ann_leckie: (AJ)
[personal profile] ann_leckie

So, this is basically more or less random musings triggered by this post by John Scalzi about doing readings.

Now, I completely agree with him on the value of being prepared, and knowing that at a reading (or on a panel, or some other sort of public appearance), you’re performing. I have also noticed the overlap between writers whose readings are lively and enjoyable and writers who have even some small amount of performance experience.

My own preparations for readings are a good deal less elaborate than John’s, but then I suspect I write very, very much more slowly than he does and I haven’t practiced my ukulele in quite a while. But basically, I pick a thing to read, trying to make sure it’s not too long (y’all at WorldCon got solid read-aloud, sorry, but then again not too sorry since folks seemed to enjoy it), and then spend any remaining time taking questions. I probably ought to think if there’s something I can add to switch things up for this fall.

Now as it happens, I have a tiny bit of theater experience, along with that music degree, so I’m actually pretty comfortable onstage. But you know what else I think has helped me–years of waiting tables. I am a serious introvert, but working at waiting tables gave me practice interacting with lots of strangers for hours at a time, keeping my demeanor pleasant and mostly cheerful. It’s practice that has stood me in good stead for a lot of my non-writing-related life, actually. In a lot of ways waiting tables can be a really miserable job, but that aspect of it, learning how to be “on” very pleasantly and confidently, has been super valuable to me.

So, a while ago, I think it might have been on Tumblr, I saw someone reblog a post where someone was saying that they wished there was some way to politely tell a waiter that it was all right, the waiter didn’t have to be fake cheery with them, the poster cringed at the idea of a waiter having to do that and it was okay to just drop the act.

This bugged me, but it took me a while to figure out why. Finally I decided that there were two things about it that bothered me.

First, the assumption that a waiter’s cheerfulness was fake and therefore bad. It’s true that the cheerfulness is a performance. No question. But “performance” and “fake” are…I mean, they’re related? I could perform a fake attitude, yeah. But I could also decide that a conscious performance is the best way to convey my actual attitude. And I know that, when I was waiting tables, one of the things I enjoyed was being able to put on the persona of someone who was cheerful and extraverted, comfortable with talking to strangers, and happy to help. Yeah, I enjoyed it less when I was working with a table full of assholes, sure, but there’s value in practicing one’s “I am a person who is unfailingly polite” persona under adverse conditions.

I could go off on a tangent here about the way the culture I grew up in and am surrounded by values “sincerity” over “performance” and defines sincerity in a way that doesn’t just mean “honest” but also unscripted and spontaneous. And confessional–to be sincere is to bare your soul, to show the intimate you. In fact, bets are you associate “honest” with unscripted and spontaneous and confessional.

But a lot of things that we consider to be spontaneous and heartfelt are, in fact, scripted gestures. They kind of have to be, you have to speak in terms another person will understand, if you want to communicate with them. If you look closely you can see the underpinning of social expectation and convention that mostly goes ignored.

The clearest example of what I’m talking about is a religious one. I grew up Catholic, and that meant I spent a good deal of my childhood memorizing prayers. The Mass, its variations throughout the liturgical year notwithstanding, is essentially the same carefully scripted ritual over and over and over again. I could recite much of it in my sleep. Or, I could have before they re-did the approved English translation.

It’s commonly assumed that the recitation of these prayers is nothing but empty ritual. That there’s no way they can be real engagement with the spiritual, no way they can truly express any kind of profound emotion. I am here to tell you that the common assumption is one hundred percent fucking wrong. In fact, the pervasive presence of those prayers lends a depth and eloquence to them that I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t had that experience.* From the outside it looks like droning meaningless syllables. From the inside it’s very different.

In opposition to the Catholic style prayers we have the supposedly spontaneous prayers of some Protestant churches. A true sincere and unscripted upwelling of praise and prayer! Except not. Listen to enough, and you realize they’re built out of pre-fabricated phrases, strung together at length, with various techniques for vamping until the next thought is organized, the next unit chosen. I assume that the folks who pray this way find it a deeply emotional experience, and consider themselves to be praying very sincerely. I don’t hear spontaneity though, it’s just as formulaic as the supposedly nothing but rote Catholic prayer I grew up with, just handled a different way.

