motivation

Special

Mike Birbiglia describes love in Sleepwalk with Me:

Deep down, our whole lives, no matter how low our self-esteem gets, we think, ‘I have a special skill that no one knows about and if they knew they’d be amazed.’ And then eventually we meet someone who says, “You have a secret special skill.” And you’re like, “I know! So do you!” And they’re like, “I know!”

Isn’t that basically the improv community, too?

In one of the recent Magnet Theater Podcasts, Sebastian Conelli and Louis Kornfeld discussed the ego’s role in improv. (“Um”s, “like”s, and “ya know”s removed from quotes below.)

LOUIS: You need an ego to be a good performer. Because on a certain level, whether you’re a stand-up or… an improviser… there’s a part of you that feels like, ‘there’s something special about me.’ And sharing that out with people… gratifies this sense of ‘I’m a special person.’ …I think it’s a lie to not accept that… it’s sort of very much at the core of performing anything… you feel like you have something worthwhile in you that other people should be exposed to.

SEBASTIAN: Yes. 100%. …Anyone that’s signing up for Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, HAS to feel that inside them. There’s no way. I mean, I understand there are people that do it for fun, because they wanna let loose, but at some point inside of them, they have to feel that.

Also this:

LOUIS: On my more honest days, it’s definitely like, ‘I’m a special guy.’ …If you lie about it to yourself, and you kinda surround it with false modesty… all you really end up doing is creating this grotesquely arrogant shadow part of your personality that secretly feels like it’s better than everybody. And it feeds all this ugly gnarly shit into your behavior over time that erodes… at… you acting like a decent person. But owning up to it and risking coming across a little bit egotistical, but acknowledging that… ‘I have an ego, I’m a special guy… and that’s sort of the battery that’s running the stuff that I do,’ I think in a lot of ways, actually makes it a lot easier to not build false superiority. If anything, it makes you accept your humilities in a much more honest way.

 

Let’s review.

Q: Why am I doing improv?

A: Good question.

Here’s my most recent take:

I want honest approval. I want someone to tell me I’m doing a good job. I want to be liked. I want to learn this secret special skill, and whip it out and show it to non-improvisers and accept their laudations of ‘what a secret special skill you’ve got there!’

(Probably other reasons too, but first let’s own up to wanting to feel special.)

 

Q: Why perform?

A: Good question.

I’m not sure.

Because I am more likely to get the approval I crave when I am in a comfortable low-stakes environment, I’m happy to limit my comedy to practice rooms + drinks with friends, and avoid the stress and heartbreak and disapproval of going onstage.

So maybe I can coax myself onstage like this:

The more people who sing my praises, the better. To achieve the highest level of approval, I’ll show off my secret special skill for lots of people, a whole AUDIENCE of people, and get SO MUCH approval all in one go.

That’d be cool, right? But performing isn’t easy. Very few people kill their first time. And the way you increase your odds of having a performance like that is to do lots of them, until you start hitting the mark more often. So you’ve gotta keep on truckin’. Yeah, performances kinda suck right now, but they won’t always.

‘Cos how great would it be to have an ENTIRE ROOM in stitches?

Is something like that even in me? Can I do that?

Yes!

Yes, I think I can!

I’ve already done it! Remember “dead presidents?” Maybe it wasn’t “good improv,” but wasn’t it a thrill?

You can’t make everyone like you, but with time and dedication and hard work, you can make a large percentage of them like you for half an hour.

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Coming out

Woooooooo!!!

 

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving a social gathering, my good friend since middle school (high school besties!) took me aside and shyly/excitedly mentioned that she was taking group music lessons, and she somehow ended up being the singer, and the group was performing in a bar in our hometown in a couple weeks, and, y’know, if I had time, maybe I could swing by?

“YES!” I screamed, surprising both of us. “YES holy fuck that’s AWESOME!!!!!!!”

This past week, I drove an hour to come see her, and it was amazing. All the student musicians had only first touched their instruments three months ago, and I was super impressed. But the part that made my heart explode— my introverted friend strutted onto that stage and fucking OWNED it, on pitch, rocking the fuck out. Were there a couple notes that weren’t quite what I remembered from the radio cuts, maybe. I didn’t care. I was grinning with glee the whole freaking time.

