Thursday, September 13, 2012

They Simply Dig

My friend Dave, who is a visual artist and much, much wiser about the creative process than I am, posted a video of Louis CK talking a bit about his creative maturation on my Facebook wall a couple of weeks ago. I think I had previously conflated Louis CK with some vulgar-for-the-sake-of-vulgar comedian I don't like, or maybe I had just seen an act of his that was over the line for me, but anyway I had him in my head as a person whose work I had little interest in. He's started to get a lot more attention among my circles in the last few years, but I never investigated. And I waited a day or so before I watched this video. Don't make the same mistake I did; watch this now. I know it's 10 minutes long, but watch it.

After I saw this, I knew I had to blog about it. Because this is a central worry for me, that at some point I'll have used up all my ideas and be left with nothing. So I keep believing in trunk stories, fiddling with them and polishing them and sending them out, instead of writing new stories.

This is wrong. This is the complete wrong thing to do. The only way to do work is to do reams of it, to write and perform an entirely new comedy special every year, to dig deeper and deeper and deeper until you're sure there's nothing left. That's when you find your best stuff, the stuff that distinguishes you from the eight zillion other comedians out there, and that's when you go forward.

I know exactly how lost and resentful and terrified Louis CK felt when faced with Carlin's process. The old stuff, the fifteen-year-old jokes, it all feels so valuable. I clutch the old stories to me with sheer panic at the idea that they're disposable. They felt like the best I can do, and how can I just throw out the best of me?

But creative work has to be disposable for it to get better, and the best I can do is way, way ahead of me. That's the lesson I'm assembling this year. Even if it's a lesson some of you reading this learned long ago, and you think me very silly and creatively immature for just getting it now, you've got to be patient and understand that it's a total head-spinning epiphany for me. I have to trash everything before I can unearth what I really have to say. There's a reason Louis CK just kept getting bigger and bigger - he was getting better and better, along with doing his own stuff more and more strongly instead of jokes that could be anybody's jokes.

And the thing I've been repeating like a mantra, as if I can make myself believe it if I repeat it enough times, is that you can't use up all your ideas. That human life is so rich and so wide that even if I thought I'd put everything I had into one story, I can put everything I have into another story I write next year and it'll be completely different. And not only that, you can still mine the same thing in innumerable ways. Tiny Beautiful Things, heck, Strayed's entire career, is proof of that. Very little that she's written has not looped back to her mother somehow, and yet it's all worth reading.

Those trunk stories? Sure, they've been polished to a high shine, but they're only copper. The gold is still ahead. That's what you get when you dig deeper.

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