Study the Canon
Have you read War and Peace? The Brothers Karamazov? Anna Karenina?
Have you watched Double Indemnity? Casablanca? The Grapes of Wrath?
This is work.
This counts as work.
It’s also fun.
I was lucky enough in my late twenties to have two years straight when I did nothing but write and read. I read Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. I read Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius; I read Flaubert and Victor Hugo, Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld. I read Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Knut Hamsun, Andre Malraux, Giuseppe Lampedusa, Jean Rhys, Italo Calvino. I imbibed the full modern canon—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev. Stendhal, Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Japanese, writers, Chinese writers. Was I crazy?
I was learning my craft.
There are books and movies and plays and songs that you simply have to know if you call yourself a writer or artist or aspire to one day become one.
Have you listened to Rosanne Cash’s album, The List? Here she is, from an interview with Terry Gross on NPR:
“When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I graduated from high school. And we were riding on the tour bus one day, kind of rolling through the South. We started talking about songs, and he mentioned one, and I said I don’t know that one. And he mentioned another. I said, ‘I don’t know that one either, Dad,’ and he became very alarmed that I didn’t know what he considered my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me, and at the end of the day, he said, ‘This is your education.’ And across the top of the page, he wrote ‘100 Essential Country Songs.'”
Despite his heading of the list, Johnny Cash didn’t limit his definition to what might be called “country” music.
“The list might have been better titled ‘100 Essential American Songs,’ because it was very comprehensive. He covered every critical point in Southern and American music: early folk songs, protest songs, Delta blues, Southern gospel, early country music, Appalachian. Everything that fed into modern country music was on that list.”
My own (Hollywood) version of Rosanne’s come-to-Jesus moment happened—more than once—in story meetings at movie studios. Someone would make a reference to a line from Out of the Past or an action sequence from Red Sorghum. Of course I had never heard of them. All I could do was my best Homer Simpson impression and hope the conversation moved on quickly.
You have to know the canon.