Here are some thoughts for the New Year, as we prepare to reinvent ourselves in the form of New Year’s resolutions.
If you’ve been following me along this garden path for very long you will know that I get worked up about issues touching on the pressures that potters and artists experience. Really, anything that puts a limit on how we feel we are able to express ourselves. Among those pressures that put a burr under my collar is even what I would call “the pressure to conform to oneself”. Or, to put it another way, the pressure to have an identity and to stick with it, hell or high water, no matter what comes. In other words, no matter how much we ourselves may change or desire change.
Many artists don’t suffer this pressure and simply do whatever they want to do, growing and changing as they naturally evolve. Others are content with who they are and what they’ve got and don’t experience much in the way of wanderlust. But we can’t deny that the system where we practice our art in many cases does demand a trumped up consistency. The way it often gets talked about we are encouraged to think of consistency as a somehow natural or essential manifestation of our authenticity, brand, voice, or signature identity. It gets talked about as ‘owning what you do’, as if we can only own one particular thing. As if we only are one thing. And there is a world view that supports this notion of monadic self identity. In very few circumstances are we encouraged to jump the tracks. We are instead encouraged to be predictable.
And predictability is comforting. Predictability is safe. There is nothing inherently wrong with being predictable. But, on the other hand, its not the only way, and its not for every person. In recent days there has been some excellent thought on how necessary or even valid this picture ultimately is. In the last week in two days alone I found four separate blog posts that treat this question.
I will start with the inimitable Chuck Wendig’s post “Authors: Don’t get burned by branding”:
“Been thinking a bit about “brand” recently in terms of being an author.
For illumination, we turn briefly toward Wikipedia, that cultivated encyclopedia of the commons, and there we discover that the American Marketing Association defines branding as:
“Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”
Of course, you might look to an older definition –
As a verb, you might mean, “To be marked with a branding iron.”
You might further look toward one of the synonyms of the word: “stigmatize.”
Suddenly, I’m thinking less about Coca-Cola and more about a white-hot iron pressing into a beast’s flesh, the fur smoldering, the skin charring, blisters popping up like the bubbles in bubble wrap.
Not coincidentally, I now want a hamburger and a cold glass of Coke.
But that’s really neither here nor there. What I’m trying to suss out is, where does this leave an author in terms of branding himself or being branded? Is this more a symbol of what the author represents to customers, or is it instead an indelible mark scorched into the author’s metaphorical flesh?
I gotta be honest: I’m starting to lean toward the crispy char-mark than the marketing strategy. Because here’s what can happen: you write a handful of books of one type, and then you, as an author seeking to explore new territory, seeking to grow and change and spread your penmonkey
seed wings in other genres and styles and biblio-realms, discover that, uh-oh, you’ve been branded. You’re suddenly That Guy — you’re the Guy Who Writes Splatterpunk Horror or the Girl Who Writes Scientologist Steampunk Space Erotica, and soon as you want to do differently, even once, nobody wants to hear it. More specifically, publishers don’t want to publish it — you’ve got your niche, you’ve built your fence, so now isn’t the time to stray, little pony. Don’t make us get out the shock-prods. Bzzt.
That’s not a rail against specialization, mind you — you want to forever write Hard Sci-Fi in Epistolary Format, hey, fuck it, find your bliss, little word-herder. But the moment you want to do differently, you’re going to find that brand starts to itch and burn and next thing you know you’ve got the loop of a catch-pole tightening around your neck and dragging you back to where you came from.”
We can see this pressure on potters as well. Take this excerpt from William Brouillard’s video:
“My work has been called eclectic, sometimes not in a nice way. I once sent a group of work to a gallery in Detroit. I was really proud of them. And again I like to work on a lot of different things. The gallery director sent some of the work back along with a note that says “This looks like the work of three or four different people, and I can’t show it together as the work of one person.” That really made me think for a while…. At the same time I learned that when I was a full-time studio person that the only way you could be happy in the studio was to deliberately incorporate change into your work. And that was the only thing that made full-time studio work really viable, that otherwise you would just stagnate and burn out. And I saw a lot of people that did that. They were commercially very successful, but they were so bored by what they were doing that for them working looked like it was painful.”
Its true, often we do choose the course of consistency. But there are outside pressures that also bend us to this direction. We don’t always do it voluntarily, and we don’t always do it knowingly. Not knowing our other options its all too easy to acquiesce or turn a blind eye. But we are deceiving ourselves if we imagine that we aren’t being herded (as The Great Wendig puts it) by shock-prods and catch-poles. Sometimes its a stick, sometimes its a carrot. Sometimes its a sweet lullaby that soothes us, and sometimes its a strong narcotic. ‘Incentive’ comes in many forms, often most insidiously by calling it ‘the truth’, ‘fate’, ‘inescapable nature’, or accepting without question, taking for granted, and simply toeing the line….
So I would still question how necessary or even important this devotion actually is. The outside pressures can be overwhelming, and fair enough if we agree to play the game according to those rules. But sometimes we rationalize that things work out this way because of some internal determinism. Are we being true to ‘ourselves’ by manifesting our work only according to one voice, one brand, one signature style? The easy answer is “yes”, but it may not be the correct answer. For instance, conformity may have as much or more to do with familiarity and habit than anything else, and I’m not sure the folks pushing the ‘authenticity’ agenda have only that in mind.
Lets take a quick look. Here are some of the other things that flashed by my inbox last week:
“We sleep, and believe we wake with the minds we carried into bed with us, bearing them as a bride borne in her groom’s arms, the lifted, the treasured, the threshold flier; so we believe.
But we do not. That weary mind has been dispersed in sleep, its myriad parts left behind on the tracks, lying upon the infinite concrete ties between endless, gleaming steel rails.
We wake, and compose for ourselves a new mind (if some other does not compose it for us), a mind compounded of such parts of the old one as we can discover, and of dreams, and of odd snatches of memory—something read long, long ago, possibly something sprung into thought from a tele listing, the skewed description of a better presentation, the show as it existed in Platonic space. From such trifles as these and more we construct a new mind and call it our own.” —Gene Wolfe, Home Fires (2011)
“The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case…. [E]veryone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno
“Personal identity is, strictly speaking, nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there. That means we’re forever changing.” ~ Julian Baggini
This last was excerpted from the fascinating video below:
And if that’s not enough to cast suspicion on our sense of undeniable fixed identity, here’s yet another way that we are perpetually divided, even against our own selves:
“We don’t actually choose between experiences but between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future we don’t think about the future as normal experiences, we think about the future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this as a tyranny of the remembering self and you can think of the remembering self as dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.” –Daniel Kahneman, from the fascinating video below:
And last but not least, this tidbit from the author Kurt Vonnegut: “I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”
Lots to ponder, eh?
So in conclusion I will give you my New Year’s resolution that instead of playing it safe, doing the same old same old, every week I will do at least one thing significantly different in the studio. “Deliberately introducing change” as Brouillard puts it. Not just playing with a variation (although some weeks that might prove acceptable), but departing from the known and venturing off into uncharted areas. If there’s something I want to try I will try it. If there’s something I’ve been dreaming of doing I will find the time to do it.
Like most New Year’s resolutions its liable to flame out at the starting gate or grind to a ponderous and slow death. We’ll see how it goes.
Happy New Year! May your anticipated memories and your remembered experiences be stupendous!