worst, and I usually find my fears were unfounded and the other people are just like me – hoping for a kind word, a smile, a friend.

    A wildcard in all of this is the impact of fame. When we talk about people like Kanye or Michael Vick or the archetypal self-centered famous artist, we are talking about people who have had their ego fed by too much praise by fawning sycophants. This warped view of their world makes empathy almost impossible.

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