Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/