Tag Archives: devil is in the details

Your opinion of my art is awful, really

Adjectives are about as useful to a working artist as quicksand is to the through-hiker

view of a bay with Quicksand sign in the foreground

Help! I’m sinking in a morass of value judgments! — CC image “quicksand” courtesy of Mark Roy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I finished a drawing last week!

Actually, I finished two, I think… time to invest in fixative that doesn’t bill itself as being “workable.”

I’ve been stockpiling a growing folder of images that I wanted to use to draw from. With each one I’d think, “I’d really like to draw that, but…” When I opened my sketchpad, I was confronted with page after page of unfinished drawings.

Finally, I decided that before I could start any more new drawings, I’d have to finish the old, to the point where I would spray them with fixative. Any fixative, even “workable” fixative.

For a long time that resolution meant that I wasn’t drawing anything at all.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out the sketchpad again and realized how close to finished one of the drawings actually was. In the time since I’d started it, and the day I was looking at it, I’d been learning about different techniques I wanted to try, and this drawing was a perfect candidate.

I want to note for the record that I am not an artist. I’m a writer. I like to mess around with drawing, “just for me,” as I tell my friends, who are sometimes interested to see what I am doing. I don’t want to share my drawings partly because I have higher standards for my work than what I’m able to produce, and partly because people are usually prompted to share an opinion when they look at a piece of art. They do this when they look at a piece of writing too, which is why I’m allowed to make the current analogy.

Bad opinion — Bad!

With love, people: I’m not looking for an opinion.

I want someone to talk to me like a craftsperson. I’d like to hear about techniques, different choices, and skills I either have or can acquire. Instead, many people react to a piece of art as though they’ve been asked to provide reassurance. That is, they tend to respond like this when they look at a piece of art in person, with the artist. They don’t usually do this in a museum. In a museum you are much more likely to hear genuine critiques and deconstruction of a work. You’ll get to hear why they feel the way they do about a piece of art.

Details, details, details

The hallmark of a good critique is specific details. The most over-used and, to me, most frustrating adjectives imply a value judgment only, with no reference to why or how that judgment was formed. The piece is “good” — one of the most useless adjectives ever, right up there with “interesting.” “Good” tells me absolutely nothing. Why is it good? How is it interesting?

I would mind sharing less — of my writing, too — if people wouldn’t always respond in this way. If instead, they did what one of my friends, who saw my second newly completed drawing, did. She eyed it for a moment, and said, “I like how you made that part negative, brighter than everything else.”

I loved my friend’s comment so much because it was specific.

The enemy of the good

“Good” just invites us to compare ourselves to other artists and writers we think of as “good” (our own value judgments). We know where we stand in relation to their work. Most of the time, they are more skilled than we are, and we can point out in what ways this is so. Comparisons and value judgements are no good for my art. Specifics, on the other hand, are valuable, because I can gauge my work against itself — I’m not worried about anyone else.

Worrying about how we compare to other artists is a crippling disease. We need frequent booster shots to inoculate ourselves against this state of mind. Specific details are the booster. Remember this, the next time a friend asks you to look at his work.

When’s the last time you had your shot?

== == ==

Does anyone have suggestions on how to frame a preference for detail over opinion to their friends and acquaintances? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Submit that writing!

(otherwise you’ll never get published)

large button reading Submit mounted on the wall

CC image Submit Button courtesy of johannes p osterhoff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Has anyone else noticed that submitting work for publication involves a lot of decision-making?

You need to figure out which piece you want to submit. Which means you have to figure out if it’s ready to submit. Which means you need to make a lot of editing decisions, and before you know it, you might be sucked into a total re-write.

You need to figure out where you’re going to submit it. This involves the monumental task of finding places that publish. Do I want to publish online or in print or both? What genre am I looking at — or more than one? Am I willing to pay a reading fee? How much? Do I want to consider contests?

What are the deadlines? What are the guidelines? Do I need to trim words? Add words? What font and spacing do I need to use? Have I put the appropriate contact and identifying information in my piece (or refrained from using it if asked)? Dammit when was that deadline again? OK, next market!

Then there is the actual packaging. Find the submission website. Click through the options, enter the information, upload the file (this stage involves a revisiting of all the previous questions, as to whether the manuscript is ready, whether this is the best work, if I should edit it some more, if this is really the venue for me, whether I’ve formatted everything according to their guidelines, etc etc etc), SUBMIT.

This spring, I began the process of submitting in earnest. I’ve got all sorts of flotsam and jetsam pieces floating around, and I need to actually send them on their way. Along with a group of other people who were using each other for mutual support, I gathered to talk about places to submit what types of writing, and pulling together my choices for what I wanted to submit and where. The idea was to get at least six submissions out that day.

