The Ungated Manifesto, Revisited
Two paragraphs that bother the shit outta me
The Ungated Manifesto is one of the best pieces of writing I've ever done. What's even cooler is that it reliably spreads through the internet, attracting new friends and customers into my world. By any objective measure, this essay is successful in all the ways that matter. Yet, there are a few paragraphs that, when I re-read them, make me cringe. They don't represent me or my philosophy well, and it bugs me.
So today, I wanna riff on two particular paragraphs, and update some of my thinking in real time. This is my first attempt at making my work an ongoing conversation, rather than something static and unchanging. I want my work to be alive and evolving, just as I am.
The offending paragraphs are in section two of the manifesto. This is where I'm talking about how The Pattern—a malevolent force that undermines our creative culture and our ability to live well—can be seen everywhere you look.
Here's the first paragraph that irks me.
I noticed [The Pattern] next in the world of indie film. Not with content about filmmaking, mind you. But in the films themselves. Turns out, after you've seen a couple dozen indie films, they all start blending together. They hew to the same genre conventions, use the same story structures, rely on the same aesthetic choices, and often feature the exact same actors in eerily similar roles. Even the trailers and posters—tools designed to differentiate a project and get people excited—blend together after awhile.
This one paragraph is responsible for a sizable chunk of the pushback I got after publishing last year. People thought I was saying that genre and storytelling conventions are inherently boring, and that "real artists" throw them out and reinvent the wheel with every new project. And it's easy to see why someone would think that, because this paragraph implies it pretty clearly lol.
But alas, I do not believe that at all, and wish I could rewrite this from scratch to make a different point. I'm increasingly obsessed by mythic structure, archetypes, and patterns. Our personal and collective unconscious absolutely respond to specific patterns. And as artists, we'd be crazy not to explore that territory. If our goal is to create things that resonate at the deepest levels of the human soul, we should study the underlying mechanics of resonance, and let that understanding inform our work. There's never a guarantee that a project will resonate. But a deep understanding of craft and story and myth can absolutely help in creating work that matters.
The same is true from a communication standpoint. Because of my marketing and copywriting background, I've got all sorts of tools that make me a more effective, evocative communicator. Most of that happens at an implicit and intuitive level. I learned the rules and internalized them. Even though I'm now "following the aliveness" with my writing, much of my output sticks to structural rules and patterns.
So no, I don't think that rules and categorization are inherently bad. Choosing to write a screenplay with a hero's journey structure, in the genre of a spaghetti western, does not mean someone has succumb to The Pattern. I was trying to point to something deeper and failed. The real distinction I wanted to make, but didn't quite have the right language at the time, is one between Deadness and Aliveness.
I'm gonna do a full post on Aliveness soon, but for the sake of this context, here's a quote from Martha Graham that I love, which'll help articulate what I'm after here.
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
What I wanted to say is that most indie films began feeling dead to me. They're often technically impressive, and excel in all facets of the craft, yet something about them feels cold, predictable, inhuman. I always know, intellectually, that a group of diverse and creative humans worked on this project. But emotionally, I cannot sense their vitality or authenticity in the final work. Their life force isn't there. Instead, it's like every single creative decision was made by a committee whose priorities were to be maximally safe and certain. Vital, authentic work is rarely safe in an economic context. So the committee closed the channel of human vitality, and deferred to the rules and best practices.
It's this metaphysical sense of Deadness that I wanted to convey. That's what The Pattern does. It makes our culture and our arts sterile, inhuman, dead.
Ok, here's the second offending paragraph from the manifesto, which is the one directly after that last one.
Seeing The Pattern play out in this arena broke my heart. The draw of indie filmmaking, in theory, is to be able to take risks and tell stories that Hollywood never could. This is where creativity and originality and resourcefulness are supposed to shine. And while that does occasionally happen, mostly it does not. Just like every other limb of the media corpus, the creative decisions in the indie film world are driven by a set of economic incentives, along with a culture of mimicry, status seeking, and insecurity. Mix these toxic ingredients up, and you're left with a predictable stew of conformist mediocrity.
With this paragraph, while I still believe what I said, I would knock it off with the judgmental, holier-than-thou language and tone. I'm effectively shitting on people's work and holding myself above them in a really condescending way. Yes, there's some justified anger at the systems and incentives that produce lifeless work. But ultimately these systems are composed of other imperfect humans like me, doing the best they can.
It's easy for me to forget that I'm in a pretty privileged place outside of these ecosystems. My livelihood no longer depends on playing by the rules. But for people who are still stuck in the meat grinder of the Content Industry, and who rely on it to pay their bills and feed their families, I have nothing but compassion. For me to come along and throw maximum shade at them isn't right. It's not who I am or who I want to be.
I still believe that if we're to break The Pattern at scale, it will require courageous action from the creative class. But the path to that kind of future isn't paved with derision and ridicule and shame. It'll be paved with kindness and compassion.
Rob's Daily Invitation
There's a course in The Frontier membership that I hardly ever talk about, but which is deeply in sync with this post. It's called Stand Out & Connect, and it's about how we can systematically discover patterns of resonance, stand out in a noisy internet, and create things that genuinely matter to people. For my homies who want to approach their marketing in a more intentional, systematic way as they play the game of 1,000 true fans, this course totally fucking rules.