The “Bad Art Friend” Controversy: My Two Cents

I am not qualified- or knowledgeable enough to truly comment on the recent “Bad Art Friend” controversy written about in the New York Times involving Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. (Sonya Larson was in the same MFA program I was in, Warren Wilson, and one semester we even had the same advisor. We had also corresponded about a panel discussion at an alumni conference on questions of representation and non-white writers.) But I can comment on the issues that are raised, such as about using materials for details from another’s life.

Writers are observers; we are always taking in the events and circumstances around us, however consciously or unconsciously. This is inevitable. I believe also that writers should be able to write about characters from backgrounds different from their own. This needs to be done respectfully and complexly, of course. But fiction is fiction because it is not autobiographical. For many of us, our characters are composites with elements of people we have encountered as well as figments of our imagination. 

However, there are always the issues of a) direct quotation, a.k.a. plagiarism, of what somebody else has written are said and b) good boundaries and taste. The former is easier to criticize and go after; the latter is something much harder to teach and for many people to learn. In this era of social media, people very frequently have bad boundaries and there has been a decline in empathy and emotional intelligence that has been quantitatively measured by social science researchers over the decades.

Here is one good solution–imagination. A writer who is grounded in craft and who understands how to write dialogue can come up with good fiction that draws on one’s experiences and knowledge filtered through technique. I liken it to method acting, where an actor or actress brings their emotional memory to the character they are playing. You might use the feelings from a bad breakup to play Ophelia or frustrations with your man to play Maggie in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but you are ultimately always playing Ophelia or Maggie, not yourself. If writers think about the audiences they are writing to, and not just about expressing their own feelings, this might make them more conscientious and aware of how their work will be perceived. Telling a good story is a skill that is underrated in literary fiction, in my opinion.

One of the common phenomena in writing workshops is the prevalence of autofiction and writing about oneself. This is one easy way to circumvent the issue of writing about others. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like, “The good thing about egoists is that they never gossip about others!”

Social media is something I find frightening and disturbing. People use it as a means to publicly humiliate others. There are numerous examples I could cite, such as one student haranguing another student for having posted questions three times on their graduate program’s Facebook website, telling them to ask the director of the program instead.

Writing programs can often have cliques, different factions, and (sorry to say) emotionally unstable people who will gossip behind people’s back and do hurtful things. There are problems with both racism/racial insensitivity and people playing the race card unnecessarily and inappropriately. Many writers are extremely thin-skinned, and some can be jealous. Being a writer is an isolating thing, so when writers get together, they want to feel connected to others, and sometimes this ends up in creating in-groups and therefore ostracism. There is the common stressor of schoolwork and an advisor’s expectations. Out in the real world, this translates into deadlines, editorial decisions, and dealing with notorious characters.

All of this can make a writer feel like one should lock oneself in a room and write, not deal with others at all. Some writers choose to do this, and it is easy to see why.

At its core, the joy of being a writer is about being able to translate what one hears, thinks, sees, imagines in one’s head into words. It is a solitary process, but it does not have to be lonely. Not everything is a Dorland versus Larson. Supportive writers will bolster you, give you constructive criticism about your craft, encourage you when your energy is flagging, and congratulate you when you have published something or have completed a work. It can take little effort to find these people, but they are out there. 

Ted Lasso: Even If You Don’t Like Soccer!

I had heard so much about the Apple TV series “Ted Lasso.” The promo image of the Ned Flanders-esque face did very little to pique my curiosity, though I learned that it had recently won Emmys. I happen to have a free subscription to Apple TV and had seen it listed among the programs. Waylaid with a bad headache, I decided to give it a go, and I was simply blown away by it. And I am not even a fan at all of soccer (“football” as they call it in England and overseas)! The show is truly well done on so many fronts that it continues to amaze me, halfway through the first season. These are the things that make it such a delight to watch, from an artistic standpoint.

First, it is not a show about soccer. The English Richmond football team (called “AFC. Richmond”) is indeed the key player–pardon the pun–in the show, but the show is about the characters, rather than the game. “Ted Lasso” shows us a good example about how to tell a story about a very specific subject that people might not be familiar with or interested in: make it relevant and about the people. This show could have worked if Ted were trying to take over a bakery, an orchestra, or a corporation. There is enough commonality and universality in the situations in each episode that the viewer is engaged. 

Second, the premise is absolutely engaging: a second-tier American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) is hired to coach an ailing English football team by a bitter ex-wife of the former owner (Hannah Waddingham), precisely because she wants the new coach to run the team into the ground. So, it makes for fertile comedic ground. There are endless cultural clashes, strong personalities, and interesting situations for the characters to work themselves out of. The show also highlights class differences in a very subtle way, with the flashy, lowbrow Keeley (Juno Temple) who is a very streetwise, emotionally-intelligent foil to the upper class, repressed Rebecca, who are so archetypally British, contrasting with the archetypally American egalitarian, optimist Ted.  The show also pokes fun at British class differences and life to a T.

Third, “Ted Lasso” is a perfect mix of comedy and tragedy. As the series progresses, we get moments of deep tenderness and sadness, as both Ted and Rebecca are recently split from their spouses. We see Ted’s unfailing optimism start to show cracks as he is served divorce papers. We learn that Rebecca was once a very fun-loving, vibrant woman who has lost her sense of self, as she was under the thumb of her tycoon ex-husband when they were married. Ted is far away from his beloved son, Jamie is coming to terms with his arrogance, given his hardscrabble background, and Roy is aware of every athlete’s nightmare: the effects of age on one’s performance. Nate, the trusty assistant and go-fer, is bullied by team members, and yet he is able to fight back and analyze each team member’s performance, telling them to their faces what they need to do to improve their game. He is given this chance by Ted.

Fourth, Ted is an optimist whose subconscious motto seems to be “kill them with kindness.” And that is what makes it such a feel-good show. We see, in each situation, the triumph of goodness and morality over ego and depravity, or at least the attempts to act with integrity. That is a uniquely American quality, and Ted is the metaphor for it. The positive athletic coach who wants people to be their best is an important figure, as that person has to be aware of each person’s strengths and weaknesses and know how to articulate them. This could potentially be very corny and maudlin; however, the use of comedy and even poking fun at Ted’s cheerfulness through the lens of British grumpiness, and the reality of difficult situations under the sunny surface make the execution strong and enjoyable.

Finally, for any women having doubts about watching the series because of it being a “jock show” about men and football and coaching, the women hold equal weight and airtime in the show. I would even argue that it is quite feminist, for the owner of the club is a woman, the female characters are all very empowered and pursuing their own goals, and they call out the men on their bad behavior. If you like the film “Bend it like Beckham,” you will certainly like this show. The cast is rightly diverse, people from all ethinic backgrounds, as is the case with much of England.

In all, “Ted Lasso” has been an exciting discovery, one of the best shows (along with “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) that I have seen in a long time. Highly recommended!