Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Jo Ann Beard Workshop and Whiplash Spoiler Alerts

One of my favorite movies of the year was Whiplash.  Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer for Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) studio jazz band at the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States.  The overarching message of the film is that no matter what, an artist is an artist is an artist.  In this case, Neiman is determined to make his dream of becoming a musician come true and prove wrong everyone who doubts him, including friends, family, and his conductor, Fletcher.  Neiman is so resolute that even when involved in a horrific car accident minutes before call time, he flees the scene (not unscathed, as he is covered in blood from head to toe) and not only plays, but ruins the show.  This does not deter him from his dream though, as he eventually goes on to play again and wins over the undying respect of his leader, with one final shot focusing on Fletcher’s smiling eyes.  Brilliant.  Bravo.  Loved it. 

Last Thursday I was on my way to day four of the Jo Ann Beard workshop.  I had some time to spare and decided to stop for coffee and a donut at Starbucks (the old fashioned glazed donut) as Jo Ann had read a piece that had donuts in it and I couldn’t get my mind off the sweet treats.  They were doing some construction over by the bank near the Starbucks and I couldn’t see whether or not I had room to get back on Federal Highway, or if I would have to drive around to another exit.  As I kept my eyes on the exit of the plaza, I failed to see the bright blue Prius behind me and backed into him with an audible crunch.  I pulled back into my spot and examined my car, still unaware that I hit another vehicle, checked my own, and saw a tiny smear of blue paint on the back of my black bumper.

“Are you okay!?” I called out, spinning around to see a man in orange shorts walking out of his car and buttoning up his shirt.  He had a fluffy puff of white hair around his head, glasses, and some type of casual beach loafers.  I instantly felt horrible.  I had ruined this man’s day, ruined my own, and my workshop was starting in twenty minutes. 

Neiman takes a bus to the concert for his big show, and it breaks down.  He runs to a rental car office only fifteen minutes from the venue.  Rushing, he forgets his drum sticks at the rental car office, leaving them on a chair in plain sight.  Neiman realizes this and must get back in his car, retrieve the sticks, and hurry to his show.  Fletcher waits but has an understudy prepped and ready to go on stage.   Minutes fly by and Neiman gets back in the car and books it to the venue.  SMASH.  A truck collides with his vehicle.  He is totally f’ed.  However, he runs out of his car, bloodied and bruised but with his sticks, heads to the concert and insists on playing.  Fletcher kicks him out due to his failure to perform and the two brawl it out.

My guy was a lot nicer.  He shook my hand, understood that I had a life changing workshop to attend, and let me go, as I promised my mom would come as soon as possible and handle all the insurance information.  Luckily my mom was off work that day and was able to come help, for that is a godsend, but I still felt awful and began crying hysterically on the way over to school.  I had texted a few people that I was in an accident and that I was running late for class, but that I was okay, just really upset.  When I got out of my car with four minutes to spare until workshop time, I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend.  He said, “Your day is like the movie Whiplash.  You get into an accident and you crawl out of the car and you run to your workshop!  Blood on your books, you’re still moving forward.  Still doing what you were born to do.  J.K. Simmons tries to take you down during your reading but no!  You keep moving forward.  Keep pressing on.  All of a sudden a close up on J.K. Simmon’s eyes and you can see he’s smiling.  Smiling because he has done it.  He has found that great writer he had been searching for his entire career.  Brittany Ackerman.”

Fletcher had taunted and tormented the members of his jazz studio and was unrelenting about finding that “great one,” a musician that could make his work worthwhile, all the years spent training one after another, all the name-calling and physical assault.  While Jo Ann Beard did not abuse us or say anything negative all week, Fletcher’s character represents for me anyone who ever has said something negative about my work ethic, my place in the program, my writing.  Neiman continued on despite what anyone said about him, and although Fletcher was a bastard, he did prove his point that “the great ones” will not stop and will always continue to move forward and press on. 

Jo Ann Beard confesses it takes her an unusual amount of time to finish a piece of writing.  She also tells us that it would be “easier for her to dig up the sidewalk with a spoon than to write” because it is truly her opus.  But if I wish to call myself a writer, the real deal, then an impenetrable impetus will propel me forward from all of life’s unfortunate occurrences and I will write write write. 

It often feels as if Fletcher is standing over my writing desk whispering, “What are you doing, man?” (just like in the movie!) in a way that makes me question myself.  But in reality, Jo Ann Beard is sitting beside me, assuring me that “Your piece was magnificent!  How beautiful!”  No matter the positive or negative feedback we receive from others or give to ourselves, the only way we will be successful writers is if we continue to write. 

Yelling “I’ll cue you in!” to Fletcher, Neiman demands to play on stage and commands his position as a drummer. It is in this moment that he becomes one of the greats, student transforming into teacher, roles reversed.  Fletcher watches in awe as Neiman succeeds, and that is what I wish to have for myself- the moment where I amaze and surprise my greatest critic, myself, because I am able to show up and write the damn thing.

Brittany Ackerman is a third year MFA candidate for nonfiction.  If you can't find her frantically typing at Spot Coffee in an ironic t-shirt and an unamused scowl, she is probably at Disney World realizing that it actually IS a "small world after all..."

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