“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor.”
In a terrific piece about his writing education, George Saunders talks about getting into the MFA program at Syracuse and hanging out with his new mentor, Tobias Wolff:
At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”
Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.
“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.
I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter…
He later sums it up:
[S]omehow, under the pressure of suddenly being surrounded by good writers, I went timid and all the energy disappeared from my work–I’ve lost the magic indeed, have somehow become a plodding, timid, bad realist.
You see this pattern over and over with many creative people: they have this little bit of magic, a spark of something that comes naturally to them, and it’s often messy and weird and a little bit off, and that’s why they catch our attention in the first place. The odd magic is what we love about them.
Then, something happens. They decide it’s time, now, to be serious.
The wild painter whose Instagram you love goes to grad school and all of the sudden her posts get boring. A brilliant illustrator decides to write a book, a real book, one without any pictures in it, and it comes out and bores you to tears. Etc.
(Preston Sturges sends up this impulse in his great movie about a comedy director who decides he wants to make a serious film, Sullivan’s Travel’s.)
It happened to me: before I went to college, I loved poetry, drawing, and art with a sense of humor. Then, after I got to college, I decided, It’s time, now, to be serious. I started to believe in the following misguided equations:
- fiction > poetry
- words > pictures
- tragedy > comedy
Eventually, I got so miserable that I threw those equations out the window, bought a sketchbook, and started reading comics again. When I graduated college, I started making my weird, occasionally funny, blackout poems. Slowly, a little bit of the magic came back.
But whenever that impulse returns, that impulse to come on now be serious, I lose the magic again. It happened most recently getting ready for my upcoming art show. That stupid voice started saying: This is a gallery show. This is Art. I need to be serious.
Cue the choke.
A few years ago, Bill Murray gave a speech to a bunch of baseball players and he ended it with this perfect bit of Zen:
If you can stay light, and stay loose, and stay relaxed, you can play at the very highest level—as a baseball player or a human being.
I keep this goofy picture of him in my studio:
It’s up there to remind me: Stay at it, but stay light. Don’t be afraid to do what comes naturally. Fight the urge to be serious. Don’t let it destroy the very thing that makes you you.
Like Tobias Wolff said, “Just don’t lose the magic.”