Go Astray

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I watched a delightful documentary recently (as I write this, it’s currently streaming on Netflix). Bathtubs Over Broadway introduces us to the world of corporate musicals from the perspective of former Late Show With David Letterman writer Steve Young.

First, Young discovered the likes of The Bathrooms are Coming! and Diesel Dazzle, entire musicals created solely for performance at corporate meetings, in search of material for comedy routines. As he sought out recordings of these performances, networked with other collectors of this extremely niche genre, and finally connected with some of the composers and performers who produced the musicals, Young himself experienced a change in outlook. He came to appreciate the talent and effort involved in staging these musicals, especially considering how little fanfare the artists received for their hard work. At the same time, Young found something more than a hobby, a genuine passion that gave him a fresh perspective on life and helped him through a major career change (namely, the end of Late Show).

Near the end of the documentary, Young says, “Life can be so rich and wonderful when we step off the logical path and embark on eccentric adventures.”

Wildflowers overlooking the town of Tarascon-sur-Ariege in southern France
In life, like a good vacation, we often see more when we venture beyond the beaten path (Tarascon-sur-Ariege, France)

At the same time, I’m currently reading Michael Benson’s fascinating book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, about, as you can guess, the making of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can’t say 2001 is one of my favorite movies, but it’s easily one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen.

Benson’s book is worth reading even if you’re not a fan of the film. The starting point is 1964, when Kubrick, following the success of Dr. Strangelove, decided to make “the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” With that as his mission statement, Kubrick traveled a long, non-linear path, developing the story with Arthur C. Clarke (loosely based on Clarke’s previously published work). Kubrick’s tendency was always to raise his sights higher as time went by, first expanding the scope of the story, then in developing the film’s aesthetics and visual effects. He adhered to no deadlines and insisted on working in his own way, at his own pace, never calling anything complete until it was exactly what he wanted.

Kubrick’s method exhausted a number of his collaborators, some to the point that they resigned or nearly suffered nervous breakdowns. (And, in fairness, Kubrick’s behavior seemed downright cruel in some cases.) Those who endured generally were the most willing to abandon a formal process and join Kubrick on his eccentric adventure. Visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull described the experience: “We were doing new things all the time. It was a free-wheeling situation where there was no schedule, no budget, no delivery date, and we were just going to solve all these problems, one after the other, as they came up.”

I’ve had a similar, if less dramatic, meandering experience with my own novel-in-progress. When I first conceived of the story, I envisioned it as a comic book or graphic novel. Later I thought it might be best-suited as a visual production, similar to the Syfy network’s Battlestar Galactica remake. Finally, I dug deeper into the story and characters and decided a novel was the way to go. Even that took a lot of outlining and a couple of attempts before I was able to complete a first draft.

There’s a reason we associate corporate bureaucracy with stifling boredom and unhappiness. When our path is decided for us in precise detail, with no room for self-expression and no possibility of forging a new path, it can lead to an easy (if small) paycheck. What’s lost is not only our sense of purpose, but the opportunity to employ new ideas in better serving our mission. One of the most stifling aspects of American-style capitalism is an ad nauseam attempt to maximize profit that sacrifices a pursuit of improvement in the qualities that really matter.

Rat snake surrounded by twigs and leaves
A snake in the grass is the risk, and potential reward, of looking where no else has looked

Yes, there are risks when we exercise this kind of freedom. Work takes longer to complete. Others may use their own freedom to create work we find offensive. We may not always like what we find in our search. But if it gets us to a truth we need, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Creativity and freedom have a lot in common – both can be frightening to entrenched power structures, both have to be defended, and both should be available to everyone. But, as Steve Young reminds us, we sometimes need these journeys to live a life that’s “rich and wonderful.” If you haven’t already, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, “What will my eccentric adventure be?”

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