Thursday, April 14, 2011

Parallel Universe

American Idol's newest season is the best group of talent yet with new judges and new mentors. Every time I watch I can't stop comparing this season to my writing world.

Case in point: The new panel of judges. Out with the old with the exception of Randy Jackson, this season's addition of Jennifer Lopez and Stephen (pant) Tyler is nothing short of a brilliant move on the producers' part. These judges offer criticism in a non-degrading way proving the true meaning of constructive. They speak with fortification, their words improving the talent and making the contestants feel worthy of the prize.

Although I truly enjoyed Simon Cowell, his harsh criticisms were unnecessary and non-productive. Telling a contestant that they're next gig is on a cruise ship removed the contestant's drive to thrive. And although Paula and DioGuardi Who kept poisonous remarks to themselves, they didn't say the things that would make the contestants feel like they were winners. "Oh, that was really nice," isn't the same as saying, "I'd buy a front row ticket to your concert," because, really, who cares if Paula or DioGuardi Who sit front row center, but hearing Jennifer Lopez say it is like Mark Ruffalo asking me to spend the weekend at his estate in the Catskills (if he has one, if I were single and twenty years...make that ten years younger).

This year Idol added Jimmy Iovine and Will. I. Am. as mentors. Love these guys because they keep it real while showing the contestants ways to improve. Like the judges, they empower the talent with spot-on advice. They are mentors with hefty credentials backing up their claims. If the talent disagrees with advice, the mentors respect it without discrediting it.

Yes, this season of Idol reminds me of both the great and horrible critiques I've received on my writing path. There was a spell when I'd submit my work to various Romance Writers of America contests. Not a romance writer, I felt the format allowed me a view of how my work was received. This is where I learned to develop a thick skin, even though some contest judges utilized the Simon Cowell version of criticism, using demeaning words that stalled my muse. A veil of defeat floated over my pen, at times making it a struggle to drag it across the paper. So similar to how Simon Cowell's caustic criticism doused the talent of American Idol.

Luckily for me, the day came when I realized that my work had no place in Romance Writers of America. I needed room to flex my writing muscle, which entailed figuring out who I was as a writer, similar to Idol's judges querying contestants on if they know who they want to be as singers. The problem was that I had no idea where to wander. And because the Universe works in subtle ways, after several unsuccessful attempts by doctors to reattach a chronically detaching retina, I decided to enroll in college.

A strange path to take, fellow students young enough to be my children, it's where my muse got her opportunity to shake out the feathers and stretch. Thank heaven for the registrar who put me in the school's Honors English course, a place that helped me realize my true writing potential. My English Literature professor became my mentor. His manner of teaching illuminated; never did he force his opinion, rather he suggested better ways of enhancing my voice. He was the Jimmy Iovine of my college life.

Over the course of the last three years my path crossed with a very talented editor/author, Erica Orloff, the most influential mentor to date. She graciously offered to read a piece I had struggled with. As she called it, she gave it an "unvarnished edit." I called it the "yin-yang" edit. A careful eye for talent, she also has a careful eye for the unnecessary. She'd point out the brilliant and then comment on the "mehs" of my manuscript, but in such a way that opened my eyes and made me want to do better.

Certainly we can disagree with criticism, but if offered from the heart and soul of true craftsmen such as Jimmy Iovine, Will. I. Am and Erica Orloff, it's all about growing the talent and never about subduing the creative muse. And every time I watch American Idol, it reminds me of my writing experience; I find myself comparing Idol's judges and mentors with my English Lit. professor and the incomparable Erica O.

Talent grows so long as one keeps an open mind to suggestions and constructive criticism; to ignore a great mentor is to reject the wild blue yonder. Aim high or you'll never know where your talent will take you. I'm glad I kept my eye wide-open, as well as my ears.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Arrivederci Pia

American Idol fans saw a favorite bite the dust this week, losing Pia Toscano whose talent might be more suited for voice-overs and soundtracks, places that need a strong sound only. Harsh criticism, I know, but out of the nine remaining finalists, Miss Toscano's incredible voice wasn't enough to rise her above the others. She lacked the ability to entertain entirely, unable to draw in voters as well as compete with the more unique talents of Casey, Paul and Scotty (my personal favorites). She lacked "different."

In a word, her talent was generic. Not downplaying her voice, but more was needed and she didn't deliver, the difference between just okay and totally awesome. Just like writing...

Segue Alert: I see vast comparisons between the singers of American Idol whose talent captures votes as well as the eye of music promoters, record labels and buyers, and writers whose work catches the eye of literary agents, editors and readers. Contestants of Idol need to stand out. Writers of fiction need to do the same. Talent is the common denominator, but I feel it's also necessary to bring something different to the equation. In the case of Idol, singers with a distinct voice coupled with the ability to touch listeners deeply while taking a risk seems to garner the most votes, and the same goes for writers.

Like the surviving Idol contestants, I find that I'm taking chances and writing not to appeal to the norm, but to excite those looking for different. The same-old same-old has a following, but are those generic works memorable? Are their characters warped, disheveled, have a broken nose but still get the girl? Does the plot make the reader say, "Damn, that's the coolest idea ever?"

Sometimes a person needs to strap on a set in order to move ahead of the pack. This is how I view Casey, Paul and Scotty of Idol. When I close my eyes and listen I know who they are, and when I watch and see Casey with his stand-up bass, Paul with his wonky way of dancing and Scotty who is doing a stellar job bringing back smooth cross-over country, well, I just see a three-way coming in the end (win, that is).

And as a writer I tend to do the same thing, strapping on the set God forgot to give me and letting 'er rip, diving into the parts of my gray matter where all the different twists and angles live. Playing it safe in writing is like a paranoia, checking to make sure all rules followed at all times rather than shaking it up and letting it roll, an unexpected outcome worth the scary risk of doing something extraordinarily out of the ordinary.

Why settle for keeping in step when breaking into a fast sprint puts the parade miles behind you? Risks are for winners. Long live the risk-takers! Be the bright brushstroke on the beige canvas - kick it up or remain, for lack of a better word, just "meh."