One of my favorite acting teachers was Jean Shelton. Her legacy in the acting world had gone back to The Group Theater, which held many luminaries such as Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasburg, and one of Jean’s personal teachers, Stella Stradler, who also taught Robert Dinero (just to name a few). The list of people however is freakin’ amazing. They pioneered the method from the Stanislavksi techniques and beyond to what American acting is today. Marlon Brando had won the Oscar for his role in ON THE WATER FRONT, which I think was the first time an actor won using the method.
So why mention this?
Jean’s daughter, Wendy Phillips, had come in one Saturday to give a talk about her experience in Hollywood, where she works as an actress and teaches. She’d acted with small time actors like Robert Dinero in MIDNIGHT RUN, Sean Penn in I AM SAM (loved that movie), and Warren Beatty in BUGSY. During a Q & A session, one of the students in the audience asked her what she could do to make it. Make what? Become a movie stah. Sorry foh my Asian accent.
Wendy said something to this extent: Become the best actress. That was the sentiment throughout Jean’s school. Be the best. Sounds easy to me.
Problem with that is someone is always going to be better, prettier, taller, buffer, richer, whatever. Not discounting skill or talent here.
Recently, I had gone to Miami, Florida and decided to read their inflight magazine, Airway. They interviewed lead singer of R.E.M., Michael Stipe. He said something that struck me in the balls. ”I never thought I was very good at what I do. That’s why perhaps the most important quality in a person, even beyond curiosity, is humility. Not false humility. Not false modesty, but a real humility. It’s an understanding that you really are no better than anyone else. You’re just fortunate to do something that other people respect or like or can pull something from.”
I’m the worst judge when it comes to comparing music, or even knowing the names to songs. I hear them on the radio, enjoy them, but since they don’t mention the titles, I don’t learn them. But the fact that R.E.M. has been around since 1980, they’ve got to be doing something right.
Now, what Stipe said hit me in the balls because I had finished taking a writing class from a reputable school that is known for producing good science fiction and fantasy writers. Part of the class was critiquing other students’ work, something that I’m not a fan of because writing styles can vary and still be great. When I read everyone’s pieces, I thought to myself, man, none of them are bad, and they all can write pretty well. When I looked at my writing, it didn’t differ much from a technical point of view. And I felt the same when I read most other published authors. Sometimes I feel there isn’t anything special that sets them apart. Not saying their work isn’t special, but that from a technical standpoint, there wasn’t an awe inspiring light from the heavens or a fire erupting from the cracking earth that showed me THIS IS IT.
Maybe part of the demystifying aspect of my point of view is the amount of thought and work I’ve put into the technical side. Taking a class from beyondstructure.com that broke down storytelling techniques to techniques, not theories, helped immensely as well. It seemed the writing class I took had 50% theory and 50% what I should include. Beyond structure broke storytelling down to it’s minute parts, parts that no reader, audience member should ever care about, but can feel when the techniques are used well.
Even though I compared my writing to others in the class, I never thought of myself as being exceptionally great or not. I took the class for the pure purpose of learning. I knew that in each individual story, different talents, skills, techniques, and tools are used. But a tool chest’s full is never used for a single one. It’s like using every ingredient in the world to make an omelet.
I write with no thought of bestsellers, fame, honor, or magnanimous glory. No plans of world domination. No plans at all. But they do creep in, riddling panic up my spine. So I take a moment and sip my coffee or tea and dive back in. Once I’m done, then my fantasies can fly as they wish.
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” -John Steinbeck
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
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