Writing with Generosity

Poet-turned-screenwriter Tony Tost is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. Not only do I like much of his work (Damnation is in the running for all-time favorite serialized TV drama), but the way he talks about writing, TV production, and film often causes me to think and reflect about my creative endeavors. Recently, Tost had this to say about cinematography:

And to over-generalize, in so much recent indie cinema, the camera feels like an insecure navel-gazing hipster compulsively chronicling its neuroses & afflictions. Too self-absorbed to treat its audience with generosity, maybe.

It’s not the first time that Tost has expressed similar sentiments about the peril of overly-introspective art, and it’s not the first time his words have led me to consider whether my own writing can be too self-absorbed. (It can. Wince.) But the particular wording here got me thinking more directly than I had about the positive counter-point to self-absorption: with generosity.

“Too self-absorbed to treat its audience with generosity, maybe.

– Tony Tost (Twitter, 6/8/21)

This was valuable to me, because one trap (for me, at least) of focusing on a negative like don’t let your writing be too self-absorbed is that I start to obsess over avoiding that negative and, perversely, turn even more inward and become even more self-absorbed in the process. Having a positive goal usually helps with that. If I have something to aim toward, that turns my focus outward. But if my goal is to write with generosity, what exactly does that mean?

As I thing about the idea of generosity, it strikes me that there are two aspects to being generous. The first, perhaps the most obvious, is being giving. A generous host provides guests with food, comfort, offers them aspirin when they have headaches, lends them a travel mug of coffee for the long drive home, and so forth. To be generous, then, an artist should be giving. As a writer, I suspect this means treating my readers fairly, making sure that what I’m writing serves them not just myself, giving sufficient details in a variety of ways, writing accessibly, perhaps even dealing straight-on with reader expectations (by meeting or subverting them rather than ignoring them).

The second aspect I see in generosity is allowing. To be generous, a host must allow some degree of freedom for guests to make their own choices. If some guests want to sit quietly to the side, there should be a way for them to be comfortable doing so. If a guest wants to step out into the fresh air, that should be possible. If the guests clamor for Julius to play his guitar, generosity would lead a host to enable that. Giving is most generous when recipients are permitted freedom in how they respond to your gifts.

I’m not saying you’re a bad host if you don’t do these things, only that, perhaps, you are not as generous as you might be. (And generosity is not the only valid benchmark.)

To be generous, then, an artist must allow the viewer or reader some measure of freedom. As a writer, this means less spoon-feeding and more presentation of options. It means giving my readers the space to allow their minds to wander and to allow their imaginations to explore the world I’m creating for them. It may even mean things like not caring if readers pronounce the names of my characters or places just precisely how I do.

When I was young, I organized a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle party for my family. I made everyone costumes and TMNT-themed snacks and even thematically-appropriate games. I had a specific order of ceremony in mind and was quite frustrated when my family were apparently enjoying themselves, but floating freely through the event rather than following my plan. I was devastated. They were having a good time at the party, so it was a success, but it wasn’t my party. So they had made themselves a good ol’ time. The party I had created for them was, I thought, a failure.

Was I a bad host? Well, yes, probably I was.

But, more importantly for this post, I was not generous. I thought I was being generous by giving my family so much. But I was missing the part of generosity in which I allowed them to actually enjoy what I was giving them.

Fast-forward to today. I’m not particularly party-oriented. In fact, I’m pretty strongly oriented away parties. But I do enjoy hosting and when I host get-togethers, I almost always prepare a wide assortment of foods and beverages. People often ask why I’m making so much. I think they expect me to say, “I don’t want anyone to go home hungry.” But that’s not my answer. My answer is, “I’m not really making an amount; I’m making a variety. I want everyone to have as good a chance as possible at finding something they like.”

Can I please everyone? No, of course not. I’m not even trying. I don’t invite everyone to dinner. I invite a particular group of people — a target audience, you might say. Can I please all my guests? No, of course not, but I’m still going to generous. I’m going to give my guests a lot of options that I think are interesting together, and I’m going to allow them the opportunity to make what they will of what I’m giving them.

I’m still working out what that means for my writing, but I’m beginning to see a path that appeals to me.

What do you think?

What are some ways that writers can be generous with their readers? Or musicians with their listeners? Or sculptors with their three-dimensional creations?


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