Monthly Archives: September 2018

Art Matters

Art Matters and life is not linear

I read Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell this week. The book is written by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell illustrated every single page. It’s a lovely little book about the importance of making art, libraries, reading and allowing ideas to exist and spread.

One of the things that Neil says in the book, is that he doesn’t have a career because he doesn’t have a career plan. He writes that if you start a career in the arts that you have no idea what you are doing, where you might be going and how you should get there. Neil suggests that chaos and happily working on one thing after another until it looks like you’re doing something eerily similar to building a career is something that is only for artists. That people with “regular” jobs have these fantastic plans when they finish school and start working. That we know how to get from one role or level to the next and that we know what the next step or even the end game will be.

That is of course not how it works. At least not for most people. Most of us just do the best we can and work as hard as we can on whatever is currently in front of us. When you do that, in a lot of cases the next opportunity will present itself after a while. It might not be what you expected. It might even take you in a completely different direction from where you thought you would be going. If you are excited about the opportunity and there are no insurmountable practical reasons not to, by all means, jump at the opportunity.

When I left high school I wanted to be a lighting technician (working on the setup and operation of lights for theatre and concerts). Before properly starting on that career path I changed my mind and became a web developer. Even that decision was driven by circumstances. I found out that being a female lighting technician comes with some specific challenges and that I didn’t want to have to deal with those challenges for the rest of my life. At the same time, for a school project, I learned to build websites with a group of fellow students. I liked the combination of logic and creativity that was involved in building the websites. Through family and friends, we found quite a few customers and that was how my web development career started. Through similar coincidences, I subsequently became an expert in a Microsoft platform, a presenter, a writer, a project manager, an account lead and now a COO. I could never have imagined either the direction or the timing of any of these steps and it’s one of the things that I like most about my career. I don’t know where this path will take me next, but I’m sure that I will recognize the next opportunity when it presents itself.

Artists and people who do not make art for a living are more similar than we are different. None of us know how our lives and careers will unfold. We all need a bit of luck. All that we all can do is to do the best we can.

I highly recommend reading Art Matters, regardless of how you make a living. If you are interested in hearing Neil and Chris talk about it you can watch Art Matters Live. Both the book and the video are sources of joy and inspiration.

Make good art

How we connect to a story

For a while now I have wondered what it is that makes me like a book or a story. This surfaced again recently while I was reading “The Note” by Zoë Folbigg. The description of the story seemed to be similar to the stories in Jill Mansell books, which I love. The Note has also received critical acclaim. Yet while reading it I couldn’t get into it and I didn’t understand why.

What I was able to distill based on earlier experiences is that I need to be able to identify with the protagonist to feel that I can get into the story. This doesn’t mean that she has to be a 38-year-old white woman who works for an IT company. I have been able to connect with protagonists that were different in many different ways. Even protagonists that weren’t human. But what does allow me to identify with a protagonist? Why do I feel like I’m living the story while reading some books and feel detached from others?

The book that I’m currently reading has helped me resolve this mystery. The book is called “Story Genius” and the author is Lisa Cron. Story Genius is one of many books that claim to explain how you can become a better writer. Its angle is different from most others in its genre though. The book explains the science behind what your brain needs to get pulled into a story.

For us to connect with a protagonist we need to understand what drives this person. We need to understand who the protagonist is before the story starts. Unless the protagonist is a baby and the story starts on the day of her birth, she will have a back story. She will have experienced things that have shaped her believes and her feelings. Understanding these experiences, the things she learned and how she has been hurt and celebrated in the past will help us to see inside our protagonist.

Throughout the story, the protagonist will try to learn something or gain something. The misbeliefs that she picked up throughout her life might get in the way of getting what she wants. By understanding what drives our protagonist from the inside, we can connect to her. We are experiencing the story as if we are part of it. Even if our own lives are very different and if we would take different decisions in similar situations. We all have the same basic needs. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, recognized for our efforts and be part of something. If we feel that our basic needs are at risk we experience one of four basic emotions; happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Because the basics are very similar for all of us, it’s easy to understand a protagonist’s reaction when their core beliefs are at stake.

With the help of an MRI scientists have been able to prove that when you read a story that allows you to connect with a protagonist, your brain reacts in the same way it would when you experience the situation yourself. That is why it’s so hard to put a good book down and why you feel sad when you finish it. You become part of the narrative and it feels like everything that is happening to the protagonist is actually happening to you. When the story ends it feels like having to say goodbye to close friends.

I tested the theory against a couple of books that I like and so far it is holding up. As long as I can understand what drives the protagonist and why he or she makes certain choices I can connect to him or her. These books are also the ones that are very hard to put down.
In the books that I can’t quite get into, the backstory of the protagonist is missing, or the decisions that he or she makes do not make sense based on what I know about their past experiences.

If I ever feel brave enough to try my hand at writing fiction I know where to start. I should start by creating the past and the beliefs and misconceptions of my protagonist.
Don’t hold your breath though. It could be a while…