One of the most exciting aspects of the writing life is to seek out sources of inspiration. They can come from nature, other people, or other forms of creativity. Sometimes, we not only find something, but are so surprised by the content or message that it spurs us to stretch our boundaries of creative expression.
I experienced such a moment Tuesday night, when I went to see the movie, This Is It, the rehearsal footage from what was to be Michael Jackson’s last major set of performances (or so he said). Even though I am not a Michael Jackson fan, his music has been on the radio since I first heard the Jackson 5, so I decided to see what the final act was going to be. After all, he has broken boundaries for 40+ years; virtually every pop star of the past four decades owes their existence in the public eye to him.
What came across the screen was something wonderfully different: An intimate, behind-the-scenes two-hour presentation of how a great musical performance is assembled, directed, choreographed and scored. And it all revolved around “the man in the mirror,” whose dance moves and voice at 50 were not much slower or lower than the Thriller years. No question about it: This Is It was going to anthologize his four decades of musical greatness, with stage sets for every era and the songs that made MJ second only to The Beatles in creating frenzies of screaming girls.
I watched the movie from a writer’s perspective, and what I saw was just as impressive. No matter what you think of him as a person (and I know from my late friend, the great golfer Payne Stewart, that MJ sought above all to be the best father he could be), Michael Jackson was an auteur. He was an absolute genius at receiving and hearing the music with his inner ear, visioning the physical movement of that music, and bringing it out with a combination of voice and dance moves we may never see it again. He did it as artist, director, choreographer and singer. Furthermore, every minute of This Is It showed the glue, the uniting aspect: everything creative that moved through Jackson was touched by his heart and soul. I felt like I was watching a soul on film that knew, at every moment, that this was truly it – and he was bringing his entire life force into each song, each performance.
A great example (and this is the only piece of the movie I’ll reveal) came during the rehearsal for “Beat It.” Jackson worked out all of his moves, positioned his guitarists on stage, made sure the lighting crew knew how he wanted the lights to fall, then sang. When it came time for the late solo, he stood next to one of his guitarists, Orianthi Panagiris (a 24-year-old Australian; she’ll be a star after this debut). When she stayed with the solo we all remember from Thriller, MJ stopped her and said, “This is your time to shine,” then instructed her to cut loose – to burst with what she felt inside her heart. The result …
… well, see for yourself. If you are a guitar fan, then the next three minutes are worth the ticket price. No wonder country superstar and fellow striking blonde Carrie Underwood dueted with her earlier this year!
Receiving the music. Hearing and feeling it deep within. Visioning the physical movement of the music. Bringing it out with every tool and talent always available, at the ready. Listening to the beat of his heart at every moment. Honoring the vision. Inspiring others with it. Delivering the goods in full force to the audience.
Sounds like a winning recipe for great writing, doesn’t it?
So today, I find myself moving through my book ideas, and the books with which I am helping my clients, with a slightly different emphasis – a more holistic emphasis. I never expected This Is It to dance a path through my own creative process, but it reminded me of just how genius and greatness are attained: through vision, courage, plenty of skills and tools, but most of all, hard work that results in an expression of near-perfection.
That is our constant goal as writers: to imagine, envision, observe, write, then polish until every word resonates with the precise reflection of what moves through us, what scene or dialogue we first pictured. Then we put together the whole story, the whole performance, and our subject matter or characters carry out the telling.
On his final day of life, eight days before he was to open the show in London, Michael Jackson gathered the entire This Is It ensemble into a circle. They held hands. He said to them, “Show the audiences talent they’ve never seen before. Show them your greatness.”
You have your opinions of MJ’s choices in life, and I have mine. But there is no disputing the wisdom of this advice when it comes to our writing.