They Die on the Vine

The Nobel Prize is the tombstone for all great work, says Rodney Mullen, quoting Richard Feynman I think, but I’d still take one. A prize, not a tombstone. If there were a Nobel Prize for skateboarding, Rodney Mullen would have one, but the point of this talk is that success, winning, is the enemy and that the best work can only come through the support and recognition of your peers, but somehow also and simultaneously only from one’s individual inherent talents and tendencies.

What I think he’s saying is that money is bad. People who don’t skateboard who want to give you money to make more money for themselves are bad, not bad people necessarily but bad for your creativity. He says the demise of freestyle skating is the best thing that could’ve happened to him because when it was a thing he was always winning, and when it was no longer a thing, no longer a competition, he was free to innovate once more.

As much as I enjoy watching Rodney balance on the edge of his skateboard or spin rapidly around on one wheel. As much as I enjoy the goofy names of skateboarding tricks, one of which is actually Goofy, I have to say this is a very privileged perspective he’s working from, here.

At a party once I overheard Junot Diaz telling the story of calling up his buddies back in New Jersey to tell them he’d won the Pulitzer. Congratulations, one of them said, now you can spend the rest of your career never doing anything that matters again! He told the story like he had to agree with it because it was pure truth, undeniable. I’m wondering now if this is a male perspective. I could get Freudian here and say it’s an orgasm thing, the way the “story arc” structure taught in Intro to Creative Writing classes across the country preach the “climax” model of stories, like this is the natural order of things, this is what humans recognize as significant, build build build blow your load and relax, end scene.

I can’t agree with it, and I can’t base it on the fact that there are females in the world, either. I do believe I’ve written some marvelous things in my time, but the recognition of these things would have nothing to do with the further honing of the craft, for me. When you’ve had it all, he says, Rodney says, some of these guys, they die on the vine with all of that talent. This is a dangerous stereotype to perpetuate, methinks. I mean it seems logical. What could be better than the best? After the peak, the fall is inevitable. Right? Hey, sir, I know what could cure your cookie, how about we ignore you for a while and treat you like a commoner. How about we pretend we don’t know you so you can go back to blowing our minds. But secretly we’ll love you the whole time, of course, we’ll just pretend not to, to leave you alone, to let the genius go about his geniusing.

I can’t speak from experience, but the force of the punch to my own balls I would deliver if I ever became famous and then used that as an excuse for every subsequent failure would register on the seismic scale. Mid-sixes, probably. I absolutely refuse to believe that winning a Nobel Prize and the million-dollar monetary package that accompanies it would make my creative task more difficult. Do you know what I go through now? Do you know how much gets ignored, delayed, forgotten? It’s a bald-ass myth that struggle is essential to the creative process. Rodney says the best tricks are found by exploring the smallest places and using that environment to guide your process. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but the implication that you can’t explore unless you’re freed from the perils of success is ludicrous. He was a world champion at fourteen. He has no idea what he’s talking about, here. His measures of success and failure are so skewed as to be irrelevant. It’s my nephew’s birthday today. I haven’t called him to congratulate him, or my mother in a month at least. I’m 33 and have no children, never been married, all because I’m mired in an apparently lifelong quest to figure myself out enough to make good fiction. My sister broke her leg and had surgery and I haven’t called her, either. My brothers I haven’t spoken to for years, and people wonder what happened, and it’s nothing, nothing happened, it’s just my life.

But, though, I guess I should sleep now, it’s bedtime. I have a lot of writing to do tomorrow because I’ve worked 64 hours in the past eight days on top of moving to a cheaper residence and yet I’ve still written more in the past week than I had in the previous three months. Not because I’ve suddenly found success, no, although holy fuck how much would I write if I did. No, it’s because the moving and the one job and the reliably supportive girlfriend and even the city I picked to live in, all of these choices were designed to pay off in this, these nights, this couch and these keys, a concerted effort to create my own fucking creative environment, despite all the hardship. Certainly not because of it. It is not incidental that I am here now. This is what you have to do when success has not yet come, but this is not ‘only possible’ because I have not yet been successful.

Still though, Rodney, I appreciate your opinion, and your skating, and your honesty. The fact that you couldn’t be more wrong about one thing doesn’t mean your talent will go unappreciated. Now get back on the board and dance for me, will you.

Comment