Hollywood on the Couch

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Getting Out of Your Own Way

For an artist, "being yourself" may be simple, but it's not easy.

I want to talk about the most important thing a creative person must know how to do---which, for lack of a better phrase, is just to get out of his or her own way. Or as cellist Pablo Casals said, about playing music well, “Learn the notes and forget about ‘em.”

Simple, isn’t it? You have a story to tell, plot beats to tell it, characters to live it, and the will to create it. (You may even have a deal to deliver it.) All you have to do is get out of the way and let the creativity “happen.”

See? Simple, right? Not exactly. Because, as a former teacher of mine once remarked, “It may be simple, but it ain’t easy.”

For years, as a Hollywood screenwriter, I struggled to “get out of my own way,” without really understanding what that meant. The phrase always had a kind of down-home, common-sense, don’t-make-such-a-big-deal-out-of-it quality that I was often frustrated with myself for my difficulty in achieving it.

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(Similar to my response to the advice to just “be myself,” whenever I was anxious about some upcoming interpersonal conflict. Again, simple but not easy.)

As it’s generally understood, “getting out of your own way” implies somehow putting aside the anxieties and doubts,ego concerns and career pressures, “mental blocks” and “critical inner voices”---pick your favorite pet term---that stand between you and the effortless flow of work. As though, if you just did enough therapy, or meditated deeply enough, or visualized sincerely enough, or manifested enough positive energy, you could disavow all the “stuff” that gets in the way of your creativity.

If only, in other words, you were different than who you are.

Because the simple fact is, we do bring our “stuff” to our creative endeavors, “stuff” that runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime, the irritating to the overwhelming. Some artists can’t get past their fear of failure; some struggle with a nagging sense of inadequacy regarding their talent; some feel the pressure of being unknown and thus feeling powerless. (Or even, ironically, the reverse: Norman Mailer once talked of the feeling of creative paralysis that came over him after he’d achieved fame. “It wasn’t just me sitting down to write,” he said. “It was Norman Mailer sitting down to write. I had to live up to him.”)

Add to that the relationship issues, financial pressures, marketplace fluctuations, and sense of isolation that creative types must contend with on a daily basis---and suddenly the amount of “stuff” you’re supposed to put aside in order to “get out of your own way” starts to feel like a veritable mountain of personal baggage.

That’s because it is. Each of us lugs around enough baggage to warrant the name Samsonite. It’s the trait we share with every other human being. Our “stuff” is who we are. Our hopes and fears, faith and doubt, empathy and envy, loves and hatreds and fantasies and habits and prejudices and favorite movies and the way we tie our shoes and whether we like asparagus and on and on and on. That’s us. Human beings.

One particular subset of human beings, creative artists, have all the same “stuff” as the rest of the tribe. Except for the need and desire to create art out of it. We may produce stories or screenplays. Or films or TV pilots. Or novels, poems, and songs. But what all artists, regardless of approach, really do is try to make sense of their “stuff.” In a language or medium or form that is understandable to the audience. In other words, “stuff” talking to “stuff.”

Now comes the paradox. If I, the artist, get out of my own way---that is, put my “stuff” aside so I can create---what’s left to explore creatively? My “stuff” is the raw materials of my work.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and just say it: there is nothing but stuff. Which is great, because that means I’ll never run out of raw material. As long as I’m a human being, I have an inexhaustible supply.

I began this column by stating that the most important thing an artist had to do was get out of his or her own way. Haven’t I just challenged this statement? No. I’m only challenging the conventional view of what that means.

Let me explain: From my perspective, a creative artist who invites all of who he or she is into the mix---who sits down to work engulfed in “stuff,” yet doesn’t give these thoughts and feelings a negative connotation; who in fact strives to accept and integrate whatever thoughts and feelings emerge---this artist has truly gotten out of his or her own way.

From this standpoint, it’s only by labeling a thought or feeling as either good or bad, productive or harmful, that you’re actually getting in your own way. Restricting your creative flow.

Getting out of your own way means being with who you are, moment to moment, whether you like it or not. Whether or not it’s easy or comfortable, familiar or disturbing. And then creating from that place.

As I said, simple but not easy.

 

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For information about Dennis Palumbo, licensed psychotherapist and author, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com

 

 

 

 

 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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