John Ostrander: Conviction
My very good friend, William J. Norris, is an excellent actor, a wonderful director, an inspiring playwright (I wrote my first play because I really admired a play that he wrote and that led, in turn, to my writing career), and one helluva teacher. I should know. I’ve stolen cribbed borrowed applied so many ideas and concepts from his teaching into my own attempts.
I met him one night for drinks after he taught an acting class and he told me that a student came up to him after a session and asked Bill if he thought the student could act. Bill said, “No.” William J. says that every time a student asks him that question, he gives the same answer. That seemed a little brutal to me in this nurturing, everyone-wins-an-award-for-showing-up era we live in. Bill said he was being kind; the life of an actor – of any artist, actually – is hard enough and if someone can be talked out of it, they should be.
He was, and is, right.
In my own theater days one of sidelines I pursued, on occasion, was that of a freelance actor coach, focused on helping someone with their auditions. It was surprising how many actors (and I include myself overall in this) let their sense of self-worth hinge on whether or not they got a call-back or were cast in the part. The whole artistic process is too narrow a reed on which to hang so weighty an existential question – do I have worth?
I encounter a variation of this at the lectures on writing.
I do. At the onset, I ask who is interested in writing. Some hands go up. I ask the hands, “Are you a writer?” You’d be surprised at how many people equivocate. “Well, I’m trying to be. . .I don’t know. . .Maybe. . .” All those answers are wrong.
If someone says that yes, they are a writer, I then ask, “Are you a good one?” Again, I often get equivocation – they want to be a good writer, they hope someday to be a good writer, and on and on. I slap the buzzer. Errnk! Again, wrong answer.
There’s a right answer but it’s also a trick answer: “Yes, I’m a writer. I’m a good writer. Not as good as I want/going to be yet.” That’s the right answer.
Here’s the trick part: you have to mean it. You have to believe it. If you don’t, why should anyone else? You have to have conviction.
I’ve sometimes compared writing – or any creative, artistic endeavor – to a circus. Sometimes you are on the high-wire, working without a net. You put one foot in front of the other and you don’t look down.
Sometimes it’s like being on the trapeze, and then the spotlight goes out. You let go of one trapeze and reach out into the darkness, believing that there is another trapeze bar and that there is another set of hands that will grab yours. You have to believe.
Sometimes it’s like being the clown car; you putter into the central ring and then all of these strange, absurd, maybe wonderful beings come out of you. If they don’t then you’re just a stupid little car in the spotlight. You have to trust in your inner clowns.
You don’t ask whether or not you can write. If you have to ask, then you can’t and won’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best thing anyone has ever written or even if it’s the best you have ever written. You put the words down and you decide later if you like them. You have to believe in your talent. You’ll figure out later if the writing is good, bad, or indifferent. For now, you’re writing and that’s what a writer does. A writer writes.
In the belief – not the hope, not the wish – in the belief that they can.
MONDAY MORNING: Mindy Newell
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten
I’m not sure who it was – but one of the Golden Age SF writers defined “writer” very simply – “A writer is someone who cannot not write.”
Fred Pohl once said that he had one simple rule – he writes writes something, anything – for an hour a day.
He said that more than once, he would open up his portable typewriter on his lap in an airport lounge and write for an hour, then and there.
This blue-and-white meshwork background makes the text in some comments hard to read.
Hopefully this makes things better?
My neice Isabel, who is about thirteen, has an A-MAZING set of pipes. She’s an incredibly talented kid, also plays the cello and the piano. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, she went to audition for ANNIE on Broadway; though she’s a bit old for the part–they’re looking for kids from 6-10–she is a little small for her age. Her mom wanted her to get to see what it’s like–there were 350 kids there!!!!
She did very well, sang WHERE IS LOVE from Oliver (though her mom wanted her to sing something from Sondheim, she left it up to Isabel.) The response was: “Very, very nice. Thank you.”
She wasn’t too disappointed, I think, especially as it was a new experience for her; still, I told her today that if she wants to be in the creative arts, she had better be SURE–have conviction, as you say, John–and absolutely, positively BELIEVE IN HERSELF, because it’s going to be DAMN hard.
Once again you knocked it out of the park, John.
P.S.: I’m going to send this column to my sister-in-law to show Izzy.