This week brings us a journey into the early days of the fandom, with a story which delves into the darkest parts of one pony’s psyche to ask weighty questions about our relationship with our art.
“The Art of the Dress” or “Expectations”
[Dark] • 8,547 words
Rarity finds herself especially intrigued by the dresses of Ponyville’s newest dressmaker. Struggling under the burden of her own adoration she finds herself trapped within an existential crisis. In this nihilistic twilight, she clings onto the last of her creative sanity, trying to pierce through the mysterium that is the new dressmaker’s identity. A story that deals with what it is to be and, subsequently, what it is to not be in the world of creativity.
FROM THE CURATORS: It takes a fine touch for art to be able to talk about art in a way that’s more than simply navel-gazing, but this piece weaves together two threads of meta-discussion that also function on several other levels — as a family drama and as a magical-realism psychological horror story. “A well-crafted story,” Benman said, and Present Perfect agreed: “A deep and haunting piece with a lot of great imagery.” “Rarity is impeccably characterized,” Horizon added.
As the description suggests, this is a story that sets out deep themes and does not flinch from them. While this means that it may be more challenging for casual readers, those willing to explore its ideas in greater depth should find rich rewards. “The story’s like a modern art installation,” Horizon said. “It always feels like there’s something more to be found if I dig a little further.”
Read on for our interview, in which NTSTS explores the fundamental nature of creation, discusses how to keep a healthy perspective on the quality of your work, and reveals how a writing prompt about love led to a tale about existential crisis.
Give us the standard biography.
God, what to say. I dunno. I’m a creative writing major who lives in Canada. People say I’m pretentious. I think they mean to say I use big words. Maybe they’re right on both counts.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It’s an abbreviation of a dumb nickname someone christened me with when I got into ponies. The abbreviation is a necessity due to how dumb the original name is. It shall remain a secret forever.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Pinkie Pie. She’s cute and she makes me smile. She likes making other people smile too.
What’s your favorite episode?
Party of One.
What do you get from the show?
It’s about cute ponies doing cute things. I mostly like the weirder stuff the show does with the characters – it’s probably a faux pas to say, but the closer it gets to fanfiction, the more I enjoy it.
What do you want from life?
Geez, asking the big questions. I guess I want to create something meaningful. Fanfiction is likely a weird place to start with that, but I think that the only people living for real are the ones who create and try to further the idea of beauty and meaning in life. I’m not sure stories about technicolour horses do that, but if I get a retrospective on my existence right before it flickers out, I’d like to be able to say that I’ve created something worthwhile, and can be happy as a result.
Why do you write?
See above? I started writing because I wanted to be a part of the cultural zeitgeist, whether in this particular community or the world at large. I have an aptitude for words (I think?) so I’m trying to turn that into something I can use to make the world beautiful.
Can you give any advice to writers seeking to take a more psychological approach to pony fiction?
Don’t let yourself be confined by the source material, I guess. Most of the stories I write are horrible tragedies that have no place in the MLP universe as it exists inside show canon; to me, the contrast of light and dark between happy, cheerful ponies and the jarring misery I put them through is what makes fanfiction interesting in the first place. The Pony Psychology series was one of the first fics that really caught my interest, and I think it tackles the idea with sort of the right approach, though it goes way over the top in some ways, where I mostly prefer a lighter touch.
I guess the main thing is trying to think of the ponies as people instead of characters. This can lead to unpleasant people questioning why it is you’re writing about ponies in the first place, but fanfiction is a lot greater than the constraints of the stories told in its source: it’s about the characters, the universe, the ideas, and the inception of them when you take all that stuff into a melting pot of your own personal proclivities and swirl it around. If you have insight, project it. If you think about the neuroses and failings of a character archetype, delve into them. Dig where there is digging to be done, and don’t be afraid to paint dark corners in the idyllic rainbow landscape the show has given us.
Tell us what inspired “Art of the Dress”.
Art of the Dress (or Expectations) was literally inspired by a prompt-based story contest. The prompt, specifically, was ‘Rarity falls in love with a dressmaker’. Because I was a pretentious little fuck at the time (and, who’s kidding, still am), I decided taking the idea at face value wasn’t good enough. That’s a theme in the rest of my prompt based writing as well (Refrain, Rocks, etc.)—with this story, I decided to consider the idea of what a dressmaker constituted. What did love mean in this context? Rarity is a creative individual—why would she fall in love with a dressmaker in the first place? Because she saw herself in him (or her)? Because of the creative common ground they both shared? And from there things kind of went to the place my stories usually do: existential crisis, self-loathing, misery, that sort of thing.
Well… the prompt was about her. But, imagining I was to write a story about any pony in this context, it would have to be Rarity, because creativity, pride therein, and all the trappings that go with it are part-and-parcel of the questioning that tugs the story’s thread along. It’s a plight shared by all creative individuals, probably, in some part, but encapsulated in fastidious design sense with Rarity in particular.
