I don’t answer my phone without knowing who’s calling, but from now on I’ll think of Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns every time I open my inbox.
Whenever anybody talks about “The Creative Journey” I sort of roll my eyes. “Journey” sounds so lofty to me. So linear. Point A to point B.
Here’s a popular version of “The Creative Journey”: A genius comes to the end of his trip, closes his eyes, concentrates, and then the idea comes to him, fully formed.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Don Draper. No, when I’m working, I feel more like Phil Connors from the movie Groundhog Day.
In Groundhog Day, for those of you who don’t know or have forgotten, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is a weatherman who wakes up every morning on Groundhog Day — February 2nd — in Punxsutwaney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutwaney Phil, the famous groundhog who forecasts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil Connors hates Punxsutwaney, and no matter what he does, he can’t make it out of Punxsutwaney, and he can’t seem to get to February 3rd. Every morning he wakes up in the same bed at 6AM to face the same day.
And if you remember the movie, you know there are a couple acts: first, Phil tries out everything he can possibly think of to take advantage of the situation: basically, he cheats life.
He learns people’s secrets, steals money, and seduces women, except for one in particular, his boss, Rita. He memorizes her favorite drinks and foods, learns a couple of lines of French, figures out all the right things to say, but no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to get Rita into bed.
After attempting all these shortcuts, Phil becomes super depressed.
In my favorite line from the movie, he asks his bowling buddy, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
And his buddy, who’s a little drunk, looks at him and says, “That about sums it up for me.”
Phil then attempts many, many forms of suicide.
He jumps off a building, he drops a toaster into the bathtub, he drives off a cliff with the groundhog, Punxtatawney Phil. Nothing works. Every morning, Phil wakes up at 6AM, in the same bed, in the same town, faced with the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the radio.
He hits rock bottom.
Finally, Phil accepts his fate. He accepts that he’s stuck in Punxatawney forever. And then things get really interesting.
He gets to know everybody in the town. He sees what problems there are in the town to solve, and how he can use his powers to help: he catches a kid falling out of a tree, he helps an engaged couple through their misgivings about getting married, he replaces a flat tire for some old ladies.
He also throws himself into his work: he crafts a super eloquent speech for Punxatawney Phil, which he presumably gives every day.
He learns French. He learns how to play the piano. He learns how to sculpt ice.
And it’s when he finally masters these things, when he’s turned himself into a person worth loving, it’s then that Rita notices him, and they live happily ever after.
Phil learns, as Hugh Macleod says in his book Ignore Everybody, “The best way to get approval is to not need it.”
Now, I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that Groundhog Day is perhaps THE great parable of our time. But I think Groundhog Day has particular relevance for artists and for people who want to do creative work.
Why I think so is clearly laid out by this quote from Ian Svenonius’s somewhat obscure, but great book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group:
“If one becomes a lawyer, scholar, mechanist, typist, scientist, production assistant, or what-have-you, the world will commend your decision. Each day at lunch, on vacation, or at whatever party you attend, your choice will be applauded, upheld, and affirmed. And you will know what is expected of you. Even if your job is difficult — if you are a brain chemist, international death merchant, or rocket designer — your responsibilities will be obvious and your goals concrete. If you achieve them, you may be rewarded by promotion. If you fail, you might be fired or demoted, but nonetheless — unless your boss is insane — the job will have tangible parameters. [Art], however, is different. You will never know exactly what you must do, it will never be enough… no matter what change you achieve, you will most likely see no dividend from it. And even after you have achieved greatness, the [tiny number of people] who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”
What Svenonius is saying is that the creative journey is not linear. It’s not point A to point B. Even if your wildest dreams come true, you’re still stuck with that question of, “WHAT NEXT?”
In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk following the massive success of her book Eat, Pray, Love. She said something that was so honest, it really knocked me out:
“I’m pretty young, I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely… that my greatest success is behind me.”
She still knew, no matter how successful she was, if she wanted to remain a writer, she had to get up and write another book. And then another book. And another book.
We spend so much time in this culture celebrating fast, early success, but in so many ways, early success is the worst thing that can happen to you.
The New York Times ran a feature a few weeks ago called “Works In Progress,” which was “a very small sampling of the female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago.” Everyone should read it. No one even noticed some of these women until they had about seven decades of work behind them. Somehow, they all stuck it through.
Some of my favorite documentaries of the past couple years all focused on people who are eligble for the senior discount at Denny’s.
Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham New York, who gets up every day, gets on his bike, and takes pictures. Joan Rivers in Piece Of Work, who, right up until her death, was playing gig after gig. And Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who gets up everyday and makes the sushi.
These are the people I think we should be looking to for inspiration —
the people who every day of their lives, they get up do the work, regardless of success or failure.
Because you don’t know if or when success will come for you. The best thing you can do if you want to be an artist is to set up your life in such a way that you’re sort of insulated from success or failure.
Now, it might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do as an artist or a creative person is pretend you’re Phil Connors in Groundhog Day: there’s no tomorrow, there’s no chance of success, there’s no chance of failure, there’s just the day, and what you can do with it.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day after day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You do it your whole life, and you have a career.
So, if I can leave you with one piece of advice, something encouraging that I can sear into your brain, it’s this:
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done. If you fail, the sun comes up tomorrow, and you get another chance. If you succeed, you’re still going to have to get up tomorrow and do something else.
