Men at Work, or The Fatherhood of Art

Most spare moments of the last two months have been devoted to a screenplay which, thanks to the blessed go-get-em-ness of a friend, had a date in LA and needed to be put on the fast track to ‘datable’.

The second draft was delivered last Friday, and after the rush to complete and deliver it, I finally have a little time to digest how the thing came to be. What was interesting about the last two months (especially that first three weeks wherein I had to crank out a complete first draft) was that it took me back to those far-too-many college evenings devoted to cramming in the writing I should have been spending the previous two weeks doing. Now that I have students of my own who claim that they do their “best writing” under pressure, I roll my eyes at the presumption of such a thing: “Ridiculous,” I say, “real writing is real work. Real work takes time and intention. Procrastination is simply irresponsible.”

But the fact of the matter is that in cranking out this screenplay (rather, in having to crank out this screenplay) all the gremlins of resistance quickly melted before the fire of the clock and I was able to be much more efficient, and by extension, more productive, than I have been in some time. In other words, I was back at my college desk, the night before the paper was due, cranking out word after word, with little time to consider how effective/beautiful/cogent they were.

So point one for meditation is this: how does pressure affect artistic productivity? More on that in a moment.

Of course, as soon as one begins talking about a protracted artistic schedule, one ought to seriously question the quality of the work being put forward. And while I think I am still much to close to the end product to give a good answer to the piece’s quality, initial responses from the production company and from trusted friends have been very positive. But I fight the urge to tell myself, “Well, it’s just like in college: I do my best work under pressure,” this last word being punctuated by the sudden flip-up of my shirt collar like the brash protagonist of a 1980’s teeny bopper film.

So point two for meditation: why is it, as is certainly sometimes the case (but not often enough to derive a scientific law), that pressure yields better art than art produced under a schedule so sprawling that it hardly constitutes the name?

I hate to admit it, but there were times in writing this screenplay that I found myself not caring if the story was good, only that it worked structurally.  Was such-and-such a character acting in a way consistent with his stated motivations twenty pages prior? Was so-and-so being introduced early enough and interestingly enough to produce the emotional effect of such-and-such an event near the end? What was the most efficient way to move a scene forward, even if in other times I would have found this particular device derivative, hackneyed, or predictable? In other words, I was committing to schlock, at times, in service of the timetable. And I didn’t allow myself to care. I had a deadline.

But what resulted from this was a complete and cogent story with all it’s parts. It wasn’t polished, perhaps not even good, but it was a story. It had (I think) all the parts a well told story needs, even if the parts themselves needed quite a bit of polish.

It was then I realized anew what I seems like I’ve learned a hundred times before, will likely have to relearn a hundred times more: what is important at first is just to write it.

Write it.

Don’t fret over it.

Write it.

Even if it is crap. Especially if it is crap.

Listen, buddy, don’t have such a high and mighty view of yourself and your talent that you expect The Brothers Karamozov to sprout fully formed in your consciousness and spill unsullied onto the page. No, you have to work to succeed, and work means, at first, you gotta get messy and kill the dainty part of your artistic mind that shuns the dirt and grime of a hard days artistic work.

Growing up, I worked in my father’s machine shop, a job I disliked greatly at the time, especially since it involved cleaning machines, floors, parts, and toilets that ranked among the greasiest artifacts in my history of experience. But, of course, I learned how to be dirty, how real work has a strong aspect of toil to it (thank you very much, Patriarch Adam). I think the same is true of artistic work. Shut up, get it started, and it’s only then will you allow any talent you have to manifest itself. Any writing talent I may have on lease yields no fruit without actually writing. Such an obvious and stubbornly overlooked lesson.

So even though there were times where I cared more about how much I was accomplishing as opposed to the quality of it, I found myself surprised a nugget of beauty here or there that came unlooked for in this rush to complete the work. Upon revisions, these nuggets suggested most of the solutions to the problems of quality created by my protracted schedule. And lo and behold, the quality (I think) appeared near the end of the first draft.

I’m still wresting with what to make of this particular experience. The script is done and it may even be good — at least good enough. But oddly, I am not married to the project in ways I have been with other (mostly unfinished) projects. I wouldn’t call it a passion project. But it might be fun, and I think people will be entertained, hopefully moved, by it. But my role in it’s coming to be was less that of nurturing mother than it was seemingly hard-assed disciplinarian father who throws his boy into the deep end of the pool to teach him to swim.

As I write those last lines, it seems to me there is another way to meditate in the two issues provided earlier. Perhaps the question should not be a after of pressure and process, but one of attitude. Shall we approach our art as nurturing mothers, or shall only our preparation to produce be approached that way (we do refer to our institution of learning as our alma mater), and we then approach the actual work, the execution, like the disciplinarian father? Oh, I can imagine the wrath I might incur by raising such a question in an age ruled the School of Resentment, but what of it? Perhaps we artists need to man up a bit and demand our art do its time scrubbing toilets in a greasy machine shop for a while, if for no other reason than to teach it the golden lesson: work only gets done when you get to work.

Perhaps there is room for a theory of the Fatherhood of Art.


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