From Suck To Not Suck
In 1995, Pixar released Toy Story, the first feature film animated entirely on a computer. Since, Pixar has produced hit after hit: A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Inside out, Monsters, Inc., and on and on. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull writes in Creativity, Inc., “Early on, all of our movies suck…I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are.” Catmull repeats, “Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’” He says, “This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp.” And so this week, we will try to grasp the idea that all great things suck for a long time before they get good.
The Consistency of the Work
When Kobe Bryant was 12, he played a 25-game basketball season without scoring a single point. “I was terrible,” he said. “Awful.” Not a single point. Not a free throw, not a lucky bounce, not a breakaway layup—not a single point. When asked about that season, Kobe said it taught him to take the long view. “I wasn’t the most athletic,” he said. “I had to look long term. I had to say, ‘Ok, this year I’m going to get better at this. Next year, that.’ And so forth and so on. And patiently, I got better.” Patiently, he repeats. “It was piece by piece. It was the consistency of the work. The consistency of the work: Monday, get better. Tuesday, get better. Wednesday, get better. You do that over a period of time—three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten *years—*you get to where you want to go.” “It’s simple,” he said. “It’s simple math.”
The Seeds of The Grapes of Wrath
In August of 1936, **John Steinbeck was approached by the chief editor from the San Francisco News. News wanted Steinbeck to report on the mass migration of poor farm people to California. Steinbeck bought an old bakery truck—the “pie wagon,” he called it—filled it with blankets, food, and cooking equipment, then drove down to the San Joaquin Valley. The migrant farmers lived in camps provided by the government. Steinbeck stopped at several camps. The poverty and the filth of these camps was shocking. A man, his wife, and their children slept together under dirty old carpets. Children wore coarse hemp sacks for clothing. From malnutrition, people’s reactions were slow. Instead of making eye contact, Steinbeck wrote, “eyes have the glazed, faraway look of a sleepwalker’s eyes.” Steinbeck was appalled. He decided he would write a “big book” on the migrants’ problems. After a second month-long trip in the camps, in late 1937, Steinbeck began writing the big book. The working title was “The Oklahomans,” and its focus was on the irrepressible character of the migrants. But in late January or early February of 1938, Steinbeck destroyed the manuscript because it sucked. Next, instead of a book about the migrants, he considered a book about those doing injustices to the migrants. In February of 1938, he began writing “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” about a wealthy family that owned a lettuce farm and exploited migrant farmers. Three months later, Steinbeck showed a 60,000-word draft of “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” to his wife Carol. Carol thought it was terrible. So Steinbeck burned the manuscript of “L’Affaire Lettuceberg.” In a letter to his publisher, Steinbeck wrote, “this book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed.” In May of 1938, Steinbeck returned to focusing on the migrants but this time, on one family in particular. And in six months, Steinbeck finished a 200,000-word novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the Joad’s, a family of tenant farmers forced to migrate from Oklahoma’s dying Dust Bowl to California’s corrupt Promised Land. In 1939, the year of its release, The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book in the world. In 1940, it won the National Book Award then the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. To date, it has sold more than 14 million copies. It’s often referred to as “The Great American Novel.”
It took two years of sucking to “clear the air so completely for this book,” Steinbeck said.
The Most Serious Booking Error Ever
In the mid sixties, Steve Martin read in a book about comedy that this is the formula for getting a laugh: build tension then release it with the punchline. Martin began to not only notice that all comedians use that formula but also that some comedians used vocal tics and tricks and belly slaps and hand gestures to essentially say: this is the punchline, laugh. So Martin decided to try what no other comedian would dare try: he got rid of punchlines. He built tension, but he didn’t release it. “Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime,” Martin writes in Born Standing Up. “But if I kept denying them the formality of a punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.” And theoretically, a person’s laugh is stronger, realer, when they choose to laugh than when they’re told to laugh. “At least that was the theory,” Martin writes. Martin took his theory to the stage. Reviews came in. “This so-called ‘comedian’ should be told that jokes are supposed to have punchlines,” one said. Another called his act, “The most serious booking error in the history of Los Angeles music.” A few years later: “[Martin’s] twenty-five minute routine failed to establish any comic identity that would make the audience remember him or the material.” In the early seventies, a friend saw Martin perform and called it: “anti-comedy.” In 1975, an angry audience member said to his girlfriend loud enough for Martin and everyone else to hear, “I don’t understand any of this.” A month after he released his first album, Let’s Get Small, in 1977, David Felton published a piece in Rolling Stone. “This isn’t comedy,” Felton wrote, but hang on, “it’s campfire recreation for the bent at heart…[Martin has] this higher insight. He breaks down barriers. He allows us to see the comedian in all of us.” Let’s Get Small went on to sell a million and a half copies. In 1978, Martin’s second album, A Wild and Crazy Guy, sold two and a half million copies. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Newsweek. He sold out a fifteen thousand seat venue in Toronto, then twenty-two thousand in St. Louis, twenty-nine thousand in Chicago, and forty-five thousand in New York.
After a decade of sucking, Martin writes, “I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever.”
You Gotta Start With Shit
The great screenwriter, director, and novelist Peter Farrelly was asked if he gets writer’s block. “No,” he said, “my natural state is writer’s block. Every day, I sit down and go, ‘f*ck, I got nothing.’ But I always say, ‘I’d rather write shit than nothing.’ Because with shit, you got something to work with. You make it less shitty and then not horrible and then decent and then pretty good and then good and then very good and then excellent. But you gotta start with shit.” Everyone does. “When you read a book or a screenplay and you think, ‘Wow, I could never do this.’ Well don’t forget: that person didn’t start with that. They started with shit—that they fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed and fixed…until it’s decent.”
Dare To Suck
Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You was the first song to hit 2 billion streams on Spotify. Now at more than 3.3 billion streams, it is still the most streamed song on Spotify. After he wrote Shape of You, Sheeran said, “I thought it was a shitty song. I went home and was like, ‘aw man, I can’t write songs.’” And so now, “whenever someone asks me for my best bit of advice,” Sheeran said, “I say, ‘dare to suck.’” Closing the circle, Catmull credits Pixar’s success to this: “we dare to attempt.” Dare to attempt writing something that sucks. Dare to be terrible. Dare to start with shit. Dare to go from suck to not suck.