Featured Columnist: "Thoughts From The Third Coast"
“I like boring things.” – Andy Warhol
I am not a particularly charismatic person.
I don’t automatically light up a room when I walk into it. I could easily go to a party and nobody would remember that I was there. I can’t tell you how many times someone will say to me “it’s nice to meet you” while I’m tallying up in my mind all the previous occasions where we have met and the details of those interactions. I might casually suggest we’ve been introduced before, which invariably prompts a slight tilting of the head and squinting of the eyes, as though the other person is trying to squeeze that memory from their mind, to no avail.
This used to really bother me.
For most of my years as a young artist, I assumed that to be successful, you have to be a little bit crazy. You should be struggling to keep it together. I was led to believe that the most exciting and important artists are those whose work reflects their lives – chaotic, unpredictable, wild. Chock full of memorable events, unhealthy relationships, and questionable behavior. Maybe even throw in a substance abuse problem.
You know what? Fuck that.
I am an older artist now, and I’ve let go of the shame of being perceived as boring or unmemorable. Some of the best work I’ve ever done has come as a result of me embracing my inherent boring-ness.
Don’t Confuse YOU With Your Work
Let me be clear: Your work should absolutely NOT be boring.
Your work should be exciting and profound and startling and inspired and moving and terrifying and all the things. Your work should make people think and shiver and cry and laugh and see themselves in ways they didn’t know they could be seen. Your work should be dangerous. Your work should scare you a little bit
I am not saying it’s OK to be boring in your work. That is death.
But you, yourself?
YOU absolutely have permission to be boring.
Our “Doing” Culture
We seem to have gotten to a place where most folks feel like unless their days are interesting enough for a reality TV show 24/7, that they are somehow failing at life.
We are a “doing” culture. We place such emphasis on working hard, on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, on “making it” that we barely take time to stop and really contemplate what we’re working so hard to achieve.
I’m guilty of this. I’m a goal-oriented person, and nearly every self-help guru I’ve encountered (and there have been many) has suggested that well-defined goals paired with a very specific action plan are the keys to success. I was just barely able to stop myself from buying a shirt on the Venice Boardwalk last week that had “Goal Digger” emblazoned across the chest in big gold letters.
It’s all about the doing. What are you doing for your career? Where are you networking? Are you going to the right events? Have you defined your personal brand? Is that brand exciting? What are you doing to show everyone how exciting you are? Are you leveraging your social media properly to create the image you want to project to the world?
It’s fucking exhausting.
You vs. Your Persona
: an individual’s social façade or front that especially in the analytic psychology of C.G. Jung reflects the role in life the individual is playing
: the personality that a person (such as an actor or politician) projects in public: IMAGE
I get it – as an actor or other creative type, it’s hard to separate the person from the profession. It all gets mixed up and conflated and you come to believe that you are the persona or personal brand that you have created.
That persona is not you. Nor are the personas of those people you see on TV and social media.
Your persona is cultivated. It’s the result of selectively choosing which parts of yourself you magnify and turn outward for other people to experience. It is not the sum total of everything that comprises your sense of self.
In the age of social media we seem to have gotten confused about who we really are. We create snapshots of ourselves for other people to consume. After years of doing this, we come to believe that those snapshots add up to a whole person. They don’t.
Who are you in the time between those curated snapshots? Do you know? Do you allow yourself time to sit in the uncomfortable silence of not knowing?
Getting To Some Deeper Truths
Your job as an artist is to reveal the truth. I’ve always found it fascinating that when I tell people I’m an actor, they think that means I lie for a living. On the contrary, I’m a truth-teller. The truth may be exposed through imaginary circumstances, but don’t let the pretend part fool you. It’s about as real as it gets.
How can we know what our truth is if we don’t give ourselves time to simply be? All this doing creates a lot of noise, and it’s hard to hear that inner voice above all the racket.
In grad school, our movement teacher, Loyd Williamson, emphasized the importance of not doing. Every single class session began with ten minutes of nothing. In those precious minutes, he had us lay down on the floor in a darkened room and would sweetly remind us that now is the time in which to do nothing. Nothing needs to be done, nothing needs to be said, nothing needs to be achieved. Just be.
I have to admit I didn’t totally get the purpose of these exercises at the time. Inevitably one or more of my classmates (including me) would fall asleep and start snoring loudly. Not terribly shocking given how sleep deprived we were.
But the older I get, the more the lesson is sinking in. Yes, doing is important. It has its place. But it must coexist with not doing, with being. And to many people, that looks boring.
Being is not boring. It is the only way to truly begin to understand who we are. It’s that self-realization that is crucial to creating work that is not boring.
Might I be so bold as to say that in order to make art that is not boring, we have to be willing to be a little boring ourselves?
"La Dolce Far Niente"
A friend recently divulged to me that her motto for life is la dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing.
I like that.
What would happen if you dropped the “shoulds” from your life, just for a while? I should go to that party. I should work on that monologue. I should take that class. I should devote more time to my career.
How would it be to release yourself from that routine of doing (or what you think you should be doing), and operate instead on instinct? Not forever, but for a moment, or two, or three?
Better yet, do nothing and don’t post anything on social media about how you’re doing nothing. Newsflash: Taking a fabulously lit photo of yourself doing nothing that you can post on Instagram is actually doing something.
Don’t check your email. Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go to the gym. Challenge that part of yourself that tells you you’re wasting time if you’re not always working hard. It’s tough. That voice is loud. And it echoes back to you from everywhere and everyone.
Practice doing nothing. Make it a regular thing. Tune into your thoughts and feelings. What messages are they sending to you? Observe the world around you with all of your senses.
Over time, this practice of doing nothing, of being boring, will allow you to discover more of who you really are. Your true self will begin to emerge.
This isn’t to say you’ll suddenly become some enlightened and blissful spiritual being who’s ready to run away to a life of meditation in the mountains. In fact, doing nothing may begin to uncover some uncomfortable truths within you. But aren’t those the truths we want to reveal in our work? It’s those truths that make us human, and art at its most basic exists to explore our collective humanity. As David Foster Wallace says in his posthumous novel, The Pale King:
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places any more but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”
A Final Thought
This is not meant to be a diatribe against those who are not boring. I salute you, exciting people! I have to admit some envy of those whose very existence and natural charisma attracts attention.
This is simply meant to give some hope to my fellow artists who prefer a quiet night at home with a cup of decaffeinated tea to a raucous, drug-fueled party in the Hollywood Hills. There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have to try to be something you’re not. If I’ve only learned one thing, it’s that the way to make art that truly resonates with people is to be your authentic self. And if that self likes to be in bed by 9pm, then put your jammies on, tuck yourself in, and say goodnight.
Amy Clites is a writer and actor who relocated to the Third Coast (the shores of Lake Michigan) after 20 years in NYC and LA. Her last piece for OnStage blog about perceptions of regional actors went viral and was featured on American Theatre Magazine's Facebook page. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.