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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What “Project Runway” Taught Me about Being a Writer

This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss.
As a new author, I always feel weird about giving advice on the craft. On the other hand, I write every day. And when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, so of course, it’s always on my mind. I see parallels between my chosen art form and other, completely unrelated, things all the time. Hence this blog post. Lately, I’ve been struck by how much writing is like being on the TLC show, “Project Runway.”
Putting aside the vibrant personalities and the drama that tends to arise in each episode, what draws me to the show is my desire to see what this group of really talented, creative people will produce. I love the process. The designers start off with an inspiration, are given parameters (and maybe some wacky materials), then they run with it. Sometimes their product works, and sometimes it fails, but it’s always interesting.
So, as I make my way through the current season, which is the first I’ve watched since beginning my own creative journey as a writer, I keep catching myself nodding in agreement as the designers talk about their challenges and triumphs. Observations of the creative process that used to make sense to me, now resonate in an entirely different way. I get it. I used to think I got it, but I so didn’t. 
Principles that serve the “Project Runway” contestants are totally relevant for writers. So, in honor of Season 14 of “Project Runway,” here are the lessons I’ve taken away from the show.
Who tends to do well? 
People who thrive on the show share certain characteristics. They allow their inspiration to arise and then they run with it. They trust their idea and direction and engage in thought processes that fuel that excitement. What they don’t do is second guess themselves. This translates into a solidified concept, adequate time for quality construction, and editing. The contestants that waffle end up with incomplete concepts that are poorly sewn and ultimately find themselves in the bottom.
The plague of second-guessing can devastate a writer too. Ever try to meet a deadline while constantly going back and changing a plotline or trying out a new concept? Tough task. Even if we’re not under deadline, we need to keep the stories coming, and projects can easily turn into never-ending undertakings if we can’t stick to one thing. 
What do I take away from this? Conceive of a concept then stick to it, and instead of considering how a different idea might make the book or story better, focus on what else you can do to make this idea better.
Another characteristic of successful “Project Runway” contestants is they don’t worry so much about what other people think of their work. They say things like, “I have to go with my design instinct,” or “I have to stay true to what I want to say.” Sure, they want to win, and they consider the judges’ and Tim Gunn’s feedback (which is great because who can’t benefit from an infusion of new ideas and perspectives?), but they don’t let anyone take the reins when it comes to their ultimate voice. 
Writers need to do the same. When it comes to literary voice, I don’t believe we need to have one and stick to that exclusively. My inspiration comes from so many sources, so each project is unique. For me, it’s not about sticking to a genre or target audience; it’s about grasping a concept that energizes me. That said, for each story, I do have an intended voice and style. 
New authors are highly susceptible to others’ opinions, and can find their stories going in entirely foreign directions without a solid roadmap of their own to guide them. It happened to me in my early days. After feedback from critique partners, which I didn’t parse out in terms of essential advice versus personal preference, my book evolved. I’m cool with this, because I do love the end product, but I learned from this experience, and now, I purposely make decisions about the voice, style, quirks, and all those other details before I start. When it comes time to take feedback, I hold up my established framework against any input from others, so I can be thoughtful about what I change and why.
Lastly, the contestants on “Project Runway” that are most successful don’t worry too much about the other designers. Those who self-compare (either to downplay their own skill or to belittle others) tend to either feel intimidated and get lost, or they present as cocky, then confused, when their look isn’t as successful as they’d hoped. 
There is a ton of incredible writers out there and plenty of meh writers too. Although striving to improve and learn from those more advanced than us is a good thing, we can’t overly focus on our shortcomings or else we’ll become hamstrung. Focusing on how much better we are than someone else will only bite us in our respective butts as well. Thoughts of I’m better than can trick us into thinking we’re done growing when we’re never done growing. Ever. At the end of the day, there will always be those who are more skilled than us in certain areas and those who are less skilled. 
How to navigate this potential pitfall? Forget being good (or great, or awesome, or legit, or arrived), and focus on getting better. This is a never-ending process, but one that takes the pressure off to be perfect or measure up to our idols while also helping us constantly remain open-minded about how we might improve. It lets us be where ever we are in the developmental path without self-judgment (and this can soften perceived judgment from others, so score there).
When I began watching the current season of “Project Runway,” I was merely hoping to indulge my craving for some fancy dresses (okay, and a little drama too), but now I look forward to sharing the designers’ journey. They’re teaching me more about my own path, a totally unexpected and intriguing surprise.


Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand. She has several stories out now, another on the way, and a novel in the works to be released later this year. Recent works: “Breathless,” a standalone romantic ghost story; “The Muse,” a short horror piece in Issue 31 of Sanitarium Magazine; “Alice in Wilderland,” a contemporary YA story in the Alice in Wonderland-inspired anthology, “Beware the Little White Rabbit”; and “The Ship,” a free piece of flash fiction in Theme of Absence Magazine. You can learn more about her at JessicaBaylissWrites.com.