Finding Inspiration in the Low Places

The other day Galen and I were taking about art, and I raised a point about finding inspiration not only in great art but also in bad. She readily agreed, and stated that she’s almost more inspired by bad art than other things. See, in great art it can be difficult to appreciate all of its wonderfulness—individual aspects of genius are lost in the overall transformative experience of the work. You just know it’s great. But in bad art, every wart is apparent and you immediately see all of the things you would do differently.

Bad art inspires you to make something better. The same can be said about writing.

Before I get too far into this point, let me state that you need examples of greatness from which to learn. If you want to be a great artist, you need to look at the masters. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read great works of literature. Let these be your teachers—it is, after all, how they learned. But if you only ever use them as your guides it’s possible you may feel overwhelmed—how can you ever be good enough? And, worse, is there any point in trying?

These are defeatist thoughts, something we all suffer from at times. This is where exposure to weaker, poorly-crafted works come into play—they actively inspire you to try harder, to do better.

With a work of art, there are a number of components that make up the piece—composition, color, value, line or stroke quality, variation of scale, etc. Often when something is poorly done none of these aspects are handled well. Even still, the overall idea usually comes through—you get the intent, and you (if you’re an artist) see how you could do it better, or at least improve certain elements.

Written work is no different. A great many elements go into crafting a piece of writing—pacing, plot, character development, tone, word choice and sentence structure, etc. Again, when poorly done many of these elements fail, but the intent is usually obvious—and, as a writer, you see how you would have handled it differently. You may not be the best writer, but you know you could do better than this.

Additionally, when you look at enough bad work you start seeing patterns of common failures, things many people do poorly—and things you can learn to avoid yourself.

Here is where getting involved with slush* can be quite useful. Up until a week ago I had never read through a slush pile. While I was familiar with the process through peers (and reading about it), knowing about something and experiencing it directly are two different things. This has been very educational. Certainly there has been some wonderful submissions—really impressive work—along with the not-so-good, but there are also lots of interesting works which succeed in some ways and don’t in others—these perhaps are the most inspiring. The promise of—maybe not a great story but a good, well crafted piece—is there just begging to get out, if only the story was paced better, or the characters had more depth. Sometimes the failures are general sloppiness—a poorly edited manuscript, or a piece that received no proofing at all. These are fixable things, and seeing them so glaringly in another’s work will help me identify them in my own efforts.

At a minimum, I’ll come away with the idea that I could do better than most of the stories in this slush pile. I might be wrong, but at least I’m inspired to try—and sometimes that’s enough.

*The point of reading slush is to help craft a great anthology or magazine, but there is this added benefit of learning from others’ errors. I think every writer should experience this at some point in their career.