Should you ever start to despair at this fact, like Phil did, remember what the comic writer Harvey Pekar said: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
Note: this clip is NSFW. It includes f-bombs and poop jokes.
James Francis Flynn is a filmmaker and friend of mine who lives in Chicago. Eastern College is his first feature film—a comedy based on his experiences as a student in the soon-to-be-defunct Western College Program at Miami University, where we both went to college.
I have been bugging Flynn to post this excerpt to Youtube for a while now, as I thought it was the funniest part of the movie, and has the added benefit of standing on its own as a short. Noah Applebaum cracks me up—his was the standout performance, and I would hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the future.
Flynn also has a blog called Thoughts on Films, where he is making his way through The Writer’s Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays List. His reviews are always well worth reading, and you should check them out.
“It’s not just a story about numbers, it’s a story about people and about how good people go bad. Our system not only allowed it to happen, but also almost encouraged it.”—Director Alex Gibney
I’m always amazed by how a documentary film can pack so many ideas and so much human drama into 2 hours. This one has it all: compelling story, great characters, and a kick-ass soundtrack (excellent opening and closing songs by Tom Waits).
In a company drowning in such a macho culture (Lou Pai had strippers in his office, Jeff Skilling organized these ridiculous daredevil excursions on motorbikes…) I think it’s no coincidence that the whistleblowers were women (Bethany McLean reporting for Fortune Magazine, and Sherron Watkins as Vice-President of Corporate Development).
My question to you: if the most relevant fable in our times isn’t “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” what is?
I don’t know what possessed me—I chronicle most of the stuff I’m reading / watching / looking at / listening to on my tumblelog and twitter and muxtape—but here’s a big bunch of stuff that I’ve dug in the past couple of months:
What It Is by Lynda Barry
What more can I say about this book?
It’s collage, it’s a writing textbook, it’s a memoir…it’s everything. It’s big. It’s hardcover. It’s awesome.
Devotion music by Beach House
Quiet, soft, and beautiful. Lots of organ and reverb. Good hangover music.
And Then There Were None… by Agatha Christie
Hmmm. A group of strangers stranded on a mysterious island, all with shady pasts that come back to haunt them…sound familiar?
My wife is an Agatha Christie nut. This was the first thing of hers I’ve ever read. 173 lightning fast pages. Fun read.
Away from Her a film by Sarah Polley
So sad, but so good. And the first time directing for Sarah Polley. She was quoted as saying the film was about
It’s also a terrific example of how short stories fleshed out (as opposed to novels being compressed) make better films. (See also: In The Bedroom)
My favorite line (from the Alice Munro short story):
Giant a film by George Stevens
PT Anderson was once asked to name 3 films that he loved but no one had ever heard of. He replied,
I recommend all three, too. Giant is a 3-hour epic set in West Texas. (Shot in Marfa.) James Dean. A gorgeous, young Elizabeth Taylor. What’s not to like?
Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I first heard about this book last year when my parents sent me clips from their local newspapers.
This is the book I wanted to write as an undergrad: an updated Winesburg, Ohio set in the Southern part of the state. I grew up about 30 miles from the real Knockemstiff, but I never really belonged there, not the way Donald Ray Pollock belonged: he worked at the Mead paper plant in Chillicothe for 30 years before he started writing, and got his MFA at Ohio State. He knows his place and writes about it beautifully.
This is a strong first book — but it can tough to read all the dark stories (note: it’s full of sex, booze, foul language, and drug use) at once. I recommend spreading them out. Standout stories for me were “Real life” and “Discipline.”
No More Heroes a videogame by Suda51
This is a violent videogame for the Wii, in which you play a hipster assassin with a lightsaber. It’s basically a GTA ripoff, but the art is great, and the game is full of little side missions which really make it entertaining. A good buy for $30.
PILOT G2 BOLD POINT GEL PEN
Holy crap these things are awesome. If you want to lay down a big fat line, these babies will do the trick. 1mm > .07mm.
Some Like It Hot A film by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors: I especially love The Apartment, which also stars Jack Lemmon. And Marilyn Monroe is gorgeous, of course…
Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino
John Porcellino is definitely in my top 5 favorite cartoonists, and his simple, zen lines are perfect for adapting Thoreau into comics.
Youth Novel music by Lykke Li
I can’t really describe her music. I always play it when I’m walking to the bus…
Dan in Real Life a film by Peter Hedges
If Eddie Campbell says something is good, you know it’s good. This really surprised me. It’s a story about nice people who get into a genuine conflict. Probably why it didn’t get very good reviews: no explosions or incest or whatever…
What stuff are y’all into right now?
After watching GROUNDHOG DAY last week, I said to Meg, “Everybody talks about the religious implications of this film, but I wonder if anybody has written about the fact that this storyline could only happen inside the world of a small town?” I dug around, and sure enough, I found an essay by a film critic named Mario Sesti that beat me to the punch:
…the suspicion that behind the calm facade of small-town life hides an invisible presence or god…that may sooner or later make the place degenerate into horror has become a recurrent idea in American cinema….[Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania] is a carillon world, a universe in miniature, perfect and crazy, happy and diabolical-as if infinite repetition were the only form of eternity that our imagination knew how to represent….
Sesti goes on to describe how the character Phil Connors somehow becomes the author of his own story, as he maps the terrain of the place, gets to know his cast of characters.
A small stage, a set, a contained world in which all the characters are known, the geography is mapped, strangers come to town, and small changes are impossible not to notice: this is what the small town has to offer as a setting.