Alienation and Feedback

by F.

It turns out that people with chronic pain can comfort themselves if they have visual feedback from an fMRI. Steven Levitt draws a parallel between such feedback loops and improving his golf swing by using new measuring technologies.

The tighter the feedback loop, the faster one can improve something. But when trying to improve an artwork, I think one of the hardest things is to assess the work honestly—to obtain feedback yourself from your work. You ask yourself, Does it play? Does it look good? It’s hard to view the work dispassionately. And yet we need to. Otherwise, the feedback loop is too loose and sloppy.

I think of this as a need to “alienate” oneself from one’s work. We need to see the works as the audience will so we can tune the work and give them the experience they deserve.

But how?

It depends on the art form. From what I’ve observed, visual artists do the following from time to time:

  • look at the work in a mirror
  • turn the work upside down
  • stand far away from the work
  • take a photo of the work
  • look at the work through a viewfinder
  • after taking a digital photo, “flip” the work horizontally (this is equivalent to using a mirror).
  • after taking a digital photo, enlarge or reduce the work

These tricks let you see the work fresh. They all work like a charm. Look at your drawing in the mirror and you will immediately see if anything is wrong. It looks like someone else’s picture. You are alienated from your own work.

Verbal artists, I think, have it harder. From my experience, they:

  • let the work sit, sometimes for incredibly long periods
  • read the work aloud
  • read the work aloud, record it, and listen to it
  • have the work read aloud to them (some writing programs, like FinalDraft, actually do this for you, but such “reading” currently sounds ridiculous given current text-to-speech technology—imagine Stephen Hawking reading Proust)
  • outline the story based on the last draft and then read through the outline.

I was browsing through Rewriting Secrets for Screenwriters and, while it appeared to be worth checking out from the library, I expected more techniques for what I call “alienation.” The main one suggested by the author was the last one above: disregard your initial outline and do a fresh one based on the last draft. Then look at it and see if it plays.