Category Archives: Creative Responsibility
Q: How important is it to not just achieve a creative dream, but to do it well?
I think what you’re asking is really an issue of creative integrity. I’m not sure anyone starts out to put work out there that isn’t their best, but it happens. Some people are willing to sacrifice quality for success. Basically, selling themselves and their potential out for a quick return. Some people just don’t care. A lot of it comes down to maturity, motivation and professionalism.
I’ve always been someone who won’t do something unless I know I can do it well. That can trip me up sometimes, but for the most part, you’re not going to see my work until I feel pretty confident it represents the best of me at that time. You’re going to get quality and you’re going to get a professional who respects you as a human being. We live in an age of instantaneous results. The expectations that creates makes it hard to give yourself and your work the time, focus and protection you need to truly become something that stands out. Going to market too soon may pay off in early returns, but it will cost you in the long run because you’ll never know what you could have achieved if you’d given it more.
There’s another element involved, too, and that is respect for others’ time and talents. I’m not going to bring to market a product unless I know it meets high standards in my field. That isn’t arrogance, but understanding that doing something well is how you give and receive respect. When you respect someone, you honor them as a human being regardless of their position. And really, all of life comes down to how we relate to one another, so how you relate to others IS what life is all about and all of our creative work is really just play. It’s more important to me that you feel cared for as a human being than it is what you can potentially do for or with me on a project.
I read an article the other day by a screenwriter who said he always has a script or two in his car so if he sees Ben Affleck in the parking lot, he’ll have something to give him. Really? I think that’s terribly obnoxious. Is it possible that Mr. Affleck would accept a script that way? Maybe. Is that how you want to be known for doing business? Not me. (Would you want to be approached during your non-working time by a stranger trying to sell you something or get you to do her a career favor?) There’s a big difference between ‘taking advantage of an opportunity’ and having the self-respect to trust that how you do business is ultimately more important to your career than any one project.
You respect people’s time, talent and investment when you deliver your best – and you don’t waste their time with something that’s not ready yet. It really is a matter of setting high expectations for yourself and your work – and letting those expectations lift you and the work higher. You have to have the humility and discernment to take guidance from those you trust and the self-confidence to trust yourself when it counts. But at the end of the day, if you know you’ve put everything you’ve got into the work and you’ve delivered your best, well, that is the reward, isn’t it?
Q: But you talk about being bold? It sounds as if you’re after perfection, isn’t that risky?
Excellent point. I do talk about being bold. Because in my experience, I’ve always made decisions based on what I knew to be true for me – even when others couldn’t see the logic or reasoning. (For instance, I knew in my heart from the time I was 17 that I was meant to go to Bosnia – and for six years of turbulent life circumstances that calling simply wouldn’t let me go, no matter how many well-intended people tried to talk me out of it. I couldn’t explain why I felt called to travel there or why I felt attached to a people I’d never met – but I knew it was what I was meant to do and it proved that the calling was right.) I make decisions with my heart and intuition, and disregard the opinions of those who can’t see beyond the potential risks (which for some reason have never seemed that risky to me). So, be bold? Yes. Have the faith in yourself to make connections and act as a professional with those in your field you respect? Yes. Be willing to say yes to yourself and your dreams? Yes.
Perfection? No. Doing something well involves trust. Perfection never trusts. Perfection is built on doubt. Doing something well means listening to your inner voice when it tells you you’ve done everything you can and now you must let go and move on. Perfection will never get you to the point of letting go and moving on. Doing something well means you have the humility to know you will continue to grow – as well as you have done now, you will eventually do even better. Perfection has no room for that. It’s not built on wanting to deliver quality (though it appears that way) – but on fear of not being accepted. Never build anything on fear or doubt.
Q: Is it really a matter of being passionate about what you do?
Oh, passion, passion. Hmm. Passion has such a strong connotation of unwavering high-energy to it, doesn’t it? I hear ‘passion’ and already see the burn-out. But, maybe that’s just me. If you were to ask me if I’m passionate about writing, I would probably say no. If you ask me if I’m passionate about using writing to inspire and nurture the human spirit, I would say yes. I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that for me, motivation and purpose are my driving factors. Passion feels too fragile to be the anchor that will hold for all the ups and downs and getting thrown off and having to be the one to dust yourself off and convince yourself to get up again and keep at it. I think passion is good when it means “enduring love for what you are doing” – but if it means “always feeling the high” then it fails miserably.
I should add that high quality in our day and age is something that will set you apart. You do something well and you’ll already be at an advantage. You show the dedication to master your craft, trust yourself, display self-confidence built on humility, and a conviction in your dream and you have already elevated yourself above the crowd. People respect courage, they respect those willing to take a chance on their dreams, they respect those who aren’t scared that they’ll miss their chance and trust that they have the power to create their lives – but only when you bring respect, integrity and are someone who is genuinely good-natured and pleasant to work with. You have to respect yourself if you want anyone else to respect you – and that means having some principles. Old-fashioned? Maybe.
But greatness is built on that.
Art is a funny thing, writing, too – in that the process depends so much on our beliefs about ourselves. Other work is pretty straightforward (most of the time).
