Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

A Safe Space

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 22, 2010

I did an interview for Ishita Gupta and Matt Atkinson’s online magazine fear.less that’s going to run in January. I was proofing the text this morning and I thought, “There’s a section in here that’ll be perfect for an end-of-year Writing Wednesdays post.”

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols and his wife, Diane Sawyer

The section was about Mike Nichols. His AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute had just aired a couple of days earlier. On the show a number of actors including Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep had thanked Mr. Nichols, quite emotionally, for among other things creating a safe space for them in front of the camera.

It struck me that that’s exactly what you and I have to do for ourselves as writers, artists and entrepreneurs.

It’s scary out there

Have you ever done any acting? I haven’t, but I can’t imagine anything more terrifying. Standup comedy maybe. Or cold-calling to sell life insurance.

Acting might not be too daunting if your line is

PRINCESS LEIA

Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi.  You’re my only hope!

(I saw Carrie Fisher’s show, “Wishful Drinking,” last night on HBO. It’s great. My favorite line: “George Lucas ruined my life. I mean that in the kindest possible way.”)

But what if you have to deliver, “I coulda been a contender!”  Or John Cazale’s incredibly exposed moment from Godfather II:

FREDO

I’m not dumb, Michael.  I’m smart!

I’m hyperventilating just thinking about the guts it must take.

Someone to watch over me

I have no idea what Mike Nichols does or says to his actors. It’s probably just natural to him; it’s who he is. But somehow he makes them feel safe. He makes them feel like they can expose themselves utterly, go all-out for an emotion, be as naked as a human being can possibly be—and he’ll protect them. He won’t let them look foolish. He’ll make them look great.

And I imagine Mr. Nichols does more than that. He probably knows how to kick actors in the ass too. I’ll bet he knows exactly how to communicate, “We can do better than that”—without it making the actor go self-conscious or freeze.

Creating a safe space for ourselves

We have to do that too. You and I. We have to do that for ourselves.

We have to create a safe space, where we can work without fear. A space where we can fall on our faces and it’s still okay. We can be wrong, we can be crazy, we can go over the top—and we’ll still love ourselves and accept ourselves.

Most of us have inner voices that rip the hell out of ourselves. No Marine drill instructor at Parris Island is as hard on us as our inner critic, our interior censor.

My aunt Peggy

My aunt Peggy died a few years ago. Her daughter Pat, my cousin, gave a really moving eulogy.  She said of her Mom (who had been a volunteer counselor for years at Planned Parenthood) something like this:

Nobody was less judgmental than Peggy. When young girls came into her office, pregnant and terrified and feeling like they had let their families down or done something “wrong,” my Mom would listen with total acceptance. She would not judge them at all. And that meant everything to these scared young women. They were safe with Peggy. They knew she wasn’t going to push some agenda onto them. She was just there to hear them—and to help if she could.

A New Year’s resolution

As artists and entrepreneurs, of course, we have to judge. Mike Nichols has to judge. He has to decide which takes to print and which to dump. He judges the performance, but he doesn’t judge the actor. The actor is already aces with Mike, or the actor wouldn’t be there in the first place.

I’ve got to be aces with me, and you’ve got to be aces with you.

Let’s make it our New Year’s resolution that in 2011, we will kick our negative, judgmental, pain-in-the-ass inner critic off the lot and bring in Mike Nichols instead. He (meaning we) will create and sustain a safe place for us, so we can go all-out in our work, be as fearless as we need to be—and still know that we won’t be judged. We’ll be accepted and encouraged and loved. And maybe even kicked in the butt a little. “But”—as Carrie Fisher might say—”in a good way.”

Happy Holidays, everybody!

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

12 Responses to “A Safe Space”

  1. Ulla Lauridsen
    December 22, 2010 at 3:32 am

    Amen to that.
    I once saw Robert de Niro play a janitor, who gets to fuck a young woman he is in love with, played by Uma Thurman. I can’t remember the movies name, but oh, he is acting like there is no tomorrow. A vulnerable, naked, raw display of emotions. He didn’t even need to go all out. He could have gotten away with much less, being already so famous. He took a chance and risked to look ridiculous. But as it turned out, that is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen in a movie.
    Maybe we should credit the director a bit too, not to mention Thurman.

  2. Ulla Lauridsen
    December 22, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Turns out I was wrong about his profession – the movie is ‘Mad dog and Glory’

  3. December 22, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Be it acting, writing, or cold-calling to sell life insurance (hated it!); deep down you know whether it’s a good piece or not. My goal is to take the ‘it’s not bad’ pieces and rework them to be better.

  4. December 22, 2010 at 6:59 am

    Wonderful, Steven!
    Thank you so much for your art and for being part of my journey in 2010.
    Thank you…

  5. December 22, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Once again, Steven, just what I need to hear. May we all create our safe space and deliver the timely kicks in the butt in 2011.

  6. December 23, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Wow, I LOVE this Steven- nice! In fact, I just saw Carrie Fisher’s special “Wishful Drinking” the other night, and that was one of the best lines in it. Side note it was filmed in my town, too bad, I wasn’t in town to see it live. This is a terrific message to leave negativity and judgment at the door of 2010 and start 2011 with a clean slate of wonderment, appreciation and gratitude.

    P.S. Your book, “The War of Art” is one of my all time favorites!

  7. December 23, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I do not get to see fear and embarrassment accepted and acknowledged too much in the mass media – failure and immaturity gets edited out of the reported lives of stars. It leads us to believe that they have some biological advantage we can never have!

    Your blog, work, books and Fear.Less does exactly the opposite. No author – let along a successful one – would dare to lay out his emotional battles with fear like the way did you your last post!

    You are amazing Steve. And human, just like me. So, maybe I too could become Somebody, like you are!

    Have a great holiday!

    Thank you for your warmth,
    -Shashi

  8. Max Baru
    December 23, 2010 at 7:38 am

    thank you!

  9. December 23, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Oh man,yes. To shut up that damn critic on the shoulder.For just one measly hour. Shut him up and let me work.

    Man,is that hard.

  10. Michelle W.
    December 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Recognizing a self-critical nature as resistance, I too have committed this year to speaking directly to the anti-muse and putting that little voice in it’s place. My motto in fact is older, bolder, better, brighter. Thanks Mr. P!

  11. December 26, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Here, here! Huurah!

  12. December 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    Sometimes we can provide just such a safe place to each other. A place where we can dare to stretch without fear of falling off the edge.