Our work is to reflect the world, to say what is true in the face of so much lying
"Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
If you missed it, a bunch of us introduced ourselves and shared our work in this thread last week. Feel free to hop over there and drop a link to something you’re proud of! I’ve loved checking out your projects.
This week I stumbled upon the speech that Charlie Kaufman gave at this year’s Writers Guild Awards, where he earned an honorary award for his career writing singularly original films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.
His speech is in part a call to guild members about why it’s important to strike if the studios refuse our requests in this year’s contract negotiations. However, it’s also a profoundly moving reminder of why we create in the first place. I found the entire speech so inspiring that I wanted to share the transcript with you all here:
Twenty years ago, I’m in the back of an auditorium watching a seminar called “How to Pitch.” One by one, supplicants approach a microphone at the foot of the stage on which sits a panel of experts: producers, executives, etceteras. No writers.
The first student of the pitch speaks, voice shaking: “We open on a barge in the middle of…”
“Stop! You’ve lost me already.”
Student of the pitch two, voice shaking: “A young man falls from the sky into…”
“No, no! Jesus, come on!”
And so it goes, these nervous young people step up to be shot down. Sadistic, I think. Payback for the way the panelists were once treated, I think. Garbage, I think. Training, I think.
We writers are trained by the business. We are trained to believe what we do is secondary to what they do. We are trained to do the bidding of people who are motivated not by curiosity, but by protecting their jobs. And we lose sight of what our work is.
It is not to contribute to their fortunes or our own. It is not to please them or critics or even the audiences who have also been trained.
Our work is to reflect the world. Say what is true in the face of so much lying. The rest is window dressing at best, Triumph of the Will at worst.
Adrian Rich wrote: “I do know that art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
The world is a mess. The world is beautiful. The world is impossibly complicated. And we have the opportunity to explore that.
If we give that up for the carrot, then we might as well be the executives, the etceteras. Because we have become their minions.
I have dropped the ball. Wasted years seeking the approval of people with money. Don’t get trapped in their world of box office numbers. You don’t work for them. You don’t work for the world of box office numbers. You work for the world.
Don’t worry about how to pitch. Don’t pitch. Be nervous. Be vulnerable. Just make your story honest and tell it.
They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them, but the truth is they cannot do anything of value without us.
Thank you for this award. I’m so grateful for the opportunity it’s afforded me to reflect on what it is that’s important to me about the work that we do.
Watch the full clip below. His speech begins at 5 minutes.
The speech reflects two things I think about frequently: Art as a tool to reveal the truth about the world, and the importance of remembering the power and agency that you have in your own life and work. There are many people who survive and thrive by convincing others they are powerless, valueless, only a cog in a machine that doesn’t need them. Anybody with a specific point of view is not replaceable. When you create original work that is honest, like Charlie Kaufman, you also cannot be replicated. Lord knows people have tried. You might not be right for a certain project. You’re certainly fireable. But if you have a unique point of view that you adhere to, if you express true honesty in your work, you are not replicable and you are not replaceable.
My value is not negotiable. Your value is not negotiable. Creating both personal and professional boundaries to avoid putting myself in situations in which that’s questioned has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. I encourage you to consider if there are any artistic or personal boundaries you can uphold to live more aligned with your own value, too.
In order to tell the truth in your writing, you must tell the truth in your life. You must be honest with yourself about who you are and how you see the world. Otherwise, you might still be writing, creating, producing, but it will be window dressing. It will be approval-seeking-creation. Sure, we all have bills to pay and we don’t have Charlie Kaufman money, so it’s inevitable our work isn’t always the highest reflection of our souls. But I will always strive to create for the world, rather than for making a rich person richer.
We must cut through the lies of the world and tell the truth. It is hard. It is exhausting. It makes me feel alone a lot of the time. But it is crucial. And ultimately, the opportunity to “say what is true in the face of so much lying” is why I do crave writing and creating in the first place.
As part of doing The Artist’s Way, I took a week off social media. It came at a synchronistic time. I’d already recognized my need to declutter where I put my attention so that I can focus on creating, and I thought an important step was taking a social media break. The next day, I read Chapter 4 of The Artist’s Way and was instructed to do exactly that. As pointed out by Julia Cameron, when you begin living in tune with the universe, life suddenly becomes overwhelmingly synchronistic.
At one point the idea of leaving social media felt impossible. I was addicted to it. Yet once I decided to walk away, doing so was easy. It has improved my life in only two weeks. I feel more connected to myself. More present in my days. I’m not constantly interacting with the biggest lie of our era — the collective performance of the Self. I’m not thinking about other people all the time and their lives, successes, problems, whatever. I’m not thinking about how I’m perceived. I’m focused on myself.
After a week off Instagram, I was afraid to open it back up and get sucked in. But I did, and… it was fine. I did not return to doom-scrolling. I have not endlessly watched stories due to boredom. I am simply not addicted to it anymore. I can use it, but also completely detach from it. In doing so, I feel freer and more authentically myself.
Stepping away from social media has helped me find more honesty and truth in what it is I actually want to create with my work. I’m not quite sure how it applies to my Substack yet. I know I always want to write honestly here. I know I don't want to chase the likes, comments, shares just for an adrenaline rush. I don’t want to pursue growth for growth’s sake. I also know that I am so grateful for every person who I get to share my work with. I’m honored to have a platform to engage and consider these ideas, and I’m so grateful that each one of you has invited me into your inbox. I am still exploring, and I invite you to explore, too.
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