Act Smart!: If I only had the nerve

Wherein we address the phenomenally important issue of where courage comes from—and how to find it when it’s slow in coming.

I spent part of last Saturday doing what I love most: sharing information on how to market yourself as a creative professional through stories, examples, and good, old-fashioned Q&A.

You’ll have to wait another month or two to read Tracy Weisert’s write-up of the seminar [Ed. 9/29/13: that’s an updated link to the write-up], but one thing I can share right now is that doing this kind of work did not come naturally to me. My first “presentation,” some 30 years ago—of some copy adjustments, to a good client of the ad agency I was working for at the time—went so poorly that I almost un-sold work she’d enthusiastically bought only two weeks before.

It took months to get over my shock and shame, and I don’t think that the fear of failure has ever left me. And yet, here I am, three decades later, speaking regularly in front of large, paying crowds—often as the bearer of bad news (“That so-called ‘easy’ button is a big fat lie”)—and loving 99 out of every 100 minutes of it. Somewhere in there, I managed not only to go on, but to conquer. I’m far from the heroic, persuasive beacon of light I aspire to be, but I’ve come a long way, baby.

I bring this up not to toot my own horn—well, not much, anyway—but because after the seminar, when I was meeting people and answering individual questions, one attendee stumped me: What book, he asked, would I recommend for someone looking to gain courage?

I had no answer for him—so much so that I asked if he would email me later, to remind me. He didn’t, but I could not forget; it haunted me, which, for my money, is the mark of a great question.

So here, Dear Mystery Actor, is what I’d recommend:

First, there is no one book. Some people learn their lessons best from biography (and now, memoir); some people prefer wisdom served up as myth, fairy tale, or fiction. For every person who gets something from a straight-up, how-to book, there is probably one who learns only from reading Greek tragedy or modern poetry. (Note: I have not met either of these, but I would like to.)

I like a mix of stories and more straightforward data. As a girl, I distinctly remember obsessing over two Scholastic books: one, on Madame Curie; and another, on intrepid reporter Nellie Bly. (My grandfather bought me the latter after seeing how entranced I was by the former. Since it was by then quite clear there would be no grandson in his future, he was going to do his damnedest to show me that girls could accomplish every bit as much and as well as boys.)

The stories that teach me about courage are those about people who act courageously in the face of challenge. And the stories don’t necessarily have to end in “success.” Like Oprah and everyone else, I loved Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo in her 20s. But I also loved Into the Wild, the story of young Christopher McCandless, whose courageous spiritual quest ended in his own untimely death in frozen Alaska. And I love no less Megan Daum’s brilliant collection of personal essays, My Misspent Youth, in which she fails to conquer Manhattan at all!

For gathering the courage to keep pursuing my mad dream of acting so many years and careers into life, I loved the similar “second-act” stories in Po Bronson’s What Should I Do with My Life?, as I did those in Maureen Anderson’s The Career Clinicgathered from years of her favorite radio interviews—although it was the metaphysical Way of the Peaceful Warrior that arguably let me see such change was possible in the first place.

When life is just too much and I need the courage to face another crazy day, I often reach for my copy of meditation teacher Jack Kornfield’s outstanding, multi-hour audiobook, The Roots of Buddhist Psychology. (It’s my “desert island” book, if the rock comes with electricity and a CD player.) When I need the courage to keep writing, I grab Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird—or sometimes, an exercise from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, since there comes a time when action trumps reading.

That’s the main message in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, whose very title has its roots in the mighty power of the humblest action; the phrase comes from a famous Teddy Roosevelt quote about there being more success in a “failed” action than in all the brilliant critiques combined. And when I need a little nuts-and-bolts help acting, I have another stack of go-to’s: The Artist’s Way, which, through a series of organized actions, helped me dare to become an actor as a middle-aged hag in her 30s; Your Best Year Yet, a systemized plan for creating values-centered goals that work; or even Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life, a feng shui book that gave me the courage to get over a devastating breakup. (That two $10,000 residual checks showed up after I reworked my prosperity corner didn’t hurt.)

Finally, if you need the courage to start your own business (or to run it better), you can’t miss with my favorite practical, how-to manuals: The $100 Start-Up and Escape from Cubicle Nation.

In my experience, books show up as you need them, much like teachers and other helpers. And one of the gifts of being an artist is that we tend to be a little more sensitive to signals than your average civilian. Stay open to signals and opportunities, ask questions when the time is right or you’re moved to. And always, above all, act. In both senses of the word.

* * *

Book of the Month: David Richo’s slim, nutrient-dense How to Be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration could head the list of “resources that bolster courage”—so much so that, even in a column devoted to them, it deserves a special callout. Both from a practical and a philosophical perspective, it’s one of the best books I’ve read on gaining peace of mind by releasing expectations. Throughout, Richo provides great examples, exercises, and meditations. And don’t let that “spiritual” scare you off: if you’re even a little woowoo-friendly, you’ll be able to handle the parts that aren’t firmly rooted in the study of psychology. Clearly and thoughtfully written, you’ll want to read it slowly and reflect on it deeply. (Hint: it would make a terrific selection for a spiritually-grounded book group!)

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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