But in art, we revise, we seek critique, we revise again. We leave the work open to multiple voices, insights, guidance. Some necessary. Some not. And in the process of wanting to make it better, we risk losing what the art wanted to be in the first place. As First Trustees of our artistic work, it’s our job to translate that original vision from concept given to us to what appears on the page or canvas. And to do that successfully, we have to return again and again to the Vision.
What does the work want to be? Why does it want to exist? What is its purpose? What do you want it to do?
The answers to those become your measuring stick. A powerful tool to gauge whether or not suggested changes are right for your work.
Another equally powerful question to ask is: of all the artists and writers in the world, why did the work choose you?
You are the only one who can bring yourself to the work. And without you, the work would not be your version of it. There’s a reason that you are the one chosen to do the work. And that can be hard to hold onto, but oh, so necessary.
What much of this comes down to is faith.
Faith in your calling. Faith in yourself. Faith in the work.
And courage. We hear that word throughout our lives; seldom run into real opportunities to use it.
Courage is acting in spite of fear. For artists and writers, it’s owning our authority over our work. Being willing to trust our decisions. And being willing to be different.
So hold on to your vision and your calling. Get clear on the vision and move from there.
Once the great Hasidic leader, Zusya, came to his followers.
His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
“Zusya, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”
“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusya turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'”
His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”
“And I have learned,” Zusya sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?'”
One of his followers approached Zusya and placed his hands on Zusya’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”
“They will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
–Mystic Journey by Robert Atkinson, pgs 14 – 15
The question, in all our running around, learning to apply our craft effectively, engineering marketing plans, tapping into what sells, isn’t: ‘What do buyers/audiences want?’
But, “What can I give of myself that they haven’t seen before, through the uniqueness that only I can bring?’
There’s safe art and there’s authentic art. There’s work that pushes through mediocrity, status quo and proven formulas and there’s work that does nothing more than meet expectations. There’s opportunity to tap into our vulnerability and touch the human spirit, and there’s opportunity to say what has already been said in the same way it’s been said before. There’s a difference between listening to the work itself, to the characters, and rushing over it to hammer it into what people tell us it should be.
There’s opportunity when faced with mediocrity, status quo and proven formulas to lift them with something deep, fresh and beautiful that only we can call forth from within ourselves. There’s a malleable, raw opportunity to do something incredible, something important, at every turn, in every project.
And what makes the difference?
And only you.
There are two sides to creative projects: what the project wants to be, in and of itself, and what we want an audience to perceive and experience. In between there is a space. This space is where the magic happens – where the project communicates to the audience – without us. And where the audience takes over as they create in that space. It’s easy to forget this. Yet, for work to truly live, we need to be mindful of it.
The Work Has Purpose Even Without An Audience
Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that work does not need an audience to matter. As artists, we focus most of our energy in creating the work, giving it everything necessary to survive without us. This is our highest calling, to receive the work, to bring it forth, to nurture it and allow it to emerge through us. The work has meaning simply because it exists. It doesn’t need an audience to have purpose or a place in this world. All those drafts written and put aside in drawers? They matter. They count. Unseen work matters because it exists. (Not to be confused with unfinished work – which may or may not have found its purpose.)
The energy we pour into bringing forth the work is well spent, no matter if anyone sees it or not. On this side of the equation, we allow the work to develop into its fullest form and simply be. When our part is done, we are satisfied and fulfilled because the work stands on its own without us. There is nothing “wrong” in itself with artists bringing forth work that no one else sees. The work’s sole purpose may simply be how it changes the artist.
Yet, most of us want our work to reach an audience.
The Space Between the Work and Audience
Because we want to reach an audience, we usually have an intention behind our work – a reason why we create. We have specific responses we want to elicit in an audience. To entertain, inspire, touch, disturb, raise awareness, incite remembrance, elicit joy, forget, heal, delight, awe – we generally know what we want an audience to experience. So we keep that in mind as we craft our work. We control what we can, calculate where possible, refine and adapt to ensure that audiences respond as we desire. This is our responsibility as artists. What we are paid to do.
But, in our effort to do this, we need to remember the space.
Because the Audience Also Creates
When the work is fully formed and we’ve given it everything possible, there remains a gap. That space between the work and the audience where the audience creates its own experience. The audience interprets meaning, events, intention, and receives the work through the filter of their own experiences and associations. And that’s one thing we cannot control. What is communicated and what is understood can be polar opposites. Which can be why some work fails to generate the response and sales we desire. And certainly why some work, assuming it’s well done, fails to resonate with individual audience members.
But while it is a risk to the artist and investors, this gap is actually something we need to honor. Why? Because this is where the magic happens.
This is where the work can truly touch hearts, minds, souls.
We need to leave audiences enough room to engage in this creation. If we spoon-feed them every aspect, spell-out every meaning, leave nothing of intrigue or uncertainy, we deprive audiences of their ability to receive the full impact of what the work desires to create in them.
As we craft, we need to be mindful to leave spaces where the audience can meet the work on their own terms.
New York Magazine published an interview with actor Mandy Patinkin in which he talks about the impact of a script’s subject matter on an actor’s soul.
