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.