My mom is fond of saying that “artsy people are all a little off,” and really she isn’t wrong. Admittedly I used to think about writers as having our own particular brand of crazy, but lately I’ve been watching a lot of shows where people in other creative disciplines sit around and talk shop, and I’ve realized that essentially we’re all the same.
I don’t mean formal interviews, which I often find a little dry and scripted (except Craig Ferguson, who I try to borrow from for my own interviews). What’s been appealing to me lately are informal, relaxed conversations where a bunch of actors or writers or whatever sit around and talk shop, pretty much ignoring the cameras around them. Think Dinner for Five that Jon Favreau did a while back, or Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, though lately I’ve been watching Variety’s Actors on Actors and reruns of The Green Room with Paul Provenza (which totally needs to be revived somewhere, like on Netflix).
I’m a big fan of these kinds of conversations, particularly when I get the chance to sit down like that with folks in my industry, whether it’s going out for dinner or sitting around the bar at a con. Those situations are often not only hilarious, but I always walk away either with something to think about or just feeling lighter for having been around “my people.”
We’ve done things at Can*Con here in Ottawa that try to take that energy and throw it on a stage, by pairing two authors who we know are good friends and just letting them just. Similar to the shows I mentioned above, what comes out of it is a really natural, relaxed and honest conversation that I think can teach a lot more than a formal panel or interview. If people are relaxed they share more, and talking with their peers they share even more. And what I’ve realized particularly with the ones I’ve watched recently is that there are some universal truths that span all creative types, whether it’s writers, actors, comedians, or some other group. Here’s what I’ve distilled it down to:
- Process is Process: What’s really interesting is that the creatives I’ve been watching all describe their process as something very fluid that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, even peers in their field. Process shifts between projects and tends to be very personal, and it takes a creative person to understand it. If you show a layperson the scribbled notes you’ve got hanging from clotheslines across your office as you outline, they’re gonna give you a weird look, but a visual artist will probably nod and understand.
- The Best Creative People Are Neurotic and Self-Deprecating: If The Green Room showed me anything, it’s that comedians are the worst for this – but really, we all are. It’s still a little mystifying to me listening to Nicole Kidman or Jimmy Carr or Stephen King call themselves hacks or that they’re certain their next project is going to bomb, even though every successful writer I’ve met says the same thing at some point, and I think it every day. Impostor syndrome runs deep in us all, and while that’s heartening in a way, it’s also really fucking depressing. I don’t think as creative people we should be arrogant, but can we at least get a break from our anxieties? Yeesh.
- Collaboration is King: In Actors on Actors, Gary Oldman talks about working closely with the artist who designed his makeup and prosthetics to play Winston Churchill, and the way he describes their collaboration sounded so much like a writer and editor, or writer and agent, etc. While we can feel isolated, bouncing ideas off other people and collaborating in some form can be just as important as sitting around a table with your fellow creatives, to gain those other perspectives and fold them into your craft. I didn’t realize the extent to which actors or comedians do this, too, and that’s really cool.
The reason why this is on my mind, I think, is that I’ve realized I’m at a point in my career where guidebooks and talks that are specifically about process aren’t useful for me anymore. I know my process, ad while I might pick up the occasional trick to add to it or try out, I’m not figuring this out from scratch anymore. What I think is more useful for me is to see other creatives’ mindsets on a variety of topics; I want to listen to them talk about how they’ve dealt with specific problems, or describe the background to projects I’m familiar with, and absorb their attitudes to see if there’s anything there I can work with. And when you sit accomplished creatives together, they’re going to ask each other questions an interviewer might not think of, and answer with details they might not reveal to someone who isn’t a colleague.
Honestly, the shows I’ve described have been amazing for my headspace lately as I’m working on my current novel draft. What we need is a version of The Green Room where a bunch of writers sit around and chat. Maybe with a host. Let me stew on this, and if someone wants to take that on, you have my support.