And I thought: I bet this is what it’s like for outsiders to come watch their friends do a Level 1 improv class show.

If I’d known, back when I was taking Level 1, that my beginner-level skills had the power to spark such joy for other people, I’d’ve told everyone.

 

……….

 

I just hit my one-year-since-starting-Level-1 Improv-ersary last week.

 

And my brain said:

Hey.

It’s been a year, and I’m still doing this.

Why am I still doing it?

I’m sort of convinced that everyone secretly hates me, and I’m working through some petty angry drama on my end right now, so the social thing isn’t a strong motivator these days, so… not that.

I didn’t suddenly get good at improv, so not that.

It still scares the bejeezus out of me, so not that.

Right now, I’m not taking classes, I’m not on a team, and I’m not organizing a practice group. I have zero obligation to commit time to improv, but I’m still carving out time for it.

Why?

Am I in this for real?

Have I proven that I’m not going to drop this the moment it gets hard to handle?

Am I an improviser yet?

 

……….

 

I have told probably ~4 people outside of the improv community that I do improv. Word spreads anyway— “Wait, whoa, WHO said I was doing an improv thing last Friday? I never told HER I do this…!”— and photos/posts/links/event tags leak through Facebook, even if you hide stuff from your Timeline.

I’ve always been afraid that non-improvisers:

  1. Will judge me offstage, because I’m not the most hilarious person offstage.
  2. Will judge me onstage, because they’re expecting Whose Line and I’m Amateur Hour.
  3. Will constantly ask me “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll go through a rough patch where I don’t want to talk about it, or I’ll quit improv and everyone will keep asking “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll have to face a bunch of really awkward uncomfortable conversations.

Those are all still concerns. I’m not going to start broadcasting my improv life to the world anytime soon.

But with hitting the one-year mark, something in me was like: You can come out now. Maybe this IS just a phase for you. But it’s shaping up to be a long phase. And it’s been a part of your life for long enough. You shouldn’t have to hide it.

So. This little light of mine? Maybe it’s time to start creeping out from under this bushel.

 

……….

 

My friend and I chatted after she sang her heart out in the bar.

“Some woman came up to me and said, ‘You looked like you were having fun!'” she said. “In other words, we sounded awful!”

“No no no no no no no!” I said. “Looking like you’re having fun onstage is half of it!”

She seemed skeptical.

“No, so, look, I’ve been doing improv— comedy— in New York for a year—” I blurted.

“Wait, WHAT?!” she said. “That’s awesome! How did I not know this?!”

“You didn’t know because I don’t tell anyone. I think you’re the fifth person I’ve told. I’m coming out, haha!”

She chuckled. I prattled on.

“In the improv that I’ve been watching, the best groups are the ones having the most fun, see. Skill is part of it, sure, but if YOU ain’t having fun, ain’t NOBODY having fun.”

 

That’s where I am right now. Stop hiding. Come out, have fun, shine bright. Only asshole snobs give a fuck whether your brightness comes from a $2 LED flashlight or a $4000 track lighting system. Bright is bright, and your brightness has the power to rock the world of everyone around you.

Failing greatness

WARNING: Not so comedic. Some discussion of suicide. (1) I’m not suicidal right now, don’t worry about me. (2) If you think it might be a trigger for you, or generally uncomfortable, you might want to skip this one.

 

———-

Prelude: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about laziness and depression.

I’m not depressed (probably?). I am lazy and insecure with self-confidence issues.

And I’ve been waffling about hitting the “publish” button on this for a couple weeks. Why do I need to be so open? Is it a cry for attention? Does it belong on this blog? Does it belong anywhere?

…Fuck it, let’s go.

 

———-

Two things I encountered yesterday morning:

  1. A quote from Amy Poehler, as illustrated by Zen Pencils: “Great people do things before they’re ready.”
  2. A quote from Stephen Thompson, towards the end of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour (31:13): “People who achieve greatness in all sorts of capacities are obsessive people.”

