So because we run Creative Space on Tuesday nights, it fell on our family to record the season premiere of American Idol so that some of the participants would be able to still feed their addiction. We can sacrifice many things in the name of ministry, but not American Idol. My wife and my sister, who love the show (and, frankly, far too much reality television) would never let me hear the end of it.

Welcome to my corner of hell.

Anyway, suffering through another season of A.I., I was once again struck by the similarities between the whole audition process and submitting a story for publication. In fact, I concluded that watching the auditions is the equivalent to reading a slush pile.

This season, like in seasons past, we were baffled by the amount of people who don’t recognize their own lack of talent. Granted, they might be tone deaf, but you would think that they would have friends or family who weren’t. How do people who claim to like you not inform you that you are the worse thing to happen to, well, sound? It could be chalked up to an inflated sense of self (the end result of going through life with people coddling each other’s self-esteem), it just seemed interesting that (plants aside), the worse the singer, the more adamant they are that they are good. Or it could be as simple as people hearing what they want to hear. I ran across an interesting study from Cornell.

… according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent. On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.

This deficiency in “self-monitoring skills,” the researchers said, helps explain the tendency of the humor-impaired to persist in telling jokes that are not funny, of day traders to repeatedly jump into the market — and repeatedly lose out — and of the politically clueless to continue holding forth at dinner parties on the fine points of campaign strategy.

Part of screwing together the easy courage to stand in an audition line (or write and submit a story for publication) stems from the idea, spoken or not, that anyone can do it. Anyone can sing. Anyone can write. Not everyone can do so well (contrary to the evidence proffered by the number of crap CDs and books churned out each year). I don’t know what the writer’s equivalent to tone deafness would be. Maybe believing that everything you write is gold. Maybe it’s the inability to take constructive criticism.

Whenever a contestant begins by naming their credentials, essentially the same as a writer’s submission cover letter, and they can only list things like “I’ve had ten years of training” or “I’ve been doing (singing in this case) all of their life”, all I hear is the writing career equivalent: “I’ve been giving away my stories on the Internet”, “I’ve paid a company to publish my story”. All the lies we’ve bought into in the name of garnering exposure.

Interestingly enough, the last stage in the process is the part that counts the most: the actual product music itself. All the gimics, persona, and costumes in the world aren’t going to help you if in the final analysis, you have little to no discernible talent. Artists of all stripes need to find their own, distinct voice. Not picking up an affectation or doing a pale imitation of another artist. It has to be more than karaoke (the writing equivalent might be fanfic).

If nothing else, respecting the audition process should teach all aspiring artists to make the most of opportunities when they come up, be they auditions, pitch sessions, or new markets. Take them seriously and professionally. Be yourself, be confident, but let your work speak for itself, because in the end, it does.