"Give me the freedom of a tight brief." -- David Ogilvy's
Two crappy pages. One creative habit. A lot less angst.
There are numerous, beautiful routines. And, before you think this is another stab at the perfect, “Artist Ritual” it’s not. I am not going to advise a system or plan to make you 10x your creativity. This ain’t copy and I ain’t selling shit.
Right now, it’s almost more lucrative to be a guru than an actual artist. Why? Art is hard. Advice is cheap.
Why create when you can tell people what to make and how to make it?
C'est la vie. On to the point.
Writers still need help. Artists still need guidance. Otherwise, we’d all be beatnik hippies trying to be jazz musicians, and while I do dig a black turtleneck it doesn’t help me make things any better.
Ann Lamott, auth of "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life," does, in fact, offer some good advice on the creative life: two crappy pages.
That’s it. Two shitty pages, and out of those two crappy pages? Maybe a memorable line, a scene, a dance. But the work is done.
Creating is about not letting the ball drop or as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, “The Stallion.” Other words for this could be “The Monkey Mind,” ADHD, or simply, “I have so many ideas I don’t know where to start.”
Artists need constraints.
Growing up, we idolize freedom. Why? Because we don’t have it. Because there are rules. Because we all want to be Peter Pan.
Children are born imagineers, creatives, athletes, artists. They build. They destroy. They have no concept of right or wrong, no taste. They play with no restraints except those imposed on them by adults. The world doesn’t want to play their games.
And just like Captain Hook, adults are bad. Adults have jobs. They have responsibilities. There’s no time for play. Hell, even their play is work, i.e., Crossfit.
Even adults idolize freedom. Twenty-somethings think van life is amazing, backpacking is fun, and a life of no responsibilities is the way to go. And, having lived as a theatre gypsy for almost a decade, there is a time when “Yes” it is. But as a life? As an artist? It’s shallow. Or, as everyone’s favorite cowboy would advise, “Never shirk a task.”
Thus, we believe the man-child is the way to go. “Hold on to your youth!” the hippie screams. “Don’t let your dreams die,” warns the disgruntled old man. And, to their credit, they are trying to help. After all, as Baz Luhrmann’s song “Sunscreen” advised us, “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it's worth."
But not all advice is good. The intent may be good, but we’ve been told plenty of things that are flat-out wrong. Remember when eggs were bad, and margarine was good? Lord knows what truths we hold self-evident today that shall be cast aside tomorrow.
The point is we let these ideas seep into our subconscious. They’re repeated so often to our young minds, “they must be true.”
When it comes to creativity, we don’t want more freedom. Too many options destroy our brains.
Seinfeld, one of the few comedians so successful you don’t need the Jerry, creativity is like a stallion in your head. It’s a beast that needs to be tamed and your success is dependent on taming ole Bucephalus.
Otherwise, we fall into Despair, that angsty teen who just knows their ideas are great and waiting to be discovered if only they can get out of this one horse town. Creative angst is a bitch, and we’ve all experienced it. Got an idea for a screenplay? Here’s ten more. Think of a cool one-man show? How about adapting this one instead? Ideas flood the user and if we’re not careful we do nothing.
And therein lies the rub. Too many artists die on the vine. We never harness our creative power and so we become critics or start terrible podcasts about other art. Either way, it’s embarrassing.
Thus, we need limitations. We need focus. We need an adult in the room.
A long time ago the powers that be, those square bastards in grey suits and thin neckties, realized that if you can corral the creatives like cattle you can ride their ideas to success. Constraints and deadlines push those lefties to do great things, which you can take credit for.
Limitations spur us to action.
Why do games work? Games work because there are accepted limitations. Accepted rules. Both teams agree to those rules and play within them–attempting to stretch them or get away with breaking them; however, it is the limitations that define them. Football is football because of the 100 yards, no holding, and great Monday Night theme songs. Baseball is baseball because of the 60 feet 6 inches, the Sandlot, and the immortal battle of rock versus stick.
Within those agreements, magic happens. What Michael and Kobe could do was jazz. They made art with a ball, bending the rules, by expanding the game. What Nolan Ryan did with a baseball was electric. What Tom Brady constructed was nothing short of artistic.
This is why so often genre movies are so great. There are conventions, themes, and expectations. Audiences want to see Poirot solve the case in a fancy living room, Sam Spade smokes a cigarette, and badass music play when the Badass Motherfucker walks into the room. To ignore those expectations is to dance with your own peril.
Genre limits what we can do. It also creates a space between the artist and the audience.
But, this is putting the cart in front of the horse. Let’s slow down, pull back, and simplify.
What genre am I working in? What is my medium? How can I use it? And we need to stick with it.
Here, the Greek parable takes root, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We need to focus our energy.
But, alas, ideas produce more ideas. They're like rabbits the fuckers. Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “It’s like starting a damn stone.” Start one and they all start to fall down.
