Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Instant Gratification

What is it with people these days always wanting instant gratification?  I feel older than my years just writing such a thing (expect me to start shaking a cane and shouting “Damn kids, get off my lawn” shortly), but it’s really the truth.  We’ve become a society of instant gratification and while it’s occasionally a good thing, I think it does more harm than good overall.

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and there was an occurrence today that prompted me to finally sit down and write something about it.  I was at the magic shop to pick up an item I’d been waiting for (I won’t tell you what it was, even if you ask).  While I was there talking with the guy working the counter, a high school kid walked in with a very particular request.  He needed something (ie., a trick) with a  rose.

The shop was out of the usual fare of gimmicked rose tricks (perhaps some day I’ll share with you why I don’t like those effects to begin with, but for now that’s neither here nor there), so we were trying to brainstorm something that wouldn’t be too difficult for him to do.  We then learned that he needed it this weekend, and all our ideas went right out the window.

Now, I understand this kid isn’t a professional magician (or even a dedicated hobbyist), and so shouldn’t be expected to devote the years to the craft that I have.  But at the same time, how can he possibly expect to have something presentable in just a couple of days?

I’ve already performed with the item I purchased, even after a couple of hours.  Do you know why I was able to do that?  Because it was a replacement item for one that had worn out.  I’d already practiced it, already come up with a routine, already mastered everything about it that needed to be mastered.  From the time I got the idea for how to use this item and purchased my first one, to the time I was actually ready to perform it, I invested a good two months of work on it.  That’s work on the physical knuckle-busting mechanics of it, and work on the presentation.  It’s hard work.  I love it, but it’s still bloody hard work.  And I invested two months even though I could have physically done it in maybe two days, because my magic is stronger for having paid my dues and done the work.

Some of the ideas we tossed around were different ways of producing roses.  We talked about some “straight” productions, a production in which an origami rose turns into a real one, and a few others.  These aren’t physically hard to do, but there’s a lot of work that goes into them.  Let’s say we want to do the Floating Rose, in which an origami rose is folded, made to float, lit on fire, and transforms into a real rose from the flames.  A very nice effect, popularized by David Copperfield on one of his TV specials.

Were this young gentleman to try and achieve this effect, how long would he actually have to work on it?  A long time.  Let’s figure he could probably master the origami necessary for the first part in a couple of days.  It’s a bit knacky, but not too hard to do, so that’s reasonable.  I have some experience with such things and mastered the fold in one day, so a newbie could probably do it in two or three without too much trouble.

Then you have to make it float.  Two months of practice.  Then you have to learn how to produce a real rose from the flames.  Two months of practice.  Then you have to come up with a routine, storyline, patter, etc.  One month of work.  Then you have to piece all these elements together, and get the timing right, polish everything and make it ready for performance.  One month of work.  Then you’re ready to perform for your first audiences.  And based on their reactions and feedback, you’ll be working and polishing and refining for the next two months before you can achieve anything close to mastery.  That’s six months until the first performance, and eight before you’ve mastered it.  Not something to take lightly, but that’s the right way to do it.  Anything less will look exactly like what it is--something you threw together in a weekend “because you had to” or “because it looked neat.”  That’s not magic, that’s a trick.  Magic only happens when you pay your dues and do your hard time of practice.

But we seem to see this a lot.  Even so-called “professional” magicians are seen walking into the magic shop and saying to the manager, “I need something good I can throw into my act tonight.”  TONIGHT!  Even if they’re able to achieve the physical mechanics of the effect in that much time (sometimes they can, more often they only THINK that they can), all they’ll be doing is a poorly executed parody of what the effect’s designer did.  They won’t be bringing anything of themselves to the performance, and that’s what people really want.  That emotional connection between audience and performer is what distinguishes magic from cheap tricks.

Writers have a similar problem.  Professional authors all have one thing in common--they’ve paid their fucking dues!  They’ve written every day for years, dutifully sending off their creations to publication venues, and in return they’ve received rejection letters.  The good ones, the ones that eventually get read, are the ones that read the rejections, listen to them, learn from them, fix the things that need to be fixed, and start over again.  It’s a tough process, very hard on the ego, but it does what it’s designed to do--make you a better writer.  No one is born with the innate ability to craft a wonderful novel.  Yes, some people have more innate talent than others, but mostly it’s a learned skill: learned through years upon years of hard work and dedication.

Do you know why, though many of my friends are authors and I often post on writers’ message boards, I’m not usually seen giving advice?  It’s because I’m still in the middle of that process.  I’m still paying my fucking dues.  I haven’t yet earned my seat at the table of professionals.  Plenty of my friends have, and they’ve been a great help to me, but they’re only willing to help because I’m willing to listen to their advice, pay my dues, and not get caught up arguing the minutia of something I haven’t earned the right to argue yet.

But more and more, people aren’t paying their dues.  They’re looking for instant gratification.  They write a novel that they think is great--of course they think it’s great, because they just spend the better part of a year bleeding over it.  But it’s not great.  It’s rubbish, and no editor in his right mind will buy it.  Why?  Because in order to write a good novel, you first have to write about a million words of absolute shit.  Each one will be better than the last, you’ll begin to see improvement, but it takes fucking time!  Instead of working through the process designed to create good writers, though, they send their book off to a vanity press, pay a few hundred bucks to have it published (note to aspiring writers: money flows TO the author, not away from him--if you have to pay to be published, you automatically know that 1) the publisher is a con man and 2) you need to work harder and write better before it’s worth reading), and do you know what happens?  It isn’t hailed as the best thing since A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s either completely ignored by everyone except the author’s own mother, or, if the author is too aggressive in his marketing, gets slammed by a slew of brutal reviewers who are tired of being sent complimentary copies of self-published dreck.

Contrary to what some mentally ill people (like the individual known in the horror small press community somewhat less than affectionately as He Who Shall Not Be Named) may think, there is no conspiracy to keep some people from being published.  Rather, there’s a process designed to publish the good, and help the bad to improve.  There aren’t any evil overlords passing judgment on poor unsuspecting writers--there are just people making proper business decisions, and these decisions collectively create the process.

Whatever you’re trying to do, you need to pay your fucking dues, learn your fucking craft, and doing fucking right.   Yes, it will take years of hard work.  No, people aren’t going to immediately recognize your undeniable brilliance, because guess what!  Your brilliance isn’t undeniable.  I’m fucking denying it right now.  You’re not brilliant.  If you were brilliant, you’d realize the importance of hard work, and you’d pay your fucking dues instead of bitching that people are keeping you from that instant gratification you so desperately crave.

I leave you with this thought: if you receive instant gratification, it has no value.  True gratification comes from watching years of hard work pay off.


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