Consuming passions

Wednesday, 18 February, 2009

I know we own a lot of books, CDs and DVDs, and I know that much of my time is spent consuming these—watching movies, reading books, listening to music, and so on. Indeed, I've even been criticized for it (well, the movie-watching anyway). And I know a lot of other people (Christians mostly) who would regard such things as being a waste of time (compared to more edifying activities like evangelism or other forms of Christian ministry that build up the church). I understand their concerns, and I agree with the principle behind them.

However, there is one thing that I think they're missing, and that is that all the TV-watching, movie-watching, book-reading and music-listening is not pointless. It is not purely for entertainment or for killing time. It may be for some people, but for me, it also serves the purpose of sharpening my skills as a writer—as a storyteller. (My output on the creative writing front may be meagre at the moment, but let me assure you I am trying not to let those things just simmer on the backburner.) I do think that you need to read in order to write because only then can you improve. You learn to spot the ways in which Twilight is crap and, furthermore, why; similarly, you start to understand why Ondaatje, Byatt, Helprin and their ilk are so good.

But you learn not just through writing, but through how stories are told in other mediums. I've mentioned before on this blog my ongoing interest in adaptations; it's because I am interested in the shape of a story—the feel of it, the way it works as an entity unto itself as opposed to something bound by words or by film or by music. (This, by the way, is why I love Neil Gaiman's work: he may not be the world's most elegant writer [and he certainly isn't], but I think few can rival him in storytelling.) It seems to me that often story is the thing that hooks me—or hooks the reader, the audience, the listener; if a story is told well, everything else seems to fall into place. If it's told badly, even if everything else is perfectly executed (acting, props, costumes, sets), it can fail horribly (as in the case of Aeon Flux).

I'm digressing but let me make one more point: I think I've accidentally implied that skills in storytelling only apply to the creative disciplines (e.g. fiction, poetry, movies, etc.) But they are equally important when making non-fiction (essays, documentaries, biographies, biopics). I feel like I can now say this with some measure of authority, having spent four years now on The Briefing: good storytelling will make an article flow and curve naturally—like a river cutting through the land, carrying its reader with it. Bad storytelling (i.e. no flow, no progression of argument, no guiding of the reader through the various landscapes of your topic) just loses your reader so that they get to the end and think, “What was that all about? What did I just read?”

I was listening to this interview with Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones the other day (Stephen Jones is the author of Coraline: A Visual Companion, which sounds like an awesome accompaniment to the movie). Towards the end of the interview (when there's about 16 minutes to go), Stephen says this (in the context of being asked what writers he and Neil liked to read):

My advice to anybody—and I think it's true if you're writer yourself or an editor yourself—you need—you have to write—you have to watch movies, you have to watch what's happening on TV—you have to be aware of what's going on around you. Also, it's very important to read and watch stuff that's outside your particular field. So whether you're a science fiction writer, or a romance writer, or a western writer, you've got to make sure that you understand what's happening in politics, what's happening in ecological problems, what's happening in a different genre to get a sense of everything because it's all that input that makes you a better writer. I mean, I know for a fact that Neil doesn't just read other fantasy books and other [young adult] books and other comics or whatever. You know, you've got to be aware of everything around you to make yourself a better writer. And that's my only recommendation to everybody.

Am I just justifying a habit or indulgence in this post? Perhaps. But I think Stephen's point still stands: consuming media and the arts will make me a better writer, and being a better writer will help me to serve the God I love and the people he has saved for himself through his Son.

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Yes you have a lot of books. Yes, you watch movies.
But do you also lend these books? And lend these movies? Yes, absolutely.

So I think as long as it’s in moderation, then that’s ok. And I think it is with you.

After all, how many Christians would spend a quiet time every day, but then accuse others of not being godly by watching books or movies? You have a quiet time, you give time to the things of God.

We all enjoy doing things like this.

I don’t think this qualifies as a justification. Honestly, I think people who don’t consume the media you do - whether literature or music or film - is missing out not just on the vast body of entertainment that it can provide but also on the edification that great art provides. These lessons are not just for those of us learning to better create in our chosen form but for everyone, no matter who they are. God speaks to us in innumerable ways: through His word, through prayer, through the Holy Spirit, through the people we meet every day and, yes, through art, in whatever form it comes. Not only that, but it seems to me that the creation of art is something so intrinsic to mankind as we were created by God that to fail to stop and at least attempt appreciate it - whether as a work purely of entertainment or one of great beauty or inestimable truth - is to fail to appreciate the gifts God has given us. Art is one of the finest forms of communication - T. S. Eliot says that great literature speaks to people irrespective of culture or historical period and I would extend that to all great art - and as such is an immediate and intense way of glorifying what is good and warning against what is not, not only on an intellectual level but also an emotive one.

/Rant. I don’t think that anyone has the right to criticise someone for stopping to appreciate art. I also don’t think there should be a need to rationalise your enjoyment of it. It is a gift from God. Why shouldn’t we take the time to appreciate it? Or, as Jeanette Winterson put it, “If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question ‘What has happened to our lives?’ The usual question, ‘What has happened to art?’ is too easy an escape route.”

Agree with the above comments.  And also meant to say at the time that I thought that criticism on your other post was way harsh (I tried to work out whether the commenter had just used a poor choice of words, but, no, it was harsh).  If you did nothing but lie in front of the TV, that’s one thing.  But I agree, you need to consume to fill up your well of creativity.  And all these things are a gift from God - art takes many forms.

And as an example of high profile Christians who consume mass media - as if you needed one - Mark Driscoll actually deliberately makes it part of his week to watch a rather large amount of TV, precisely so that he knows what people are preoccupied with, so can better minister to his congregation and so he can connect with the wider community.

So keep consuming.  smile

Thanks for your comments, girls! Laurel-li, I wish I was as widely read as you!

I think I agree with you. I just said on another post of yours, books & movies can teach you a lot about the world, and make you look outward as well as inward, whether that is to apply techniques or see how other people see the world, etc.

And there is a difference between watching purposefully and mindfully. You know why you watch what you watch. I know why I go to movies and watch the occasional dvd, but I’ve also stopped watching TV, more or less (it was an indirect result of a conscious decision only to watch tv while doing something with my hands, but that means I always get distracted away from the tv).


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