Near the beginning of the story, Rarity discourages Sweetie Belle’s interest in dressmaking because she seems to want to pursue it only for the sake of imitating her sister. When pressed, Sweetie comes up with reasons like “I like making pretty things” and “I want to make lots of money”, which Rarity likewise rejects. Rarity seems to be getting at some more fundamental aspect of creation; is there any correlation to be made between Rarity’s approach to dressmaking and your thoughts on writing?
I think the correlating line is pretty easy to draw, given how I answered the above question about writing, but I guess I can fill in the blanks. Art of the Dress is kind of asking a prototypical question every creator aims at themselves at some point: why am I doing this? Why create? What does it mean to be creative, to aspire, to dream, to breathe meaning into anything? What is meaning in and of itself? These are all kind of big questions, but the simpler reduction is asking why we do anything. Why, in this subsection of the universe in general, do we write? There are a lot of different answers to that question, and some that other people are probably fairly equipped to answer—but for me, in a very (likely deluded) romantic sense, creation is about being. We create because that’s what makes us human.
There are other reasons parcelled in there, notably the ones Sweetie brings up—and everyone has to struggle with those at some point. I feel like a lot of people come out on Sweetie’s side of the equation, and that’s perfectly fine; you’re setting yourself up for a lot less misery if you decide you want to create something to sell it, to make people happy, to get famous, or simply to have it be. But when you get down to the essence of the whole thing, for me, I want to create because creation is the essence of existence. It’s the key divider between a life that’s worthwhile and one that isn’t. I want to make something of inherent value, to know that I contributed to the ongoing parade of life. Whether anyone remembers me or not afterwards—well, we all like to hope that something with enough beauty and meaning will survive us after we expire, but that’s not necessarily true. Maybe I’ll be happy knowing it for myself? Anyway.
Many of us know the feeling of seeing someone craft something greater than we ourselves have done, just as Rarity obsesses over the dresses behind the window. Is there any particular work or standard of quality to which you yourself aspire?
Absolutely. I’m constantly measuring myself against the standards of other people, seeing if I come up short or if I can delude myself into thinking, “Alright, I think I could keep up with them.” When I started writing fanfiction, I wanted to have people like EbonMane look at my stuff and tell me it was something they thought was worthwhile. When I started getting into music, I’d spend days pining over Griffin Lewis (‘Griffinilla’, Friendship is Witchcraft creator) and his melodies, in a very ‘please notice me sempaii’ way. When I started my bachelor’s program, I hated myself because the writing samples that went around all threw me into an instant spiral of self-doubt; “Look how amazing all these people are, I’ll never create something like that, why am I even bothering?”
I still do all these things, but a great deal less so these days. I think with my writing, I’ve hit a point where I’m almost comfortable saying I’ve gotten perspective to evaluate my own ability. Now, when I find someone who I feel has created something that blows my latest out of the water, I smile, give them a note of appreciation, and tell myself “That’s fine, but you can do something different.” Creativity is not a singular act: we’re constantly evolving as people, as human beings and as artists, and every failure or shortcoming is a chance to grow and evolve. I know that sounds a bit cliche, but it’s helped me a lot as the years have gone on.
For anyone in that situation themselves—the ‘self-hate’ one, I mean—thinking about all your work as an exercise has helped a lot for me. I’m not sure how normal people operate, but when I write a story, I sit down with an idea in mind, and usually a theme, a few beats, and a style to match all that. I’ll often pick an authorial style to emulate, or a particular facet of my own writing to colour with that particular emphasis. That way, when I finish the piece, I can approach it from a very singular point of view, knowing what I want it to be, and what to do if it’s not working. It also means that if it doesn’t work, it’s okay, because I can always tackle that same idea in a different way, or discard it and move on.
Sometimes, though, we do bleed ourselves out onto paper; we write something, say “This is the best thing I have ever done, it is true to everything about me and I believe it is excellent”, and then the world disagrees with us, or it doesn’t get the attention we feel it deserves. That sucks, but the only thing we can really do about it is move on and do our best to learn from our failures. We can also realize that, while standing on a soapbox and screaming that people ‘didn’t get it’ is inane, sometimes there are people who legitimately ‘don’t get it’. Learn to recognize when that happens, and don’t be afraid to tell yourself that your story is the way it is because you wanted it to be that way. If, for every person who doesn’t get it, there are two or three who do, then you’re doing your job.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m glad to see the Pony Fiction Vault torch get picked up by some like-minded folks. I have to admit I had a deep-harboured ambition of being honored with an interview one day, and was kind of choked when the vault doors closed, sealing my chances forever—now that my mini-dream has come true in a comparative fashion, I can’t say I feel particularly elated, but I hope it’s the beginning of a trend for great authors to continue to have their works preserved far into the future, and to share them among people seeking great writing for the rest of the fandom’s duration (or beyond). So, thanks to you guys for doing that.
Also, sorry to everyone I disappointed during my writing runs. I don’t think I’ll be doing any more pony stories in the future, but I’m glad that even though no one really knew who I was when I was writing stuff, that at least a few people have gotten something out of the stuff I tried to do. I know I have a lot of unfinished projects and ideas, but I don’t think the world will be that much worse for me leaving them unfinished. It was a fun ride, in any case.
You can read “The Art of the Dress” or “Expectations” at FIMFiction.net.