"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Opinions v. Deadlines

When I arrived at work on Wednesday, I had hardly sat down at my computer before my boss approached with a folder in hand. This was promising. I now expected something more from my day than trawling the internet in search of artsy rss feeds or twitter accounts and storing them for my boss's future reference. I didn't expect to be handed a preview copy of the first episode in a new travel TV mini-series. I certainly didn't expect to be asked to watch and review it for the arts blog. And I most definitely did not expect to be turning in that review by the end of the day.

Given that my work days are only 5 hours long (with an extra five hours every week of out-of-the-office assignments), time was short. Subtract a half-hour for watching the episode, another half-hour to research the blogger-turned-TV-host around whom the show revolved, and another for lunch (I very briefly considered skipping lunch, but immediately pushed the idea aside, to be used only as a last resort) - that left 3.5 hours to turn out a decent 500-word opinion.

I was a bit concerned, then, but I also felt pretty cool (probably disproportionately so). Here was the journalist, typing away furiously, racing to beat the deadline, covering the breaking news of the arts world....Well, not quite, but I think what really got me going was that instead of doing the odd jobs of a certain person (as we interns are so wont to do), I was working directly for the enterprise of the arts webpage. For the entire day, no one bothered me, interrupted me, or asked me to do something for them. I never had to tiptoe to my boss's desk and ask for something to do. A few times, he stopped by my cubicle and asked how it was coming and what angle I was taking. How professional! And how unbelievably flattering, to have somebody put that much confidence in one's writing! It felt pretty great.

But it also put into relief something I've noticed before when writing critical reviews and which bothers me a little. Writing reviews usually requires an opinion, and I'm not usually short of those, but somehow my initial judgments often get twisted up and changed in the writing process. There seems to be a tension between what I want to express and how I want to express it, and when I'm writing under deadline especially, the latter usually wins out. It takes time to translate the ether of thoughts into the material stuff of words on a page. I believe that translation can have good effects, turning vague postulations that seemed interesting in your head into tight arguments that will actually make sense in other people's heads. But when there's no time to really go through that process, the striving for a good, snappy piece of prose can wash out the existence of any opinion at all.

I didn't particularly like the show I was reviewing. I found the host irksome, and more than that, I wanted to make a commentary about the way his background as a blogger - his familiarity with the lightning attention span of web surfers - compounded television's tendency to move so fast from shot to shot and from subject to subject that by the end of the show, you can barely remember how it started. But ironically enough, I was writing for a blog, a few words somebody would read on the run, so there wasn't time for any of that. I included a bit about the influence of online media on the format of the show and tossed in a little softened criticism. In the end, though, it came out snappy but bland, heavy on the description and light on the critical opinion. And then the hours were up, my moment of journalistic glory was over, and it was time to turn in my article.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Into the arts scene

I've lived in the Bay Area my whole life, and I like to think I'm a fairly art-savvy citizen of a fairly artsy town. Every time I drive home from college, I seem to have systematically bought tickets to a show for that very night - just couldn't wait to get my Bay Area culture fix after a few months in the deserts of SoCal. By the end of this week, I'll have gone out to see four movies, including both a classic Arthur Penn picture at the Pacific Film Archive and 'Super 8.' I also like to take in an opera or a symphony every so often, and I've already been through three museum exhibitions and several galleries in the last month. So I get around.

But my first on-the-job foray into the local arts listings left me feeling just a bit overwhelmed. Part of my job is to scroll through anything and everything that's happening in the realm of art during a given week and filter out the best and most interesting things our writers could cover. Best and most interesting, of course, are extremely relative terms, and faced with a barrage of music festivals, theater events, dance extravaganzas, film series, and so, so many gallery shows...I quailed at the task of sorting it all out.

In the end, I stuck with what I know. Confronted with a choice between a small exhibit of ink-brush paintings and a show at the San Francisco MOMA, I chose the MOMA. Unable to differentiate one indie DJ from another, I opted for the Stanford Jazz Festival. I took a couple of risks. Ignoring my boss's one warning - 'Don't give me anything nerdy' - I included a production of 'Oliver!' at a local outdoor amphitheater as well as an exhibition of original artwork from the Green Lantern comic books. But for the most part, I clung to the big venues I trust.

