Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Writing: An Amorphous Process

I haven't been writing any fiction lately (except for my webcomics, which I guess still counts), but I'm still keeping up several blogs and making YouTube content, and I'm still in touch with a lot of spaces where discussion of writing is happening. Yesterday I noticed something happening on my fan-stuff-only blog for Steven Universe that made me want to talk about writing.

Specifically, critics.

Despite my experience as a pretty tough editor and my past as a vocal critic of some popular works, I do NOT consider my fan blog a critical blog. I occasionally analyze the source material and slant toward critical when appropriate, and every once in a while that gets my posts mistaken for critical posts even though they largely are not, but overall my blog is a celebration of the material, not a critical exploration. There are several aspects of the show that I feel were missteps--almost certainly just a symptom of overlooking the possible impact an implicit message could have rather than an explicit support of the ideologies I disagree with--and though I have never made posts "calling out" the writers for these issues, I discuss them when invited. Overall, I think some of the messages in the show that end up being confusing, morally gray, or incredibly complex are like that for a reason: life is complicated, relationships are complicated, and this show reflects that. Just because they include a message in an episode does not mean they're advocating that message. Some of the more troubling messages were seemingly deliberately left neutral. And sometimes a character learns one lesson and then learns the opposite lesson in another episode. For instance, in one episode a character's willingness trust is rewarded; in a later episode, that trust is abused; there's no way you can walk away with "trust people more willingly!" as a message for this show if "trusting people might get you killed" follows it, and just like in real life, some people deserve trust and some don't.

This show depicts things that happen. Showing us things that happen sometimes is not the same as agreeing with them.

And that's a risky game in children's media, yes. But I resented being talked down to by adults through my cartoons when I was a kid, and I appreciate that this one almost never presents its messages as uncomplicated, simplified dogma.

But here's another thing. This show is created COLLABORATIVELY.

Different people on the show want to bring different messages to the table. Sometimes those messages are very specific and very nuanced. And sometimes, when my commentary or discussion gets reblogged into "critical" Tumblr, I see a lot of objection to this. A lot of hooting and hollering about how the show is disorganized, or inconsistent, or even incoherent. And in response to some of the insight the show creators are giving us in behind-the-scenes podcasts, some of these critics are mocking the way the story has evolved. Sometimes the creative team has admitted that they planted clues without knowing what they meant, or that they didn't have an important part of the story solidified until halfway through the first season, or that certain initial intentions have been diverted or changed completely.

I'm watching one of my podcast recaps getting pooped on by critics saying the show is a joke, the show is trash, it should be canceled, it's written by clowns, they wish everyone involved with it would "choke and die," etc. Because the creators shared their creative process and some of it was not a calculated, streamlined, single-mission, comprehensively plotted work of genius from greenlight to the present.

Do these people have NO idea at all how writing works?

Because it sounds like these people have no idea at all how writing works.

So, writing for an ongoing television series in a collaborative capacity is way outside my zone of experience, but I can say with some certainty that I wouldn't want to be in a position where people were enthusiastically consuming one of my works in progress. Because when I start a book, I rarely know how it ends when I'm beginning. Characters pop up and act in ways I didn't really expect. I realize things I didn't anticipate as I go along. I've repeatedly had the experience of "discovering" aspects of characters--even very big elements of their character--sometime significantly after I had them acting in my book. And if you know what you're doing, you can kind of make it look easy; if by the end it looks like you meant to do that all along, you're doing really well. And I never would've been able to pull that off in some of my books if I hadn't been able to go back and tweak a few things that didn't line up in the beginning.

This show's beginning is littered with stuff that doesn't actually make sense with the currently understood canon. Most people write those things off as the show trying to find its feet. It was more magic and less science fiction at the beginning, though it's still a fantasy/sci-fi show today as well. Building on plot elements you tried out at the beginning and leaving other ones behind is how writing WORKS. And because of the way television shows are greenlit, aired, and marketed, it's not feasible for an animation team to complete five seasons of a show and make sure everything's airtight before releasing the beginning of the first season. It IS an in-progress work. And I'm not saying the flaws and contradictions aren't there. I'm saying THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. I know what I'm looking at and I don't necessarily expect it to be perfect. I don't even necessarily expect people not to criticize it when it isn't; the show is a big deal and has a big stage. But when my tags and reblogs start filling up with people saying they want the creators to DIE, posting reaction pictures of drunk people and laughing, or writing the show off as hopelessly and laughably contradictory because they admit to not planning some of the stuff that developed as they went along, I just want them to wake up and acknowledge what a writing process is.

