By: Hugo Lindgren
NY Times, January 4, 2013
Here’s a partial, redacted-for-the-sake-of-my-dignity list of stuff I once aspired to write but never did: a “Mamma Mia!”-esque rock opera called “Bastards of Young,” based on the songs of the Replacements. A sitcom set in Brooklyn that inverts “I Love Lucy,” so that the wife plays the stable, amiable breadwinner while her lovable loon of a husband hatches ridiculous schemes, often involving the production of artisanal goods. A thriller about the ultimate rogue trader who concocts a single, diabolical transaction to blow up the financial system. An HBO show, called “Upstate,” about a burned-out corporate raider who returns to his hometown outside Buffalo to save his father’s failing liquor store and ends up trying to rescue the whole town from the double scourge of unemployment and alcoholism. Too depressing? How about this: A reality show in which retired hockey greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier compete against each other coaching teams of — ready for the deal clincher? — inner-city kids who’ve never been on ice skates.
If you had the time, believe me, I could flesh out these ideas for you, explain their origins, describe in fine detail my vision of the characters and plots and how it would all coalesce into something awesome.
Or not. For at least 25 years, I’ve been serial daydreaming like this, recording hundreds of ideas in a sequence of little notebooks that I have carried around and then stacked in a shoe box in my closet, a personal encyclopedia of undone to-do’s. Sometimes, when I’m searching for something in my closet and I see the box, I have a flashback to my first-grade report card: “Hugo has the gift of a rich, active imagination, but needs to work on his follow-through skills.”
My situation, I know, is not unique. Who doesn’t have big plans they never get around to acting on? Everybody swaps ideas with his friends about the excellent TV show they’d make or the groundbreaking movie they’d write. And a couple of my grand schemes got an inch or two off the ground — an agent lunch, a pitch meeting, a trip to L.A., a flurry of e-mail filled with exclamation points — though never much higher than that. And along the way, I also became editor of the magazine you are now reading, so it’s not as if I became mired exclusively in a world of delusional ambition. It’s just that for way too long, I held on to the fantasy of a completely different professional life, and I can’t help wondering why certain creative endeavors just seemed impossible to make happen.
I know, writers have been complaining for eons about the weight of their burden, and it’s not attractive. But I’ve been around it long enough to know that writing anything good that’s longer than a paragraph isn’t easy for anybody, except for maybe J. J. Abrams. You can’t explain how people do it. Some of the most successful screenwriters, novelists, television producers and rock-opera librettists I know are about a hundred times lazier than I am. They take long afternoon naps, play lots of pickup basketball and appear to accomplish little or nothing for months at a time. And let me tell you, their ideas do not all crackle with scintillating originality.
So what am I missing? What is that elusive thing that turns some people’s daydreams into their next novel for F.S.G.?
Earlier in my professional life, as I began to do all right as an editor, I naïvely discounted it as something I never intended to stick with. A respectable occupation, I thought, while preparing myself for the Masterwork of Spectacular Brilliance that would eventually define me.
One of my pet theories about why I could never actually produce anything of brilliance was that I was cursed with a comfortable existence. What might have been my creative prime was spent in New York City in the 1990s, a flush time for the young and college-educated. Magazine-editor jobs paid O.K. and were relatively easy to get, especially compared with now. Maybe I would’ve been better off in the 1970s, when a young person with ambitions like mine had to take a hard job as a means to his artistic ends. Would such sacrifice, I wondered, have sharpened my desire to make it as a writer?
All you have to do is read Mark Jacobson’s classic New York magazine depiction of cabdrivers in the 1970s to know that’s a joke. The story is about nighttime cabbies who aspired to be actors or poets or playwrights. Jacobson was one of them. His original plan was to drive three nights a week, write three nights a week and party one night a week. But as he watched his fellow drivers get sucked in to the working life, he realized how the daily grind slowly robbed them of their dreams.
“The Big Fear,” Jacobson writes, “is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible showcase, will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office ever since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after 20 years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.”
My big fear, of course, was that I was becoming an editor. I won’t lie. For a long time, I considered this an unacceptable outcome. I don’t know if anyone ever told me, “Those who can’t write, edit,” or if I made that up on my own, but that little aphorism haunted me. Meanwhile, my grandiose writing projects were all going nowhere for the same tedious reason. The minute I tried to commit them to paper, or otherwise turn them into something tangible, my imagination coughed and sputtered like the cheap Renault convertible my girlfriend drove in college. I’d write a bit of dialogue using that miraculous software that automatically formats it into a screenplay for you, and I’d be instantly paralyzed from the neck up. Here was incontrovertible evidence that I wasn’t half as good as I imagined myself to be. The voices I heard so clearly and powerfully in my head became inert and alien on the page. I was surprised by how mortally embarrassed you can be by writing something nobody else will ever read. Even looking back over those one- sentence descriptions of TV ideas in the first paragraph of this essay, I am humbled by how inadequately they convey the vividness they had as I conjured them. It’s like hearing a recording of my own voice. That can’t be how I sound. Oh, but it is.
I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”
Hugely successful people tend to say self-deprecating stuff like this when they go on “Charlie Rose.” But I heard something quite genuine in Lasseter’s remarks, an acknowledgment of just how deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.
I could never forge through this. My confidence always collapsed under the weight of my withering self-criticism. I couldn’t bear the awfulness and keep going. Even as I’m writing this essay, I have to stop myself from scrolling back to previous parts and banging my forehead against the keyboard as I see how short I’ve fallen of my expectations. My mind goes uncontrollably to whether it might be better to scrap the whole thing and write a different Riff — like, I’ve got a few stray ideas in my notebook here about the glassy office tower they’re building next door to where I live and how it obliterates what’s left of the spirit of Greenwich Village. Or about this ’80s band called Talk Talk that started out making bland pop hits like Duran Duran but then rejected fame and made a couple of crazy, weird, beautiful records until mysteriously vanishing. That Riff will practically write itself, I just know it.
A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers. As an editor, I can see that clearly. I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution. The more I experienced this frustration firsthand, the more I came to appreciate how naturally suited I am to the job I used to think I never wanted to have when I grew up. Magazines give me a healthy, satisfying amount of creative license, as well as a very defined responsibility. Journalism keeps my imagination from flying off into the ether. At the core of everything is reporting, a real event. And editing allows me to collaborate with people whose talents make up for my weaknesses, especially writers who don’t seize up at the sight of a blinking cursor.
At the same time, the protracted period of realizing all this has been necessary. Struggling with my own creative process has helped me appreciate the difficulties that others go through, while fighting to subdue my own self-criticism has left me open to the possibilities of fledgling ideas that look wobbly out of the gate. Daydreams, weirdly enough, have made me a better editor.
Plus, if I’d understood this all perfectly when I started out, embraced editing right from the beginning, I’d be ready to move on to something else now. Like maybe I’d open a civilized sports bar that served only bourbon and sold vintage Pendleton shirts —
But now I must contend with my editor for this story, who just stopped by my office to see when I’ll stop beating my head against the keyboard so he can get this to the copy desk. There’s no chance of backing out now. He insisted it wasn’t as dreadful as I feared, gave me good advice on how to end it, and also remarked that my reality-show idea is not bad, but does it have to be about hockey? Well, no, I said, suddenly diverted into fantasy land, the conceit could be broader, maybe about how to coach amateurs more generally, so that the competition changed season to season — badminton, bobsledding, roller derby, square dancing. Rock operas!
We had a laugh and then got back to work.