Tommy Wiseau and why I left creative writing to pursue the law
Series: life April 13, 2016
Three years ago, I graduated with a BFA in Creative Writing. I was considering applying to MFA programs. Not many people make the transition from BFA to the law. Currently, I’m a third-year law student specializing in Intellectual Property. When I’m not at school, I work as a developer for a legal startup and am building a non-profit to help individuals who have had unpleasant run-ins with the police.
When I tell people I have a Fine Arts degree, most have the same reaction. First, the 30 ° head tilt. Next, the eyebrow raise. Third, pursed lips with a long “Hmmm…” Finally, most people want to know why I left writing to enter the law.
I tell them a version of the truth: “I felt like law school would be more productive and enjoyable.” “The world doesn’t need another white male author born into privilege” These are both true, but they’re not the whole truth. The reason I never went to an MFA program was Tommy Wiseau.
I was first introduced to The Room in 2011. A podcast I’d been listening to brought it up as ‘the best worst movie.’ I was curious. Despite many friends enjoying them, I never felt like I had time to watch bad movies — wasn’t the world full of good ones I still hadn’t seen? — still, if I was going to watch a bad movie, I might as well start with the worst.
The Room is bad. Really bad. I hated it.
What I hated more than the quality of the film was the knowledge that its creator — Tommy Wiseau — believed vehemently in its quality. Despite the ridicule and consistent negative reviews, Wiseau seems to have maintained the belief that what he created was difficult for the uninitiated, yet of high quality. Why else would people go to theaters years after its initial release to see it? Why would people still be talking about it years after its release? Why would people still share clips of the film if it weren’t amazing?
Nobody’s given Wiseau a satisfactory answer. Like all art, he seems to reason, different people appreciate it differently. Despite the homogeneous critical response, Wiseau seems to believe the film is truly great.
That scared me. It scared me because I knew he was wrong, I knew that while there are some who appreciate him for being true to his artistic beliefs, most viewers see The Room as nothing more than a cinematic failing of epic proportion.
It scared me because I could be just as wrong.
Before settling on law school, I went through an Associates of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts program, both in Creative Writing. The first few years, I really tried to stick with the script: Do what you’re told, no more, no less. I wrote and workshoped short stories with stale prose and ill-considered themes. I sat through a lot worse, and a lot better.
Early on, I’d workshop with someone who thought they were special. They’d cracked the code. They use discursive prose and unintelligible imagery throughout their stories. Before class there would be whispers: “Did you understand what he was talking about?” “What was the plot?” If a student asked any of the questions aloud, the author would be furious: in disbelief anyone could question their ‘style.’
I was never one of those writers. My problem was different: I didn’t really care about anything. I was a privileged 19 year old white kid with a lot of experiences but no knowledge. So I copied plots and themes and devices from favorite movies, music, and books.
I graduated the AFA program on those stories. Even won a couple awards. More confident, I went to a better school and pursued a BFA. I was pushed to realize the things I cared about and write about them. I did some soul searching and realized the things I cared about were the growing value of intellectual property abroad and international politics — I’d lived in London and Athens growing up, and was growing increasingly unhappy with the state of foreign policy.
I began writing about things I cared more deeply about. But I also began considering the form of the narrative in a way I had not previously considered. My writing became more surrealist and strange than the dialogue-heavy plot pieces I’d been writing the year before.
I wrote my last two stories around the time I learned about Tommy Wiseau:
One focused on a computer monitor weeping increasing amounts of blood into a teenage boy’s bedroom after he decides to watch a YouTube video of a beheading in Iraq.
The other story centered on a Canadian man with an unwavering conviction in the quality of his sculptures. Convinced of their quality, the man searches the world for a celebrity to endorse, commission, or purchase one of his pieces of art. Finally, after writing, calling, and meeting with literally everyone, he gets a call from Mickey Mouse. In their face to face meeting, the man learns the Mouse’s background:
“I don’t mind your sculptures. I don’t know if that’s the right word for them, but I don’t mind whatever they are,” said Mickey as he clumsily poured a bottle of Lagavulin into a lowball glass with the three-circle mouse head etched in the side, pilling scotch along the wooden bar. “I appreciate the pieces’ less attractive qualities.”
“I… I can understand that… I mean. Well. I don’t mean anything.”
Mickey held the drink up for the man, who snatched it away from the oversized rodent’s scarred paw, careful not to touch.
“It was a medical accident, you know. Happens all the time. Chemical testing. It’s permanent. My body is constantly healing and destroying itself again.”
The man walked along the room, fingering the books lining the office’s shelves. Thick medical volumes with canvas covers and worn spines.
“They don’t talk about it — once the whole operation went Technicolor, Walt figured the jig was up — the burns and the scabs showed through too well in color. The blood. You couldn’t see the red in black and white. So they locked me in here.
“And if there was ever a chance for me to get back in the game, it’s gone now. These days? HD TVs? I don’t have a chance.”
“It… It must get lonely.”
The man looked at the mouse. He inspected the rodent’s skin. Mickey’s face was a pale tan. Blotchy reds and yellows transitioned into the black scabs that covered his temples, scalp, and hands. The mouse’s ears were overgrown, scabbed cauliflowers. Blood and pus leaked from valleys in the scabs.
Mickey dabbed at the solution of white and red fluids oozing from his jaw with a Disney brand tissue. The man turned away from the mouse and looked intently at the spines of the books around him.
“They tried makeup. We did internal testing. Some of the imagineers took a test short home, showed it to their kids. Nightmares for months. We’re still paying for a psychologist for one of them — this was twenty years now.”
I never finished drafting the story. It was what I wanted to write. It was the type of story I wanted to write. But I was starting to get strange looks. These were the stories I wanted to tell. Some of the craft still needed work. I’d probably rewrite everything I just quoted. But the overall plots. The ideas. It was what I wanted to write.
It was what I needed to write.
I was finally writing prose I felt spoke honestly about my beliefs. But it was prose that was at least partially incompatible with the education I’d received. One or two people were excited by my writing. Most of the people in workshops — and all the professors — were less interested than ever.
So I asked myself: How will I ever know if I’m Tommy Wiseau?
Going to Law school was probably for the best. I’m doing work I love. I feel like I can make an impact on peoples lives. I have time to do more productive things than obsessing over ‘my art.’
Still, when people ask why I went into the law, I don’t tell them about The Room. I tell them that the world doesn’t need another white male author born into privilege. And that isn’t a lie, it’s just not the whole truth.