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. 

A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.