Some of us are born with an innate sense of positivity. I am one of those people. I have this inherent sense that everything is going to be alright. It will work out. I have had some really dark times in my life but I’ve always known I was going to be OK. But over the last few weeks I started wondering to myself: is that a good thing or a bad thing? Why do I feel this way? Am I delusional?
Around the time I was having these questions an invite came to my inbox for the screening of the Brie Larson project Unicorn Store. I was thrilled to receive it because I worked on the film as orchestrator and score producer with the composer Alex Greenwald. We finished the film in 2017, it premiered at TIFF to mixed reviews and then disappeared. Seeing it reappear, and with such a great home in Netflix, was wonderful news.
Unicorn Store is a really interesting movie. It is about creativity, not fitting in, and believing in your dream against all odds. After the screening Brie talked about that aspect. She discussed how she too always had this innate sense of positivity, even as she got rejected at many auditions. At one she wasn’t enough of this, at another she was too much of that. She talked about how positivity was often looked at as a bad quality (remember me questioning if in fact I am delusional) but she believes it is actually a great quality to have.
The thing that struck me about her story was the fact that she wasn’t just talking solely about a positive outlook. She was talking positivity PAIRED with doing The Work. Going to auditions. Getting rejected and trying again. This was very interesting to me. Positivity by itself is not enough. We have all met a fellow creative or entrepreneur who has all the confidence in the world and is certain their gig will pan out. But when what they are saying has no evidence to back it up – no work, no research, no experience – it all just seems empty and pathetic.
This made me think back to my own positivity. The thing that has helped me maintain a hopeful outlook on my own career is because I can look back and see The Work. Yes, I’m going to capitalize those words because for me it is a very specific entity. When I started pursuing a career in music for media I had no credits, but I did have a body of work in the world of music. I knew that was valid, it had worth. Then I super hustled to get those credits. I put in the hours in the studio, I found mentors, I talked and worked with my peers, I scored anything I could get my hands on. Every year I have been trying to push myself forward, even if it is only a marginal progression. When you do The Work, when you track The Work, you don’t just have a positive outlook, you have supporting evidence.
When Netflix announced Unicorn Store, a dude on twitter – @TheJoeGil – came at Brie saying that she was just “riding the Captain Marvel wave” and had not put in the appropriate amount of work to be a director. Netflix responded simply with a list of Brie’s body of work starting in 1998: 58 acting credits, 53 award nominations, two writing credits, two short film directing credits, one composing credit, one producing credit, one Oscar, and one feature directing credit. I loved this defense, LOVED IT. Look at that evidence!
Sidebar: the Neftlix response was awesome but you don’t have to have that kind of body of work to be a director, or a composer or anything creative. You want to do it? Do it! There will always be @TheJoeGils finding a reason why you shouldn’t start but please ignore the haters. You will become better as you simply do the work. We all have to start somewhere, we all need to figuratively jump out of the nest without necessarily knowing how to fly to get that first credit. Start building your body of work.
The last question asked of the panel at the Unicorn Store screening was what do you wish you knew when you were first on set. Bradley Whitford’s was the most entertaining answer where he described his reaction to a director critiquing him as 3-part response: 1. Fuck you 2. I suck 3. OK, what? This, this I can identify with. Then (brilliant) editor Jennifer Vecchiarello responded to the question with the well known and important nugget: fake it until you make it; her example being how on her first set she was asked to drive a bus in Manhattan during peak hour even though she was 19 and had just recently got her driver’s license. She managed to do it! (Potentially an illegal situation and no one is suggesting you should go ahead and do this, but you get the point.)
I think the most moving response was from (also brilliant) writer of Unicorn Store Samantha McIntyre who said she remembered feeling at the beginning like she didn’t know what she was doing. But she wished she could go back and tell herself: “No, you do know. You know how to do this.” This meant so much to me. How often, instead of questioning ourselves, do we tell ourselves: “You got this. This is what you have studied, this is what you love to do, you freaking got this.” Examine the work you have done thus far. Surely it has earned you the right to encourage yourself a little. And in the meantime, listen to Jennifer and fake it ’til you make it.
Another reason why this evidence is so important is because sometimes the positive attitude just disappears. For me it is alarming when it happens because I am so used to it being there, a comforting companion in my creative life. For others they have to work hard to get it there in the first place and its presence is sporadic. But the evidence of your work will always be there. It is concrete. It is your foundation. That is why it is so important to create The Work and then continually build upon it.
