Is All Art Really Quite Useless?

Oscar Wilde

In the forward to his novel The Picture of Dorian GrayOscar Wilde famously wrote, “All art is quite useless.” No question mark at the end.

This statement has always puzzled me. Why would an artist say that art is useless? Did he really believe that? You could interpret this statement as an introduction to the themes later explored in the novel, but I’m not sure I do.

Because when asked by a fan what this famous line meant, Wilde responded with a handwritten letter. In this letter, Wilde posited that art does not and should not inspire action in anyone. If it does, it ceases to be art and instead turns into didacticism. Therefore, if art cannot by its very nature inspire action, then it has no applicable use to anyone.

Oscar Wilde was a brilliant guy. I don’t claim to be smarter than him or a better writer than him. And I’m certainly not a better dresser (see above picture). But I’ll say this: I think art is quite useful.

Art is useful in the way that it moves us. If a work of art can stir emotion, whether it’s delight, sadness, anger, or even disgust, I’d say it’s done something quite significant. After all, if you cried when Bambi’s mom ate it (don’t deny it), you were crying for a cartoon animal that only ever existed as a series of drawings shown in rapid succession. What else but art has the power to make us care about things that don’t even exist?

Even art that serves merely as distraction, what Wilde describes as “sterile” art, can be useful. Because sometimes we really do need a distraction from reality. When times are tough, it’s cathartic to watch a TV show or read a book—to take a break from what’s going on around us. Art won’t necessarily present us with permanent solutions, but that’s alright. Oftentimes that brief respite gives us the strength we need to face tomorrow’s challenges.

Art helps us better understand each other, which is perhaps one of its most important uses. For example, numerous studies suggest that reading improves empathy. When we step into the minds of characters, their thoughts and feelings are described to us, which bridges a gap we otherwise can’t cross (excluding telepaths). If empathy is understanding how others feel, there’s no better way to develop it than by having those feelings explained to us.

So is all art really quite useless? Well, maybe some of it (the Transformers series of films come to mind). But certainly not all of it. If a particular piece of art moves you, or helps you get through a tough time, or shows you the world from a different perspective, then that piece of art is useful. Quite useful.

Why I Love Goodreads

Goodreads

Ever heard of Goodreads? It’s sort of like social media for books.

Here’s how it works: you create a free profile for yourself, including what genres you enjoy and who your favorite authors are. You enter any books you’re reading or have read, then share those books with other Goodreads friends.

But what else makes it so great? Here’s a quick rundown:

Track Your Progress

Think of it like Fitbit for reading. Goodreads shows you exactly what percentage of a book you’ve completed. If you sync with your Kindle, your profile automatically updates the percentage for you. If you read books the old-fashioned way (I know I do), you can manually update your progress on their mobile app. Either way, it’s even more satisfying than checking your steps at the end of the day.

Get Recommendations

Goodreads analyzes books you like, then suggests similar titles you might enjoy. This is a great way to discover new authors you might never have heard of before. And since there are thousands of books in the database, you’ll have no shortage of stuff to choose from.

In addition, Goodreads is the perfect place to find out what your friends are reading. You’ll be updated on their current book, along with any comments they make on it. Once they’re finished, you’ll also be able to find out how many stars they gave it. It’s a great way to find out which books are great (and which ones aren’t so great).

Save Books for Later

If you’re an avid reader, your to-read list might reach the moon. Goodreads lets you consolidate—and save some time, while you’re at it—using their nifty scanner feature.

With the Goodreads mobile app, you can scan the barcode of any book using your phone’s camera. In seconds, the app pulls the book’s title, author, and book cover for later viewing. Perfect for the avid bookstore browser.

In Conclusion…

…Try Goodreads! It’s a super-fun app for anyone who loves reading. And feel free to send me a friend request. One can never know too many book lovers!

“Inspiration Will Fail You”

Shattered Light Bulb

I had a professor in college who often said, “Inspiration will fail you.” She was very right about that.

Many authors wait around to be inspired. They wait for the muse to appear with an amazing idea, one that fills the page with vivid prose and vibrant action.  And when inspiration fails to appear, those writers remind themselves that tomorrow is another day, and they don’t write anything.

That’s why inspiration will fail you. It’s lazy, it’s inconsiderate, and it doesn’t ever show up when you want it to.

Sure, sometimes we find it. Sometimes our brains spark and whisper, Let’s write this down. But this is certainly not the norm. Far more often, our work hinges on those days when we don’t feel inspired.

Think about it this way: if you only write when you’re inspired and you’re only inspired on good days, how will you ever practice your writing?  Writing, like any skill, requires hard work in exchange for improvement. If we don’t put in the hard work until inspiration hands us an idea, then we’re probably not writing frequently enough to improve.

Furthermore, there’s a common assumption that every word one writes must be perfect, or that all writing should, at the very least, be interesting. This notion can preclude some writers from writing anything at all, regardless of how inspired or uninspired they might feel. But not all writing needs to be readable.