Thus, we need to pick a project or a goal and do it.
What are we trying to accomplish and when are we trying to accomplish it by? Every piece of art needs an expiration date.
Otherwise, the muse moves on. And if you do not believe in fairies, well, the spark goes out. The idea goes cold and interest wanes. Some books take time, yes. It’s foolhardy to think you can write a book in a month, let alone a year. But, maybe you can. Great screenplays have been written in one night trying to capture that feeling.
Lofty goals are good. Finish A) script by B) Date.
Going back to Seinfeld, it’s the X on the calendar. Write a joke a day, or two crappy pages.
I am as guilty as everyone else. After all, essays are about chasing ideas down for myself, at least they are to me.
I have a Southern Gothic screenplay that is a third written, a novel that is half written, a one-man show finished but unproduced, another screenplay about a womanizing asshole who gets what he deserves (comedy) finished (unproduced), and countless unpublished/unfinished essays and notes.
So, I’m setting my goals. Two crappy pages. Constant writing. Constant publishing. Be public. Be visible. Be accountable.
Rejection is inevitable. If you long to create, if you are burning with an idea, a song, a voice--then you will be heartbroken. Parents are usually bad teachers in the arts because this is a lesson they cannot shield you from--we are doomed to fail.
The moment you set foot on this path is the moment you are setting your sails to choppy seas and rocky shores.
Whether you long to publish fantastical literature like The Sandman or offbeat serials like Bebop, it is not that the odds are tipped against you, and they are, but the fact that the world will not listen until you make them.
Actors learn this first hand. Day in and day out, at least pre-COVID, we get on the bus, the train, the Uber to waltz through 100 degree heat and black ice to show up sweaty and tired to present our work to someone who likely doesn’t want to be there. Then, we go home or back to work and wait for an email that never comes.
Writers must do the same thing. No one will read your unpublished work anymore than a blank page tells a story. Rejection is the norm.
Artists must develop a balanced sense of humility and confidence. Confidence that their work is good enough, and humility to understand that they can improve.
“A lesson any writer can use. Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories. Can’t do that, then take a job as a bricklayer. A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for.” -- Harlan Ellison
The rules are often far simpler than we realize. How do we get stronger? We lift more weight than we did the day before. How do we do that? By showing up to the gym.
How does an actor get more work? They audition more. How do they learn to deal with rejection? By being rejected again and again.
How does a writer get published? He writes. He finishes it. He sends it out. It comes back, and he sends it out again. Then, during the process of waiting, he writes something else.
If theses rules look familiar it is because they appeared in Heinlein’s Business Rules and were also featured in Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass.
The rules are as follows:
We long for a secret, a connection. We rely on cliches such as, “It’s who you know,” but deep down we know that hard work creates luck and whether or not we have done the work to make the luck.
These rules extend far beyond just writing. How do we increase sales? We have to reach out to clients, follow the lead, make the ask, and try again.
How do we book a gig? We audition again and again, we work on passion projects, we share our work, we shout at the rafters, “Come see my work,” and we keep doing this again and again, storming past gatekeeper after gatekeeper, because, as the Marquis DeSade pointed out, and Charles Bukowski, and Harlan Ellison, and Heinrich von Kleist, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.”
We share our work because it is like air we must breath. “If it does not come pouring out of you,” then you are wasting your time.
How do you get paid? Become famous? Pack presceniums? Amass an empire? These are not questions we can answer, truthfully, because they are all predicated on the work, and the courage to share.
Today, people go viral with a rip-off of a dance they saw on another medium, and yet we wonder why no one will read our story.
There’s no such thing as an original idea? Bullshit. Sure Cormac McCarthy wrote it better on the back of Moby Dick beneath the wings of King James under the foundation of Shakespear, but fuck it all you are the first person to arrive, the first reader to read, the words you are putting, in this order, at this time, in this place.
It may not seem like an act of bravery, but to face the blank page, the empty stage, the unknown lands from whose bourn no traveler returns, and to do it repeatedly takes courage. We can relent, or we can persevere.
If this seems like me mesmerizing myself, in a way, it is. I have no delusions that often the words I write are meant to reinvigorate me here, and hopefully, although lesser than, inspire you.
These are all things I must do better at, and also struggle to overcome. I write, and often do not finish. I finish, but do not publish or produce, let alone share. I audition, and fail and forget. I get cast, and still feel the weight of all the failures rather than the joy of creation.
Yet, each day we must strive to beat the demon of resistance back. Each day we must be willing to face the blank page, the gatekeepers, the system of Sisyphus, and we must press on.
In his Masterclass, Gaiman shares a story of the advice Harlan Ellison gave a you writer: what you’re writing is shit, what you need to write is really, really good stuff. Or, as Steve Martin said it best with his biography, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.