Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hack away: the virtues of going for it

Two groupies admiring that consumate vocalist, Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer.

"Success is an ugly thing. Men are deceived by its false resemblances to merit . . . They confound the brilliance of the firmament with the star-shaped footprints of a duck in the mud." Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

"It's better to have done something bad than to have done nothing." --Preston Sturges

Hey, how’s it going? Mind if I ask you something? What if you’re a hack? An artistic fraud? A waste of time and money?

Guess what – it doesn’t matter.

For years, I strove (strived? stroved?) to make it. Too arrogant and idiosyncratic to follow any normal course of employment, I went from acting to comedy to radio to journalism to social media to, hopefully finally, writing and editing. I wasted a lot of time trying to achieve that supposed moment when popular acceptance would be mine and I would be another cultural icon, embedded in beneficence and solvency in the firmament of collective consciousness.

It didn’t really work out. And now, it doesn’t have to.

It’s important that every person of artistic bent collide with the real world, at least initially. The first thing you learn is that everyone is talented, and that talent doesn’t have much to do with success. Starting out at the bottom, working crap jobs to stay alive, learning how to be a functioning part of a larger whole, all important skills. Learning that truisms such as showing up on time and ready, with an open mind, put you miles ahead of others, or that you have to know how to take orders before you can give them, or that the worth of your commodifiable skills are not identical with your inherent worth as a person.

It’s instructional to see business deals blow up, projects collapse under you, bosses make choices that doom you and others to unemployment – to see how many ways thing scan go south. Your work can be scorned, ignored, or simply not show up on society’s radar. However, at some point, if you are still capable of producing creative content, you can stop standing in your own way, cease worrying and just get the work done. Your standards are too high.

Have you ever tried to write something popular? Has it ever worked? (I’m not talking to you, Nicholas Sparks.) No one knows what will be a hit – either now or in the scope of human history . . . hey, might as well aim high. Critic Anthony Lane memorably read and reviewed the literary top 10 of 1945 in 1995; the results were ghastly and involved books no one now remembers. OK – my grandpa had a copy of “Forever Amber” stashed on a high bookshelf – I heard there was sex in it and dashed eagerly through its pages, unsatisfied.)

You can never tell. It is a truth in standup comedy that generally, the jokes you’ve written that you really love don’t get a great response but that the ones you aren’t so crazy often click with the crowd. If you have a bone of self-preservation in your body, you keep the jokes that work and toss or rework the ones that won’t. But how many of your darlings do you have to kill to make it? I try to balance my desire to write about whatever the hell I want with the need to craft something interesting and readable to humanity at large. I am still often wrong. Oddly enough, when I stopped worrying, I started selling more stories. My voice got stronger. I could hear myself instead of my anxieties. You need to express yourself, whether there’s a check at the end of the trail or not. It’s a crap shoot.

And even when you get to that point, there is still the concern about if the work will speak to the masses, if it will “endure.” Come on. Really? When I was younger, I and the rest of my fellow struggling, resentful, well-drink-slurping comics in the back of the club hated the comedy hacks that always got time in the clubs, even though they did the same banal crap over and over. I used to scorn TV shows and TV writers, the whole shoddy lowest-common-denominator bunch.

Now, I find that many of my friends write for and produce these TV shows. They do it well. They have houses, spouses, kids to put though school, and they earn every penny of their salaries. They are highly intelligent, talented, and tough people -- who sometimes have created forgettable entertainment. So what? Once I learned about these people’s work weeks, my respect for them went stratospheric.

If you have been alive for any length of time in this world, you need a little mindless distraction. Crap in our entertainment diet is good for you, roughage for your aesthetic digestive tract. For all that I grew up on high-falutin’ films like “Children of Paradise,” I needed “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy,” too. I needed Miro and Matisse, AND Famous Monsters of Filmland and Tales from the Crypt. As Patton Oswalt put it in “Silver Screen Fiend,” “If people need bread and circuses, better it be bread from the finest flour and springwater, and circuses under the cleanest canvas with the healthiest animals.”

