Learning to Start Cheating

Let me tell you a story about how I didn’t learn to draw.

If I’d taught myself to draw by copying other pics, this is one I would have copied.

One day when I was about 13 years old I went over to a friend’s house and he showed me a poster-sized illustration that he was working on. I was impressed by the smooth, bold lines and the sheer size of the work. It was still in-progress, but I knew that it was going to be great when it was done. I was intimidated until I saw a magazine page lying on his desk. I realized that he was copying the image, and in an instant the mystery evaporated. Even I could do a decent drawing if I had a source image. Therefore it couldn’t be magical. Therefore it wasn’t really art. It was just cheating.

When he showed the finished product off to some mutual friends a few days later, I refused to say a word to detract from the accolades, but I felt like a clean bike racer competing with Lance Armstrong. I wanted to draw too, but I wasn’t willing to stoop to the level of copying what others had done. So I quit drawing.

And here is the story of how I stopped writing poetry.

Loren Eiseley

I wrote a poem in high school based on The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. I was really proud of the finished result, and my dad liked it enough to show it off to his friends who came by. For some parents that might just be encouragement, but from my dad that meant he genuinely respected what I had done. The problem was that the lines were not just inspired by the original essay. I had excised short phrases from the 16-page essay and used them to distill its essence into 10 or 11 lines of free verse. I placed a disclaimer at the end of the poem (“Inspired by Loren Eiseley’s “The Star Thrower”), but I still felt like a cheater. I was so uncomfortable that soon my dad stopped showing it off, even though I never actually asked him to. It was the last poem I wrote for more than 15 years, and I don’t even know if I still have a copy or not.

When I was a kid the world seemed simple. There was an easily accessible surface, and then everything beneath that was an impenetrable magic black box. Not just artistic creation, but everything. When I took econ 101 and the professor said that the firm was one of the fundamental units of economic analysis I couldn’t believe it. When I thought of a company, I could only imagine giant consumer-facing companies. Apple made iPods, and that was the end of it. I didn’t know anything about Foxconn assembling the iPods in China, or about all the individual companies that created the components that go into the iPod (like the accelerometer). I didn’t know anything about the companies that prospected, mined, refined, and resold the raw materials. I didn’t know anything about the firms that existed purely to connect buyers to sellers. Surely someone had to design, manufacture, and market the assembly lines Foxconn used to put the iPods together, but it was a company I’d never heard of.

When all you see is the surface, you’re not seeing anything at all.

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Space: Above and Beyond. It was a sci-fi original series from Fox that my whole family watched, and it got good ratings. But soon they started pre-empting the episodes. From one week to the next you had no idea of if it would be aired in its usual slot or not. Eventually it was canned. (A sad precognition of Firefly’s fate.)

I learned later that the reason for the cancellation was that Chris Carter–created of the X-Files–had used his influence at Fox to mess with the schedule for months until the ratings started to decline, then used the poor ratings to argue for the show’s cancellation. Why? Two of his best writers had left to make the show, and he wanted them back. I’d always seen a TV shows as pretty much a finished product. Episodes make seasons, seasons make a series, and the entire thing just arrives on your TV set like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. The thought that they actually came from the individual contributions of real-life human writers, directors and others seemed alien. The notion that personal grudges or ambitions could actually have an impact in the finished product was unthinkable. TV shows weren’t made, they just were.

I still miss Space: Above and Beyond.

Both these experiences, learning about the invisible supply chain behind retail products and the quiet politics of TV shows, showed me that the things that seemed real and concrete in my life were actual metaphysical abstractions that emerged from the complex interactions of individual people who each had their own motivations, information, and personalities. Somehow, out of that chaos, you get a brand name. The brand name seems like the fundamental reality because we see it everywhere, but it’s just a result of a long process. It’s a consequence, not something fundamental. You get a famous TV franchise, but the appearance of a perfect canon is a mirage that wouldn’t last if you’d seen all the drafts of the script or the intermediary edits. If you just accept the end product as a given, you will never really understand the world you live in.

A couple of years ago I got to work in close proximity with professional artists. They were putting together sprite-based art for a role-playing game and at one point the head of the art team decided they needed one more major monster to finish off a particular level. They decided on a dragon-lion hybrid.

I loved watching the artists work, so I stopped by a couple of hours after the meeting to see how this new creation was coming along. My jaw practically hit the floor when I saw the lead artist with a page of Google image results for lions open on his laptop and a bunch of rough sketches based on the photos in his sketchbook. Because I had so much respect for him (and still do), I couldn’t ignorantly file that away as cheating anymore. Instead, I just asked him to explain how the process works.

He explained that, naturally, if you’re going to draw something you need to first go out and get a reference image to start with. He showed me that he also had a bunch of dragon sketches he’d been looking through, and he’d picked elements of different ones that he liked, and then combined them to make the back half of the lion-dragon. He was actually in the process of beginning to blend some of the lion-sketches he’d done into dragon sketches to create the hybrid look he was going for. It looked great, and it looked nothing like the source material.

“But,” I sort of stammered,”I thought artists just sort of, drew straight from their minds?” He seemed a little amused, “Well, I suppose some can or do,” he said,”But for most artists even if they don’t have a reference image physically in front of them, they are still relying on on a reference image in their head from all the sketches that they’ve done before, and those were based on reference images.” He concluded, as though it were simple common sense, “You’ve always got to start with some reference image.”

He’s right, of course, and so I’ve recently come to understand that in a sense everything is a remix. That poem that I wrote based on The Star Thrower might not have been a real “poem”. I don’t know about that, but I do know that it just doesn’t really matter that much. I enjoyed it and to me it was beautiful. If I had been less worried about the process and more worried about the result, I wonder what other verbal collages I could have  made. 

I have to decide if I want to be an artist or if I want to make art. Maybe not everyone is cursed with my obsessive self-analysis, but in my head there’s’ only room for one of those two things. And making art means caring a lot less about some superstitious notion about how it’s’ supposed to be done, and a lot more about getting it done. As John Scalzi likes to say: you can’t be “precious” about your writing.

Creation, fundamentally, is just one variety of work. I want to imagine that it is mystical and sacred, but it’s absolutely not. It’s mundane. You get an idea in your head, your spend time and effort getting it out onto paper, and the first few thousand hours of this get you crappy results. So you keep going again and again and, if you’re lucky, one day you make something you’re proud of. There aren’t any tricks. There aren’t any shortcuts.

Just to be absolutely clear: I’m not talking about claiming credit for work that isn’t your own. I’m not talking about plagiarizing. I’m not talking about deceiving your audience, your fellow creators, or yourself. I’m just talking about waking up and realizing that if you want to do something, you have to go do it. And that requires digging beneath the surface and seeing what is really going on. When I was a child saw that as cheating, but it’s time to put away childish things. It’s time to get it done.

I’m not really old, but I’m already too old to wait any longer.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Start Cheating”

  1. “Approximately 5,000 miles from Delhi is the little town of Gateshead. In Gateshead, I took 32 children and I started to fine-tune the method. I made them into groups of four. I said, “You make your own groups of four. Each group of four can use one computer and not four computers…You can exchange groups. You can walk across to another group, if you don’t like your group, etc. You can go to another group, peer over their shoulders, see what they’re doing, come back to you own group and claim it as your own work.” And I explained to them that, you know, a lot of scientific research is done using that method.”

    – Sugata Mitra, “The Child-Driven Education,” TED Talk (July 2010): http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html

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