On Sucking

If you are an artist of any consequence, you too will suck one day.

Before I begin work on any creative or semi-creative project, first I have to extinguish the unquenchable fear that this is the one. The one that will suck. I mean, I’m sure I’ve created a lot of sucky things in my create-ey lifetime, but that’s never the goal (for most people). If I’m directing something, I don’t wake up in the morning and think “today’s the day, the day my work will just suck.”

But it happens.

But before I get into why it happens, let’s dispense with some of the execution-related errors that don’t really fall into sucking, per se, but may lead to suckiness nonetheless:

  • Lack of experience – of course lack of experience is a great cause of suckitude, but one can’t be blamed for putting one’s self out there in the cause of learning. In order to learn, most people will inevitably create some sub-par or wholly derivative work. It’s part of the process of getting good at something for most of us. After we’ve all got some projects under our belts, we inevitably look back at what we did when we were first starting out and say “MAN did that suck!” And it did when compared to the competent work of a journeyman, but not when compared to others at the beginning of their learning process.
  • Lack of resources – Sometimes we’re all forced to work under less-than-ideal circumstances. Budgets are low. Schedules are short. Materials are scarce. It’s like running uphill with lead weights around your ankles, tethered to a pack of wolves trying to run downhill at the same time. You may not want to put your name on your work at these times, but unless you created the scarcity itself, it’s not 100% you who sucked. A sucky dearth of resources is partially the author of the sucktasticness.
  • Creative differences – Let’s say you’re creating something for someone else, a contract job, and at some point in the process you both realize that your agendas are significantly different. Now the creative process has broken down, and the product will now be defined by the compromises that were made by each party in its making. In other words, it may suck (although often these circumstances result in amazing work, and I have no idea why).

What, then, is Sucking?

As I understand it, the pejorative use of the word “suck” comes from the farming term “sucks hind teat.” The hind teat on an animal, so the legend goes, has the least amount of milk in it and the calf that sucks it is destined to be smaller and weaker than its front-teat-sucking brethren. So the idea of “sucking” is that whatever the thing that “sucks” is, it’s getting less awesomeness-juice than it needs to reach full decent-ness.

With that in mind, I’m going to define sucking, in the creative context, as this:

Going out on a limb, creatively, and spectacularly, absurdly, or comically failing to achieve one’s goal.

Now it’s hard to argue that some people just suck. They suck every time. You see a new work from them, have to fight your instinct to look away. Some of them are huge successes in their respective fields (feel free to respond to the post with your personal favorites, I will not name names), or at least they seem to have achieved what many others cannot. They have created a body of work that must be brining someone happiness or money, some release of pain or feelings of pleasure or… I don’t know. What I do know is what we all know when we see their films or TV shows or novels or plays or paintings or whatever. We just know they suck. Often (but not always) this is a self-editing group – after all it’s hard for one to suck for a great length of time without the world catching on and ceasing to pay you for your sucky services.

Creative Overreach is Necessary

And then there’s everyone else, the larger group of creatives who work diligently to NOT suck, but to create interesting works which push boundaries or feel fresh. And from time to time, they end up sucking. And when they do, nobody is more sad about it than us, their fans. We would prefer to think of their sucky turns behind the creative wheel as fallow periods, but the truth is that they overreached. They needed to overreach in order to bring their work to a new level, and because art is irrevocably tied to commerce in our world we — their fans — became the unwitting witnesses to their creative game of trial-and-error.

A question I cannot answer: When that happens, do our favorite artists know that they sucked? It’s impossible to tell, as so much money and effort is tied into a final product by the time it reaches the market everyone behind it needs to cheerlead it to any plausible profitability. Sometimes filmmakers will circle back around to discuss their failures with journalists years after they begged us to shell out lots of money to see them, but I’ve noticed that profitable films are rarely if ever disowned by their creators, just the flops.

As the saying goes, “success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.”

