Last year I completed a PhD on discovery writing. For my PhD, I interviewed writers about their writing processes, focusing on the kinds of things they planned before writing, and then the kinds of things (e.g. ideas) they tended to find or create during writing. The interviews were fairly informal – I allowed the writers to describe and explain their writing processes to me.
Having been a Literature student myself, and being a photographer, I drew a lot of inspiration from the arts. I read a lot of the Paris Review Author interviews, for example, and Brewster Ghiselin’s The Creative Process (he drew together accounts from sculptors, poets, scientists etc about their creative processes).
I think that in both the arts and sciences, there is a widely held understanding that people become more proficient by doing stuff. I agree with this. Photographers learn about photography by taking photographs, for example. Writers learn about writing by actually writing. Planning is fine, and perhaps inevitable (because some thoughts are bound to precede the writing), but planned ideas will then have to be somehow translated into writing. Same with photography or any other form of art or practice. A photographer may have an idea for a shot before working on the shot itself, for example, but that idea may prove awkward to translate, or may simply not be feasible or practicable. But the act of picking up the camera and playing with the idea, might give rise to different options of possibilities. So, the practice of actually working with the medium is somehow essential to what is actually produced, be it learning or an actual product (e.g. ideas or a final photograph).
My experience of formal education, and of professionalism (i.e. the world of work), is that a greater emphasis tends to be placed on the final product, and less attention is placed on the process of creation or production. Student essays, for example, are written and then receive a mark. The finished essay (i.e. the product) is the focus of attention for teachers, examiners, and all the other infrastructure around education. Professional writers, similarly, primarily face the fact that they are in the business of producing something, and preferably producing quickly and to order. With the attendant pressures to produce a quality finished product, both students and professional writers find themselves obliged into processes that facilitate the production of a product, quickly, and to order. Great emphasis thus tends to be placed on such things as having a plan, using a tried and tested structure, managing time effectively, taking notice of constraints (e.g. word counts), etc, etc. But these very same processes, in my opinion, spell a slow death for anyone who actually wants to create something exceptional or original, exactly because such processes constrain or prescribe the processes that a creator actually uses.
While researching for my PhD, I enjoyed reading the arts based stuff, from Ghiselin and Paris Review (noted above), but also lots of other stuff, such as interviews with fiction writers. I came to hate (not too strong a word) a lot of the professional and educational literature that emphasised the importance of such things as planning. I came across lots of things that fascinated me, but which I didn’t have the time or space to conjure with or include.
One thing in particular that dug its claws into me was this video from 1992, where Bill Hicks is interviewed by two BBC producers trying to create a TV programme about the borderline between what comedians can and cannot (should or should not) say. There is an absolute savagery to this interview, because one of the BBC interviewers ends up trying to tell Bill Hicks how to operate, arguing that he should cater his ideas to an audience, and that he should create material that will not offend people. The woman, in particular, begins to shake her head in disbelief when Bill says that he bases his comedy on stuff that interests him, not primarily on stuff that he expects an audience might be interested in. Her response seems very muck akin to a tyrannical teacher trying to dictate their beliefs to an unwilling yet brilliant student. The interview inevitably breaks down.
Here’s a section, towards the end, that provides a good sense of how the communication breaks down:
BBC Man: So you don’t so much give them [the audience] what they want, you give them what you want.
Bill: Sure! You know why? Because I honestly believe that we’re all the same, and I think that to go ‘I’ll give them what they want’ is very condescending. I don’t try to condescend to people. And I guess that’s why I treat them as friends. And I guess that’s a shocking way to behave in this world, for some people (looks over to posh lady)…. I don’t sit there and say ‘you are all a bunch of idiots, so I’ll do stuff I don’t believe in to amuse you!’
Posh BBC woman (irate voice): But they want to be entertained! They don’t wanna think!
Bill: (exasperated) When did thinking not become entertaining? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to tickle them individually? We have to express an idea here?
Posh BBC woman (head in hands, as if Bill has crossed a line).
BBC man: Well, this is why we want to put something on TV that does question … where someone draws the line, what is acceptable and what is….
Bill Hicks: There are no lines. I say ‘erase all the lines…’
Posh woman: Yes, but that’s what our program is all about: where you can draw the line. (with authority). It’s where you can draw the line.
Bill Hicks: Can I recommend some jugglers you might like?!
I think that what amazes me about this interview is that the woman interviewer, in particular, presumes to know better than Bill Hicks, as if she is in a position of authority. This seems particularly out of kilter because Bill, after all, is the brilliant comedian and thus deserves to be listened to and learned from. Rather than trying to learn from him about how he works, how he creates his ideas and routine, she imposes her values upon him, as if he should conform to her sense that lines can be drawn, that some things are more acceptable than others, etc etc.
I have been wanting to write a blog about this painful interview for quite a while, but I don’t think I have come near to breaking down why it grates on me so much. Perhaps it’s to do with how patronising the woman seems to be – the tone of her voice, her dismissive body language. Perhaps it’s because I admire Bill Hicks so much, and I hoped that the interview would get to grips with the intricacies of how he works. Perhaps I feel saddened by the fact that the producers seemed to misunderstand Bill so completely. Perhaps the posh woman producer reminded so much of authoritarian teachers who taught me at school.
I imagine that the way in which the producers misunderstand Bill Hicks is also characteristic of how students can be misunderstood by teachers. Students, like artists or performers, are closer to the process of production than are teachers or producers. Perhaps brilliant students, such as Bill Hicks, are destined to be misunderstood in this way, because they do not feel obliged to conform to a conservative process or agenda.
I’ll post this up even though it is a messy piece of thinking out loud. It’s still something I want to think about and come to terms with in some way….. I might come back to it…..
… As I watch the interview again (and again, and again), I think I’m seeing a frustration from the interviewers. They perhaps increasingly realize that the whole premise of their TV idea (that comedians contend with lines) is not playing well with Bill. If it’s not playing well with Bill, then they can’t really get Bill onboard with their program. No doubt they are getting slightly drunk and tired too, and maybe jetlagged, and all these factors are coming together in a bad way.