I’ve been in Portland for a week now. It’s a beautiful time of year here, cool and damp, studded with the usual rare bits of sunshine, but everything is in bloom, and people seem even happier than usual when the sun does come out.
As I did last year, I’m staying in a wonderful little house in a highly walkable neighborhood. So much so that while I have a car at my disposal, thus far I have chosen to walk1, to the grocery store, the world’s greatest bookstore, to meet with friends. Oh, yeah, I apparently have friends here, and we do stuff. A lot. Eating, mostly, but all the walking means I can eat with impunity. I’ve walked more miles and done more stuff and seen more people here in a week than I’ll do in L.A. in a month. All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent so far.
Yet if you had climbed inside my head for the two or three weeks before coming up to this place, this place I like so much that I’ve transplanted myself here for 2-4 weeks every year for the past four, you’d have been certain that I planned these trips up north as some kind of punishment. The nearer my departure date drew, the more my anxiety level rose. I had too much going on in L.A. to leave right now. I had no good reason to go, except that I’d promised; I’d sound like an idiot when people ask me why I’m here, just like I do when they ask me what I do. I’d be missing things: my colorist appointment; my own business mixer; my stuff. (It’s always about me and my hair and my stuff.)
Never mind those previous trips that I’d dreaded had turned out to be delightful learning and growing experiences. This one would suck. I’d be lonely. I’d be adrift. It would be a disaster.
* * * * *
You might write off this anxiety as a fear of failure, and trust me, that’s there in spades, but my anxiety and resistance extends far further than that. Sometimes it seems like I approach anything that presents any potential friction with a level of dread.
There are the tedium-based frictions: brushing my teeth; cooking vegetables; washing my hair.
There are the rejection/failure-based frictions: returning phone calls. Actually starting projects I am contracted to do. Following up with people who have expressed interest in doing new projects.
And there are the reminders-of-my-own-incompetence-based frictions: practicing guitar, doing my Nei Kung exercises, drawing, small-talk-socializing.
But the King Daddy of them all is writing. Writing is tedious. You are never guaranteed success. Even when you get good at it, you suck at it. There is little I dread more than sitting down to write.
As luck would have it, however, there is nothing I want more than to be a really good writer. And until you can go to the Really Good Writing Store and load up on that shit, you’re sort of stuck with plain old practicing. Which means writing, and plenty of it, and with serious, focused intent on improvement.
* * * * *
Success doesn’t help much to alleviate this mindset, by the way. As they say when you invest, past performance is not indicative of future results. If you’re looking for guarantees, the universe and your broker are fresh out.
On the other hand, success is not entirely useless. It’s proof that you managed to finish something once before. And it can keep other people momentarily occupied while you get on with the business of doing the next thing.
* * * * *
There are several things I do to keep myself writing. One of them is writing here, on the blog. It’s much easier writing privately, in morning pages or in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, but hanging my own ass out to dry in public helps focus my energies and inspires me to bring my “A” game in a way that cracking open a spiral notebook does not. (Although I still do the other, private kinds of writing. Because really, if you want to be a writer? Just writewritewritewrite. Like a motherfucker, as Sugar says.)
For this same reason of using the public to keep me honest and on schedule, I write a monthly newsletter. It’s a different flavor of focus: less “self-help”-y, if you will, but no less helpful.2 Ditto, the monthly column for actors: it’s useful in an entirely different way to write about what you know for different kinds of audiences.3 You can take classes. You can buddy up and swap stories. But outward-facing writing with accountability is just a sensible and grownup way of working at the thing you want to get better at.
Does it mean any of this writing is easy to do? No. Well, sometimes, for stretches. But not as much as you’d think.
There’s always some level of dread involved. There is dread because there is friction. There is friction because there are stakes. No stakes, no dread.
Once you’re really in, there is always some level of dread. Ergo, there must always be some form of dread management.
* * * * *
There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry, “show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.
You can, of course, opt not to eat beforehand. But you’ve been forewarned: food won’t be coming for a while, and you’ll be expected to work in the meantime. Without stopping to shove a sandwich in your face. And, if you’re “talent”, certainly without doing anything that will hamper Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe as they try to do their jobs. Can you work without food in your stomach?
