In 2009, my writing professor, Ira Sachs, suggested we all read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit as part of our class. His reasoning was that the purpose of writing class is to eventually create something. And the sooner we realized that was our focus, the better. Ira used the class as a forcing function to make a short film, Last Address, which screened at Sundance and Berlin.
I chanced upon the book recently and it made me go into the rabbit hole on Twyla. What an amazing and talented person. This video interview of her captures her essence, which is all about carpe diem, or “shut up and do what you love.”
She’s still creating at a world-class level.
So should we all. So, let’s do it.
I’m proposing that to end this year with panache, we read The Creative Habit, talk about it, and form our own creative habits.
Human beings are amazing. A mere two weeks after the lockdown started, most people had adapted to a remote world. Kids were learning soccer on Zoom, personal trainers adapted, cooking and baking classes moved to zoom—but I really did not expect theater and filmmaking to adapt in this world.
But, adapt they did. Zoomtheater and Zoommovies are a thing now, 4 months into the pandemic—for example, Host is a horror movie, made on Zoom.
Are these pieces any good? Well, it depends — film, which is asynchronous (i.e. shot and edited before the viewer sees it), can be just as good. For theater, which is delivered in real time, the remote version is not as good as when the cast and crew are in the same location. But the ability to adapt, the ability to even try this, makes me optimistic.
For a polished spin on quarantine filming, look at Mythic Quest, which is on Apple TV. They were filming the second season when the pandemic shut things down. This article outlines what the crew and cast did to shoot a “pandemic” episode that is part of Season 1. They used iPhones with prosumer film software, mics, and shot in all natural light, since lighting is one of the harder parts of filmmaking. They then edited it together to make it look like it was shot on Zoom.
On the other hand, some of Princess Bride’s celebrity cast decided to make a fan fiction, and it’s very clear that it’s shot by non-professionals, embracing the reality of shooting in different locations, with no crew.
In a scene with Diego Luna and Jack Black, they create continuity from two different locations in amazing ways: Diego throws down a green rope tried to a tree in his house and Jack, who is lying on a set of stairs in his house, grabs a hose that is thrown down to him. Diego lifts, Jack clambers, until finally, Jack is back at the top of the mountain (stairs). It’s really well done!
This would never have been considered acceptable pre-pandemic, but with a new set of rules for the world, there’s a new set of expectations. All film-watching requires the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and for these pandemic-pictures (panpics?), the suspension of disbelief has to be extended. But they are so entertaining!
Theater, unlike film, is synchronous – everything is live. This makes it much harder to adapt to a remote environment. While in film, you can do an extreme close up to show the twitch of an eyebrow, theater acting is “bigger,” so that the person in the last row can have the same read of a scene as someone sitting in the front. So Zoomtheater and the innovations there are harder to adapt to the pandemic. But theater has adapted, too. And if the pandemic stretches out, theater will have to continue to adapt. Imagine if there was a plugin that:
allows a lighting tech to set the stage by adding a virtual background and virtual lighting to make people seem like they’re in the same room, with the mood lighting the director wants.
controls which person is “shown” to the audience during a live performance. That way, the tech can make sure the right face is shown at the right time.
enables a “prop” tech to develop a unique, dynamic set and background for each actor and upload it behind them as the stage changes
allows live mixing of the audio so that music can be woven in, like a play.
It’s entirely possible that this could happen. Because despite the insanity in the world around them, humans continue to create, continue to innovate, continue to live lives of hope and splendor. Constraints make them innovate in ways that they wouldn’t have thought to before.
The same is true for startups. Startups have to startup. And the first requirement of startupping is surviving. But the very best startups, like the best creators, use constraints to innovate and thrive, offering customers an unexpected, delightful solution that moves us all forward.
“Making things that are really crappy and undeveloped until maybe they can be good. I’m way too young to confine myself to one lane and lose the ability to openly experiment.”
