One of my favorite movies is Thomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. I have seen this film twenty-seven times. I have read the novel twice, along with its sequels. I have also seen the 1976 BBC miniseries and the follow-up Smiley’s People, both starring Alec Guinness.
To this day, however, I really can’t tell you what happens in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy… other than it has something to do with men so profoundly closeted that they just have to destroy the Soviet Union.
That much said, there is one moment that sticks with me in spite of my complete inability to understand the film on the level of plot or character… or really anything not having to do with ugly men’s suits from the 1970s. In the scene, Spy Master George Smiley – played here by Gary Oldman – has a painful reckoning with the lifelong friend and colleague he has uncovered as a Russian mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence.
When asked why he betrayed Queen and Country, the mole replies – with the quivering upper lip of a man who has never, ever, not once, talked about his feelings – that:
“It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one, and the West has become… so very ugly.”
If you think that there is a cheap analogy to be made between that line of dialogue and our current political situation, then let me assure you, you hired the right TV writer for the job.
Like so many sensitive and artistic people who were prone to melancholy even before our democracy went to shit, I feel that the present tyranny is not merely political, but also rhetorical and spiritual. It is a living expression of the belief that the only victories that have value are the ones earned by the fist or the crotch.
Part of where we find ourselves in our politics, discourse, and relationships is the result of a systemic failure of kindness and empathy in our daily practice of living. It is a failure exacerbated by the pernicious yet seductive fantasy that those who act like the rich and cruel will magically gain wealth, and the concomitant entitlement to further, more ambitious cruelty. Too many have bought into the idea that destroying those whose existence annoys us on principle is equal to “winning”.
So. What does this incredible bummer have to do with the anniversary of a creative writing program?
Well, I am a writer and, increasingly, an artist… which is embarrassing, because, when I went into TV in the 90s, the medium was straight-up disreputable and I was honestly trying to sell out. Also, I work for other writers in an industry that not only tolerates, but often lionizes a great deal of madness, rage, and abuse in its upper management. I work in an industry that deliberately keeps its barriers to entry stocked with cauldrons of boiling oil; especially for women and minorities. I work in an industry that forces people to move to Los Angeles.
A few years ago, me and a man named Jose Molina – who is not only a dear old friend but also a very accomplished television writer/producer – were sitting at a bar on Ventura Boulevard getting drunk before our weekly Dungeons & Dragons game… like you do. As we ordered our second round, we began to list all of the sociopathic abusers for whom we had worked over the years. The resulting list, which could charitably be called “a real cavalcade of sigmoid orifices,” was lengthy, and encompassed the majority of both our careers.
As the third round arrived, we fantasized about what it would take to change the character of so many awful bosses to whom we had given our best and most creative work. What kind of Ebenezer Scrooge experience would it take to shift the minds of so many who felt entitled to cruelty, or availed themselves to it through sheer ignorance, to the real work of uplifting their employees instead of torturing them?
Soon however, we came to the depressing realization that, once someone achieves a position of power, it is as if society has given them a validation that their methods do not need to change. A TV network gave you hundreds of millions of dollars to make a show you created. Surely that means you are a genius and beyond correction. So we came up with the idea of making a podcast to, ostensibly, teach newcomers about the TV business. This was an attractive hook, since information about how to break into TV, and how to behave once you’re in, is notoriously hard to come by, and expensive and seldom accurate when it is.
But that really was just a Trojan Horse for the far more insidious message that you do not have to be an asshole to be successful, an abuser to get your collaborators to perform, or need to destroy everyone out of fear that they will someday come back to murder you and take your place… or worse, tell other people what you were like before you were a Genius.
The podcast has the colossally stupid name “Children of Tendu”, it’s free, and the twenty or so episodes we have produced to this day have been downloaded over 400,000 times. Based on that, we approached the Writers Guild and spent a year teaching a series called “Living in the Middle” which was intended as a sort of continuing education for writer/producers but really was a crypto-altruistic mental inception made in the name of decency, integrity, and collaboration.
If you know the entertainment business – or try to enter it – then you probably know that a lot of people with far less experience than I will gladly charge you a lot of money for far less and pretend they are giving you the keys to the kingdom. We took forty combined years of hard-earned knowledge and experience and gave it away for free.
The effect this has had on me as a writer, a manager of creative people, and a human being has been immeasurable. I believe in evolution, and evolution means that if your competition is loud, obnoxious, and seemingly victorious, and you are quiet, introverted, and don’t have a good publicist, you can still prevail by surrounding the bad guys with people who just plain disagree with them. Evolution is a numbers game, and we each have the power to help make more of us than there are of them.