What I found most difficult was allowing shows onto my list that I wouldn't go see myself. I have fairly clear personal taste. One look at the poster art of any movie usually tells me all I need to know about whether I'll see it in theaters, wait for the DVD, or skip it altogether. But what good is knowing what you like when you're trying to decide what will interest and amuse someone else? And not just someone you know - I was trying to gauge first what my boss would like to put on the website, secondly what the writers would like to write about, and thirdly what readers would like to read about and possibly go see.

I turned in my list, and sure enough, the immediate feedback was to get more variety, more quirky, small venues, and more things that no one else has heard about yet. Basically, I need to learn to burrow into the deeper veins of the internet arts network and suss out more than an average Bay Area arts patron like me would be likely to find on their own.

But my boss loved the idea of the Green Lantern exhibit. Some may try to deny it, but nerdier is always better.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Week one on the job

The first thing I worry about when starting a new job, before boarding the subway or preparing my best smile and firmest handshake, is designing an outfit that will work whether my new boss is wearing a skirt suit and heels or jeans and clogs. You never know when you're working in the arts world. In San Francisco, though, that outfit had better also work in fog, sun, wind, and possibly rain. Summer weather here is kind of abysmal.

So a few days ago, I set out for day one of my internship in slacks and a t-shirt, with a sweater just in case. I knew this much: that my primary duties will include some video editing, some copy editing, and some research of local artists and arts events. I'll also get to write a couple of reviews per month, to be published on the organization's arts page alongside those of professional hired writers. 'Required' was the word they used in the interview to describe this task, but 'given the great privilege' sounded more accurate to me.

When I arrived, there was no time to learn more about what exactly I'll be doing for the next two months. My boss told me I should just follow him around for a while before actually starting work, and that's exactly what I did. I trailed him on a whirlwind tour of the building, sat quietly by during several meetings, and dutifully lapped up my free lunch (first and last, I was warned). The building itself is bigger and more official-looking than any place I've worked before. I even had to get an ID card to swipe in, although the fact that the picture on the card shows a Sesame Street character instead of my face makes it a bit less officious. (So far, I've resisted the temptation to flash my badge and introduce myself as the Cookie Monster. So far.) There are miles and miles of beige-colored cubicles, redeemed only by a few cardboard cut-outs of Wishbone and Princess Leia. The IT people are painfully and delightfully like IT people, and I felt a familiar terror upon hearing the words, "And here are our printer and copy machine." (At my first job, the combination printer/copier was a malicious beast who liked to break down under nervous intern's hands, causing unspoken but terrible wrath from the office manager. It ruined my relationship with that particular form of technology forever.)

The best part of the day by far was sitting in on an interview with a new writer. Two weeks before, I'd been on the other side of the table, sweating through my own interview. The contrast between me explaining my slightly hodge-podge array of college courses and internships and this woman elaborating her writing "practice" was pretty stark. She wasn't afraid to announce that she only writes a certain kind of article and to set out exactly what kind of article that is. To my surprise, my boss seemed to be thinking of ways to make room on his website for her specialty - writing about art in public space - instead of laying out his own requirements for what she should write about.

At college in particular, writing is most often presented as a means toward communication and comprehension. Writing as a "practice," a kind of art form with direction and philosophy, has always been linked in my mind to creative writing - fiction and poetry and probably creative non-fiction as well. This woman, as far as I could tell, does not write in any of those genres, but she still has a very clear idea of what she wants to cover and how she will cover it. It's not just that she knows about a certain subject and therefore is qualified to write about it. Her writing isn't just a means of informing people about art in public space. To her, it's also a deliberate contribution to the artistic practices that interest her, a record of those events but also a part of them.

In my own interview, I stumbled through confusion about my goals and hesitancy to honestly present myself as an aspiring writer. Two weeks later, I got a glimpse into a carefully honed practice of writing that smacked slightly of artistic pretension but also gave me a new perspective on what it is exactly to be a writer.