Maybe “Bottom-Feeder” Is The Wrong Term


Barnaby has been practicing his existential woe lately, culminating in occasional conversations about how he’s the worst person he knows and he’s growing up too fast – things that would normally be heartbreakers if I didn’t know him so well – if I didn’t know he was trying these mood on like spring sport coats. But one day, as we were walking, he tripped into a doozy.

“I’m not as good at stuff as other kids are,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not the best at anything. Everything I do, some other kid is better at it.”

“Yep, that’s true,” I said.

And while some kids need a longer answer than this, I know better than to say much more until pressed. He is the kind of kid that if you lean back and give him space, he’ll come to you. It’s so funny to see people trying to generate conversation with him, along the lines of “how was school” and stuff – if you make a goofy face at him and say, “I once ate eleven bananas”, he’ll be your friend forever.

But he pressed me. He kept saying “other kids have better writing, and other kids can read better, and other kids can run faster, I’m not the best at anything.” And I said, “that’s totally true, Barnaby. Almost always, for the rest of your life, someone is gonna be better at stuff than you are.” And he said, “Well, what am I best at?”

I said, “Look, you probably aren’t best at anything, but I can tell you that there are two things that are really great about you, two things that I’m just thrilled with. One is that you really love your sister and your friends and your family and your neighbors. Not every kid is like that, but you really deeply love the people in your life. I think that’s great.

“The other thing is that the stories you tell are different than the way people normally tell stories. If you ask most people, they’ll say, ‘a man walks into a grocery store and a bad guy is stealing money, so the man jumps up and stops the bad guy and saves everyone in the store.'”

He stared at me and said, “But that’s a good story.”

And I said, “Sure, it is. But everyone knows about a grocery store, and a bad guy, and money. That’s already there, just sitting there, like regular ideas that hang about all over the place. When I ask you to tell a story, you say, ‘in every hole, all over the world, there are little guys. Their bodies are made out of water and their skin is paper and the drink out of a hole in their belly button, and every day they run around and fly around on miniature dophins, and their job is to stitch together all the matter in the universe because they’re the ones who invented the big bang.

Barnaby had a giant smile on his face. That was one of his actual stories.

“It’s important to have people like you. It’s important to have stories like that, because those are the stories that are going to make people see the world in new ways, and new ways always lead to strange and new answers. And that’s important.”

So much of art is one step removed from the primary source. In the same way that most websites are just a collection of links, most art now is a collection of previously generated ideas. Pop culture, and the worship of it, has left us in a position where any piece of art that is *free* of reference leaves us feeling breathless and unfastened emotionally.

It’s worse in the hardcore professional world, where livelihoods are at stake and real money can be won or lost. But even in our world there are so many people who are aspiring to take an existing idea or format and turn it into the same success, only owned by this new person. I have turned down so many situations where someone said, “I think we can be as big as (some other person’s thing) if we only (do a thing that has nothing to do with making a piece of art)”, and I’ve never regretted it. I’m always proud of the people once they find the success that they’re looking for, but I’m also really happy to be stuck somewhere else, looking for the weird.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that there are a raft of new ideas out there. I know that all the stories that can be told have probably already been told. I also don’t want to produce a play written by a five year old – the budget along would kill me. But reinventing the wheel on your own time is a thrill, and each new reinvention might have an intrinsic improvement.

Mac wrote a play over ten years ago¬† where a man has to write a blessing for his best friend’s best friend’s wedding while another character is trying to help him with it by offering Shakespeare quotes and bible verses, and he keeps shooting them down as “cliches”. Finally she asks him what is wrong with cliches, and I don’t have the language in front of me, but he says that cliches just hang in the air like cobwebs. They aren’t thoughts or inspirations, they’re just things you walk into that stick to your face. It’s the same thing with aspirations – we can’t just look at the successful and think that their model is applicable to us, we have to allow for – even fight for – real innovation.

Barnaby doesn’t know he’s supposed to have good guys and bad guys, he doesn’t know that his stories have to have structure. He sets up circumstances and then asks you what you think will happen. I’m not saying it’s good, but I stand by what I told him – it’s different, it’s specific and it’s thrilling.