When I have days (or weeks) where my positive outlook takes off on holiday the best way for me to keep moving forward is to create more evidence. I have a conversation with myself that goes something like this: “I know you’re worried, but look at everything you have done. Don’t you think you are doing the best you can right now? Do you think you are doing enough? No? OK, tell me what you think you need to do more of. You need to pitch on more projects? Great, let’s do that today. You need an updated reel? Good idea, let’s also tackle that this week. What else? What can I do to help you feel worthy?” I make a list. Doing just one thing on that list can change the whole vibe of my day.
Sometimes, when I am really feeling down I need to talk through these struggles with someone else, like my guy. He always pushes me to be specific. This week he asked me why I couldn’t just rest, give myself a break. I said I was stressed about things I needed to do. He made me list the things out loud. Then he told me that he was coming over and one thing on that list needed to be started by the time he arrived. He gave me less than 2 hours! All of a sudden I found my motivation. However, just the act of listing the items which I needed to do, and thinking through what should have priority, really helped. Action helps. Specificity helps. It takes us out of a foggy tailspin and points us in a clear direction. Asking for help is so important. I’m really bad at it, by the way. But we can’t do this alone and why would you want to? Together is better.
If you are like me and live in Los Angeles, you are surrounded by creative people who have moved here with big goals on their mind. Brie talked about this, how she loved living in a city filled to the brim with people pursing their dream and I feel exactly the same way. You cannot throw a rock without encountering a director, actor or composer. We are all battling away, finding a way to make ends meet while we create content that will hopefully be noticed and push us up to the next level. Everything I have written in this paragraph sounds clichéd but it is so freaking true. It is literally what we are doing. And in every city, every place in the world, there are people like this. It is up to you (as we discussed in a previous blog) to find these people because they understand what you are going through. They can help you hang in, and you can help them.
So: you have positivity (sometimes, at least) and you have The Work. Let’s talk about the thing that can make all this feel utterly worthless: Shame.
Shame is a fascinating thing. Shame is something we deal with alone and in the shadows. It is a bacteria that eats away at everything good in our lives. But because of its very nature, we feel we deserve it. We feel like it should be with us. We welcome it as a worthy punishment. We let it stay. Our shame feels unique (though it rarely is). Maybe it is about our lack of education in the area we want to pursue. Maybe it is our debt. Maybe it is our bank balance. Maybe it is about the quality of the work we create. Maybe it is about our family. Something we did. Something that was done to us. Something we witnessed. Something we ignored. We should be further than we are. We should be able to create something different and better than we do. We are broken. We are not enough.
A friend of mine recently posted an advice column on FB that dealt with this issue and I so grateful she did (looking at you Alicia Lara). The person asking for advice seemed completely empty, lost and defeated. My heart broke for her and I was so grateful for the response she received and how the columnist immediately zeroed in on this issue of shame. She wrote: “Shame is the opposite of art. When you live inside of your shame, everything you see is inadequate and embarrassing…..Shame turns every emotion into the manifestation of some personality flaw, every casual choice into a giant mistake, every small blunder into a moral failure. Shame means that you’re damned and you’ve accomplished nothing and it’s all downhill from here. ” It is so true! So often when you bring to light the thing you feel shame about to a trusted individual, all you will experience in return is understanding. Whatever you feel shame about, many others are in the same boat and are more than ready to give support.
I am bringing up the issue of Shame right at the beginning of my own exploration into this matter. You will be hearing more on this subject from me. I will now be a student of Shame so I can know how to deal with it, and understand how to stop its negative influence and destruction of my positive outlook. The columnist also wrote this: “You need to discard some of this shame you’re carrying around all the time. But even if you can’t cast off your shame that quickly, through the lens of art, shame becomes valuable. When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws.” Curiosity about the subject of your shame, and the source of anything negative in your life, can help this darkness turn into something twisted but beautiful.
I think it is our flaws that make our creativity so interesting and special. Our personal weaknesses require a resourcefulness in order to overcome, and this will both strengthen us and help us stand apart from others. We need to own what we are, every part of it, darkness included. It is our journey. Hopefully our story can help others if only we allow it. Only if it is brought into the light.
- I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life
- Unicorn Store – on Netflix April 5