To be honest, I haven’t gotten to that last button yet [SUBMIT!], because I’ve been waylaid by all the other stages.

Dilemmas, dilemmas

First, I thought I had all these pieces ready. Turns out, I didn’t, because I rejected them for one reason or another. Only two or three were close enough to send-worthy, and even these, I wanted to edit.

Then I looked up a number of promising venues to submit these two pieces. That one sentence describes more than an hour’s worth of research — see paragraphs 3 and 4, above. Finally, I got my targets organized, and went back to my chosen pieces to make a few — only minor, really — fine-tuning changes.

The time for our group to meet ended, and I still hadn’t submitted a thing. That’s fine, I told myself. I can go home, have lunch, refuel the brain, and finish up the task from there.

You know what happened to that.

The death of good intentions in the fires of creative flip-flopping

My good intentions DID carry over, at least for a little while. I sat down to make the final polishing-edits on the one piece. The more I pulled it together, the better I felt about the prose, and I lost track of the time going by. When I got up for a drink of water, the afternoon was gone.

Damn. I had had other plans for the rest of my day. After all, I was going to submit in the morning, so all the rest of the hours could be allocated for other things.

That’s fine, I told myself, as I had to make a few phone calls and buy food for dinner. I have the rest of the weekend. I have the rest of the week — by next weekend, this will all be taken care of.

I could write you a list of all the other things I had to do during that week, but I won’t. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Research shows that we have a finite amount of energy for decision-making processes. Making a decision is a lot of work for the brain. We may start out fresh in the morning (or not, if you’re me, and the alarm goes off way too early), but throughout the day we deplete our stores of mental energy through use. Come mid-afternoon, I’m tapped out. Which is sort of sad, since I’m doing work for other people for most of the day, and my own time in the evening is then relegated to a period of vegetation on the couch, with a restorative book in hand or Netflix queued up on the computer… ah brainlessness… Pending the decision on what I’m going to watch or read, of course.

It seems to me that I’m just too stubborn.  My will will not submit.

== ==

What about you? Do you submit?

Writing with IPA (and not in the snow)

We got your Shakespearean OP -- Yeah you know me!

confused-looking woman holding a notebook

CC image “Confused” courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

M paused as he explained the definition of the word. “You know that weird string of letter-like symbols when you look it up in the dictionary?” he said. “Do any of you have a clue what that’s all about?”

The nerd in me took .02 seconds to pipe up. “That’s the International Phonetic Alphabet,” I said, equal parts proud and embarrassed.

“Of course it is,” said M.

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short (not as tasty as certain fermented beverages that also go by the same name, but at least as interesting, in certain circles) is a kind of symbolic spelling that linguists use to represent how a word is pronounced without stumbling over spelling conventions. The IPA applies across all known languages or dialects. IPA spelling shows up immediately after the boldfaced entry of every word in the dictionary, between two backslashes, as with this example from Merriam Webster:

dic·tio·nary: noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē\

Since I was a somewhat nerdy child, and did use the dictionary while I was growing up (going through the pupae stage of my bookworminess, I guess you could say), I had long wondered about those symbols myself. Although I supposed they were related to pronunciation, I was never quite sure how until I took my first phonetics class.

The sounds of language

Ahh, phonetics. The study of the sounds of speech. Typically, when we’re talking about how a writer renders a particular dialect or language, we’ll say “s/he wrote that dialect phonetically” to mean that the spelling evokes sound rather than writing conventions. “I’m gonna” versus “I’m going to,” for example. The thing is, every author has his or her own idea of what that dialect actually sounds like, and all kinds of spelling variations can be used. How do I know what I’m hearing in my own head is what the writer intended?

This poses a problem just among English-speakers. Try to get an American English speaker or a Welsh English speaker to write “phonetically” for an Aussie or a Kiwi. They will just look at each other curiously. The vowels for all our varied English dialects are totally different.

Enter the IPA. Every symbol is assigned one sound. Additional notations known as diacritics add details such as whether the sound is voiced or voiceless, aspirated (followed by a puff of exhaled air) or not. Although based on the Latin alphabet, IPA contains plenty of other funky symbols to keep digital transcriptionists busy.

To the layperson, IPA looks like a bunch of hieroglyphics. Learning IPA is the equivalent of learning a new written language. It’s most useful in academic circles and for students of language. (I did say I was a nerdy child, right?)

IPA in daily life and in Shakespeare

We could use it to represent the sounds of English today. All of us, native speakers or not, have at one point complained about how English spelling and pronunciation don’t seem to have ANYTHING to do with each other sometimes.

But there was a time when English writing was much more “phonetic” than it is today. And scholars say Shakespeare captures a lot of that language.

The fruits of research into the language of Shakespeare have even taken the stage at The Globe Theatre in London, where a number of productions were performed in what is called OP, “original pronunciation.”