My point isn’t that there’s a right or a wrong way to pray. My point is that both these practices are equally sincere, and calling the second sort spontaneous isn’t actually terribly accurate. It’s really a performance of something that purports to be spontaneity.

My point is that “sincere” and “spontaneous” are not the same thing.

Nor is “sincere” and “intimate.” Which was my next problem with the idea that it would be kind and generous to tell a waiter they could let the act drop, and be honest with the poster who wished to ask for this.

They weren’t, as they appeared to think, offering a chance to relax. No, the poster was, in a sense, wanting to demand an intimacy with the waiter that they just hadn’t earned. A waiter does not owe you any glimpses of their private self. That’s maybe for friends and family, right? We all behave differently with intimates and strangers. Strangers generally get a more formal, more distant face. You don’t tell someone to show you that part of themselves. Well, unless there’s a big enough power differential that you don’t even notice that’s what you’re doing.

It’s not generous. It’s insulting.

Anyway. I think it’s worth taking a second or third thought when we value actions as sincere or insincere based on whether or not we think they’re spontaneous or scripted or conventional. Are they really any of those things? Why does a conventional action that gets called spontaneous but really isn’t, why does that get valued so much more highly than an action that’s just as conventional, but more obviously so? Just something to ponder.

Anyway. That’s my random musings, from reading John’s blog post and connecting it with some stuff I’d been thinking about not long ago.

Like John, my “on” demeanor is me. It’s not fake. But it is a performance, in a lot of ways. It’s a public me. I enjoy the heck out of that performance, partly because it helps me be comfortable meeting lots of awesome people. It’s exhausting, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it.

___
*I occasionally wonder just how Fredo’s death in the second Godfather movie must seem to someone who doesn’t feel the end of the Hail Mary hanging there unsaid, a background echo to the shot. Does the scene have the same emotional weight? I suspect it doesn’t, quite.

**In case anyone worries, or feels I need reassurance, no one to my knowledge has accused me of being fake in public. And I’m not particularly worried that anyone might think that. It’s just that the question of what’s sincere, what’s spontaneous, and how those get valued by the people around me, is one I chew on sometimes, and I figured I’d share some of those thoughts.

Mirrored from Ann Leckie.

Date: 2017-04-13 11:37 pm (UTC)
daidoji_gisei: (Default)
From: [personal profile] daidoji_gisei
*I occasionally wonder just how Fredo’s death in the second Godfather movie must seem to someone who doesn’t feel the end of the Hail Mary hanging there unsaid, a background echo to the shot. Does the scene have the same emotional weight? I suspect it doesn’t, quite.

I don't think it can, based on my own experience as a cradle Catholic. Years and years ago I saw a live performance of the play Amadeus. At a certain point in the play Salieri read one of Motzart's scores--and then he carefully tore it into three unequal pieces and ate the smallest one. I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut, because I knew what Salieri was referencing and I suddenly KNEW exactly how he felt about that piece of music. If I hadn't seen that gesture over and over in a specific context I never would have had the huge emotional connection to that bit of the play.

Date: 2017-04-13 11:50 pm (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
THANK YOU

Date: 2017-04-14 01:40 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (aquaman is sad)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
You're so right about the insulting-ness and entitlement of wanting a waiter to "drop the act." It's basically yet another way to put demands on a waiter. "No," the customer cries petulantly, "don't give me that plastic smile; give me your soooouuuuullll"

Riffing off what you say about the distinction between sincerity and spontaneity, I've found it bemusing that people think that self-serving motives are more genuine than selfless ones, and similarly, that they think the presence of a strand of self-interest invalidates or renders "fake" whole swaths of altruistic motivation. Why is someone's base motive more true than their altruistic one? Why, given that people are bundles of conflicting, contradictory impulses and characteristics, do we discard the admirable ones as false and focus on the rest?