And besides, what harm does bad art cause? Someone I can’t call to mind at present insisted that artists’ errors are unimportant as, unlike doctors, chefs, or politicians, when an artist screws up, no one dies. In fact, horrible artistic efforts have spurred even greater ones – think of Mark Twain being inspired to write merely by reading James Fennimore Cooper until he couldn’t take it anymore? And in fact, Cooper began writing in reaction to the even worse popular literature of HIS day.

And is it every really definitively crap? The 12-cent superhero comic books we treasured bloomed into a mythos that has sold billions of dollars in movie tickets. Jerry Springer became the subject of an avant-garde opera. John Kennedy Toole wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” killed himself in 1969, won the Pulitzer for it in 1981. Stick with it – you never know.

You have very little, if any, control over how your work will be taken, or utilized. Sometimes, like a favorite character actor, you may find yourself as that familiar ace in the corner of a movie screen whose name can never be summoned. Even Boris Karloff, typed if ever an actor was, said this:

“One always hears of actors complaining of being typed – if he’s young, he’s typed as a juvenile; if he’s handsome, he’s typed as a leading man. I was lucky. Whereas bootmakers have to spend millions to establish a trademark, I was handed a trademark free of charge. When an actor gets into a position to select his own roles, he’s in big trouble, for he never knows what he can do best. I’m sure I would be damn good as Little Lord Fauntleroy, who would pay ten cents to see it?”

Within the confines of what we are capable of and what people can absorb from our work, we can make magical things happen. It just never goes quite the way they told you.

And hey, what about having a life? That’s all the stuff that happens every day while you are waiting for the universe to tell you that you are loved. That is important. When I get published, I get a spectacular rush – for about 10 minutes. Then I got back to whatever else it is that’s on my desk to be done. But my wife and kids and family and friends and pets and nature and God and music and baseball and good Mexican food and IBC root beer . . . these things stay with you far longer. Pay attention to them.

If things go as they have been, I need never worry about the pitfalls of popularity. Here’s how it works: I write first, I sell it after. (The few major-media gatekeepers left standing aren’t guarding much of anything; and their choices are as always dictated by budgets, not an altruistic desire to exhibit your genius to all and sundry.) Nothing gets wasted; I can always rework something that doesn’t move commercially and post it myself. Maybe I’m an arteeste, but the only thing that gets me through a work day is craftsmanship, discipline, and a good will to forge ahead. Writing a story can be as complex, tedious, and ultimately rewarding as building a cabinet.

You never know where your obsessions will take you. After years of just keeping my head down and writing no matter what, I found that a lot of work that I thought was random coalesced into themed groups – and that I had pretty much written the sample chapters for four books, which I am now peddling. Will they sell? I don’t know. But they are there, and they weren’t before.

And what are awards and pans but ways of categorizing and controlling creatives? You have no control over that, either. What if your work doesn’t get read? What if someone, just one person, finds it hundreds of years later and gets something out of it? In my researched pieces, I find this all the time – as if someone long dead was thinking of me and left some information, some guidance I needed. Love is as strong as death, but writing is stronger.

And what if your masterpieces aren’t just scorned or ignored but lost? Destroyed? Your laptop’s hit by lightning, the studio burns down, the recordings get thrown out. Once during a period of volunteering at the local Goodwill store I had the extremely sad experience of seeing a cache of 19th-centry family photos, and 78-rpm records, smashed and thrown into the trash because no one could conceive that they might have some value, or were worth preserving. Who knows what works of genius, of irreplaceable memories, have gone out with the trash?

I believe that the effort to create, even if unrewarded, works on some spiritual level as a counteractive to the more selfish and hateful impulses that drive this world. To glean meaning from a seemingly random and unfair world is an assertion of worth and significance.

In the end, you’ll be dead. It won’t matter if you will end up rivaling Shakespeare or you wind up the poet laureate of East Jesus, Nebraska, if even that. Do not waste your time wondering where all this is getting you, and don’t listen to those who wonder it out loud for your supposed benefit. It works for me.

So get up on your mountaintop of genius, or your molehill of mediocrity, and trumpet, strut, and bellow. We each have one song to sing in life, so get up there and sing it, dammit. Only God or fate determines what of us persists, of what we did that is deemed worthy. Sing, bird, sing.

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

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