Form Fatigue

David Iscoe weekly newsletter, #9

For about a year, I’ve wanted to write a TV show that’s a “pre-apocalyptic melodrama,” filmed in a post-apocalyptic world in which there’s some residual memory of television, but nobody remembers exactly how TV shows worked or what life was like before whatever catastrophic event changed things. They need to recreate things like the sky and the sun with painted wood and tin and generator-powered floodlights, for example, and things as simple as text messages, fresh fruit, and dogs that don’t eat people are treated as the markers of luxury. We’d get glimpses of the post-apocalyptic reality through pre-show and post-show notices, since people in that world aren’t acclimated to fictional television and need a little bit of a warm-up and cool-down to understand it.

It’s a tough show to wrap my head around, and I don’t have the skills or experience to write it right now the way I want to. I’m not sure it works as a full TV show. But it’s interesting for me for two reasons.

First, I think our times are a lot more interesting than post-apocalyptic hellscapes, and so I like the idea that all they’ll want to do after some apocalypse is escape into the rich, vibrant world of the before-times.[1] I haven’t really watched any zombie movies or TV shows, but based on the previews they seem really interested on the how of survival, and not so much on the why. I’d rather yada-yada past most of the running and violence, which you understand pretty well after a couple iterations, and spend more time looking into the culture, the cuisines and religions and stories and entertainment, that people might find to keep themselves going.[2] And I think TV is a pretty interesting, popular storytelling form that people would yearn for in difficult times if anyone could make it happen.

The other reason I’m into it is that it would be really fun to rebuild the storytelling language of the show itself. Inventing a world in which people didn’t know how to tell stories would be an excuse to treat structure as a live, open question. One thing I’ve bumped my head against in comedy, education, and life in general is the idea that the formula to success has already been discovered, all that’s left is to apply it, and any other approach is foolishness or obstinacy.

I tune out when things are taught that way. My friend James Somers wrote an article once about his attempts to learn programming in which he quoted a book by someone named Paul Lockhart called the Mathematician’s Lament[3], and this was the quote that really stuck with me

Students are asked to memorize this formula and then "apply" it over and over in the "exercises." Gone is the thrill, the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore. The question has been asked and answered at the same time -- there is nothing left for the student to do.

This is how I’ve felt for my whole conscious life in certain settings, from elementary school math classes to UCB[4] improv classes to the general status-seeking patterns of my social class. I’ve done most of the creative work that I’ve really cared about as “rogue” stuff on time I’ve carved out for myself from whatever I’ve supposed to have been doing instead, because I don’t trust structured environments to let me solve the problems I’m interested in.[5]

I get that this anti-structure attitude is tiresome, impractical, and overrepresented in creative communities, that people are tired of having people ignore proven methods of success, and tired of seeing “unconventional” work that doesn’t deliver on fundamentals or that doubles down on other conventions (like the type of people being represented). I get that most people who are invested in my life or want me to succeed in my career are generally frustrated that I haven’t applied simple formulas to success that are apparent to them and available to me, and conversely I get that people who do apply these formulas, for valid and practical reasons, to do great things might be resentful of my attitude because it can be used to invalidate success that was meaningful and hard-earned for them. I also get that I’m very conventional and uncreative in a lot of ways, and that these seem like the things only consummate creatives could say with any authority. I respect the role of conventions in helping people live and helping the world run, I understand how stabilizing and answering a few questions can open the door to explore others.

I am aware of the way things are done. It is not new information to me at this point, no matter how pointedly reiterated.

But how I feel is how I feel.

I think what frustrates me is when useful conventions, proven ways to produce proven results, are elevated to universal imperatives, erasing the choice. One notion that I’ve heard a lot is that you have to learn something and prove your competency at it the conventional way before you can do it your way. That’s fair if you’re interested in expanding on and developing the conventional form. But, like, a lot of punk musicians were able to play music before learning classical music, and what they made was good and interesting. Before The Way became The Way, it was just a way, and from that earlier point other ways are possible that do not go through The Way, and maybe they deliver things The Way does not.

