Everyone gets into artistic slumps. Some of us might even feel as though we’re artistic slump incarnate. I’ve recently had a few breakthroughs on my work in progress Familiaris, so while I’ve probably just jinxed myself things are going smoothly in that piece. Maybe it’s because I’ve become more aware of how I create, but for whatever reason lessons about creativity and life as an artist seem to be sticking with me. The two most recent and noteworthy ones are from a book and a TV show. Let’s start with the book.
I’d heard nothing but glowing reviews for Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by the time I picked it up from my local library. It was one of at least a half-dozen books that I kept seeing, picking up, and then not buying or checking out for some reason. This time around, though, I actually decided to commit to it. The only thing I would lose from checking it out is my time, so why not see what all of the hype is about?
Truth be told, I couldn’t even finish it, and not just because someone had a hold on it and I couldn’t renew it. I try to give every book I pick up a chance, and because of my near-compulsive need to finish books that I start I’ve ended up finishing a lot of lackluster reading material just because I needed to see them through. This was not the case with Snyder’s book, which I unceremoniously drove back to the library after slogging through close to 50 pages.
The actual advice in the book wasn’t even that bad, even if the most useful piece seemed to be in the first ten pages (the “save the cat”/”pet the dog” trope after which the book is named). It probably would have been advice better suited to a high school writing class than people who hope to write professionally, and as someone with experience it just wasn’t advice that suited my needs: the book gives you the tools to construct a narrative that fits into a formula, so while you won’t get anything novel you will technically get a complete story when you follow the advice he gives. Some of the advice didn’t make sense: I was perplexed in particular by the “ten categories” he proposes in a spot where things like the Hero’s Journey or Seven Basic Plots would have worked just as well. Again, this is probably the kind of approach that would work with a younger set of readers who are just starting out with writing and don’t want to get too heavy in terms of theory and academic discussion on narratives, but it struck me as trying way too hard to not be a textbook.
Where Snyder seems to shine is being a salesman, which I’ll give him credit for being really good at: even though his screenplay ideas were formulaic and frankly mediocre, this man can pitch. The book purports to be about screenwriting, but the emphasis is clearly on the quick production and sale of many screenplays (and making it sound like a “get rich quick” scheme in the process) rather than the creation and nurturing of a good story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach if that’s what you’re looking for, but because I’ve heard such high praise for it as a writing book I found myself unpleasantly surprised that my expectations were not met.
What made me stop reading, though, was Snyder’s tone, which was equal parts “I’m too cool for stuffy old textbooks, so I’m going to write my own” and “that guy who brags about how he owns a business and therefore knows more about the economy than you do, but really it’s his dad’s business and it employs maybe five people, all of whom are family.” While I can see how you’d make the argument that he’s informal and therefore approachable, this didn’t make for an enjoyable read for me personally. When confronted with this kind of personality, no matter how good they are at what they do, I tend to roll my eyes and ignore them, but I have also been known to get into Facebook fights with them: there’s no way I’m going to read their book and take advice from it, you know?
What I actually found to be much more validating and truer of the way art works was, of all things, the most recent episode of Bob’s Burgers, “Sexy Dance Healing.” For some exposition if you didn’t see the episode or aren’t a fan of the show, Bob is a struggling business owner and a culinary wizard who, at the start of this episode, has had a creative dry spell and hasn’t been able to come up with a unique “burger of the day” for a while. While trying to come up with new ideas, he injures his shoulder outside of the capoeira studio owned by Jairo, a minor character from the first season that Bob had a rivalry with. Jairo offers to be a physical therapist and lifestyle coach for Bob in exchange for not getting sued, which Bob takes him up on, to the chagrin of his family. He briefly gives up on coming up with burgers of the day because Jairo convinces him that the stress is unhealthy, but by the end of the episode Bob finds his muse again and decides that art brings him joy even if it causes him a great deal of literal and figurative pain.
This show has a habit of speaking to me, and this episode was no exception. It captured all of the big things that I’ve noticed about trying to live as an artist: inspiration strikes when you’re not looking; trying to do the same thing every day can make your work stagnant and leave you tired and frustrated; a change of pace or mindset can help; you’re not doomed if you have a dry spell, and the spark can come back; and even, to a lesser extent, that people will try to talk you out of doing what you love because while they can see you struggle, they can’t see the rewards. Sure, the main plot of the episode was more about Bob learning to manage stress than it was about his creative process, but the lesson is still valuable for creative types and the people who love them.
Save the Cat! and this episode of Bob’s Burgers weren’t trying to do the same thing. Far from it. The former was trying to teach you a craft, the latter to keep you entertained for 30 minutes. Both more or less did what they set out to do. But as someone who isn’t exactly new to being a writer, I just didn’t find the book about writing to be very helpful. What I found more helpful, even if it was just a minor trigger for a larger epiphany, was seeing someone go through something similar and come out realizing that following your passion is worth it.
The book is good if you want rules and guidelines, even if your plan is to break them. But for those of us who are already out there and have our calling in the arts, we just need validation and a chance to work through rough patches. The adage goes that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life, but I don’t like that particular idea because, like all things, making a living in the arts should be a balance of work and play. If you’re doing it right and respect yourself and your work enough to try your best at it, it’s going to be hard, but it will also be the most rewarding thing you will ever do.