This is exactly how a the first draft of a film script develops. Characters and ideas float around in your head, and one day, they’re done with the floating and demand to live on the page. The script gets written, and when you’re done… it’s shitty. It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to show it to anyone, and you wonder how on earth your magical characters and ideas amounted to this pile of doodoo on the page.
But, it’s really important to have this first draft. Because as Miller said, yes, it’s crappy and undeveloped, but you need the crappy and undeveloped to have hope for the good and the great.
Struggling, wrangling, failing, crying, working, pushing forward allows your characters and your story to breathe, thrive, and for the bones to slowly emerge from the pile. Experimenting openly, taking the story in unexpected directions, adding or removing key characters, and messing around with no pressure allows the sparks of creativity that makes the script sing.
Every creator needs that messy time.
The same is true for startup creators. Ideas for a product form in your head over time, sometimes over years. Then one day, you’re ready to put it on the “page” — to code something, to craft something. And it may be a sloppy, messy ball of hair, mud, and hope. Don’t clean it up, polish, and shine it in order to raise money too early.
Love your messy stage, because it is so important to relish that stage. You can only do it once for each startup, and it’s when experimentation, ideation, hanging out, and trying weird things is entirely possible. It’s where ugly is awesome.
At some point, a screenwriter will have to share the script with producers. At some point, you have to share your startup with users and, if you want, with investors. If things go well, they love it, and you build an amazing company. Fantastic.
If you’ve grown your company into a wonderfully world-changing one, it’s worth finding ways to go back to being messy. Get into small groups. Make room for experimentation with ugly, creative things that may fail, because that can lead to new lines of growth. If you have the urge to start again, you could start another company and embrace the new ugly ball of mess. Whatever path you follow, the messy part of creation can be the the best part of creation, and the challenge of it makes your ideas and your company better.
At some point in 2002, while I was still relatively new to eBay, I found myself sitting in a room with the exec staff discussing something strategic. Many of the details of the meeting are now blurry, but one little event is still crystal clear in my mind. People were talking, discussing options with opinions flying around, and I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction to it.
One of the senior leaders—a lovely, but brutally honest and blunt man—said, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
There was a pause in the conversation. My heart stopped. And then the conversation continued, while I sat there, stunned.
I felt in my bones that I must speak again, in this meeting, to get over that comment, to move on and retain the confidence that I can contribute. I practically forced myself to speak again. Sort of like falling off a horse and getting back on.
I can guarantee you that the only person who remembers that moment now, 18 years later, is me. It’s actually a moment I’ve thought about several times as one of the key learning moments in my life.
The reality is that we will all be wrong sometimes, or at the very least, perceived to be wrong. It’s the price of speaking, the price of thinking, the price of writing. So what should we do? Never speak, think, or write unless we are certain we are right? That would erase your voice from the conversation.
I wrote a post last week about Quibi, and I purposely made a bold statement about how innovative this new film platform is. The innovation is not just the short-form content (or chapters) that Quibi uses; it is creating an interaction between the form factor of the screen (the phone) with the content for the first time in cinema.
Many (most?) people disagree. Some even wrote to me privately to tell me why I was wrong. I love the engagement.
Am I sure that Quibi will succeed? Absolutely not. But I am glad they are trying something fresh, new, and innovative, and I certainly hope they will succeed because I love the bold approach. I’ve been watching chapters for the past two nights and it’s a slick user experience.
As investors, we need to be both right and contrarian to make a return for our LPs. We will often be wrong, too, because the path to success for any company is filled with so many near-death experiences along a very winding road. But we can’t be afraid to make an investment.
Similarly, we can’t be afraid to talk or write. I will be right sometimes. I will be wrong sometimes. What matters to me is the thinking and the engagement. And I prefer to have a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where I am rooting for success rather than failure.
Speak up. Claim your seat at the table. So what if you are wrong sometimes? We are all wrong sometimes. Shake it off and move on. I promise you that you are the only one who will remember that moment (even days later). Ultimately, your voice matters. Don’t erase yourself.