I never thought much about “having had” while I was working as an actor, except perhaps that the production company was a cheap bastard. Which may or may not have been true, money had started getting tight by the time I got out. Really though, productions have always been expensive, because it’s always going to cost a lot to get 150 people together in the same place for a limited time to get one thing done. “Having had” was but one way of keeping the production running smoothly. All kinds of contingencies are planned for with a shoot: how we’ll rearrange the shots in case of weather, in case the baby doesn’t cry on cue, in case there’s a truck jackknifed on the I-5. Producers are professional dreaders; they worry in advance, to head as many worries as they can off at the pass.
Commercials (and movies, and TV shows) may suck when they’re done, but thanks to the professional dreaders, they get done.
* * * * *
If you have ever done improv, watched improv, or heard about improv, chances are you know about the foundation of improv: “Yes, and….” No matter how implausible the scenario you are confronted with, you embrace it and build on it.4
Yes, your hair is on fire, and fortunately, I have brought a bucket of water in my gigantic rubber purse. Yes, we’re at the top of K-2 in disco pants, and look: there’s John Travolta! Yes, and so on.
This is (mostly) how I handle my nutty little fears and phobias. Yes, I don’t want to brush my teeth, and I’m going to just fire up the Braun and see what happens, anyway. On particularly fraught days, I’ll play additional games with myself: I’ll just go in the bathroom. I’ll just pull the toothbrush out of the holder. Etcetera. You hear runners talk about this sometimes, that just getting the shoes on and stepping outside is often enough to get them over the hump, off and running.
I seek out ways to reduce friction nowadays. Sometimes it’s washing, peeling and prepping my veggies as soon as I get them home.5 Sometimes it’s placing multiple reminders in the calendar about shopping for Girl Drag before a big event (I resist my Girl Drag more and more). DVDs help get Mt. Laundry folded and put away. Arriving at conferences a day before the madness begins helps me ramp up to the crush.
With writing, it basically boils down to keeping my ass in shape, then parking it in a chair from a certain hour to another hour so my hands can make the clackity noise. The pile of supposably good writing grows incrementally, day by day, week by week. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that’s been my experience so far. By all means, reduce friction where you can here, too. Make sure you are fed and watered (not too much). Get a good night’s rest. Have your public-facing stuff, your accountability groups, your coaches and classes, your blah blah blah. Then sit down and write.
No matter what you do, the writing will probably hurt a little. There’s only so much friction to be removed.
Dread, and write. Get slowed to a crawl, and write. Write write write. (And please, feel free to substitute “parent” or “paint” or “calculate” or what you will for “write”.)
The dread makes sense. But it alone can’t make you stop.
1Or take the bus. Portland also has an outstanding public transit system, possibly the best feature of which is that they refer to those 65+ plus as “honored citizens.” Something to consider when planning one’s retirement.
2Two points here. First, re: the “self-help” moniker, I wrestle with this all the time, as some of my friends know. In fact, I had a long discussion here in Portland this weekend with a writer whom I greatly admire about how conflicted one feels, being labeled as a self-help writer. On the one hand, it’s the thing you hope for most, that your writing “lands” and actually helps someone in the process. On the other, well, come on. The genre is neck-in-neck with fantasy sci-fi and business for crap writing.
Second, writing the newsletter is just as helpful to me as a writer as writing the blog is these days. It forces me to organize my thoughts differently, and that’s always good, to be able to organize your thoughts in different ways. But the newsletter itself is arguably more helpful to readers, or more readers, anyway, than this blog is. It’s more straightforward in the way it serves up tips and ideas; the blog is more elliptical. So if you’re looking to be a better communicator and you don’t want to dick around with “self-help”-y stuff, by all means, quit reading this silly blog and subscribe to the newsletter.
3Recently I also began blogging for my wonderful friends and clients at the ASMP. Only a couple of posts so far, but writing for photographers, like writing for actors or designers, is a different game and keeps me sharp. Highly recommended, writer-types.
4Nothing beats a real, live class for learning the value of improv, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom runs a close second, and is a delightful read, to boot.
4I’ve done this off and on for most of my adult life, but reading this post on barriers by Ramit Sethi really helped me recommit to this simple but effective practice. Bonus: it may help you recommit to improving your finances as well.