The End Of Magical Thinking
In last week’s Tape I wrote about how to deal with disappointment in a positive way in the creative industries, and briefly mentioned that my least favourite thing about working in the creative industries is the “magical thinking” that surrounds it, because I think it gets in the way of the making of good work. This week I thought I’d expand on that a bit to explain what I mean by it!
The “Magical Thinking” attitude exists at both ends of the spectrum in terms of creative achievement, and I have a hard time knowing which end of it I find more frustrating. Generally, it boils down to people thinking that creativity and art, in comparison to all other walks of life or types of work, is somehow special, or magical, and that being in the arts is somehow a noble, rarefied pursuit reserved only for the very gifted. As an attitude, frankly, it stinks. At one end of the spectrum you get people who have achieved a certain degree of success in the arts and think this sets them apart from everybody else, that they are somehow better than the “normal” people they have outdone merely as a result of being brave enough to pursue their creativity (these kinds of people are the kind to use the word “calling.”) These people tend to take the view that their creative work is somehow for and on behalf of the “ordinary” people they seem so relieved to be distinct from. I know people like this, but the best example is probably the singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, the man behind the band/musical project Sun Kil Moon, who is one of the most loathsome musical artists of all time, I think.
Kozelek (currently facing hugely credible accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct) has the most unpleasant attitude to creativity. The song “Carissa” is essentially a tribute to his distant cousin who died in a house fire. Despite admitting to not knowing her, and openly passing judgement on her lifestyle and family, he takes it upon himself to give her life some meaning by writing a song about her, as though her life was meaningless until his artistic talent gave it purpose. I know some people who think it’s a really beautiful song, but I think it’s absolutely rotten. In another song, Kozelek pays tribute to his first agent – “I’m going to go there and tell him face-to-face “Thank you for discovering my talent so early, for helping me along in this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in.”” Other songs include “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle-Aged Man,” which requires no explanation. He genuinely makes my skin crawl.
I hope I don’t need to explain why this attitude – that by choosing to pursue a creative career you are entitled to pass judgement on other people and minimise them in order to aggrandise and magnify yourself – is really bad. It disconnects you from your humanity. The opposite end of the spectrum is more complicated, so allow me to quickly insert an image of nightmare human Kozelek to break up all the text and then I’ll explain how the other side works.
I actually think Mark Kozelek genuinely LOOKS evil. He just seems like a really, really horrible guy.
Creativity Is Just A Job You Can Do
At the other end of the spectrum, where people are trying to pursue a creative career but perhaps haven’t achieved everything they hope for from it yet, the magical thinking attitude manifests in one of two ways. On the one hand there are people who think, like Kozelek, that their creativity makes them different, and special, and noble, and that their lack of fulfilment must be something to do with other people not recognising how brilliant they are, and denying them their chance. I hope, again, that I don’t need to explain why this is a bad attitude. And the second way is when people believe that the reason for their lack of fulfilment is that they are not special enough, not noble enough, not magical enough, not rarefied enough, to “have what it takes” to be an “Artist” with a capital A. They don’t have the “talent” to ever be recognised as a “genius.”
Here’s where the tone of this newsletter changes into something a bit more positive and nurturing, because these types I’m now describing are much more common, and much better people than the other categories I’ve described so far, and these are the kinds of people who just need to be told one thing – the good news is that artists aren’t special. People with creative careers aren’t special. There is no such thing as “genius,” and there isn’t really even such a thing as “talent” – it’s an unhelpful word that means the same thing as “skill” or “ability” but has unfortunately become lumbered with all sorts of associations with “stardom” and “destiny” and being somehow born to do this. But here’s the thing:
Creativity is just a job you can do.
It’s a job you can be good at, or bad at. Nobody’s born to do it. Some people are a better fit for it than others, just like some people might be a better fit to be a lawyer than other people, or an engineer, or a doctor, or someone who makes hot air balloons (I think that might be the same thing as an engineer, actually, but I don’t know because it’s not my field). Doing well in a creative career isn’t a case of being special, it’s just dependent on having a certain level of ability (not talent) at a range of specific skills, and they’re all skills you can learn and get better at. The great secret at the heart of all creative work is simply this:
Everyone is mediocre.
If you can accept your own mediocrity, you pave the way towards making truly great work. Because you’re mediocre, some days you might just be a bit shit. That’s not a disaster, or a betrayal of your God-given talents, because you’re mediocre. It’s just a bad day at the office. And because you’re mediocre, some days you’ll be incredible. That’s not because you’re gifted, or special. It’s just a good day at the office. And the more you do it, and the more you practice, and learn, and train, the more good days you’ll have, at the expense of the bad days. This is true for everyone all across the arts, and all across comedy, and all across all sorts of creative industries – it’s just people doing their jobs who are capable of having good days and bad days. Once you’re able to see it like that, and not as some sort of magical, hallowed place that only the very gifted are allowed access to, it empowers you to do incredible things. It’s not special. It’s just people working at the thing they chose to do, just like everything else in the world. Let’s have more people just working hard at a thing they care about, and fewer Mark Kozeleks floating around.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – This is very much NOT a “cool” thing, but I’m using this section this week to raise awareness of an important development in the comedy and arts world, because VAULT Festival, the biggest and best comedy, theatre and arts festival in London which I’ve enjoyed being a part of since 2018, has been kicked out of its home in the Vaults under Waterloo. Visit the Save Vault campaign website to find out more about how to donate, support the cause, spread the word and so on.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Spent this week shooting a short film I’ve written called Good Boy, and laughed a lot throughout the shoot. Probably hardest at the sight of Tom Bell stalking towards me while wielding a bone, but we all just had a lovely time, really.
Book Of The Week – Moomin: The Complete Comic Strip, Volume 3 by Tove Jansson. My flat is full of Moomin coasters that I absolutely love, but I’ve actually never read the book, so I gave this a read. It’s fantastic. My favourite instalment is one in which Moominpappa starts a Rebel Fathers’ Club and Moominmamma accidentally joins Stinky’s Robbers’ Club. I think Stinky is one of the best creations in any comic book. Pisses all over Iron Man, at least.
Album Of The Week – Song For Our Daughter by Laura Marling. I finally finished listening to Laura Marling’s entire discography! Big love again to Emily for getting me into her. This most recent album of hers is probably the purest in terms of the “New Joni Mitchell” vibes that have run through all of her work. Very Nick Drake-y as well, this one. She’s just a wonderful songwriter and I’m glad I delved into her work properly at last.
Film Of The Week – The Whale. Bits of this are fantastic. Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau are brilliant. I like the story and the things it’s saying and exploring. It’s also based on a stage play that I think would feel clunky and overly theatrical even in the theatre, and certainly has a lot of jarring moments when adapted for the screen. Over the course of one film week, the characters sigh and sit down and explain their entire backstory in a long monologue to a patient listener about five times more often than they would in a real-world year, I reckon. Decent film, though.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to recommend this newsletter to a friend or recommend others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Because of this week’s film shoot, I’m a bit behind on some big writing and pitching deadlines, so I probably won’t write a newsletter next week, but I’ll be back the week after to talk about Good Boy! Take care of yourselves, and catch you next time,
PS Here’s a sneak peek at the Good Boy shoot. It’s a film about a dog: