What Are You Willing to Give?

Lightning  What would you give to be great? Not good. Not fantastic. Not better than almost everyone else. Not fifteen-minutes-of-fame worthy. Great. Charlie Parker great. Edgar Allen Poe great. Vincent Van Gogh great.

My wife and I went to see the movie Whiplash last weekend, and that was the central question in the movie. I won’t say it was intense, but when it was over, we went straight to the bar across the street from the theater. I’m just glad we didn’t see it at the Studio Movie Grill. The bar tab would have been a killer.

The movie stars J.K. Simmons (the Farmers’ Insurance professor and Garth from The Ladykillers) and Miles Teller. I would never have guessed Simmons could play such a dark, evil role, but he pulled it off brilliantly. If The Citadel were a music school (a military music school? a musical military school?), Terrence Fletcher, Simmons’s character, would be the TAC officer from hell. I had to fight to keep myself from sitting on the edge of my seat and pulling my chin in during one scene.

His insults were continuous, witty, and vulgar, and his expectations were entirely unachievable. In fact, if a student met Fletcher’s expectations, he changed them and berated the student anyway. And his students consistently won every competition they played in. And after graduation, they picked what stages they performed on. And they suffered from depression and anxiety.

Fletcher wanted to find the next Charlie Parker. He wanted a student with that talent and the willingness to give everything to develop it. Everything, including his sanity, his freedom (substance abuse is a horrible bondage), and even his life. Most great artists, whether they’re musicians, painters, actors, or writers, fight those demons, it seems. Some, like John Steinbeck or Miles Davis, control them and produce a lifetime of incredible work. Others let the greatness (madness) burn them up and die young, leaving the normal people of the world yearning for more.

My good friend and classmate, Dean Penland, and I had a conversation recently about what makes great artists different, and why so many are crazy as hell. Is it some chemical imbalance that makes certain people see the world in a different way? Is their brain already wired through alternate pathways, and every once-in-a-while somebody figures out a medium they can use to show the rest of us what they see? Is their art a function of their suffering?

Or, is their suffering a result of their art. Maybe we’re all born with great talent. Maybe Wordsworth had it right in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood when he wrote,

“But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

but he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy;”

Perhaps the great majority of us, instinctively knowing that feeding our talent will make us stand out, let it die, absorbed into our herd mentality. The great ones, then, are those who push forward, knowing their courage, their knowledge, and their behavior will make them odd, never really fitting in with any group. Is it that separateness, that being cut out from the pack, always on the fringes but never a part that brings the madness, the drug abuse, the alcoholism?

My guess is that the answer is different for each person. What’s always the same, though, is the burning desire to make their artistic expression as good as it can possibly be, to push beyond what’s exceptional,  beyond what’s praised because it’s better than the other guy’s effort, and find what’s great. In filling that need, these people help the rest of us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. They make us ask questions, and they expose beauty we would never see without their unique vision. And for their effort, we keep them at a distance.

Each of us has visions of greatness and delusions of grandeur at some point in our lives, but almost no one is willing to invest what it takes to realize them. Giving everything, to most, means giving until it’s no longer convenient, or until the money runs out, or until the time is up. Giving everything to the great ones too often means just that – everything.

So, what would you give to be great?

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