It feels weird when the “One True Way” attitude is applied to things as silly and new as improvisational comedy. There are lot of fundamentals to good improvised comedy–creativity in the moment, building immersion, and creating realistic characters–and some time not so long ago a few influential teachers found a way to reliably deliver on these fundamentals through a set of rules and a few conventions. I think developing these rules and conventions must have been a fun, creatively rewarding experience, and getting a large group to practice and iterate on them probably did a whole lot to expand the form.

But that doesn’t mean everyone else trying to discover those same basic fundamentals has to take the same route, even if it’s by now more reliable (partly by virtue of being well-trod). By the time I was watching improv, the form known asThe Harold” practiced at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theat“re” seemed pretty stifling. I remember watching scenes that would start out funny and immersive, and then feeling a shift as they got translated into formulas that I could solve from my seat, at which point I felt “why watch?” Still, I took several classes, at great expense, because I thought improv itself was interesting and that being involved in the biggest game in town would be useful to my comedy career. I made some good connections, but eventually it ran its course. Part of me was always bored and checked-out and I never really became that good at improv, and never even started with the sketch system.[6] I also chafed against the social and career structure at the time, which seemed like a macrocosm of the approach to comedy, a series of steps everyone was supposed to take to go through the progression of a career.

For a while I got really addicted to the stimulus of banging my head against these walls, because getting your ire up is easy and engaging. My co-worker Antonio once said he thought of Twitter as “a machine for making [him] angry,” and even though I was in a better place with Twitter at the time I’ve lapsed into that kind of relationship with it these days. I was treating the UCB a lot like that at the time, and my anti-formula feeling got tiresome and repetitive, just like the formulas themselves.

What’s harder than being anti-convention is figuring out what it is you really want to deliver, and how to do it, conventionally or otherwise. In the math example, the student isn’t just practicing creativity willy-nilly, but trying to find an answer to a problem. So what type of answer am I looking for in my work?

  • One fundamental I’m really going for is lasting impact, where a piece of creative work sticks with you and you think about it years later, even use it as a shorthand for other problems. “This is like in ____, when ____.” (In the footnotes to this update you’ll seem some works that made an impact on my thinking, and became things I think of when I’m thinking about various areas of life). It’s really interesting to me how many pieces of media I consume are “pass-through,” stimulating for a minute but not memorable, or things that rattle around in my head but don’t really mean anything. I’d like to get away from those, but a lot of our most successful media machines thrive on them.

  • Another is straight up surprising belly laughs. These things come and go, but damn they add to life.

  • I’m fascinated by the message that structure itself sends, which is why some of my favorite writers are Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, who iterate on the structure of stories in really interesting ways.

  • Truth is good obviously.

Anyway, long story short (something I’m not very practiced at yet), I’m going to try and practice on how to deliver these things successfully, across various forms (this newsletter is not currently an example of that practice - Friday is basically a modified form of journaling, Monday is freeform comedy, and the subscriber stuff in between is a hodgepodge).

Here are some other ways I’m still thinking about the ideas I’m bouncing around in a loose format here.

  • SOCIALLY and ECONOMICALLY, I’m trying to get both less defensive and less apologetic about basically being a career nomad and consummate generalist and amateur. This personality style isn’t optimally aligned with markets and cultures that reward specialization and staying in one place, but I don’t need to treat the existence of people who are aligned that way as a threat to my own, and in fact their stability sometimes help create the spaces where I like to be.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about is how stability-seeking members of society with conventional lifestyles are being forced into change (by forces bigger and more powerful than weirdos) at the same time that less conventional people are being pressured to conform to past conventions (that time is always, and people always start out less conventional).

