It’s VMS orientation time, and for the last couple years, during the orientation luncheon, all the grad students, faculty, and staff have been asked to give a tip for making the upcoming academic year a success.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my tip, because I’ve also been thinking a lot about inspiration. One of the things writers and scientists have in common is that most of us fail miserably on a daily basis. Stories don’t sell. Experiments go awry. Money runs out. How do we find something redeemable in constant disappointment?
(Yes, my brain’s been a bleak, gray landscape recently.)
My sister and I are aspiring filmmakers. We didn’t give ourselves this moniker; a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press did. But I like it. It’s hopeful. Until we actually wrap on a film, like we did just a few days ago, and I collapse into a weary heap and weep uncontrollably, at the most inopportune times (e.g. as I’m paying for gas at the truck stop, and the woman behind the counter quietly hands me a stack of napkins so I can wipe my face), for days and days. There’s nothing hopeful about puffy red eyes and snot dripping from your chin.
Filmmaking is not glamorous. It’s hours at a time standing in cold water, fighting with a kayak that won’t stop floating away and trying to capture a scene while dodging lightning strikes. It’s ugly and exhausting and frustrating (and occasionally life threatening). But then there’s this moment, in a dark cozy theater, when the story you painstakingly laid down on the page morphs into this living, resonant thing that flits across the screen...and people laugh, and then they clap, and then you’re elated for about two seconds before this hole rips across your heart. The weeping ensues because what if that’s it? What if you never tell another good story ever again? What if the next one fails? If you were Woody Allen, would you weep this much?
Aspiring to be a filmmaker is a little like aspiring to be a scientist. Science is ugly and exhausting and frustrating (and occasionally life threatening). It’s trying to study bacterial communication in the one bacterium - as it turns out - that doesn’t actually communicate. (This is what I did for two years of my life. I’m not a lucky person. Don’t ever take me to Vegas.) It’s an all-nighter in the lab for a growth-curve experiment and then sleeping through your alarm during log phase. It’s papers that get brutally rejected and projects that never get funded. But then it’s also that moment, in a dimly lit lab late at night, when you look into the microscope and learn something new about how the world works. Which is quickly followed by the horror of having to write about it.
In other words, it’s a whole lot of failure sprinkled with a whole little success.
This is why I’ve been thinking about inspiration. In the face of endless foundering, where do we find the motivation to push on? How do we engage it?
And so, of course, I turn to movies for insight. There’s this scene in one of my favorite indie films, Another Earth. As I remember it, a woman tells the story of a Russian cosmonaut who is launched into space in a tiny capsule to circle the globe for months and months. He’s trained, prepared, tough. He’s all good. Until one day when he hears an odd ticking sound. He checks all the dials, knobs, gauges. All systems are functioning properly.
But it continues, tick, tick, tick, for days. The cosmonaut rips apart the control panels, searches fruitlessly for the source of the ticking. He cocoons himself, sweaty, defeated, and then has his most brilliant idea.
If he’s ever to complete his mission without going insane, if he’s to be a hero, then he must fall in love with the ticking. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and lets the ticking fill him. And it stops. Or maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t hear it anymore. It’s no longer driving him crazy. It’s a part of him now, and he’s safe, free.
So that’s my tip for you: fall in love with the ticking. Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Use failure to inspire you to think more deeply, to be more creative. Weep and be scared. Lose your confidence for a bit. But then get excited for your next mighty flop.
Fall in love with the ticking! (I should really put this on a T-shirt. I’d make millions.)
And have a great semester.