The other day, after seeing this Vine…
…my friend Penn Jillette emailed me: “unless they suck.” Now, I sort of spoke to that in this Vine…
But that’s an incomplete answer, as any answer given in six seconds has to be.
I wrote Penn back, laughing, and asked if that’s what he really thought. Now, you have to understand that Penn is someone I take very seriously; he’s been an artistic inspiration since the first time I saw him perform, at the West Side Arts theater, off-Broadway, when I was 19 or 20 years old. The monologue he gave at the end of the show, about what it takes to be a fire-eater, remains one of the seminal theater going moments of my life. It’s also one of the most fervent, honest and accurate descriptions of the dedication it takes to become an artist that I’ve ever heard. And, as Penn himself points out, it looks cool.
Penn’s been a big champion of the Vine series I’ve been doing. So I wanted to dig in and understand if he was just kidding around or not.
He then wrote a follow-up email, pointing to a Bukowski quote that suggests the best thing one could do for aspiring writers and artists of all stripes would just be to DISCOURAGE them instead of ENCOURAGING them.
The point being that if someone really needs to do it, the discouragement won’t work. They will forge ahead regardless. And it will save the person who quit a whole bunch of time and energy. His paraphrase of the Bukowski was “the kindest thing you can do is tell someone not to write because it won’t work on the people who need to write.” (I can’t find the exact quote. If anyone can, please let me know and I’ll put it in.) Penn didn’t endorse this position, just thought it was worth looking at. I understand why.
For a long time, actually, I held to that same opinion. It’s part of what I hated about the entire screenwriting guru industry and, in fact, the entire industry of teaching people to write. The truth is, I still think talent ultimately determines artistic success. And by success, I am not referring to commercial success. Though that too is largely determined by talent.
I have come to think that sometimes, maybe often, talent hides. And that I’d rather help people find a way to discover that hidden or latent talent. I think it’s worthwhile pursuit for people whether they end up unearthing that talent or not. The sort of deep diving I’m talking about, achieved by slugging it out every day, using things like journaling, meditation, long walks to help, offers massive benefit regardless of the quality of the artistic work produced. As does just doing something really hard, like finishing a draft of a novel or a screenplay.
The positive effects of this kind of success can be stunning. And not just in self-esteem. When an individual has been blocked, stunted, and then breaks through it, producing a completed piece of work, something changes in them forever. And it’s something that the people in their lives notice. In a really good way. It just makes them easier to be around, better company at the dinner table.
And so that alone would make me want to continue to help people drive themselves forward. But there’s another reason too. The one group of people in all creative fields that I despise maybe as much as the false prophets who hold themselves out as experts without having accomplishment to back it up, are the gate-keepers. Especially those gate-keepers who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in nurturing worthwhile creative voices. Included in this group are everyone from college drama teacher to reader at book company to screenplay reader for a production company to junior A&R person at a music company (I was an A&R guy in an earlier life. I know from whence I speak). Let me add to that, actually: I also include lower school art teachers and english teachers who, far too often, have a rigidity in their approach that kills burgeoning creativity in their students, favoring those who draw within the lines both literally and figuratively.
Sure, there have always been curators. They serve a useful, necessary purpose. But as art has become more commoditized, the range of their vision has shrunk.
I guess what I want to say to my friend is this: what I have come to believe is the world is already out there dispensing “reality,” discouraging the creative journey, tamping down enthusiasm, limiting opportunity. So I want to stand there in the face of that reality, cheering, lifting up, rooting.
Is it possible you’re not going to sell that book you’re writing or picture your painting or screenplay you’re in the middle of outlining? It’s not only possible. It’s likely. Isn’t it fucking awesome that you are doing anyway?
I think it is. And I want to help you get to the finish line any way I can. Once you’re there, you’ll find plenty of people to tell you how you screwed up.
But you’ll know that at least you ran the race and didn’t quit when it started to hurt. And you’ll be that much more ready to run the next one.
UPDATE: So after I posted this, Penn emailed to say he’d read it, agrees, and I should feel free to say so. So, I’m saying so. Glad we’re in sync on this.