When I’m established, when I’m recognized, when I’m financially secure, when I’m famous, when I have a thousand followers—ten thousand—a hundred thousand. Then! Then I’ll put in the work. Then I’ll do it for real. When the time comes, I’ll be meticulous, determined, confident, whatever is expected of the consummate professional.
At that point, how would you even know?
We see the pros deliver and tell ourselves: Well, of course. He was writing that essay for the New Yorker. She was directing that film for Disney. They were going to perform in front of everyone watching the Superbowl. Of course they put in the work. The motivation was there because, well, it was worth it. I’d pull out all the stops myself…were the circumstances similarly grandiose. But for this blog post, or that story submission, or this pitch, hey, it’s just me. I’m working on spec here. Any success is purely hypothetical. I’m working in my ordinary room at my ordinary keyboard with a day job and kids and other excuses, too—good ones! I can’t be expected to perform to the fullest, to the very extent of my capabilities. I need to keep something in reserve. One day, when I’ve got money and a reputation and an audience, when I’m safe…I’ll show the world what I’m made of. But not until the world is watching.
But why in the world would the world want to watch?
In an interview with Howard Stern, Sarah Silverman discussed creative longevity. Many of the talented comedians she’s known in her long career made a big splash at the start only to leave the field. Why?
“You have to love doing what you do,” Silverman told Stern, “and actually do it…When you’re naturally funny, you can be lazy at first, but eventually, you’ve got to get your shit together and work.” Seems simple enough. “I think it’s fear,” she added.
A century ago, Agnes de Mille wanted more than anything to become a ballet dancer. Her parents fought her ambition, delaying her training and otherwise stalling her progress. As a consequence, de Mille never developed the complete skill-set, nor the strength and grace necessary for the profession. As she relates in her memoir, Dance to the Piper, she ended up an adult in New York City trying to cultivate a solo dance career without really knowing how to dance very well. Not at the level required, anyway.
Deciding she needed a partner for her act, she auditioned a dancer named Warren Leonard. In sharp contrast to de Mille, Leonard was a pro. She asked him to jump for her:
He took off his galoshes, removed his muffler and overcoat and, putting the slippers on his feet, started jiggling up and down. “Don’t you want to change and warm up?” I asked.
“Why?” he said, staring at me blandly.
He jiggled twice more, rose vertically and touched his hand to the ceiling, then stood waiting for the next orders. “Anything else?”
“Jump like Kreutzberg.”
He jumped like Kreutzberg.
“Can you do ballet dancing?”
On it went. Working with Leonard transformed de Mille’s outlook. Leonard had no interest in coddling the amateur who happened to be paying his wages.
“You depend on your personality to get by with murder,” he said. “Never mind all that fancy feeling. You’ve missed your fall three times running now. And your back—how do you expect me to pick you up if you don’t hold your back? Don’t you care if you do a thing right?”
This was an old-time vaudevillian speaking—one did one’s tricks right or one got fired.
“I’m tired,” I whimpered.
“What that got to do with it? You’re scared too. Why are you always so scared? Afraid I’m going to drop you? Here, I will drop you. It’s not so bad.” He dropped me. Deliberately. I hit on my chest.
“It’s not so bad, is it?”
“It’s not good,” I said quietly.
At this nascent stage of her career—de Mille would go on to a storied career as a choreographer in the American theater—she needed to be dropped. That sprung floor was reality. She’d been living a fantasy life as a dancer. De Mille needed to get out of her head and into the work.
We could all use a Warren Leonard in our lives, someone to hold a mirror to our failings and set an uncompromising standard for our performance. As writers, however, finding someone with both the capacity and the integrity to play this role for us isn’t easy. Neither is playing that role for someone else. Most would-be writers don’t take kindly to being dropped.
For Martha Graham, her long-time musical accompanist, Louis Horst, served this function. In her memoir, De Mille, who knew Graham well, recalls Horst as being similarly uncompromising with his moody but brilliant collaborator.
“You’re breaking me,” [Graham] used to say. “You’re destroying me.”
“Something great is coming,” he promised, and drove her harder.
“Every young artist,” he explained once, “needs a wall to grow against like a vine. I am that wall.”
Tim Ferriss recently interviewed the famously prolific author Joyce Carol Oates. Here’s Oates on the idea of being “in the mood” to write:
You create your mood by working…If you feel that you just can’t write, or you’re too tired, or this, that, and the other, just stop thinking about it and go and work. Life doesn’t have to be so overthought. You don’t have to wait to be inspired. Just start working.
If you can’t find someone to be the wall for you, you’re going to have to be your own.