Date: 2017-04-15 12:45 am (UTC)
damerell: (food)
From: [personal profile] damerell
When I used to fly I always found American waitstaff's chirpiness rather unsettling. (I am British). I'd never ask them to "turn it off", but if I had it wouldn't have been for their soul, but for silence; let us interact only to the degree that is necessary, please. Entirely selfishly, of course...

Date: 2017-04-15 07:02 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
My husband is English, and when I was talking to him about this post, he said the same thing. Cultural differences in situations like these can be really jarring. In your case or my husband's case, though--and unlike the case of the Tumblr post Ann was talking about--if you *had* spoken up, you wouldn't have been under the impression that you were somehow trying to "free" the staff, you'd be speaking from your expectations of service, which weren't being met. What makes the Tumblr poster obnoxious is that they're putting a demand on the waitstaff why at the same time thinking that they're doing them a favor.

Date: 2017-04-14 09:50 am (UTC)
heron61: (Emphasis and strong feeling)
From: [personal profile] heron61
The clearest example of what I’m talking about is a religious one. I grew up Catholic, and that meant I spent a good deal of my childhood memorizing prayers. The Mass, its variations throughout the liturgical year notwithstanding, is essentially the same carefully scripted ritual over and over and over again. I could recite much of it in my sleep. Or, I could have before they re-did the approved English translation.

It’s commonly assumed that the recitation of these prayers is nothing but empty ritual. That there’s no way they can be real engagement with the spiritual, no way they can truly express any kind of profound emotion. I am here to tell you that the common assumption is one hundred percent fucking wrong. In fact, the pervasive presence of those prayers lends a depth and eloquence to them that I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t had that experience.* From the outside it looks like droning meaningless syllables. From the inside it’s very different.


Well said indeed. Part of my study of neopaganism and ceremonial magic involved performing a few fairly simple rituals nightly (or as close as I could manage, which typically meant 5-6 x week for 1 year. Since then, I can do these rituals in my sleep, and that was the entire point - I gained a depth of understanding of them that I could not possibly have when I was always either glancing at a note card or thinking "does 'around me flames the pentagram' come next"

Looking at the larger issue, from my PoV, the dividing line between artifice and spontaneity is often far from clear - not only does even the best actor have to memorize their part to make it come alive and feel spontaneous, but if a Jazz musician doesn't know the tune they're riffing on really well, they won't manage to improvise anything particularly good off of it.

At the most basic level, we all practice social skill. Being a deeply shy bookish geek as a teen, I vividly remember realizing how social inept I was around age 15, and consciously observing people whose social skills I was impressed with and modeling what they did. By my freshman year of college, at age 18, I was still shy, but I was also fairly practiced at being social, and so had the space to be spontaneous, because I know how the basics worked.

Date: 2017-04-20 11:02 am (UTC)
landingtree: (Default)
From: [personal profile] landingtree
Thank you! Thoughts I hadn't had and shall chew on -- especially while I poll strangers for their political views.

I used to declaim bits of poetry, especially Hamlet, as outlets for anger. Only substantial anger, and only once in somebody's company -- because I knew it was such a melodramatic thing to do. It took a rare swell of emotion to make me unfiltered enough to use a script.

I'm doing an undergrad paper on classical epic at the moment. Before this I hadn't known that The Iliad and The Odyssey were improvised in performance. There was a strong scholarly push against that notion when it turned up, because it explained so many phrase-choices in terms of generic no-thought-required expedience instead of the poetic effect a lot of people wanted to ascribe to an allusive, redrafting writer. "You fools have made Homer a robot!" they said. But I find it completely impressive, that something so monumental should have been (probably -- choosing not to pause to check stacks of tendentious literature here) produced out of a hat, a hat pre-filled with thought and a tradition's stock of useful phrases and epithets. Words determined entirely by the mechanics of performance get such weight riding behind them, the tenth time, twentieth time, last time they are spoken...

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