What is the duty of a cook? It is the same as the duty of a writer. You must begin where there is nothing but need, where there is an emptiness.
You must use your talent and skill, and what resources you can gather. Clean water, fresh things. And with attention to detail, create something to fill that emptiness; something nourishing; something that won’t make people sick.
There is no way to focus too much on this task, no way to take it too seriously. It is all that you are doing right now.
Last night, I decided to watch an episode of a TV show from England called Doc Martin on my computer. I’ve watched 2 and a half seasons of the show in this way, over the past few months, and I notice it’s recently begun a run on PBS in my area. You can read about the show here.
Doc Martin is about an emotionally detached, disaffected doctor who leaves London and opens a practice in a small fishing village. Maybe I identified with the concept because of my long and fervent appreciation of the American show Northern Exposure. I loved that show, never missed it, and the plot was similar, is my point.
The local people don’t get Doc Martin, because he has the bedside manner of a small table with a dim lamp. He is very hard to like, but through all the episodes I’ve seen there’s been a vague insinuation that he is about to give us some reason to think otherwise. On that score, I give up.
In fact, I’m not going to watch the show anymore, for 2 reasons: the main character is about as likeable as a stretch of frozen asphalt, and for me, the show lacks Quality. Doc Martin hates dogs. I keep thinking that’s going to change too, but no. He yells at dogs and chases them away. He is the sort of man I might enjoy hitting repeatedly with a large piece of wood. As for the rest of the townspeople, well with rare exception they’re just not growing very much are they?
The last straw came in a scene in which the doctor goes to the home of his aunt and finds her having sex with her housepainter on the kitchen table. He is shocked. We are shocked. As I said, this show is on PBS; there’s been not one clear drop of R-rated content in any previous scene. And look at her. What manner of worthless writer would have such a character shagging where she should be shelling peas?
Now I’ve got that image burned into memory. Can anyone guess how many brain cells I lost, that I’m never getting back?
As I closed out the feed from Netflix, I thought about the people who make that show, and all the attention I have given their work, and what I was owed in return. I guess it’s basically this guy named Dominic Minghella, creator and writer. He created this occasion of Fail.
Our Duty as Creative Types
We writers owe our audience some cognizance of their attention; some fidelity to the fact that we have it as long as they’re willing to give it. Hopefully, they’re willing to give it for as long as we ask for it, but maybe not. In any case, we are creating something where there was nothing, and serving it up to feed them. We have a duty to make sure it’s fresh and honest, and the best thing we can make with what we have.
At some point, not in the shitty first draft, but by the last draft at least, we have to give our dish the old sniff test, make sure it hasn’t gone bad along the way. In the case of Doc Martin, the writer allowed the show to take a huge lurch out of its usual path – almost out of its context – and it lost its nutritional value to me.
It’s good to be brave with the spices, to write what we believe is real. But we also have to remember, if we decide to publish, that we are feeding people. Nutrition matters. Don’t leave the tater salad out in the sun, Hemingway.
Searching for Quality
I’m not saying that creative people shouldn’t be ready and willing to offend their audience. Are you offended, for example, by what happens in the courthouse in To Kill A Mockingbird? Sure. I’m saying that we owe the audience Quality. What is it, and why did I capitalize it?
Quality with a capital Q is the properties of a thing which create in the observer of it a sense and understanding of himself with respect and in relation to the thing. In other words, Quality is something that the reader can relate to.
When I watched Northern Exposure, I loved it because I could relate to it. I could picture myself living in Cicely Alaska, hanging out at The Brick, listening to Chris in the Morning on k-Bear, going fishing with Ed. And very much unlike Doc Martin, I could imagine I might trust Dr. Joel to be my doctor. (My real life’s doctor’s name is also Joel.)
Can you imagine the Old Man and The Sea and find some meaning for yourself therein? If so, that’s Quality. It doesn’t have to be as specific and personal as my Reaction to N.E., but it has to draw the audience in, as opposed to making them feel alienated. Speaking of which, does Alien scare you? Can you identify with Sigourney Weaver’s terror? If so, that’s Quality.
That is my problem with Doc Martin. I can’t relate to the writing, the setting, the characters, their motivations. I have waited time and again in hope of being drawn in and finding a way to identify – a handhold of Quality – and it has not come. I have the same problem when I’m reading a bad poem or a bad novel and I put it down. There’s just no me in it, no us there at all. So I have been known to toss a crappy novel hard against the nearest wall because I can’t relate. Not because some people don’t like dogs or older people shouldn’t have sex, but because if it’s done badly – if the shitty from the first draft is still showing thru – and if it ain’t art, then it’s alienation.