Around Christmas I was introduced to the podcast The Worst Idea of All Time and pretty much immediately glommed all extant episodes and caught up in plenty of time to finish out the 52nd and last episode the day it went public this week. If the podcast hasn’t crossed your radar yet, all you need to know about it for our purposes here is that two friends (Tim and Guy) watch the same bad movie (Grown-Ups 2) every week for a year and then discuss it after each viewing. In hot Kiwi accents liberally sprinkled with cursing, existential despair, and a pretty epic bromance. I had a wonderful time.
In listening to all 52+ episodes, I found not only barrels of laughs but also occasional moments of brilliant insight for an author (sometimes any creative type) – and some insights that might only be brilliant to the particular writer that I am. I thought I’d share them.
1. If you look at any given project too long you lose all sense of perspective. There were so many moments in the course of the discussions where Guy and Tim would heap praise on some tiny aspect of the film merely because it was mediocre (instead of bad) or good (instead of mediocre). But those compliments would NEVER have appeared without the insane scrutiny they were putting on the film. Writers in particular struggle with maintaining perspective on a project, because for some of us writing 100,000 words takes years, or because some people revise so many times they lose track of the actual story they are trying to tell.
2. If you look closely enough at anything you can find hidden meanings. It sort of makes a mockery of the whole institution of English as a university major, listening to some of the profundities Tim and Guy projected onto this film. Serves as a reminder that all art interpretation/criticism really is is an externalized version of the critic’s own ethos (or pathos, as the case may be).
3. A text can change solely based on the mood of the consumer. What might strike you as funny in one mood can seem tragic in another. Some days you might relate to one character but relate to a different character entirely on a different day. As readers/viewers/consumers of art, in any medium, we bring with us our moods, our frustrations, our education, our cultural context, and all of them influence how we connect with a particular piece of art on a particular day. How does this affect me as a writer? It doesn’t. But it’s good for any kind of artist to remember that all art is interactive, and the audience is not entirely passive nor a tabula rossa. You can’t control what they bring to your work with them – but it might influence what they get out of it all the same.
4. Simply having a full-length project does not mean you have a story. Probably the biggest criticism the guys have of Grown-Ups 2 is its lack of an overarching plot. There is no theme; there are no stakes; there is no climax and concomitant emotional payout. There is simply a string of things that happen, some of which the characters respond to and some of which are dropped as quickly as they are brought up, and the whole is an unsatisfying waste of time.
5. Putting care into the details is not enough to make the whole thing good. Tim and Guy frequently praise the efforts of the production team – great lighting, great set design and dressing, great wardrobe choices, great sound mixing, good camera work, etc., and yet having great production values did not make the movie good. The writing equivalent would be someone who has a perfectly polished, error-free and easily readable narrative wherein the story is nonexistent and the characters bland and shallow. It doesn’t matter how well something is written, technically, if the subject is boring. Conversely, poorly written books can sell in record numbers because they include a story or character that readers find compelling (looking at you, Fifty Shades, my objet d’haine du jour).
6. Conversations are shockingly unpredictable. One of my favorite episodes – perhaps my very favorite? Certainly my favorite from a writing perspective! – was around 43.5, the one titled “Coal.” It consists of Tim basically talking to his imaginary friend about this movie, because the two were Skyping the discussion and recording two audio files to mix, only Guy’s didn’t record. The one-sided conversation is a masterful lesson in how actual conversations between two actual individuals work. Tim attempts to make points, and is, more often than not, sent off on a tangential quest that never leads back to the original point. Sometimes he is the one making leaps away from Guy’s unheard path. But it shows in a really profound way how unpredictable interactive speech is, and how what makes a conversation interesting is the give-and-take of competing perspectives and thought processes. It also shows just how much we play off of one another in conversation, how much we use the fact that we can’t predict what is about to be said to spur our own creativity in responding. Conversation is a lot like dreaming: it’s an act of simultaneous reaction and creation. What allows us to create so freely, though, is the purely reactive state we are in. One of the hardest things to do is have a conversation with an imaginary friend that actually progresses like a real conversation would. God knows when my son is babbling at me, I struggle to find responses that can keep me talking, because I don’t have any words or ideas to play off of, just his squeals and burbling. And as much as most of the dialogue in my books comes from inspiration rather than brow-sweat (seriously, the voices in my head…they just talk), I still know that the conversations my characters have are a little too on-point. Real conversations almost never stay on one course or even conclude any topic.
7. One of the clearest signs of friendship/emotional bonding with a fellow human being is having a shared “language” with them, basically layers of callbacks and references to prior meetings/conversations/shared experiences. Listening to Guy and Tim go from friendly acquaintances to close mates over the course of this project was both heartwarming and an amazing lesson in how friendships progress. The injection of callbacks is definitely one of the key ways to track the shift, until, by the end, the two of them are having two simultaneous conversations, one with words and one with the history embedded in the words and phrases they choose that is, essentially a code they share. In this case, of course, the listening audience shares it, too, but that’s a rare occurrence.
8. Friends do not talk to one another the same way acquaintances do. There is a marked difference in how Tim and Guy speak to each other between the first episode and the last. By the end, they offer a hilariously awesome example of how best friends talk to each other. It’s a dynamic I’ve been between my husband and his friends, between my first boyfriend and his best friend (which I remember mainly because it made me think the friend was way more interesting, which made me realize I probably shouldn’t be dating that guy), between my brother and his friends. Somehow, though, hearing it between two strangers – or maybe hearing it develop in the compressed, time-lapse nature of a weekly podcast that I listened to in the course of 8 weeks instead of 52 – really struck me. Perhaps it was really just my brain leaping onto the a trigger at the right time for the revelation. I’ve been struggling with the personality of a couple heroes in books I’m slowly starting to write. One of them – the one from the first romance I ever tried to write – has always been a bit of a cipher in terms of his own personality. I know why he reacts to and behaves toward the heroine like he does; I know how and why he redeems himself for asshatery. But I couldn’t figure out what actually made him an interesting or special person…a worthy hero. The one starting place I had thought of was his best friend, who is immediately and obviously awesome. So what does his friend see in him? What does his friend value that he provides? Listening to Guy and Tim didn’t offer a specific answer, but it did provide a great look at how male friendship expresses itself and gave me some great ideas as to how the hero and his bestie treat one another. Being able to organically explore his character in such a way is the first step to unearthing the things about him that are most special.
I guess that means I should add a quick 9: inspiration truly can be found wherever you aren’t looking for it. :)