The last time a movie changed my life, I was twenty-seven years old. I’d published maybe a story or two, paid in contributor’s copies. I was cocky, driven, and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to be a successful writer. I’d bet EVERYTHING on that one goal.
I was working at a bookstore, I think, and writing at night. Pulling my end of the bills, but earning way under what I knew I could earn if I went into some more formal occupation. But was afraid that if I took some more “serious” job it would devour me, and I’d lose my drive to write. I’d seen it happen.
So I hid my fears behind a mask of bravado, a denial that anything could stop me, a commitment to work and work and focus and focus until I got what I intended.
It was the “Whatever It Takes” attitude. The Psycho-Cybernetics “create your self image and live up to it” attitude. The Think and Grow Rich/Strangest Secret “Make a contract with yourself and bet your life on it” attitude.
I’d seen television commercials for a movie that looked pretty cool, starring Roy Schieder (hey, JAWS!) and featuring some really amazing dance choreography (glimpsed only in flashes in the TV ads) that looked angular and flashy and somehow…insane. There was something crazed about it. I loved that, and went to see ALL THAT JAZZ.
For those who haven’t seen it, ALL THAT JAZZ is a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by choreographer Bob Fosse. He tells the story of “Joe Gideon”, a genius of stage and cinema simultaneously editing a movie and choreographing a complex play, pushing himself beyond human limits. He is a cheater, drinker, smoker, drug abusing borderline maniac who pushes people who genuinely love him away while giving his life to people who don’t give a shit and are literally negotiating away his life while he has open-heart surgery.
It is funny, profane, sacred, brilliant, terrifying. One hell of a movie, and I walked out shaken.
Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe Gideon, a dancer who discovered a talent for choreography, who wanted to create art in motion. He focused everything he had, becoming a knife too sharp to handle safely, until he ultimately became the genius he was afraid he wasn’t, but destroyed himself in the process.
And I realized I loved that movie, because I was afraid it was about me.
Once upon a time there was a guy named Steven Barnes, who had dreams of being a writer. Everyone (it seemed): family, teachers, schoolmates, society, said that he couldn’t do it, and he swore to show them. He dropped out of school and took minimum-wage jobs to have the time to focus on his work. Every time he met defeat, he just swore to focus more tightly. But he had to admit that deep inside, he was afraid that they were right…
There was a problem. The problem is that if the secret of success isn’t “pure talent” or luck, then it is monomaniacal focus, over time. There is only one problem: that focus throws your life out of balance. So…you can succeed, but you will trash another aspect of your life doing it. Become like one of those houses at Universal City: look great from one angle, but step around behind…and there is nothing.
There are basic aspects of life: the career, the relationships, the physical body. And most people really don’t have “more” than others in all three. Most really successful people simply concentrate everything they have in one arena and neglect others. The luckiest of them find the right teachers at the right moments of their lives, have the right role models in childhood, and create something elegant and beautiful with that same pound of flesh.
The paradox I faced is that excellence demanded monomania. Monomania creates imbalance. Imbalance destroys your life, such that you will never become as excellent as you could be, or live to enjoy the fruits of your work.
I rode home on the bus, depressed. I wanted my career with all my heart, but in ALL THAT JAZZ clearly saw how my desire could destroy me. What the hell could I do?
There is a saying I heard once: From time to time, life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity. If you take it, its yours. If you don’t, its gone forever.
And just one such “cube” can change your life forever. I can identify several of those in my life. Five? Ten? Maybe
But this was one of them. Obsession creates imbalance. Obsession is necessary for excellence.
What if…what if…
What if the only thing that was safe to be obsessed about was balance itself? True, you could go all OCD about that, become paralyzed…but for a relatively healthy person, it seemed to me that balance was the safest path. But did it lead to excellence? Weren’t there (and aren’t there) people who swear that dysfunction is NECESSARY? That it is the creative norm?
Yes…but if there were counter-examples, people who seemed sane and happy and healthy and loving, who were also at the top of their field, didn’t that suggest it was POSSIBLE?
Well…that was what I decided. Ray Bradbury and William Shakespeare seemed to be a couple of human beings operating at as high a level in their fields as I could imagine, and from all evidence, they functioned well. Quirks, sure. But those basic aspects seemed healthy.
So I made the commitment: I would be obsessed with balance. The inner and the outer. I would touch base with the people I loved EVERY DAY. Work on my body EVERY DAY. Write EVERY DAY. Meditate EVERY DAY.
The inner and the outer. And…did I see some people starting when I did, who went further? Sure. Of course. But I noticed that it didn’t matter. I was having a GREAT time. I was becoming the human being I intended to be, and noticed that the time and energy I used to spend looking at what other people were doing or achieving I now spent actually improving myself.
And that was good, because there is ALWAYS someone better, and ALWAYS someone worse, and depending upon your emotional filters can spend your entire life in misery, or oblivious. If you happen to be in an arena in which there is objective measurement, and you CAN get all the way to the Best of the Best, you are very aware of the wounds you’ve taken to get there, how short your tenure will be, and have to keep your eye on the young toughs coming up behind you, eager to knock you from your perch.
Prince wrote a song on his wonderful “Gold” Album about having made it to the mountain top…and there is nothing there.
So focusing on balance could enable me to enjoy the ride. But could it also help me become the best writer I could be?
Sure…if I considered myself, my own life, my own struggles to be the clearest laboratory experiment in the nature of humanity I could possibly find. Yes, I could bury myself in books, and know far more about specific literary qualities. But could I really learn more about the nature of human beings? And at the core of art, wasn’t that one of the two great questions?
Who Am I?
What Is True?
If there are many roads up the mountain called “artistic excellence” wasn’t one of them just understanding what human beings were, developing a theoretical model and testing testing testing every day in your own life, and taking what you learn and applying it to your characters. Wouldn’t this be as valid as learning specific writing tricks and tropes–actually observing humanity and sharing what you learn?
Because if it was, then the primary goal would not be to be “clever” or even “erudite” or “gifted” but…honest.
And what was Musashi Miyamoto’s first principle to become excellent, if excellence is a matter of life and death importance?
DO NOT THINK DISHONESTLY.
Even before I saw the connection between the Hero’s Journey and our lives, I saw that this approach: ” A life lived in balance as your primary work of art” would be a unique approach. It was MY approach. I could embrace it fully with minimal risk of destroying myself, and, while a long-term solution to the problem, so long as I didn’t get discouraged by the sprinters burning past me, I would either outlast them, or ignore them and just have a wonderful time along the way.
This commitment, to connecting the inner and outer worlds, gave me everything I have to offer my students, a path that will take you as far as your heart and will and mind can carry you…safely. One step at a time.
Starting with just a single sentence a day.
Write with passion, live with purpose