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.”
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
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:
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!