Tick, Tick…Boom! is a must-watch for anyone who does creative work

This is a movie about failure and getting back up, and his masterpiece is ahead of him. And it’s hopeful because maybe so is yours.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of Tick, Tick…Boom!

It’s been over six weeks since I first watched Tick, Tick…Boom! on Netflix (I reopened my Netflix subscription for one month just to watch this) and I still can’t stop thinking about it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s an adaptation of a rock monologue by Jonathan Larson, who would later go on to write the smash hit Rent.

Tick, Tick…Boom is all about the “before,” when Jonathan was still working in a diner, rewriting and sweating over a futuristic dystopian musical he’d been working for 8 years with no clue whether all his efforts would be worth it. He turns 30 in eight days, his girlfriend wants to move to the Berkshires, his friends are dying from AIDS, and his best friend has given up acting to take an office job on Madison Avenue.

Far too often, the stories we read about artists are all about the successes, and we think that if we simply do what they did, then we can be successful too. This is the definition of survivorship bias. For every successful person out there, there are thousands of others who did the same things but didn’t have the same outcome. We never see hear those stories, though, and I think that’s dangerous. It makes creative success sound less like a crapshoot than it actually is.

I’ve even met writers who refuse to believe in luck, thinking that if they did all the right things, they can be the next Rowling or Patterson or King. Maybe, but that’s like saying if I buy a lottery ticket, I could win the Powerball–it’s technically correct, but it ignores how little control we have over the outcome. You can be immensely hard-working and talented and still not achieve conventional success because there are simply too many candidates for too few spots.

What I love about Tick, Tick…Boom is that it captures the strength and folly of choosing to persevere in the face of rejection and the sacrifices it requires to do so. Jonathan Larson chose to do a show revealing a vulnerable time in his life during a vulnerable time in his life (while he was working on Rent).

Sadly, he died the night before Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview performance. He was only 35 years old. He didn’t live to see how successful his work became or how he influenced a new generation of creators, including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m not a genius like Jonathan Larson and my 20s are way behind me, but I still connected with his decision to just keep working despite the rejections and indifference from the powers-that-be. I’ve learned to get satisfaction from writing stories and releasing them into the world with no expectations. As Jonathan says in the song “Why,” “I’m gonna spend my time this way.”

There are SO many great videos and interviews covering Tick, Tick…Boom!, but the one that resonated with me the most is this scene where Jonathan learns that the musical he sank 8 years into won’t be picked up by a producer (and receives excellent advice from his agent):

No matter what, keep working on the next project.

2021 reflections

It’s the time of year when many of us reflect on how we spent the last 12 months. For me, 2021 was the year I reclaimed a lot of my time and attention:

  • I quit reading the news (I highly recommend it–the stress raises your cortisol, which in turn suppresses your immune system and that’s the last thing you need right now).
  • I quit all volunteer activities except for writing Postcards to Voters. For some activities, like community theatre, it was a difficult decision because I enjoyed making props and decorating sets. Other activities were easy to quit because I always felt used.
  • I started learning guitar. For me, this was the key that clarified the rest of my priorities. I found it easier to say no to time-wasters when I had a weekly lesson to prepare for, and committing to music rejuvenated my commitment to writing.
  • I quit trying to be traditionally published and embraced self-publishing. I wrote more about it here, but I have to say this is the best creative decision I’ve made in the 20+ years I’ve been writing. My brain is full of ideas again and best of all, I’m having fun. It’s been too long since I had fun writing.

The world is filled with people and organizations who will gladly tell you how you should spend your time. The best thing to do is ignore them. Your life is too precious to squander on people who see you only as a tool for their own agendas. If your goals and their goals align, great! But don’t let someone else’s priorities be your priorities because of peer pressure or guilt or other mindgames that reveal how little they respect you.

Each of us has unique gifts to share to the world, but if we don’t give ourselves the space to explore and develop those gifts, if we let others yank our attention all over the place, if we spend too much time reacting to the immediate instead of working on the long-term, those gifts will die. Your soul likely will too.

Remember, when you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to everything else. Make sure it’s worth the tradeoff.

What will you say “no” to in 2022? What more important things will you say “yes” to instead?

Embracing pointless projects

It’s November, which means it’s National Novel Writing Month. I’m not doing it this year, but it makes me happy to see so many people taking on such a huge writing challenge.