Every, every professional writer will tell you that a written work doesn’t even come close to being readable until the second draft, at the earliest. Even then, there might be three, four, five drafts to go before it’s something worth sharing.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe some dude named Vladimir Nabokov: “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

If inspiration hasn’t paid you a visit in a while, try writing anything—literally anything—and see what happens. Try a simple sentence of a character doing something: “Lilly looked out the window at the tree in the yard, and she thought to herself, That tree wasn’t there yesterday.” 

From here, we can go in all sorts of different directions. Where did the tree come from? How did the tree get there? And who is Lilly? What does she have to do with this tree? What does this tree mean to her? Sometimes, one sentence is all it takes to get things moving.

Of course, you might decide later that that sentence and all your writing thereafter was lame, anyway. Even so, at least you’ve written something down and you’ve gotten your practice for the day. Anything’s better than nothing, even if your anything isn’t particularly good.

Truth is, successful writers are those who write with consistency. That might mean something different for everyone, but what it certainly doesn’t mean is waiting for inspiration.

Trust me. You’re going to be waiting a long, long time.

3 Handy Proofreading Shortcuts

I have a confession to make: I do not like proofreading. It takes time, it’s not especially fun, and I still seem to miss some errors. To quote Billy Joel, it would be nice if I could “Get it Right the First Time.”

But that’s wishful thinking on my part. There may not be any Billy Joel songs about proofreading—but that doesn’t mean it’s not essential. No one wants to read sloppy work.

Fortunately, we can make it easier on ourselves with a few tricks. Here are a few I like:

Read It Aloud to Yourself

Yes, our teachers were right. Reading work aloud forces us to pay closer attention to the words. If you stumble over a sentence, you’ll need to smooth it out. Or, try reading aloud to someone else. They’ll give you tips on the sentences that stick out.

This trick is especially effective with dialogue. You’ll notice details while listening that you won’t  notice while reading. For example, I tend to append characters’ dialogue with the phrase “or something.” It’s sort of like my trademark, or something.

I’m not sure why, but my first-draft brain seems to think “or something” makes dialogue come alive. It doesn’t. I read my work aloud to catch them on the second go-around.

Use Your Computer’s Voice Command

Sometimes it helps to have your own work read back to you. This allows you to listen for any weirdness you might’ve missed while reading. However, you won’t always have a human reader handy. In that case, you can use your computer’s voice command.

I do this one all the time. I’m not sure how it would work on a Windows or Linux computer, but on a Mac, you set a keystroke command, then highlight the text you want to hear. Hit your command keys and a pleasant robot voice will read the words to you.

Be warned: this voice is emotionless. Think Ferris Buehler’s professor. It’s about listening for mistakes, not getting a sense of rhythm. (Unless a boring computer voice narrates your story. In which case, please feel free to exclusively use this method.)

Use Online Tools

Hemingway Rewritten is a pretty killer app for this proofreading. It gives you suggestions on how to make your writing more concise.

When you copy and paste a paragraph into Hemingway, the program highlights overlong and strangely-structured sentences (like this one). It also catches passive voice. Plus, Hemingway is totally free. I think we can all appreciate that.

Bonus Tip: Let Commentors Proofread for You

The internet loves finding flaws in everything. Therefore, if you make a mistake, you can be sure someone will notify you in the comments.

Boom. Free proofreading!

In Conclusion

Proofreading is like eating vegetables—it’s not especially fun, but it’s essential for growth. I hope these tips have been helpful (and more palatable than brussel sprouts).

Now please excuse me. I have to proofread this thing.

In the Absence of a Drum Kit, Tabletops are a Decent Substitute

Drum Kit

His name was Mr. Avon, but we called him Drummer Guy. He was a substitute teacher.

Drummer Guy wore his hair in a ponytail, which my friends and I found repulsive and intriguing, simultaneously. We decided there was nothing fundamentally improper about a man wearing a ponytail; it was just that his was greasy and looked unwashed. It was gross, yet we couldn’t stop talking about how gross it was. Some of us even threatened to grow our own and then start a jam band. None of us did.

For us and for most kids of about twelve or thirteen, substitute teachers are like proxy governors sent in to restore order to unruly nations; their efforts are futile and they won’t be around for long, anyway. But you still have to admire anyone who tries.

Drummer Guy was one of those who tried, in his own way. He’d let everyone file in, then he’d shut the door and say something to the effect of, “Class. Mr. or Mrs. ______ left me some notes for some stuff to work on.”

At which point everyone would groan, because days with a substitute teacher are supposed to be non-work days. But then he would always say something like, “I don’t think it’s gonna happen. So we’re gonna to watch Cream’s farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall instead. Cool?”

None of us knew what kind of cream he was talking about—whipped, or maybe sour?—or who Royal Albert Hall was, so we just nodded.

Cream, it turned out, was Drummer Guy’s favorite band. We usually spent about fifteen of the forty minutes of class watching a Ginger Baker drum solo, which was cool, but at the same time kind of shocking. What did late-60s power trios have to do with earth science, anyway?