It's okay to find its flaws inexcusable and quit watching it. It's also okay to acknowledge flaws and love the show anyway. I don't think I'm denying that the flaws exist if I say they're not inexcusable to me. But I'm seeing the critics equate liking the show with denying its imperfections, and it's really annoying. Most of all though, the guffaws I'm hearing from these people when the creative team freely shares what was planned and what was an accident make me think none of these people have ever tried to create anything. Imagine getting assigned to do a group project in school and the later parts of the project depend on how the early parts go. Imagine having to present your project to the teacher and the class as you go along and not having any option to alter anything once it's been seen. And imagine having the audience laugh at you because you didn't start with a comprehensive, accurate table of contents.

This is how creative projects WORK, son. They're works in progress, and the medium for this one just happens to necessitate showing it to the audience as it's growing. With the creative team also fluctuating as the project goes along, the political and social climate shifting over time, and the individual team members' personal growth affecting everything involved, it shouldn't be a surprise that it's sometimes something other than a well-oiled machine. Rebecca Sugar has described, in several interviews, her experience writing a song for the ending credits of the first few seasons. At first the song was instrumental (written by her music team), and new instruments and slightly different vibes were threaded in as the story progressed, but then later Rebecca added lyrics. She then had the show slowly revealing more of the song as the show went on, and she explained that the lyrics themselves were not written all at one time either. The punch line: When she first wrote the beginning of the song, she thought it was about aliens trying to understand humans. The middle of the song reflected some dark stuff she was personally going through, only to later turn out to be about a very human process of questioning oneself and learning what love means. She thought it was about an outside perspective at first, but it ended up making more sense as an intensely personal, human perspective.

And guess what?

It still works. It's still a beautiful song. Just from LISTENING to it, I don't get the impression that it was written by someone who didn't know what the song would ultimately mean as she was writing it. That didn't come through in the product. I only know about that because she told us about her process. 

The show itself is a lot like that. We know it's not entirely a masterfully calculated airtight project (nor do they claim it is), and we know that largely because they're allowing us a peek into their process, showing us that many of the details that seemed planned were not, or that sometimes stuff is thrown in to drop seeds for later with no idea what they'll grow into. We also still don't know what it will become one day; the end is not here yet, and I'm seeing people operating entirely on theories rolling their eyes and snotting at the plot developments based on where they THINK it's going to go next. This is contradictory! This doesn't make sense because I don't know the answer to the murder mystery so it must be something pointless! They BETTER do the thing I expect or it WON'T MAKE SENSE! I don't like this twist because it changed my perception of something I got attached to! I got invested in my interpretation of events to the point that anything the actual writers develop won't satisfy me! Something disappointed me in the show so even though I loved it until now I can't keep enjoying it if it did something that far out of my expectations! I don't like this character and the story keeps making her look better than I think she is! I like this other character and the writers obviously don't understand her as well as I do because they're writing her this way I don't like! They wrote a show that captured millions of people's attention but I found evidence of its imperfection so they must not know what they're doing! I only like this half of the plot so the show's focus on the other half of the plot is ALIENATING ALL THE REAL FANS AND LOSING ME. I trusted these writers and loved what they gave me up to one point, but now I think they owe me specific resolutions or else their show is trash!

It can be a tough thing to be a fan of something that doesn't get everything right to your satisfaction. I've certainly had a few moments where I was disappointed in a creator or frustrated by some aspect of storytelling in the face of everything else I loved about the work. But at the end of the day, it's ours only in the sense that we're consumers of it. We engage and we enjoy and sometimes we even give back with our reviews and creations and money. But that doesn't mean we own it. It's THEIRS. They get to create it. If we don't like what they make, we have the choice of criticizing it, of ceasing to consume it, of watching less willingly. But it's not our domain to suggest creators betrayed us by writing the story THEY want to write how they want to write it, and it's certainly not our domain to spew personal insults and violent wishes like I've been seeing on my Tumblr. It's not directed at me, but it still makes me ill to see these people saying "I hope they all choke and die." What about that would make anything better for you?

One silver lining might come from these people just flouncing and writing their own damn story. Maybe they'll figure out how hard writing is and how it rarely, if ever, comes out in a straight line. I wanna see their spit-shined rough draft presented as a final product. I wanna see what they think is content worth sharing.

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