If you need to tell me, you didn’t do your job

I’m a collector of retellings, particularly retellings of fairy tales and Arthurian legend. Today I finished an Arthurian retelling that was probably one of the most boring ones I’ve ever read. It was so uninspired that I found myself wondering  as I read it, “Why did someone even WRITE this?” I couldn’t figure out what about the story could have possibly excited the writer, because nothing about it excited me. It felt like one of those books where the author had just “gone through the motions” of putting a story together, sort of the novel equivalent of the 5-paragraph essay.

Well, I was in luck, because there was an “author’s note” at the end where the writer explained why she had written the book. And after reading it, I thought, “Okay, that makes sense,” and I was relieved that she did, in fact, have a reason.

Still, if the author’s note hadn’t been there, I would have been left feeling that the book was a waste of time and paper for me, and a waste of even more time for the author (the note let me believe at least the last part might not be true). And I’m left remembering a conversation I had with my younger sister once about an indie film I’d seen, to which my response was, “I didn’t really like it the first time I watched it, but then when I watched the commentary, I could see what a good movie it was.”

And she said, “If you couldn’t see what a good movie it was without the commentary, it wasn’t a very good movie.”

Ouch. But I think she nailed it; every creation must be able to stand on its own, because we just don’t have time in our culture to listen to the creator pontificate about how wonderful it is. Because even the humblest of creators believes that what she’s doing is truly brilliant–why spend the time and effort on it if you didn’t believe that? (I’m assuming we all know that art is not a get-rich endeavor.)

Truly good art should make the observer so intrigued that she WANTS to go deeper. That’s where your author’s commentary comes in; you want a rapt audience rather than a baffled one. You want your audience to love your work even when it’s totally divorced from you; indeed, you want them to feel like it’s totally about them. In the end, it comes down to good old, “Show, don’t tell,” except this time, rather than just showing a description or an emotion, you have a whole creation to prove your point: that you really are brilliant.

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