Neither of those refers to me.

I think it’s normal to see people we really admire (“great”) and analyze: what exactly makes those great people so great? What separates them from the riff-raff? What can I do to put myself on the right side of that threshold? —which is why these kinds of quotes are so prevalent, and why I assume so many people find them motivational.

My gut translation of quotes like that is: “Worthwhile humans have XYZ trait, but you don’t have XYZ trait, therefore you are worthless. Just give up. There’s no point.”

 

———-

Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal does a lot of comics about what he calls “the Blerch.” [link] [link] [link]

I haven’t been getting anything done lately. My Blerch is winning.

It’s always been a battle for me, as I assume it is for most people. (Why else would Inman’s Blerch comics be so popular, right?)

Do most people plan their whole lives around the assumption that they won’t do anything unless they have to do it? ‘Cos I do.

 

It’s why I have a rigorous schedule for improv (when I’m in it; I’m falling out right now [see “Blerch” above]): classes on Mondays, practice group on Fridays, show-watching on Wednesdays.

It’s why I know exactly what days I’m going to run a month in advance— it’s on the schedule, so I have to do it.

It’s why I don’t cook or clean— Nobody’s making me do it, so I don’t.

It’s why I participate in community bands— I know I won’t do any music on my own.

It’s why I won’t freelance— I know I’d be late on deadlines and have no repeat clients.

 

Laziness/Blerchness is the commonest and most shameful thing in our western culture.

Severe depression is its own thing that I have no frame of reference for, but I wonder: what’s the functional difference between severe laziness and mild depression?

 

(Side note on how to combat laziness: Here’s a link I found that suggests breaking the thing you’re avoiding into smaller goals.)

———-

Robin Williams committed suicide on Monday (8/11/14). (He was one of the contributing influences to this “Robin Cartwright” pseudonym I use.)

When the news broke, everyone cried, “I loved [that movie he did 20 years ago]!”

I have no idea what Williams was going through. But if it were me, and nobody had anything good to say about any work I’d done since c.1997, I don’t think I’d be handling it very well, myself, emotionally.

…..

One thing that’s come out of this is that people are talking openly and non-judgmentally about mental illness.

I haven’t seen the line “suicide is selfish” this time around*, which is refreshing. (That line never made sense to me; when I’ve considered suicide, it always felt altruistic, because OBVIOUSLY the world would be a better place without me in it.)

*Ed. The “selfish” thing started coming up later. Dammit.

What I have seen is a lot of “mental illness is a real illness; if you are ill, get help.” Which… it’s more complicated than that, innit?

…..

John William Keedy did a series of photographs about anxiety, and got interviewed by NPR.

There’s a stigma that goes with having a mental illness. It comes with this idea of weakness of will. Which is weird, because if somebody had a broken arm you’d never tell them to will their way out of it.

Here’s the thing: with a broken arm, it’s either broken, or it isn’t. You look at an X-ray, and you know.

With mental illness, there is a whole continuum, and it’s pretty fuzzy. Sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “normal”; sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “abnormal.” Drawing a precise line between “normal” and “abnormal” is incredibly unclear, and has been debated among trained psychiatrists for years, and that precise line shifts from year to year, from DSM to DSM, from one psychiatrist’s subjective opinion to another’s.

I self-diagnose myself as “subclinical pretty much everything.” I show some signs of dysthymia, bipolar II, PMDD, SAD, anxiety, agoraphobia, avoidant personality disorder, etc… but I can leave my apartment in the morning and hold a job, and I am therefore “functional” and not truly “ill,” so it’s hard to justify the time/cost/effort of seeking help.

…And by the time I get to seriously considering suicide, I’m just SURE that I’m fine, and suicide just seems LOGICAL.

Argh.

 

—–

I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to vent.

