Precision Is Overrated
“I was on the Grateful Dead subreddit when…” is the single worst way to start a sentence, because it confirms that I have two of the most uncool hobbies on the planet. But alas, I couldn’t find a way around it. I found myself on this dark corner of the internet today to check on the adventures of my favorite band, and I read about a concert they played in Boston on Saturday night. Midway through a performance of “Box of Rain” (their fourth best song, FYI), John Mayer completely screwed up the lyrics. It was so bad that the band had to pause the concert and start the song over.
On Reddit, every comment about this was overwhelmingly positive. The consensus was that John Mayer is finally a REAL member of the band, now that he’s screwing up lyrics during live shows. To a Grateful Dead fan, this makes perfect sense. The band has always been famous for its screw-ups. Missed lines and wrong notes and, occasionally, band members playing different songs has always been part of the experience. Why do we love that so much?
This is something I’ve been considering a lot lately, with regards to my own art. I used to be drawn to precision. I liked perfectly-structured scripts where every line mattered. I liked having eight plot lines that all converged at the last second. I liked strict adherence to classical Greek rules of drama, plays that looked more like art than science. But lately, I’ve come to realize that some of the most magical art falls into the category I call “structured slop.”
Take the Grateful Dead for example. Those guys clearly know music. Phil Lesh was a classically trained symphony composer. Jerry Garcia had an incredibly uninteresting life because he spent 90% of his time practicing guitar scales. They could have been the most precise band on the planet if they wanted to. But they prioritized creativity instead, sacrificing perfection at the altar of loose, free-wheeling creativity. When they played badly, they were quite bad. But when they played well (which was more frequent)…there’s just nothing else like it. They’re an incredibly sloppy and uneven band, but once in a while everything clicks. You hear a moment of magic within their song that could never be replicated in a recording studio. By freeing themselves from any kind of conventional structure (or radio success), they leave themselves open to these enchanted, inimitable moments.
In film, the best example of this is The Big Lebowski. Even the Coen brothers will tell you that the film has virtually no discernible plot. Structurally, it’s an incoherent mess of a film. Yet anyone who tells you it isn’t the funniest movie ever made is either a liar or hasn’t seen it. After a few scenes you learn to stop caring about the plot and just go along for the ride. And you’re rewarded with one classic scene after another. The Coen brothers created two of the funniest characters ever with the Dude and Walter Sobchak, and then just let them run wild. It’s magic that no writing student could ever replicate if they tried.
But again, the Coen brothers aren’t some flunkies spitballing wacky ideas in their basement. They’re incredibly intelligent students of film who have proven their ability to write tightly-structured stories time and time again. They just chose not to use that ability for The Big Lebowski. It plays like a work of improvisation, a free-flowing cinematic equivalent of a Grateful Dead song. That’s probably why it’s my favorite movie.
One of my favorite theatre professors once told me that “deep down, every audience member wants to say ‘what the hell just happened?’ while they’re watching a play.” And I think he’s probably right. After spending years trying to master the precise minutia of my craft, now I’m more interested in letting go. Taking the skills I’ve learned, then letting raw creativity take over. Right now, I’d love nothing more than to be the screenwriting equivalent of John Mayer forgetting his lyrics onstage.