“The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist.”
– Michael Lee
It is said, in relation to the Internet, that “Content is King.” The maxim is true offline as well as online. We listen to a master of the shakuhachi flute and are struck with the pure poignancy of feeling. We sense the power and drive of West African drumming which moves us to dance. We may not actually like the holiday gift but we show appreciation for the giving: “It’s the thought that counts.” Hope springs eternal that our child will succeed, or our favorite sports team will prevail. The generic dating site profile yearns for a kind and honest partner, who possesses loyalty and a sense of humor, who can share with us our love of nature, travel, good food and music, a glass of wine. We read a compelling story, moved by what happens, or we choose a nonfiction title, exploring a topic of relevance to our lives. In all these cases we are swayed by the predominance of content, of potential, of motivating essence, of heartfelt intent.
Though it may be comforting to realize it’s what’s inside that counts, that’s not what really makes the world go ’round. While unity may be the end-all and be-all, it is diversity and clear definition that distinguishes our uniqueness. Our most creative expression not only taps into universal themes, but conveys them with the particularity of our own approach, sensibility, skill set, and tonal interpretation. When the rubber meets the road, it’s technique that brings the face from the stone, and separates the professional from the dilletante, the master from the pretender.
Any endeavor in our lives becomes most successful after the identification of our universal intent, in the execution phase where art becomes craft. Masterful technique is not so much about flashy display, as about getting out of the way, so that the communication is clear and uncluttered. That awesome dating profile, so uniform after all, needs a recent photo to bring it alive, to provide a concrete means for assessing attraction. The phenom pitcher in baseball needs not only “stuff” but “command.”
The flip side is that technique alone won’t cut it either. Simply showing off your shiny face, your sharp tools and fancy tricks, may grab a crowd for a little while, but they will gawk and move on. You must have something meaningful to say, and it must have common feeling behind it, in order to engage with more depth and resonance.
Spontaneous Art: How Far to Edit?
I asked a friend of mine about her photographs that she has been posting on the Web. She invited me to view her site and instantly I said to myself, “She’s a pro.” The colors were bright and vivid, the compositions arresting, and details sharp, to the point of texture worthy of a painting. How did she do it?
“I actually started out just removing dust and blemishes. Especially in the underwater images, where ‘backscatter’ in the water can be a problem. They were the first images I worked on, and they took forever!”
Okay, I thought. I’ve done that occasionally with digital images too, pasting over blemishes with some of the surrounding pixels. But there’s way more that can be done.
“No textures have been added, but I have adjusted for color, etc. … You’d probably be suprised how many of your images could look stunning with a little work. Some of mine were questionable, but ended up being some of my favorites when I was done with them. Of course, I’ve spent almost two years non-stop purchasing computers, printers, scanners, external hard drives, cameras, graphics tablets, taking classes, learning software, etc., etc., to get to this point!”
The result, of course, is not merely “lifelike,” or even “incredibly realistic” but something extra, the value added, that brings the photograph into the realm of art.
As I began to write this piece, I was multitasking, listening to a piece of flute music I’d recorded on the beach, as an iPod video file. The screen was pitch dark, so I extracted the audio track using VLC, converted to .wav and then .mp3, and then put it through CoolEdit to chop the noisy setup in the sand, from the beginning of the track. While I was at it, I noticed that the flute song and distant waves were competing with a fuzzy white noise that I figured was caused by surf vibrations through sand into the microphone. It was irritating and detracted from the potential of the piece. Through the filter tool I was able to identify the particular frequency of that hiss and reduce it without compromising the music or the rest of the background sound.
Both the visual and audio arts begin from the premise that you start with what’s real, and you dress it up for public exposure. The same could be said for writing. I’ve been guiding another friend through the process of editing some of her blog posts. The ideal I strive for is to keep the voice, and as much of the original wording as possible, while correcting obvious errors of usage and punctuation, and making suggestions at other points where the flow hits a glitch or a question arises. Another editor might see things differently, and want to change far more. Someone else might prefer the raw freshness of a spontaneous first draft.
A third friend has been exchanging work with me as we offer editing of each other’s novels. Mine, a novel of the North now published, had already been through so many drafts that the original wording was long gone; yet the basic story remained the same. After fifteen years on the shelf, the setting still breathed Arctic air, the characters still could be seen and heard to speak and live and love. At the final stage I simply walked through the landscape to pull the odd tundra weed.
Given the competition in the marketplace today, with so many people having the skills, tools and desires to play and share photographs, music, and writing, only the truly exceptional will stand out and capture the interest of an audience. Every consumer of art has so many choices so easily available, their attention is at a premium, and so whatever content is being provided, its presentation needs to be of premium quality.
That will still depend on the quality of the content—the intent, the theme, the overall impact, the feeling in the work; and more than ever it will also depend on the professionalism of the presentation. The framing, the style, the technique; the enhancement, the polish, the clarity; the absence of errors, ambiguity, or extraneous material. All of these considerations can and must apply also to the packaging and marketing of the finished product (until the brand becomes the commodity we purchase).
Part of me laments the loss of innocence; wants to shout like a 20-year-old, “I just want to write what comes out and have it sell!” “That jam was killer, man, everybody’ll love hearing it!” “This digital camera’s amazing; it has these awesome automatic settings, so I have all these amazing pictures from my trips to like, Thailand.”
Fast forward to my current profession… I’m an editor. Indulging the creative spirit as a writer, musician, photographer. In these pursuits, semi-professional… preaching the middle way:
Edit to the degree necessary to succeed, for art’s sake and the effectiveness, which is to say the clarity and transparency, of the presentation. Neither too little or too much presence of the ego: so there is power and passion, but not overbearing or self-directed. It’s about the thing itself, which includes the creator, and the creation, and most of all, the shared experience, the unity created with the viewer, listener, reader. Identification, emotional resonance, shared appreciation. Higher resonance together, with the art serving as the tuning fork, the manifestation of magic, the sacramental substance.
The audience always has the last word.
And by the way, remember that the quest to capture and convey “reality,” as it is, is rather a doomed enterprise. First of all consider the primary filters we use in our process of art: the camera with its given settings or filters, and natural conditions at the time of the shot; the audio variables such as recording setup and quality, instruments and tuning, ambient noise, and skill of the musicians; the innate deficiencies of language to describe both accurately and holistically the nature of a scene or idea or emotional experience.
A step further in, and we have to suspect our own filters, our eyes, ears, and imaginations, as incomplete and biased observers of the world and its artifacts. All that we see, hear, think and dream is but a fragmentary, symbolic rendering of the entire field of data we might include, essentially infinite in nature.
The quest for “reality” is a poor one for the artist to take on. Better to accept and begin with the fact of our toolmaking. We have departed from nature already, long ago; and just as we will never go entirely back, we will never truly enslave or capture nature either, no matter how refined our technology or technique. So instead we do best to get on with the business of paying homage to nature’s beauty, its power, and its inherent integrity and wholeness, by weaving these same qualities into our own creations, to the best of our abilities. Then put it out there, and let the audience come to pay whatever respects are thus deserved.
Despite whatever market shortcomings your work may exhibit at present, it may most truly express the depth of who you are as a separate and also as a universal being upon this earth. It may serve to channel light through all this darkness, to redeem the suffering and confusion by making sense of it, and by releasing from inside you the baggage of words attached to it.
The new creation is a train of thought that has coherence and direction, like photons channeled to laser focus; bringing chaos into order, however provisional; giving voice to a certain identity striving to make itself known—just as the universal will of creation has done so in creation itself. The content of the creation thus deserves the additional effort of technique, of appropriate editing and marketing that brings the communication to fulfillment.