 

In closing, here are some better and more articulate thoughts about depression to read, if you haven’t seen them yet:

  1. David Foster Wallace writes about his depression (1984)
  2. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half writes about her depression – Part 1 (2011)Prelude, and Part 2 (2013)

 

Finding passion

High on jet lag after a successful family reunion on the other side of the country, during which time I established myself as “one of the funny cousins” and remembered how good it feels to have people laugh at your jokes, I went to my first Del Close Marathon (#DCM16) on Friday night. After watching 7 groups of high quality improv, I’m starting to remember why I want to do this.

The best groups—in my estimation—look like they’re having fun. They are doing ridiculous exaggerated characters, and doing buttloads of physical silliness, and calling out everything illogical (which I love to do!).

I mean, that’s not all of it, of course. Part of what separates the wheat from the chaff (IMHO) is an extra helping of intelligence, wit, and fearlessness. And I have to face the reality that maybe I will never fully own those traits. But in the words of Rick Andrews’ Magnet podcast interview (~20:52):

“In Level 1, it’s ‘get over the fear,’ but it’s also like, ‘here are some tools,’ and you teach people character, and emotion, things like that. And they’re not tools just because, like, someone said they are. Like, the more I teach the class, the more it’s apparent to me that these are tools because they help us not think. Character and emotion helps you be in the moment and express yourself. They are ways to fight the fear. They are ways to kill that stuff so you can just follow your passion.”

and

“It’s just so much easier to follow passion than it is to follow…”
“…an obligation.”

My point: I’m finding that briefly distancing myself (both physically and mentally) is providing a helpful viewpoint for seeing that any worthwhile pursuit of comedy comes from love, not from obligation and dread… and I’m making a liiiiitle bit of headway in finding that love, and losing that obligation and dread.

Why perform?

I’ve read some examples of actors/comedians with performance anxiety issues. And I’m like, Okay, if they can do it, maybe I can too. But then I come to the stumbling block of Wait, if they can avoid these terrible feelings by NOT PERFORMING… why do they perform anyway?

From anxietycoach.com:

…There are people with a passion for creative expression. In this group we find performing artists, musicians, singers, actors, comedians, professional speakers and athletes. None of them are immune to performance anxiety. If you belong to this group and develop stage fright, you face a dilemma which cannot be avoided. Your spirit urges you to seek out the audience, even as your body warns you to stand back, and you must choose.

Not the best-written piece in the history of the internet, but it’s something.

Does my “spirit urge [me] to seek out [an] audience?” I don’t think so, not in general. (Or I learned to resist that urge years ago.) Case in point, hardly anyone reads this blog (or my Twitter), because I don’t publicize it (or my Twitter), in part because I don’t feel like creative expression needs a spotlight and flashing marquee to do its job. I’ve got some old beliefs that seeking attention for your expressions cheapens the expressions somehow, like the high schooler who joins the chess club not because she gives a damn about chess, but because it’ll look good on her college application.

So I’m back to the original question: if you have performance anxiety, why would you pursue the stage?

Do you crave the positive attention of an audience, but you’re terrified of negative attention?

Is it that terror of bombing that fills you with adrenaline and makes you yearn to do it again?

Do you have a “passion for creative expression,” and the creativity simply must be expressed publicly on a stage, and you are powerless to resist?

Why do performers perform? 

I feel like my failure to understand this is a big red flag telling me I shouldn’t perform. I dunno. I have a lot of thoughts right now, and I’m just jotting some of them down.

Will Hines interview – Splitsider Dec 2013

The Cherokee Effect Comedians: Will Hines on Deciding to Pursue Comedy Full-Time

http://splitsider.com/2013/12/the-cherokee-effect-comedians-will-hines-draft/

Will Hines did an interview with Splitsider in December. I don’t remember why I didn’t immediately post a link here. But now it’s been a couple months, and a line from the article stuck with me:

The most talented people I’ve seen along the way gave up and stopped. So a lot of those people go away if you wait. You’re intimidated by these people who are better than you but will probably be gone if you wait a year, two years.

I come back to this whenever I’m all “I’m terrible, I should just give up” (which is often). (Emotional dysfunction in comedy, what? Whole nother essay, stay tuned.)

Also: Hines too took his first improv class on a whim when he was 29! There’s hope for me yet.