The efforts I have just described are a tiny little spearhead in that evolution. We arm our audience with knowledge, but also tell them unequivocally that much of what is understood as ordinary behavior in our business is wrong, and if they can’t change it, they’d better not feel entitled to further the cycle of abuse with their own actions. If Jose and I wind up helping one person succeed as a television writer while keeping them from falling for the temptation to act like something that was drained out of a colorectal fistula, then we can both enter our homes justified.
Why? Because that person will, in turn, model good behavior to everyone who works for her or him – and those employees will know that it is good to work for an ethical, sensitive, and empowering manager, and they will take that into their own path to success – and the rest is evolution.
There are many of us who look at the current political situation – the endless lies and gaslighting, the normalization of casual hate, prejudice, and misogyny – and wonder only one thing… what to do? Some run for office, some go to demonstrations, call their congressmen, read all the newspapers and blogs…
And some of us have no taste, stomach, or talent for it. I’m not talking about sloth or apathy, I’m talking about the truth that we all have limitations. I have none of the requisite qualities necessary to become a political truncheon; but that doesn’t mean that I don’t live in the same fish tank, breathe the same liquid, and choke on the same poison.
I have one solution. It’s not the only solution – not even close. It’s also not a solution that will force anyone out of the seat of power, bring about an end to the systematic abuse of women in our society, or expedite the punishment of the guilty… but that doesn’t make it not worth exploring.
If you have a skill, teach it to someone for free.
This is especially necessary if you are a writer. Because if you make it, it won’t just be because you are great (though I am sure you are, each and every one of you, the reincarnation of Mavis Gallant) it will be because all of the gatekeepers opened the locks for you.
Anyone lucky – yes, lucky – enough to make a living as a writer has a list of people who recognized their talent, helped them hone their craft, gave them honest but compassionate feedback, introduced them to an agent, explained publishing to them, advised them on how to deal with editors – or network and studio executives – and perhaps taught them how to handle both success and failure with grace.
And if you were to share your knowledge of how those pins and barrels were made to turn for you, imagine how many might be able to walk into the promised land through a path you described. How many stories might see the light that may otherwise have not.
Every time you give knowledge away for free, every time you teach, every time you empower someone who is not, you are creating something that cannot be measured in terms of capital but is nevertheless a profoundly political act:
You are increasing the density of decency in the world.
Every time you are generous with knowledge that is considered privileged, you not just saying that you have faith that the arc of the universe bends toward morality, you are becoming one of the billions of moving pieces whose trajectory defines that arc. Even more importantly, you are modeling kindness as a value.
The more we seed the world with the idea that empathy is not a hindrance to victory, but rather its vehicle – the more we declare through action that there is more to “winning” than profit and dominance – the more likely we are to create a majority for whom what is “cool” and “aspirational” is not for sale. Some of us stand up to bullies by quietly recruiting more and more into the ranks of warriors for that which is soft, and gentle, and far more necessary to the soul than “winning.”
And trust me, I’m not advocating that you put your professors or this university out of business. If you are doing it right, your experience of a place like this will be irreproducible. I’m also not telling you to give your secrets to “the competition.” What you bring to the page is the one thing you can’t teach or give away; the only way to truly understand that is to put everything else on the table.
Some of you may now be saying “but what if I’m too busy changing the world through my amazing writing?” Then I would suggest you study the life of one of the most successful classical composers in history. A man whose voice dominated opera between the eighteenth and nineteenth century. A man who retired one of the wealthiest classical composers in history. A man who taught composition to Schubert, Liszt, and Beethoven.
His name is Antonio Salieri. His story is a cautionary tale that should be familiar to all you cultural studies double-majors who have been force fed Roland Barthes. Today, this man’s name is known only because – a hundred and fifty years after his death – another artist wrote a grotesquely inaccurate script framing him for the murder of Mozart, holding him up as poster child for the sin of envy, and canonizing him as patron saint of mediocrity.
What happens to your work and your story in the ashes of time is completely beyond your control. The only thing that survives eternity is your place in an unbroken chain of acts that encourage others to surpass you. In the immortal words of Jedi master Yoda: “we are what they grow beyond, that is the true burden of all masters.”
But ultimately, it’s a little weird that you should be listening to me on this topic when, not one square mile from here there lived and worked a true warrior for social justice – a writer, musician, spoken-word performance artist, film-maker, pacifist, and humanist – who said it better, and far more succinctly than I ever could. A man who has been vilified by Fox News and many other standard-bearers of speaking-power-to-truth – and who has frequently accused of everything from mass murder to child molestation – for the crime of putting into the world such heresies as this one:
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
His name was, of course, Fred Rogers, and he remains one of my personal idols to this day because he talked the talk, walked the walk, endured the cruelty and ridicule of many with the humane smile of one who knows truth beyond reproach, and embodied day in and day out – without shame, or fear, or guilt – a reality that, sadly, grows more urgent with each passing day…
In this moment, there is nothing more revolutionary, counter-cultural, and just plain badass than simple human decency.