But if it results in sucky work, what is the value of the overreach? The answer is obvious – artists push boundaries. First and foremost they are here to communicate, often showing us ideas we’ve never seen before. They are intellectual and emotional pioneers. And sometimes, when they cross into new territory, it sucks. And by the time they’ve reached the forbidden zone, it’s too late to go back to the drawing board and tell everyone who gave them money to do what they do that it’s a giant mistake – they have to forge onward and upward into the capital of downtown Sucktown, hoping all along that a portal can be found on the outskirts that leads back to relevancy. And sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

A Personal Story of Sucking

(and I have many, but this one has a satisfying ending)

I often direct theater, even short pieces. Mostly I work at the Sacred Fools Theater, where they do a loud, lude, gory, sexy, awesome late-night show called “Serial Killers.” Each week separate teams produce five serialized works, and the audience votes three of them back. For me it’s some of the best directing experience I can get – short-term commitment, great talent, dedicated (and forgiving) audience. One week I directed a piece for Serial Killers that was as uphill a struggle as I’d ever had – it was difficult to find actors for the various roles, there was interactive video I had to shoot, edit, and author, and nothing seemed to gel. In the end we got an amazing cast, the video went off without a hitch, and everything came together as it was supposed to and yet I could feel the audience pulling away immediately. I could feel it bombing – every joke landed with a thud, every moment felt labored despite the talent of the people on the stage and the writer. The audience simply wasn’t having it. Did I blame myself? Yes, I did.

Despite all of our efforts (which weren’t insubstantial), we’d sucked.

And I was sitting in the audience next to an actor friend of mine, someone I’d worked with before several times and who knew that every one of us had done better-received work on that stage. He looked at me with the sympathy of  a veterinarian telling a five-year-old that his hamster isn’t going to make it and he said three words that really connected with me:

“It builds character.”

And I’d like to think that it did, but there’s one lesson I didn’t want to take from it – I didn’t want to become afraid to try new things. I didn’t want to  become precious. If anything, I chose to let this experience desensitize me to the feeling of sucking, because it’s inevitable. This isn’t a happy-happy “teachable moment” kind of thing so much as it is a declaration of what it will be like in these moments that creatives cannot and should not avoid.

Yes, we should all avoid sucking, but it’s better than being precious or boring or safe (all subsets of sucking in their own right). And no matter what your intentions, your experience or knowledge —  if you’re any good and work hard enough, prepare for it.

Your day is coming.


6 comments on “On Sucking

  1. Oh, very pertinent blog. I just had an experience of sucktitude a week ago Thursday. Actually, I’ve been stinking up the joint since 2009. But to the point, Thursday was the screening of a new short film I made to document the talents of the lead actress, so others could see how awesome she is.

    Alas, in assembling the digital file for projection they cut off the first line or two. Then the audio was inaudible and indecipherable. Could’ve been my file or the projection.

    No one laughed. At all. It was funny because no one found any of it funny. And painful because it was meant to be a comedy.

    Afterwards, people dare not make eye contact less that sucktitude transfer to their soul.

    (The kindest thing to ask is “What were you going for?” Sometimes a simple edit can change the whole things around. Or not. But ignoring that someone just bombed is unkind. Of course I wanted to know what the f-k happened! No one sets out to stink, except for the jerks that do, but they’ve quit before even starting.)

    Thankfully I got feedback, and it was helpful: they couldn’t hear anything. They didn’t know what it was about. Which is why film as visual medium is important. Alas, this was a dialogue driven piece.

    I’ve been sucking up screenings because I’m trying to get somewhere, a place I don’t know yet. Being excessive teaches you the practical limits of an audience. You can always pull back in later work. As much as folks try to create a safe space for experimentation, it’s hard to keep that smile when it’s too far gone, or not developed enough. Or inaudible.

    Sure, folks will drop off like flies if they think you suck or you lost “it.”
    Those folks don’t matter, as much as you may like them.
    Everyone wants to be a rebel, but they don’t want to be outside or ostracized.
    Or affiliated with sucking. History is written by winners, meaning, survivors. You’ll survive. You “forget” you ever made the film.