Fortunately, Drummer Guy would always spend the last ten minutes of class explaining exactly how the video we’d just watched related to the class subject. It was pretty impressive how he developed these comparisons, however tenuous, between rock drumming and subjects such as geometry, German verb conjugation, and the Mason-Dixon line.

For the aforementioned earth science class, for example, he explained that one must strike the drum with a certain amount of force in order to create sound waves. The harder you hit the drum, he explained, the more the drumhead would vibrate, which would send longer, louder sound waves into our ears. The explanation was clearly lifted from Wikipedia and he was in the wrong branch of science, but still—he really seemed to think he was teaching us an important lesson.

Drummer Guy subbed a lot and for a lot of classes, which I never really understood. Our teachers were always annoyed when they’d come in the next day to find that instead of working on whatever it was we were supposed to be working on, we’d spent forty minutes listening to “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” Still, he continued to make regular appearances when our teachers were out. Public schools can’t be choosy about subs, I guess.

My most vivid memory of Drummer Guy is from my freshman year of high school. I believe we were supposed to be discussing Steinbeck’s The Pearl, but instead Drummer Guy produced a DVD from his messenger bag (he seemed like more of a Kerouac kind of guy, anyway). Drummer Guy was telling us all about the bitter rivalry between Baker and Jack Bruce when he realized the DVD player wasn’t working.

Now this was interesting. Had Drummer Guy ever subbed without assistance from a digital video player?

To his credit, Drummer Guy was prepared. He asked to borrow a pair of drumsticks from a kid who had jazz band the following period. With some ill-disguised trepidation, the kid handed the sticks over.

We hung on the edge of the moment. And then drummer guy began to play.

He played for, as I remember it, half the class period. The tabletop was his snare, a textbook was his bass, and the sink faucet was his high-hat. He really was very talented.

When he was finished, Drummer Guy passed the sticks back to the kid, adjusted his ponytail, and asked, “Any questions?”

There were many, but no one asked them. And all I can remember thinking is, I guess it’s better than real school.


Every once in a while over the course of the following years, one of always brings up Drummer Guy. Remember that time he took Sean’s drumsticks and started freestyling? We all did, of course. And, looking back on that day and all the others that he subbed for us, the oddest part was what he chose to teach.

Because it was a choice. He had a lesson plan, he had instructions on what to teach and how to teach it. Yet Drummer Guy, Mr. Avon, decided that wooden sticks striking hollow drums was a subject more worthy of our time.

In a way, I suppose it was pretty cool that he tried to share his passion with us. He did try, at least, which was more than could be said of us, who just wanted the period off from learning.

He taught us a lesson without realizing it, I think: try something, anything, and keep trying it. People won’t forget. 

Also: in the absence of a drum kit, tabletops are a decent substitute.

My Favorite Quotes About Books and Writing

I love writing, and I love books. I often attempt to express that love in my own words, but this week, I’d prefer to steam words from others. Here are some of my favorite thoughts on books and writing. I hope you get something out of them (especially the last one):

“A book is a dream that you hold in your hands.” – Neil Gaiman


“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain


“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” – Kurt Vonnegut


“I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” – Ursula K. Le Guin


“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'” – David Mitchell


“When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” – Elmore Leonard


“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou


“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” – Ray Bradbury


“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood


“One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.” – George W. Bush

6 Telltale Signs You’re Reading an Epic Fantasy Novel

Fantasy is a fantastic genre. And thanks to the brilliance of series like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, epic fantasy has become one of the most popular flavors of fantasy.

How do you know you’re reading epic fantasy? These six signs should point you in the right direction:

1. There’s a Prologue

I’m starting to think literally no other genre has prologues. Though, to be fair, many epic fantasy novels probably don’t need them, anyway. Prologues are supposed to set the stage for the book, but often they just add a few pounds to an already hefty volume.

2. It’s Part One of a Ten Volume Series

Fantasy authors have a definite obsession with the multi-volume epic. For example: “This is part one of the first trilogy of three interconnected trilogies, all set in the same world.” Even Tolkien would be giving you the stink eye right now.

3. There’s a Map

I think it’s safe to say we can blame J.R.R. for this one, too. They’re not necessary to the story as it is, but whatever—they give authors an excuse to make up names for cities their characters never end up visiting.

4. Quotes Begin Every Chapter

These tend to be passages from books within the book or quotes from people with silly names. Either way, you don’t feel too guilty for skipping them.

5. Peasants

No fantasy story is complete without illiterate peasants, presumably speaking with cockney accents.

6. Every Character is a History Buff

In many epic fantasy novels, characters possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the world—even the peasants. Which is funny, because most people in the real world probably can’t even tell you who the 30th president of the United States was (I definitely cannot). And in fantasy novels, they don’t even have Google.

Okay, that’s all I can think of for now. What did I miss? Let me know in the comments!