“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Welcome to a brand-new feature here at Riverside Green — At The Movies — and to the movie that prompted me to add said feature. “Whiplash” doesn’t need my recommendation; it has received awards from all quarters. When the African-American Film Critics Association gives a white guy a Best Supporting Actor award, you can pretty much guess that there isn’t much, strictly speaking, to “criticize” about the film in question.
My purpose, therefore, isn’t to discuss “Whiplash” as much as it is to discuss the movie’s core principles and how they relate to my personal opinions regarding creativity and talent. For that reason, what follows shouldn’t be much more of a spoiler than the commonly-available preview.
A few years ago, I suggested to the readers of this site that Dave Grohl is not a rock star. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking long and hard about the idea that extraordinarily talented people are also broken people. This is not a unique or even particularly rare insight. Indeed, it’s at the very heart of “Whiplash”, which is fundamentally a film about the difference between merely good musicians and the truly great. To be truly great, you have to start with something that almost nobody else has — then you have to forge that blank, so to speak. We all intrinsically understand that there’s an equation for greatness and it goes something like this:
Acceptable talent (multiplied by) acceptable work ethic = nothing
Peerless talent x iffy work ethic = Axl Rose, Latrell Sprewell, Paul Chambers, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Acceptable talent x peerless work ethic = Dave Grohl, Larry Bird, Charlie Haden, John Le Carre
Peerless talent x peerless work ethic = Jimmy Page, Michael Jordan, John Coltrane*, Samuel Johnson
* I really want to put “Pat Metheny” there, but this is also Bark’s blog, you know.
There’s a third element to the equation that I’m leaving out, and that’s adversity. With a few notable exceptions — Miles Davis, for one — brilliant artists rarely have a happy childhood or a life free from adversity. The question is: how necessary, exactly, is adversity? It’s that question that “Whiplash” wants to answer, and the brilliance of the film is it nimbly flits between both potential answers before settling with a thud (or perhaps a snare hit) on its final reply.
At this point I could give you, the reader, a lot of boilerplate stuff right now. Adversity builds character, which builds excellence. If you struggle your entire life, you won’t give up when it’s time to struggle for your art. A miserable childhood produces restlessness and discontent, which taken together are the pilot light without which talent doesn’t burn brightly enough to be noticed. You’ve heard all of that. It might even be true.
I don’t know. I particularly don’t know when it comes to areas in which I have no talent to speak of. I’ve been a competitive cyclist and I won a few races but I don’t have a real talent for it. I’ve played music in front of a lot of people, often without disaster, but I know that I’m simply a mediocre, untrained singer who can indifferently hold a very expensive guitar while I’m singing. If I have any talent in this world it falls into two categories: writing and complex problem resolution in technical fields.
In the case of the latter, adversity is absolutely necessary because without it you’ll never develop the skills to think on your feet. If you always have unlimited time to fix problems, you’ll never be forced into experiencing the satori of high-speed, high-stress problem resolution. As some of you may know, I was responsible for a lot of Honda’s infrastructure from 2010-2012. We were told that when the lines went down it could cost the company as much as a million dollars a minute. Believe me when I tell you that in a situation like that, discerning and fixing a root cause in five minutes instead of five hours was considered to be a very valuable skill. It was frankly thrilling at times.
With regards to writing, I’d like to believe that you could experience a pleasant, cheerful childhood followed by a genuinely satisfying educational experience and a smooth transition into a professorial or journalistic career before becoming a brilliant author. Indeed, I know a few very good writers who have enjoyed precisely that. My favorite novelist, John Updike, had a pretty easy row to hoe throughout his life: obtaining acclaim while still a teenager, securing a great job at The New Yorker while he was in his mid-twenties, and subsequently writing a million-dollar book every year or so.
Yet Updike had a sort of formative disaster in the form of his relationship with his overbearing, domineering, and inappropriately intimate mother. When you read his early fiction, the footprints of his unpleasant mommy are all over the pages. She frequently and shamelessly committed the greatest harm a mother can inflict upon her sons: she made him a confidante, an associate, a sexless lover forced to watch her put on her stockings and lipstick, a defenseless child who was assaulted by his mother’s scent and her physical presence and her public hair. Years later, in a rare bit of authorial anger, he would describe single mothers as women who “piss and shit and change tampons in front of” their sons.
No surprise, then, that dysfunctional relationships with women are Updike’s surest ground. When he departs from the gynocentric, he without fail stumbles. He’s like Le Carre in reverse, who is never as skillful as when he is describing a conflict between two upper-class Englishmen but whose characterization of the feminine is ninety-nine percent what they call “beta bitch” in the modern manosphere and one hundred percent cardboard. So that’s Updike’s adversity. It’s not as respectable as working on Parchman Farm or shipping out on a three-year-whaling billet or finding one’s cracker-ass self inadvertently deposited in a fifty-six-man prison pod with forty-nine black inmates, but as a pilot light, it sufficed.
In my past few years in the autojourno game, I’ve met any number of talented young men who are searching for that pilot-light adversity. Either they’ve never had any, or they’ve let what adversity they did have twist them into a sort of permanent victimhood. It doesn’t help that the PR circus offers its most devoted participants the endless thin gruel of experience without significance. What good it is to have fifty stamps in your passport if your hand was held the whole time you were overseas? If you can’t fight or fuck or even deviate from the route on a press trip, does that trip really exist?
Insofar as I’m not the complete grinning idiot I often appear to be, I’m not entirely unaware that much of the conversation I have with these writers consists of them poking through my entrails looking for the moment at which I became Jack Baruth. I wasn’t always Jack Baruth, you know. I was a happy little kid who liked using his ViewMaster 3-D and playing with Legos. The person that you’d meet in me today is much like a bonsai tree. Every time there’s growth or happiness, it’s carefully and painfully trimmed back. What you get from that is a stunted representation of a much larger tree, a synecdoche of full-frame reality, thoughtfully presented to you in a digestible size. Some of the trimming was done by fate, some by malice. And some I did myself.
What I want to tell them sometimes is this: Yes, you could be a better writer if you just went out right now and fractured your skull. Or spent a month in prison. Or stole a man’s wife and watched him as he considered suicide as a result. Go do that shit, man. Then you’ll be able to write about something besides the all-new** Porsche SUV or the caviar on the Lufthansa flight. Other times, I want to tell them: I finished, and understood, five thousand good novels during the same period in my life that you spent fucking around and enjoying yourself. Come to my house, you idiot, and see that I have more books than your local library and that I’ve read them all. Why shouldn’t I be a better writer than you are? I write ten times as quickly as you do and I’ve read a hundred times as much and, incidentally, I was also the product of a literary-critical tradition that puts just two people between me and Northrop Fucking Frye. But to say either of those things would be sheer ego, and it would be absolutely untrue.
** not all new
We all know what talents we truly possess. We don’t need to be told. If you know you have that talent, whatever it is, then serve it. Serve it faithfully. Do the work, experience the adversity if it comes naturally, and don’t give up. If you can do that, then you’ll have the success you deserve. And before you start thinking that I’m lecturing you from a position of being the Most Authentic Car Writer In History, I’ll set you straight. I’m lecturing you as The Guy Who Should Have Ten Novels Out The Door By Now. Don’t fuck up the way that I did. Don’t bury your single talent in the ground, whatever it might be. Go back out there on stage and finish the job.
I’m in your corner.
But I’m not going to tell you “good job”, okay?