A Magician or a Workman?


I came across this article yesterday. It’s brilliant. Read it, then return to me.

Or if you’re lazy, I’ll summarize:

People are apparently annoyed that ‘Birdman’ beat out ‘Boyhood’ for the best picture award. I wouldn’t call myself annoyed–movies, like all stories, are very subjective–but I actually did see both films, and have formed opinions about both.

My reaction to Boyhood: simply put, beautiful. Like all of Linklater’s films (the Sunrise series are some of the best movies I’ve ever seen, ever) Boyhood was light on plot, heavy on these slice-of-life scenes and characters that felt so real. Making fiction resemble reality as close as possible, is, I think, the ultimate achievement.

My reaction to Birdman: well-acted, incredibly shot, well-written … and really pretentious and overwrought. It just wasn’t enjoyable to me. I think the point of fiction is to get your reader/viewer so immersed in your story that they forget what they’re reading/seeing is fiction. With Birdman, I was aware that every scene I was watching was a work of art. Painfully aware.

And there were other people who think Boyhood was boring and pointless and Birdman was brilliant. To each his own.

But what I loved about the article is how the author brings it back to “the classic debate”:

“Should art be dazzling and inventive or should it be stripped-down, simple, and honest? Should the artist be in-your-face with her talent, or should she recede into the background of the work? Should she be a magician or a workman?”

As a writer, I am firmly in the workman-receding-into-the-background camp. I like my fiction stripped-down, simple, and honest.

Or do I?

I just made a listing of my all-time favorite books to figure out if I prefer sad books to happy ones. (Spoiler alert: I do.) Looking at it again, I see that most of my faves do fall in the “simple, beautiful fiction” category (One Day, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Stephen King.) However, a few others do not.

The Book Thief is up there as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it yet what’s wrong with you it’s the story of a German girl in Nazi Germany who likes books, among other things. And it’s narrated by Death, in a very distinct voice. Some might call this a gimmicky, showy way of presenting one’s story–in fact, most of the criticism I hear about this book is about Death’s voice–but I thought it was beautiful. The voice, the story, everything. In this case, showy worked for me.

We Were Liars is a recent read, and again the voice was very distinctive. It jumped around in time, with a somewhat unreliable narrator, beautiful prose but with odd line breaks that could be distracting. Again, I loved it. It worked for me.

Another more “showy” book on my favorites list: The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book, drawings and all, but it’s so much more than that, with its odd little metaphors. It’s been a favorite of mine since middle school.

On top of that, I’ve never liked Hemingway. Too boring.

What it ultimately comes down to is personal taste. Find things that make you feel things, then find more of those things. Then, if you’re so inclined, go on to make things like that.

“And really, as an artist, that’s what matters: finding the art that makes you want to make more art.”

Image found here

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