Depth of Work, Part Two
You have to be a little crazy to be a writer or an artist or an entrepreneur. A certain breed of insanity is required to chase a dream or to seek to bring into manifestation something that only you see or hear. I’ve gotten to know, over the years, a few genuine warriors (I mean real fighting men, multi-tour Special Forces guys and Marines, Rangers and Airborne and Navy SEALS and plain old hardcore Army foot-sloggers) and you’ve gotta be crazy to do that too.
How do you know how crazy you are? By how genuinely nuts you get when you’re NOT doing (or not being allowed to do) what being crazy makes you want to do in the first place.
But this state of mind isn’t really crazy. It comes from the gods. It’s a species of divine madness. Socrates called the poetic variety of this condition “possession by the Muses” (and rated it superior to technical mastery), though he could have referred with equal accuracy to seizure by any Olympian deity. When this kind of nuttiness grabs us, we are possessed by forces we can’t name and can’t see, can’t measure or quantify, and whose very existence is doubted by much of the conventional world.
But this state of possession is real, as anyone who has experienced it will testify–and so are the forces that inflict it on us. What do these forces demand? First and foremost, they want depth. They require of us passion, authenticity, courage, stubbornness and commitment over time. They want us. They want everything we’ve got.
In return, these forces grant us peace of mind (at least for a few minutes), a modicum of honor; they gift us with self-respect and integrity, and they endow us with gravity. Most important of all, they ground us in a source, which may be mysterious and ineffable but that grants meaning and significance to our lives and work.
None of us asks for this. There’s no chain of intention or rational choice. The thing grabs us. We can run as far as we like, like Jonah did into the belly of the whale, but in the end we either surrender to this force or it kills us. I am not employing hyperbole.
What specifically is depth of work? We know it when we see it, don’t we? Julia Child had it, and so does Meryl Streep. Sam Maloof had it; Steve Jobs does and so does Elmore Leonard. So do thousands of writers and artists and entrepreneurs whom nobody but their own friends and fans have ever heard of.
Tweeting is the opposite of depth of work; so is gossip and reality TV and Facebook and 99.9% of blogging. Mainstream TV news is the definition of shallowness of work; if a journalist at NBC or CBS ever dared to go deep, she’d be fired on the spot. The Daily Show does go deep, and so does the Colbert Report.
Depth of work comes from immersion. A thousand physicists worked on the same problems that Einstein did. There’s something unbalanced about going that deep. It isn’t normal; it isn’t regular. But that’s what we’re looking for. That’s why we have to find within ourselves.
The guts to get to that place.
When actors work on a scene in rehearsal with a director, the first pass is always the shallowest. Why? Because it’s easy to stay on the surface. It doesn’t hurt. There’s no risk and no exposure. But the fun begins when the actors start digging. They’ve got this cryptic map–the playwright’s words and stage directions. But what does he really mean? What does the writer intend that even he didn’t know? What is this freakin’ piece about anyway? Why is each of us here? How do these character beats advance the story? What is the story anyway?
So the actors start at eight and work till eleven, and they come back the next night and keep digging into the same words and the same stage directions. It’s like therapy. It’s like bench pressing. It’s like training in short-track speed skating.
What’s the difference between being in shape and being out? A trainer once told me it was all in the capillaries. When we train hard, day after day, we force blood deep into our muscles; this “push” compels the circulatory system to create new capillaries, so that oxygen and nutrients can be carried to every tiny mitochondria of muscle and so that waste products can be borne away. When we’re out of shape, our network of capillaries is small and constricted; when we’re in shape, those little creeks and runnels are branching out everywhere. You can tell when someone’s in shape by the aliveness of their skin. Capillaries close to the surface give it that healthy glow.
Depth of work is like that. Pain is involved, and will and effort and motivation. But so is joy and strength and stamina and self-empowerment.
Have you ever seen those software programs that help writers flesh out their stories? The formulaicness sounds robot-like, I know, but in fact the concept has tremendous power. The programs compel you, the writer, to answer the hump-busting questions: What is your story about? What does the protagonist want? What does this mean? These are the privately-experienced, gloryless, bone-crunching, capillary-expanders that, when you confront them successfully, produce depth of work.
How deep can you go? If we’re Francis Ford Coppolla and we’re writing the screenplay of The Godfather from Mario Puzo’s novel, we have to go as deep as Mr. Puzo did and keep drilling even after that. What is this story about? Family? A code of honor? Crime? Evil? An oppressed and despised tribe within a greater and even more corrupt society? How do we get to these answers? Instinct, inspiration, head-banging rationality? All of the above? But if we can drill down deep—to answers that are universal and that address not just the parochial dilemmas of the Corleone family and the society that surrounds it, but that speak to universal human themes … then we’ve got something. Then we have achieved depth of work. And then we really reach the audience, even if they don’t know why or how.
This is killer work and you gotta be nuts to do it. You have to want it for reasons a lot of people are not going to understand. There aren’t many Francis Ford Coppollas and this is why. It’s hard to go deep. It hurts. There’s a price to pay and maybe most people don’t want to pay it or even think about. Are we willing to pay that price? Am I? Are you?
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