I’m fighting through a fog today; one of those insidious, creeping mists that slithers through your ears into your brain and blurs the connections between the synapses with shrouded fingers. Maybe it’s choosing to give the nervous system a day off from the habitual double espresso poured into a concoction of milk and caramel. Maybe it’s the gray sky choking out all the blue, and the persistent drizzle draping the morning in damp. Whatever the reason, my gaze turns inward and I find myself unsatisfied with what I’m looking at. I’m feeling like one of those old-timey salesmen drifting from town to town in a creaky covered wagon pushing miracle cures. Like a prettily painted canvas being eaten by moths on the other side. It’s the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two out, and I don’t have a bat. Yet that doesn’t stop me from telling you how everything should be, how you should do this and that and why these things should be more like these other things, and if we would all only do more of this the world would be so much better. The saying goes, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; I’m claiming in my arrogance that I know the value of everything, and I’m damn well gonna tell you about it.
I’m a preacher reading from a Bible of empty verse. And this morning we’ve hit a point of critical mass where the contradictions are crushing me, smelling like that unfortunately familiar odor of hypocrisy. Who the hell do I think I am, and where do I get off? I have no business telling you how to write a novel, I’ve never published one. I have no business telling you how to make a movie, I’ve never directed one. I have no business telling you how to run a country, I’ve never stood for office. Robert McKee, the well-known screenwriting teacher who has never had a screenplay produced, is fond of remarking that the world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do, but I find it difficult to stand comfortably in those ranks. I’m much more inclined towards the ones who merely prove they can do the work without crowing about it or trying to pass the divine secret onto a host of others. People who lead by example and not by lecture. Because when you stand up to the microphone and start your diatribe, there is every possibility that someone in the audience is going to yell back, “Fraud!” – and be bang on.
There are as many opinions as there are stars in the universe, and the democratization of media through blogs and the Internet has ensured that every single one will have its day, regardless of weight, validity or even coherence. The op-ed, once the realm of what might loosely be termed “learned elders,” is now ubiquitous and available to all comers. The result? A veritable cacophony of voices in self-constructed pulpits telling you how things should be, how you’re living your life wrong, that if only these ten specific events would occur then all would be milk and honey, and you’re all idiots for not doing exactly what I say you should have started doing fifteen years ago. It is not even to suggest that such opinions are always offered from a place of malice or spite – in fact, a great majority are genuine and selfless offers of help. But there is a line when we cross over from teacher to preacher. It’s porous, foggy, and easy to miss, and I’m worried that too much of my work falls on the wrong side of the DMZ. And that my pulpit is a balsa wood facade, and it’s crumbling under the weight of empty words.
In the 1970’s, after the split-up of the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song called “How Do You Sleep?”, which was a thinly-veiled attack on Paul McCartney, featuring such accusatory lyrics as “the only thing you done was ‘Yesterday'” and “those freaks was right when they said you was dead.” At the time it was thought to be in response to some like-minded sentiments found in Paul’s solo work directed at his former bandmate. Yet in years following, Lennon had a change of heart as to who his song was really about. He offered:
It’s not about Paul, it’s about me. I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association, well, what’s to regret? He lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about these things and not what the writer or commentator thinks about it. Him and me are okay.
I found the first part of the mea culpa intriguing, particularly as dovetailed with one’s perception of John as a contradictory man full of anger who preached peace. Beatle-weary wags might suggest that it was a half-hearted chickening out in the face of bad press, that if you watch the profanity-laced performance of the song in the movie Imagine you can see for yourself how pissed at Paul John really was. As I’ve often been reminded, however, the criticisms that sting the most are those we know are about genuine failings within ourselves. Perhaps John took Paul’s songs personally because he knew on some level that Paul was correct. And that the wrath flung back towards the man he once stood beside on stage and in the studio was indeed meant to be directed inward. “You must have learned something in all those years.”
When we’re preaching, ultimately it’s for a congregation of one. The only person we’re trying to convince, cajole, persuade, motivate, shake out of their complacency or even knock off their immaculate marble Doric-columned pedestal is ourselves. Even the most rage-filled screed against the unfair world is us picking away at our own flaws, burning off the fat, tearing away veneers of falsehood to get at the kernels of truth hiding in the innermost layers of our soul. So we can be okay with occasionally having no real ground to stand on; we don’t have to feel like complete phonies. Posting about how a story should or shouldn’t be written is my own inner Robert McKee giving myself a stern lecture, because I’m the person who needs to work harder at his craft. Musing about how the world should operate is a challenge to myself to do something about it instead of just voting and complaining. If someone else happens to agree, wonderful – but I’m the one who is meant to benefit, if, naturally, I choose to get off my duff and take my own advice. I can be okay with sermonizing from time to time because I can shoulder the responsibility of calling myself out if I think I’m full of it. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, or a fraud – just a soldier in the cause of trying to figure out the big mystery with the limited tools at my disposal. As expected, mistakes are inevitable and necessary, but hell, man, every stumble is still forward motion. The exercise is a lifelong endeavor that ends only when the lungs breathe their last.
So shine on, crazy preacher man. Those freaks was right about you.