    There’s a long view, which thankfully digital has allowed to take hold. You will make more films. They will get better. You are not saddled 5 years fundraising and mucking about to see if it can fly.

    In my case, I assessed the damage as such:
    I could re-edit. Or not. It’s far too vulgar to freely post, as first graders tell me they’ve seen my movies and that freaks me out.

    If time permits, I may cut it down from 5 to 2 minutes. But the next film is far more important. In all, it was a detour. Two months from script to screening. Ten more in a year to make something better.

    I wanted to do this kind of film for a looong time, had my chance, took it, and well, better to regret doing than regret not doing. I don’t need to do it again, and sorted out two things from this short that are really valuable to the next longer form work.

    (Oh yeah, get feedback along the way to tangible goods: Script. 2nd edit. 3rd Edit. Soundmix. At least you’ll have a feel for what you’re getting into, and how much to invest of yourself. Hopefully, it’s all of you if it’s a deeply personal work.

    That’s the true lesson of the experience: Was the film worth dying over?

    The one-offs and “gotta participate” films aren’t as well received as the more deeply felt work. Deeply felt work is harder, and takes more time. Those tend not to bomb as badly, and look good on the filmmography. But if they die with today’s audience, surely tomorrow’s may give it new life. But only if it’s of you, through and through. That’s the hard work, and benefit of dying.

    Good night, Ben. I think my comment outworded your blog.

    • There was another moment of profound suckiness that I almost included in the blog, except in retrospect I think it falls into the non-suck category of “lack of experience.” I was in eighth grade and, trying to please my father, I’d joined the band. I played trumpet. Further trying to make my dad happy, I signed up for Jazz Band, an extracurricular activity wherein a few of us got together and “jammed” with our band leader.

      So in one of our rehearsals, I had to perform an improvised solo. Basically, I had to play around with the melody of the song, stay in the right key, and all off the top of my head with zero preparation. Musicians do this all the time, but I never had.

      So we’re playing some bluesy song and my big turn comes up for my solo and I just had… Nothing. I choked. I beyond choked. I sat there, listening to the drummer, the bassist (a very talented guy named Paul who sometimes reads this blog), and whatever other backup musicians we had play the bass line and backup for the song as I sat there paralyzed. I just didn’t get it and frankly to this day I don’t get it. In my paralysis I remember thinking about how awesome the band sounded, how it sounded like the real deal, except there was no melody.

      Shortly thereafter I moved to another school and our band leader was an uptight military-type who didn’t dabble the Satan’s music (jazz), so I was never forced to revisit that moment – which to me was about the loneliest moment I’d ever experienced. I don’t know if any moment in my life has felt that empty since.

      (I know this isn’t really related, but it’s funny to me anyway)
      A year or so after the move, I gathered up all the courage I had, walked into my father’s home office, and told him I wanted to quit the band. I fully expected him to disown me or rail into me about how I was going to get drafted into the military and that being in the band is the best way to stay out of combat. I expected him to make me listen to hours of incomprehensible beebop jazz noodling until I finally understood the meaning of all the crappy jazz I’d heard all my life.

      But he just said, “oh, okay,” and went back to what he was doing.

  2. Oh, and thanks for sharing your story, Anthony!

  3. My first day of my first acting class back in college – this was when I still thought I might pursue acting – the teacher sat us in a circle at the end of the hour, and asked each of us, in turn, to leap to our feet in a battle stance, wield an imaginary spear, and declare “I WILL DARE TO FAIL GLORIOUSLY”. Same sort of message, really – people rarely end up at really unforgettable sucking by playing it safe, but they also rarely do anything unforgettable at all.

    And so I gave my damndest to acting, and realized – I suck at it! So I started writing instead, and that worked out much better.

  4. […] been a booster of Joanou’s – but perhaps this film typified what I meant in a previous blog. Supposedly “Entropy” fictionalizes the making of Joanou’s earlier film, […]

  5. […] no way to learn how to take an unfavorable review of your own work except to get one. Or several (as anyone with an enduring body of work will, eventually). This journey began for me when I was 19 and I wrote, directed and edited my first short film on a […]

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