    A few years ago I went to a talk by Mohsin Hamid about his book Exit West, where he pointed out that just as immigrants had to adjust to new experiences and cultures, people living in their homelands were also immigrating in a way, because their home was changing around them. I think about that all the time when I think about various forms of conservation and preservation, and how sometimes you need to move to stay in the same place.

    Anyway, with so much change going on, I think more people will need to move and adapt, and translational and liminal people will have some value helping them navigate these moves. Of course, I’m on both sides, conventional in some ways and non-conventional in others, of that whole deal, so I’m hoping there’s a healthy relationship between conventionality and experimentation, which includes looking at the ways I’m being a cop and cutting that shit out.

  • POLITICALLY, I’m advocating for systems where individuals don’t have to stay in one place and role to survive, both because that way of doing things is tough for me and because it’s not really an option for most people. It’s a really interesting point in time, where some degree of democratic socialism is necessary to create the individual flexibility that capitalism prided itself on. It was really easy to see how Soviet-style communism was stifling and prescriptive, but a lot of people (not including Karl Marx) didn’t see how capitalism was prescriptive in its own ways. I think people see now that we’re in a bad way with things like inequality and environmental destruction, and that capitalism, by nudging and pushing and shoving people to answer the same questions of profit again and again while leaving other problems unattended, can constrain our innovative flexibility. Looks like I’m as far left as Francis Fukuyama on this one.

    With regards to the current moment, I’m thinking a lot about what conventions are useful to revive and restore, and also what things might have worked in the past can’t be reset so easily. We cannot create the stability of the past without moving a whole lot to lessen inequality and address climate change. If centrists want to feel the comfort they’re used to again, they’ll have to move a lot to restore the conditions that made it make sense (to a democratic left, hopefully, though some look like they’re exploring fascist terror as an option).

  • INTERNALLY, I’m trying to keep certain stabilizing questions going (“what is your purpose here,” “what is interesting to you?” “what would you want a person to do in this situation?” “what are your immediate practical needs?”) to center my focus while I try to think of different ways to solve them. I’m also trying to remember my conclusions and experience, so I can see when I’m going down a path I’ve been before, especially if it didn’t work out.

  • AS FAR AS ALL THAT NOISE, yeah, I’m not necessarily trying to hear people clamoring on about things I’m not trying to be into, but I’m also trying to let more noise pass through me.

Anyway, I.G.I.A.F.F., and folks, it ain’t that serious for me, I think a lot about this shit and I need to carve out space sometimes but I’m still the clown on the town when it’s just time for it, ya know?

[1] Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson is another example of this kind of view of a future from which the past is important. I’m not sure the book overall really coalesced like some of his other work, but the notion of of culture, light, and self-actualization even in bleak times stuck with me for a long time.

[2] Deadwood is an example of the kind of story I really like, because, although there’s a background of looming violence, the show is mainly about the need for community and trust even when it’s uneasy and fragile. It’s sad and beautiful how that community reaches its peak so briefly, in between a primitive nihilistic beginning and a predatory capitalist end. (That said, the theatre storyline was probably my least favorite in the whole show, so it doesn’t necessarily support my narrow focus on the art forms of the future).

[3] I cannot vouch for this book at all. Maybe it’s terrible overall and this guy is a hack everybody’s tired of, maybe it’s actually great, I just liked that quote.

[4] “UCB,” when I was growing up, was the most popular go-go band in D.C., and up until my junior year of college that was the only UCB I’d ever heard of. They’re called the Uncalled 4 Band for long, and I apologize to them that I’ve started using their short name for something else, but the system has changed me. Still should be the only UCB I recognize.

[5] I did usually feel creatively satisfied in the Onion organization, even though it’s highly structured in a lot of ways, and part of it might have been that my career there was mostly in video where people were still feeling their way around new forms. I also think I was lucky to work under creative leads who were never dogmatic about process and brainstorming, and were trying to push people to get less rigid at the time.

