Tuesday, August 27, 2013

To Suck, Perchance to Dream

As a drunk and sincere fan once shouted at Jeff Tweedy during a Wilco show, I too must shout at Ira Glass:  "How'd you get so insightful?!"


"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

"A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

What I love about this is how Glass the Almighty uses one hand to jingle the keys of encouragement above our giggling eyes while lighting a fire under our ass with the other.  Distilled, it's your standard call to arms from a luminary person, twisted up and made original by an acknowledgment you don't often find in these types of interviews:  You will suck, probably for a long time.

What's more, if you're good, you'll be aware that you suck, which begs the question:  If excellence springs from self improvement, self improvement from self awareness, self awareness from self scrutiny, and self scrutiny from taking constant stock of your weaknesses, how do you keep from being a gloomy asshole on your way to the top?

I suggest elephants.  Elephants and William Hung.

This is a lot to ask, but I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with William Hung's original American Idol audition.  It's painful, it's heartbreaking, it drops an anvil of a question on your sensibilities:  "How, benevolent Creator, could you allow this man to wake up in the morning, stare sure-footedly into the mirror, and say, 'You can sing.  You can sing the shit out of this song.  You should share your gift with millions.'?"  Isn't it unfair?  Isn't it a drag that Mr. Hung had no one in his life to keep him from embarrassing himself, to tell him to focus on literally anything else?

Yes to both.  But consider Hung's obliviousness as a function.  Putting aside for a moment whether or not he should have done what he did, his blissful ignorance of his own shortcomings resulted in him actually accomplishing his goal.  That's kind of powerful.

Now consider that ignorance as a tool for someone with a little more potential.  If you're lucky, you're a bit clueless when you first start learning a skill that you intend to showcase to other people.  That's perfect, because you definitely suck on day one and may continue to do so for a while.  For a lot of people, the reality of that is too much even for self discipline to overcome, so they quit or turn their ambition into whatever their equivalent of "I only sing in the shower" might be.  These folks value truth over the possibility of being made foolish, and that's fine.  It might even be what the smart money says.

But the tradeoff is a forfeiture of the lottery ticket that the Misfits, Television, The Horrors, and MGMT decided to buy with their credit of healthy ignorance (DumbBucks?).  In the beginning, some of these guys couldn't even play their instruments, which would be enough for a lot of folks to question whether or not they should pursue a job that requires... playing an instrument.

Others, like Ray Lamontagne, knew immediately that their skill didn't match their taste (i.e., that they sucked), but blotted it out with the will to soldier on, woodshed like crazy, perform a lot, and become very technically good.  This is a tougher route because, unlike the William Hungs of the world, you glare at your weaknesses every day.  At a certain point, you get up in front of people and experience what it's like for others to glare at them, too.  To avoid mortal injury, there's only one way for the self aware to get through it:  thick, Clint-Eastwood-crow's-foot elephant skin.

Ever read 1984?  In it, there's a concept called "doublethink" that the bad guys use to brainwash the good guys into believing that history happened one way when everybody knows it didn't.  Elephant skin is kind of like that, but instead of self deception, you simply downplay the negative things you know to be true.  No blinders, just sunglasses.  This is also called having a good attitude.  You know the detrimental effects of dwelling on your shortcomings, so you work hard on them when you need to, have faith in your own ability to progress, and ditch the dwelling when it might otherwise distract and break you down... like right after hitting a bad note, forgetting your line, dodging moldy vegetables (real or metaphorical) hurled from the peanut gallery.

As with most things in life, all of this boils down to Johnny Knoxville, who once posited, "If you're gonna be dumb, you better be tough."  Bless you, Ira Glass, for reminding us that the smarties need it, too.


  1. Good stuff. I've gone up on stage knowingly imperfect in the past with the mindset that there's a finite volume of embarrassment that I need to experience before actually being any good, and I wanted to front load that embarrassment as much as possible. With music, that's important because nerves can undermine your performance and that's not something you can prepare for by woodshedding. You need to develop that calloused elephant skin. I'm sure that's true for other disciplines as well.

  2. Totally agree. I can't count the number of times I've biffed a performance in ways I never would have done in rehearsal. Woodshedding technique won't make you better at hitting 3 pedals at once in front of 100 people, or dropping a stick, or remembering lyrics when you just got over strep throat, you just broke a string, your monitor is out, and your girlfriend is in the front row. Getting good at that stuff just comes with doing the thing, rather than rehearsing the thing. Ideally, you can do that without too many eyes on you. Dave Grohl has some really interesting interviews about not having that luxury when the Foo Fighters were just getting started.

    I like the idea of front loading the rough stuff in order to build up the thick skin. You need to be extra tough (like you are) to make it through that, though, without wanting to quit. Not for the faint of heart but probably super rewarding when you get past the over-nervy stages way quicker than you would otherwise.