I quote from the interview:
“The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality…I’m not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals], but I’m concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”
Thank you, Willa Paskin (@willapaskin), for including this in your article. And thank you, Mr. Patinkin, for being willing to talk about it.
I’ve written about why writers should respect actors. Much of writing is spiritual in nature. The source of material is rooted in spirit and we draw on the spiritual connections we have to this material to access characters and translate their stories.
Actors do the same. Only more intimately, as they allow characters to embody and live vicariously through them. There is an inherent risk in material that includes graphic violence, crime, loss or torture. And while it is an actor’s job to make these scenes real in the mind of the audience, there is an underlying authenticity that makes them real to the actor’s spirit as well. It doesn’t matter that the mind knows that what is taking place is crafted and not spontaneous.
Without a way to safeguard the soul, actors can suffer from trauma – even to the extent of first or secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. But even more so, exposure to trauma can shift your spirit so that you start to see more of the dark side of life and less of the light. And this can lead to enjoying your life less, feeling fear more, and generally developing a distrust in the goodness that abundantly flows around you.
How do you protect the soul while delivering an authentic performance?
- Know yourself. Know where you begin and the character ends. Know what you believe, value, hold to be true. Separate yourself from the character and the story.
- Be mindful of the real spiritual nature of characters. It’s not talked about a lot, but characters are real and exist in their own dimension. Writers are the first to interact with the character, but actors must physically and emotionally experience a character and their story.
- Remember you are a conduit. Not a character. Why are you an actor? Because you love storytelling? You are a conduit, facilitating a character’s story. You acquiesce to a character’s experience in order to share their story. If that story resonates with you in some way, you will connect to it on a deeper level. Choose roles that call to you.
- Be aware of what a role is asking you to experience. Violence and trauma that serve a purpose in a character’s arch can be dealt with in a way that respects the actor’s soul and well-being. Support in the form of a confidential creative-spiritual life consultant, preparation for traumatic scenes and actions, and taking time to process how trauma affects you are all steps that can allow traumatic scenes and roles to drive inner growth, not damage it.
- Understand that it’s going to impact you. Know ahead of time that violent scenes and acts are going to affect you. It’s going to bother you. It should.
- Put boundaries on antagonists. Antagonists bring values and acts that conflict with moral principles. Their thoughts, desires and actions are not ones that will nurture your spirit. Actors who portray antagonists* are not antagonists themselves. Find ways to connect to things that support your moral beliefs, goodness, and compassion in your real life. Put boundaries on antagonist characters.
- Develop a safe place. One just for you. No character intrusion allowed.
- Don’t forget to create your own story. Your life goes on while you are in character. Keep it interesting and focus on what you do want to experience in life.
What if you’ve already been traumatized?
- Accept that your feelings are real. Emotion and expression are an actor’s lifeblood. But they are your spirit’s lifeblood, too. It doesn’t matter what caused your feelings, what matters is that what you feel is real. If a role or scene bothers you, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, the more perceptive and sensitive an actor you are, the more likely that it will bother you. There’s no shame in that.
- Ask questions. Mr. Patinkin asks a relevant question when he ponders if violent scenes are what we need to be falling asleep to. Violence certainly serves its purpose. But it requires a purpose with context for the human soul to embrace it. I, too, question the point of entertainment that involves senseless, overdone, graphic violence without ultimately delivering a life-giving story. This is a question for culture. But as storytellers, we need to be mindful of why we present stories the way we do and ultimately, the impact those choices may have on the human spirit.
- Seek healing. The farther up the A-list you are, the more complex wounds you’ll most likely have experienced. Navigating these wounds can be a complex process as well. Don’t let yourself lose hope that healing is possible. Don’t lose sight of who you are as a being of Source. Whole. Happy. Safe. Contributing.
What about the crew?
Anyone who witnesses traumatic scenes or assists in designing them is also impacted. You don’t have to be an actor to feel the trauma. Witnessing violence portrayed as real can be very difficult to deal with. Everyone involved in the Story should be mindful of trauma and be empowered with ways to work through the emotions involved.
*A note for actors who portray antagonists. Depending on the depth of evil your character involves, you need to be extra careful to guard your spirit. The things your character may think, feel, fantasize and do may be frightening. As you give this character permission to tell a story through you, you will come up against the dark realm of the soul. One that can be shocking in itself and present some of the deepest questions in life.
You may grapple with questions about human nature, humanity, suffering, and what has to happen to a human spirit and mind in order for it to commit atrocious acts against others. As you physically live out the character’s actions, you may find yourself struggling with your own identity in all of this. Audiences will relate to you for the dark characters you portray – and may not get to see the goodness in you as a person separate from the character. Don’t lose sight of the goodness in you. You are not the character; the character is not you. You are an actor, an artist. Let what you have learned of the dark side shine light on your work.
We are all responsible for tending to each others’ spirits
No matter your role, we are each responsible to tend to each others’ spiritual well-being during the storytelling process. Storytelling is a way to unite, to enjoy the creative calling and responsibility we’ve each been given.
Be sensitive to what others’ may perceive. Be mindful. Be kind.