["Open Mike," the editorial page of TOP, normally appears on Sundays. Sometimes, like today, it's a day late. We'd fire the guy responsible, but our hands are tied by the labor market—there's nobody else here. —The Managing Editor]
Friday's post, "It Can Be Anything But It's Got to Be Something," drew a large number of thoughtful comments, and a fair amount of dissent.
But really, we need to stay mindful of how advice works (it's really how insight works, as well):
You take it if you need it. Use it if it helps.
There's actually nothing prescriptive about advice. It just always looks prescriptive.
The advice offered in that post was to coolly appraise your strengths and weaknesses and concentrate on your strengths. For the sake of argument, let's say that 7% of the people who read that post will find it thought-provoking, and it will sow a seed. Of that 7%, a smaller percentage will be galvanized by it—one person might realize that she's been chomping at the bit to devote herself to, say, botanical photography, yet still spends a lot of time doing standard nature 'n' landscape without being terribly gratified by it, sort of with the desultory unexamined notion that, well, she ought to. She uses the post to happily say goodbye to her weak-dishwater nature 'n' landscape stuff and concentrate on botany, and her interest and enthusiasm are supercharged, and suddenly she can't wait to get out in nature to document, say, various stages of blight on local American Chestnuts.
Or, another photographer realizes that he's been oppressed by standard notions of genre, and realizes that many of his favorite pictures are color-field photographs of a variety of sorts, regardless of subject—so he tosses aside the previously oppressive idea that he ought to be the documentarian of family picnics, and starts to think inventively of all sorts of creative ways to find and use washes of colors that interrelate in near-abstract ways.
In the comments to that post, Wesley Liebenberg-Walker wrote,
That, you see, is plenty for me. I don't demand or expect that everybody will respond the way Wesley did. But it really makes me happy that I said something that was useful to him.
The 5% rule
The way I think of it is that the more people who enjoy a particular post the better, but I don't mind if some posts prove to be helpful, or of interest, just for a few. If I can imagine one out of twenty readers getting something important or intriguing from one of my longer posts, that's fine with me.
There's a slight problem, though. The arbitrary idea that 7% of you got something out of that post leaves 93% of readers remaining. That group might include the 14% who will skip the post because it looks turgid and overlong; the 23% who have already dealt with this issue and have decided they'll shoot any old thing that catches their fancy and they like it that way; the 9% who think my ideas are flat wrong and find that the post makes them want to argue with me; and so on*.
But you see, that's okay. It's just not the advice they need, is all. Not all advice is for everybody. Implicit in any advice is never "we must all do this" much less "anyone who doesn't do it this way is wrong"; rather, what's implicit is, "hey, some people might find it useful to think of this in this particular way."
That quality—of using what you need and discarding what you don't—is true of insight as well. I'm sure everybody has had the experience of coming across a tidbit of insight that turned out to be incredibly important to them personally and seems to have arisen at just the absolutely best possible time. But an essential part of the equation when that happens is that you've got to be ready for it. It wasn't accidental. It might even have been an insight that you encountered before, but glossed over or walked right past the first eight times you encountered it. For the arrow of insight to hit home, it needs to be what you need to hear at the right juncture in your own life.
Whether advice or insight is useful to you changes as you change, too. The exact same advice that a 20-year-old finds life-changing might leave a 60-year-old heaving a sigh; the advice that slides off the 20-year-old like rain off a windshield might stop a 40-year-old in her tracks and change the course of her life.
This is even true of art. Our tastes change and evolve. A book or movie or painting that seemed incredibly rich and gratifying and brilliant to you when you're 12 might look obvious and surfacey and puerile thirty years later. (That doesn't mean you can't respect "where you were" then, of course. I always look back on things that were once important to me, but aren't any more, with affection.)
Seeds can grow, too. I discovered jazz in my 40s, and went on an extended jazz kick that lasted well over a decade. But I'd been introduced to jazz by my brother Scott when I was in my 30s, and it just had never "taken." Something about it just sounded wrong. I couldn't get into it. But Scott laid the groundwork for my later epiphany with that music. Now, I can't reconstruct how Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um once sounded strange and spiky to me; it sounds as rich, warm and gratifying to me now as Led Zeppelin IV sounds to a classic rock fan. Bebop and hard bop of the period from approximately 1955–1959 is still the core of all music for me—I was born in the middle of that period—more so even than the rock and pop I grew up with.
Another interesting feature of advice is that it can be just as useful to you if you consider it, engage with it, and decide to do the opposite!
This is an interesting feature of criticism too. There was a movie critic who had an extremely long and successful career at Time magazine (1965–2010) whose name is Richard Schickel (he's now 82). His opinions were usually very useful to me because I usually disagreed with him, and his opinions often provoked me. I engaged with his writing and his opinions, but in the negative. He helped form my outlook, at least on movies. I still have a lot of affection and appreciation for his work.
So what if someone reads my piece, goes on an extended period of grappling with the ideas, and concludes in the end that he'd still like to shoot anything he sees than catches his eye? Or who determines that she has a real gift for still life but enjoys candids more and decides to turn her back on still life? Well, the advice in that case was still very helpful, wasn't it, if grappling with the idea helps you make a conscious, positive choice?
I think it was Ezra Pound (probably in the indispensable ABC of Reading, which every artist should read, preferably when young) who said that a work of art you hate can be just as important to you and to your growth as a work of art you love. It too can serve as an important clue to your direction.
Up to you
What all this says is, if advice doesn't fit you, that's perfectly okay. Just don't take it, then. All advice is optional. Take what you need, leave the rest. It just depends on how it strikes you. It's always up to you.
That's how it works. No: more: that's how it's supposed to work.
(Thanks to everyone who commented on 'It Can Be Anything...')
*I'm just fantasizing here, of course—I have no idea how many people respond in what way to what they read. Even the comments are just a very vague indication, because most readers don't comment.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Chris Norris: "The advice you gave hit home for me and served to solidify that which I've discovered in the past few years: I am good at and enjoy a very narrow range of photography (landscapes, particularly hyperlocal urban ones). Abandoning photography that didn't fit that bill has made it overall more enjoyable and has really honed my skill in the area I like. Plus it helps me graciously decline a lot of suggested pursuits and events. 'Oh, I don't really shoot that kind of thing anymore.'"
G. Dan Mitchell: "Re 'Another interesting feature of advice is that it can be just as useful to you if you consider it, engage with it, and decide to do the opposite!' I like that notion. I use it when teaching certain music classes and trying to explain the impact of serialism (exotic topic—suffice it to say it was/is a big deal) on 20th century and later music. I point out that two of the ways it had in impact were: 1. Some folks adopted it as their primary working method, and lot of great work was created. 2. Some folks thought it was the worst thing they'd ever heard of and they did everything to avoid it, thus creating a lot of great work."