You only have to participate in one writing critique group to understand the vital importance of being a filter, not a sponge. The phrase “everyone is a critic” may as well be engraved on the tombstone of every artist because . . . everyone really is a critic. When it comes to art, every opinion matters because every opinion is valid so long as you can back it up. So you need to learn early on that it’s okay to cherry-pick comments that will help advance your work and not just because they said something nice. Learn from your readers constructive criticism; don’t only look at the good things they said.
If one sought to apply every bit of feedback they received, they would likely never put anything out. No matter how hard we try, we can’t appeal or please each member of our readership, and we shouldn’t have to. Clearly every genre isn’t meant for widespread appeal. That’s why there are genres! It’s enough to have fans criticize the genre they like most without people, for example, who don’t like fantasy read The Lord of the Rings.
What got me writing this article comes from two sources: the novel Perks of Being a Wallflower and a show called Stranger Things.
In Perks, Charlie is assigned a book called The Fountainhead by his English teacher. He is told to “be skeptical about this one. It’s a great book. But try to be a filter, not a sponge” (165). Upon research of The Fountainhead and its author (Ayn Rand), I understood why Bill told Charlie to be a filter. Rand was famous for the philosophy of objectivism: the rejection of the community-building and the altruistic in exchange for laissez-faire capitalism and right to private property. Look at Charlie’s response to finishing it:
“It was a really great experience. . . . It was pretty straightforward, I thought, and the great part is that I took what the author wrote about and put it terms of my own life. Maybe that’s what being a filter means.” p. 169
You see? Charlie was selective in what he took away from Rand and applying it to his life. He’s right; that is how a filter acts. It’s why I began this article by remarking the hit or miss effect critiques have on one’s art. Charlie isn’t about to stomp about waving the libertarian flag. He didn’t let the words of Rand completely alter his world-view. He found the constructive parts he could adapt into his life and discarded the remainder, the biased. Something similar occurred in Netflix’s Stranger Things.
I once had a conversation about Stranger Things while playing a Monopoly themed to the show. My friend observed that the show draws too heavily on its inspirations: 80s pop culture. He laments the “fact” that there don’t seem to be many original stories, like The Wheel of Time series, that get skipped for others who happened to gain popularity before them–I should mention my friend does love the show no matter what I may report him saying here. This got me thinking back to a video I watched on this seeming recurrence of only certain material being used over and over again just because it’s familiar. The video is on the YouTube channel called Just Write where the creator (Sage Hyden) delves into the many versions of the medium to highlight techniques and what we can learn from established writers.
In response to my friend’s observations about Stranger Things and popular/mainstream fiction, Sage argues that Stranger Things actually filters out 80s hallmarks without losing itself in them. It becomes its own unique story because it doesn’t centre on the references to Star Wars, Stephen King, or Dungeons & Dragons. It can exist without them. Stranger Things constructs rules in its world that happen to refer moments in pop culture because it would have been relevant to that time. Sage brings up the chief being akin to Lando Calrissian to demonstrate the possibility of him betraying them. The show isn’t trying to be Star Wars or ET, even though the similarities to the latter are many. I would expect casual (or not so casual) fans of the franchise to call on such references to make their point in today’s conversations. When someone says “they’re a stone cold Slytherin,” you immediately know what kind of person they might be like without ever having to meet them. Stranger Things isn’t absorbing the content or identity of their inspirations. They’re ornaments to help initiate the viewers into the character’s problems. When looking at the story on a macro level (at least what has been given to us so far), Stranger Things does function without references. Is it as relatable or fun? That’s to each his own.
Whatever the story may be, I hope I have laid out how important it is to be a filter, not a sponge when creating your own art. We need to be able to know what critiques, philosophies, or references to filter to our works, our lives. It’s vital to add this trait to our utility belts (See what I did there?), so we may be successful. But it takes time . . . lots of time and exposure. Otherwise, as Sage puts it: “you need to master your influences, or your influences will master you.”