Original pronunciation, you say? How do they know what Shakespeare’s compatriots actually sounded like?!

For a fuller discussion, watch this video. In brief, according to the noted historical linguist David Crystal, there are three main types of evidence researchers use to determine the pronunciation of historical dialect. First, they look at what people writing at the time have to say about how their language is spoken. Second, they use the written evidence (since English used to be much more phonetic, spelling gives us helpful clues). And third, researchers look at poetry and rhyme, on the concept that poetic stanzas were meant to rhyme, and not look strange as they do to the modern eye.

The result is something that doesn’t sound at all the way most of us are used to hearing Shakespeare pronounced (watch for examples). To my ears, it even sounds sort of Irish. I swear it’s not the apostrophe in my name talking.

I’m pretty sure The Globe’s production staff put together a pronunciation guide for the actors who had to learn the script in OP. I doubt it was an IPA guide, though.


Bi-ˈkəz ðæt wʌd bi ˈkɹe-zi!1


What’s your favorite nerdy discovery?


1 With apologies for any mistakes I may have made, or any dialectal offenses I may have incurred.

Attentional bias and what it means for your work

or: the magic of little red cars

two little cars outside apartment complex, one red

The Hunt for the Little Red Car” CC image courtesy of screenpunk on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I recently discovered that there was a name for a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing a lot in my life lately.

Its popular name seems to be the red car effect. More learned folks talk about cognitive biases and label the process selective attention or attentional bias.

These names describe the way we notice all the little red cars on the road after we’ve bought a little red car. We’re pretty sure that there weren’t this many just a few days ago, but now we can’t help seeing them everywhere.

Did all of us visit the dealer in the same week?

Or are we just now noticing the red cars because we’ve started paying more attention to them?

Our new sight isn’t just restricted to cars, or even the purely physical. Everyone seems to be talking about personal empowerment, these days. A lot of folks are into my obscure favorite band (judging by the T-shirts). Have you ever noticed how many people are speaking Polish?

My attentional bias is that I am surrounded by entrepreneurs and small business people. Where did they all come from? I was a worker bee for a long time, and hadn’t spared a thought for entrepreneurship until I started doing it myself. Now, every time I turn around so-and-so is running their own business. And I mean, I know these people. Some of them for years.

And they’ve all got great ideas that I can use. How fortuitous. What serendipity! The Universe — it’s sending me a message just when I need it!

Serendipity. Another word I have begun to look at askance, since I’ve become aware of the red car effect. Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

A happy coincidence. Or is it?

Are you paying attention?
The Universe has been giving me a lot of information lately. Sometimes in the form of repetition. The past couple of weeks, I have been struggling with a business plan. The plan looks NOTHING like what I envisioned when I started putting it together. Like the most pampered pooch on the end of an extendable leash, the business plan has its own ideas about where it wants to go. Every time I try to be practical, structured, and business-y, the dang thing keeps pulling in creativity, play, and uncertainty.

It’s as though I’m setting out to go to the Science Museum, and instead end up in a wing filled with paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Rodin.

I really like being there, too. But what does this have to do with business?

I’m annoyed. The whole point of a business plan is to be logical. I can play when I’m not trying to do business.

Enter the email. The business plan and I are playing push-me-pull-you, me wondering why our relationship isn’t working, when this message comes across the digital ether and lands in my inbox:

“So many people give up when things don’t go according to their plan. When you decide to go for something, but can’t seem to make it work, don’t back down. The path to achieving your goal may not be what you expected.” (emphasis added)

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person on Coach Jenn Lee’s email list. It would be foolish to conclude the message was written just for me. Her email composition and sending schedule has a lot more to do with her particular circumstances than with my recalcitrant un-businessy business plan.

But that’s not how I felt when I read it.

I was just wondering why my stupid business plan wasn’t conforming to, well… plan.

Is the Universe talking to me (using digital media as the messenger)? Or am I just paying more attention to little red cars?

Why this matters
Here’s the sneaky part about attentional bias. While we’re busy wondering how much new information is actually new (if you’re anything like me, that is), we suddenly have a lot we can say about red cars, little or otherwise. We are aware of the quantity and variety of makes and models, and who is driving them. Which ones are shiny and clean, which have dents in the bumper, or a license plate hanging on by one corner. We notice that there are a lot of different shades of red.

We can say a lot about personal development. Or band T-shirts, our main character’s Polish grandparents, dogs who pull on their leashes. My business plan wants to hang out with Rodin. What does that mean for how I can serve my audience?

That’s the real big deal about paying attention. It gives you information you can use.

Attentional bias. Serendipity. Coincidence. Whatever you wish to call the act of recognition, the result is that the world gets bigger.

And we can do more with it.

Have you had some serendipity in your life recently? I’d love to hear about it.