When you get a group of writers together, though, the chatter inevitably turns to publishing. How do I get an agent? How many social media followers do I need before an agent will look at me? 10,000? 50,000? How do I get a story accepted by a literary journal? How do I make a full-time living at this? What are editors looking for? Will they accept me if I do this? How about this?

I spent many years being one of these people myself. There’s a tsunami of advice on how to “go pro,” as if there’s something wrong with being an amateur, and I bought into it. To do otherwise, to write for my own enjoyment (and those of a few others if I were lucky) seemed pointless.

Then I took up guitar.

Studying guitar and intrinsic motivation

I sink a LOT of time and money into my guitar practice and even though I’ll never play professionally, I always find it worthwhile. On its face, guitar is another pointless time filler like my writing, but why don’t I feel that way?

Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim has a great post about the two questions you need to ask to determine if you’re intrinsically motivated:

  1. Regardless of my starting point, am I willing to do the work?
  2. Ten years from now, if I still haven’t “made it,” will it have been worth it?

I’ve been at this writing thing for much more than ten years. My light bulb moment: the writing part was worth it, but the trying-to-get-published part was not.

I don’t regret the time I’ve spent writing over the years. I definitely regret the time I’ve wasted on social media, conferences, networking, reading publishing industry news, researching agents and short story markets, promotion (at the urging of the two small publishers I’ve worked with–neither of them exist anymore), and all the other stuff I did to try to be a “real” writer. I should’ve invested that time into just writing more stories–it would’ve have been more productive and fun.

What I’m doing now

I self-published a few short stories a while back (using a “burner” name) and liked the experience so much that I’ve decided to go all in with self-publishing. No more hiding my self-published work under a different name to avoid being seen as unprofessional. No more restricting myself to one genre in the name of “building a brand.”

At this point in my life, submitting stories is like applying for a job I don’t even want. Now that I’m out of that grind, I no longer have to keep my stories under wraps for months or years while waiting for responses (if they even arrive)–I can share them as soon as they’re ready.

So now I’m preparing a few stories to self-publish. I have no goals other then getting them off my hard drive and out in public for readers to find. I haven’t felt this joyful about my writing in years, and all it took was embracing the pointlessness of it all. I have nothing to prove anymore, so now I can relax and play with words the way kids play with Legos.

Enjoy your so-called “pointless” projects. If it feeds your soul, it’s worthwhile no matter what anyone else thinks.

Letting go of a sketch

This is a copy of the newsletter I sent in October. The version that went to subscribers had a photo of the sketch I talked about. If you’re interested in receiving new posts with bonus content right into your inbox, you can join the fun via the pop-up in the lower right corner of your screen.

I recently enrolled in a watercolor class through my local parks and rec program. Our first assignment was to sketch an arrangement of shoes that we would paint later. I spent way too much time on the sketch because I’m still learning how to draw.

Even though I was proud of how the sketch turned out, I had no desire to paint it or even continue with the class (it turned out to be more of a social painting group than an instructional class). So I dropped out and decided to learn how to watercolor on my own.

Watercolor paper, at least the kind the teacher told us to buy, is freaking expensive. I drew the shoe sketch on $10 worth of paper (a half sheet, about 14″ x 22″). I don’t like drawing that large and I don’t want to spend the time it’ll take to paint it when I don’t even know how to control watercolors and am unlikely to get much instruction on how to do so.

So I cut it up.

Sock knitting and creating like kids

Have you ever watched kids make things? They lose themselves in the process and then let go of the finished product, even when it’s good. That’s an attitude I try to cultivate, this focus on process and practice. I’ve learned that being too precious about my work hampers me to the point where it’s difficult to even start.

My sock knitting is a great way to keep me from being precious about what I make. A pair of socks takes around 22 hours to knit. When I finish a pair, I admire my work and then . . . promptly put them on my feet. Or give them to my mom to put on her feet. Either way, they will get stepped on, shoved in shoes, and eventually wear out because they’re socks.

The point of me knitting socks isn’t really the socks–it’s the process. But in a society obsessed with end products (and selling those end products), it’s easy to forget that 99.9% of creative work is the practice of making the thing, not the thing itself. Besides, once you finish something, the next step is to start something else.

Letting go

I’ll be using my cut-up shoe sketch as watercolor practice paper. After that, it’ll go into the recycling bin because it’s done its job.

And then I’ll open a new sketchbook and keep practicing.