Friday, January 12, 2018

Creative Citizenship

A few months back, my sister Siân (who is a fiction writer) used the phrase "literary citizenship" in conversation. I asked her what it meant and she told me that essentially it was about supporting the industry that you hope will support you. She expanded, "Rather than thinking of writing as a solitary act and seeing the publishing industry as something that owes writers something, literary citizens look at how to help foster and promote their fellow writers."

I hadn't heard the phrase before, but it immediately resonated with me. All artists are part of a creative community, and one can be an upstanding citizen in our community... or not.

But what makes someone a good citizen?  Theodore Roosevelt said, "The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight." Fourth grade teacher Mariely Sanchez says a good citizen meets the following criteria:
  1. Volunteers to be active in his/her community
  2. Is honest and trustworthy
  3. Follows rules and laws
  4. Respects the rights and property of others
  5. Takes responsibility for his/her actions
In terms of the film industry, I think good citizenship takes work and self-awareness and humility, and sometimes the skin of a rhino. It means thinking of a whole that is larger than yourself, even as you're hyper-focused on your own work and success.

I'm sure this is far from an exhaustive list, but if I were a fourth grade teacher, I'd include the following on my "good creative citizenship" list:
  1. Support your fellow filmmaker. You're not going be the only person to succeed, and why would you want to be? You'd just be all alone at the top. Not to mention the fact that you don't really want to alienate people on the rise--they're the ones who might help you rise too. Be gracious. It's just good karma. 
  2. Mind your own house. Focus on your work and try not to compare it with the work of your peers. We all get jealous. As an ambitious person striving so hard for recognition, it's natural to feel some feelings when you see your dreams coming true for someone else. Acknowledge the moment for what it is, see if there are any lessons to take from the other person's journey, then get back to your own work. It's the only thing you have control over.
  3. Be grateful for the opportunities you get, don't get hung up on the ones you don't. Avoid bitterness. Bitterness only hurts the bitter. There are a lot of us creative people out there and the opportunities can be scarce. It's disappointing to be passed over, but the only productive response to rejection is to evaluate yourself and see where you could have improved, then do the hard work necessary to prepare yourself for the next chance you get.
  4. Be a direct dealer. If you have issues with someone, approach that person and address those issues as soon as you can. Resolve it without dragging others into your it or letting it fester and grow into something worse than it is. The difficulty of broaching that initial conversation is nothing compared to the challenge it could blossom into if left unaddressed.
  5. Seek feedback and provide it when asked. Honest criticism can be tough to hear, but as a creative person, holding your work up for scrutiny is the only thing that will allow it to really shine. Accept it gracefully, and try to give it as you'd receive it. If you're watching someone else's work, consider how you deliver your notes--just like directing, you want to talk about what's not working in a manner that gives the recipient of the note something useful and actionable to work with. A culture of thoughtful critique makes everyone's work better.
If Ms. Sanchez's fourth graders can do it, I feel like we should be able to do it too.

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