[6] Of course, that theater also produced some really great stuff from a lot of people more creative than I am, who just happened to be better suited to the program or better able to ignore the fog on their way through it. My creative discipline isn’t as strong as some people’s, which is part of why I have to ignore “noisy” environments. The noise does bounce around my head and I can end up repeating that babble. I can identify a whole bunch of points of my life when I entered a place with some semblance of discovery and a clear point of view, and later found myself going through the motions producing ideas that I thought were boring. People who are less conventional or less prone to absorbing conventions can sometimes navigate these environments better than I can, because they don’t even have nerves that care, whereas parts of my nervous system do care and can make the rest of it miserable.


WORKS PUBLISHED THIS WEEK - PLUS A SHOW TO SEE

  • I just released the new episode of my podcast, featuring David Guzman, and the topic he chose to read jokes about was “Lawns.” Guzman is a really funny guy and one of the least pretentious and kindest people I know in the comedy world, though I think I probably know more pretentious assholes than the average person does. Just so happens you can catch Guzman’s UCB sketch (“Maude”) team doing a compilation of their best material from the recent season on Monday in the UCB Theatre, but don’t ask me where it’s located because then you won’t want to go.

  • That’s all, but gonna dump some unpublished stuff for the subscribers in a “Friday ‘News’ Dump” in which the “news,” (new things without new homes) are dumped on Friday. FYI, anything published outside a “‘News’ Dump” is original to this newsletter and you won’t get it elsewhere.

  • Oh right, this isn’t “a work,” but I did discover that Richard Spencer is cosplaying a Seinfeld character.


A GOOD THING AT THE LIBRARY

I saw a great compilation of Brooklyn archival footage at the Central Library on Wednesday, with old NY state tourism videos, a documentary on the excavation of Weeksville, a “video tour” of 1980s Brooklyn, a wordless documentary on the West Indian Day Parade in 1985, and a freeform short art video on Coney Island. Want to go to more of those types of events, because the library has good ones. Also, it’s a great place to hang out and work, and is the place I am most often at outside my apartment, so come on down if you’re in the area.


A GOOD FORM

I think a lot about types of arcs I like and don’t like, and what their underling message is and I meant to write a lot more about them. I think I don’t fundamentally believe the Hollywood story arc, which is part of why I’ve never been into writing a movie. There are memorable images and scenes from movies I take with me, but usually you can miss me with the story writ large (that said there are a lot of creative directors who buck the trend, I just think I have better taste in TV than in movies so the form is easier for me to get behind). I don’t really see life and think “this is like the movies,” but it’s pretty often I think “this motherfucker thinks he’s in a goddamn movie.”

But one form that has always rung true to me is the Flannery O’Connor short story, which feels to me that a character has their whole worldview shattered and moves from a place of oblivious ignorance to a place of pained confusion. I love that they don’t really learn anything, because I think thinking you’ve learned something is a-cruisin’ for a bruisin’. I talk about stuff I learned all the time, but see what I mean, people really don’t learn shit.


BUT HOW AM I DOING, YOU ASK?

Last week’s letter was “kind of a downer,” but that’s the way it goes sometimes, and in general checking in every week is a lot to do in public, and sometimes I don’t know why I signed up for it or why any of y’all signed up for it (glad to have you here for as long as it works out for you though), and I’m not talking about everything about my life all the time and you shouldn’t expect me to.

But this week was pretty good. Had some good teaching moments, got some things written, got out to the gym a couple times, had good thoughts, rested, didn’t get bogged down too much in distractions (no video games), and I actually feel pretty good about it being Friday. Also, even when shit isn’t all that rosy for the moment, life is a rich tapestry (show me a cheap tapestry and I’ll show you something that’s either machine-woven or woven with warp threads exposed, that or you know more about tapestries and where to get cheap ones than I do) (credit to The Toast for…originating? popularizing? the saying) so like, you know, ain’t the end of the world.

Still need more creative success/money/better political representation/a planet that’s habitable/not to be trapped in the human condition, but who doesn’t?

end