On becoming a reliable conduit

close shot of wood shavings Once upon a time in a dingy Hollywood studio far, far away, I took my very first acting class.1

I was there because it had been suggested to me by my improv teacher that while my writing was passable, my ability to convey actual human emotion onstage was somewhere between "painful to behold" and "chair", and that if I wanted a chance at surviving the increasingly brutal cuts up the ladder, I should hie my civilian ass to an acting school now.

I wanted that chance, all right, and a whole lot more. Things I wouldn't admit out loud: to be rich, for example, and famous, and the envy of anyone I'd ever envied. But also things I couldn't articulate yet because it would be years until I understood them: to tell the Truth, to serve with meaning, to live. I'd wanted all of these things, the ignoble and the good, so very much and for so very long that when I stepped up to work on my very first exercise in this new acting class, I was like a human funnel for raw, super-concentrated desire. It was, by all accounts afterward, electrically exciting to watch.

The next week, I got up in class to do the same exercise again and I sucked. Hard.

And continued to suck, over and over, week after week. Well, that's not completely true: occasionally, something...magical happened, and I did not suck. On certain of these rare occasions (and, significantly, when I was either exhausted, well-coached, or both), I could move emotion as well as the most skilled members of the class. The difference was that, unlike them, I had zero control over this ability; it would either be there or it wouldn't. The experience was not unlike showing up every week for a bus that might take you on a champagne-and-donut-filled ride to Disneyland, or that might drive you to the wrong side of town, strip you down to your underwear, dump you by the side of the road and make you find your way home. At night. In December.

Finally, after about a year, I became reliably good at the exercises. Never brilliant, like that first day, not once, ever again, but good enough that people didn't shrink from being assigned me as a scene partner. One of them even suggested it might be time to move to another class, a more advanced class at a different studio.

I checked it out, enrolled, and promptly reverted to sucking. Immediately, this time, without even the whispery hope of a first, great at-bat to see me through the humiliating 18-month slog to the next plateau.

* * * * *

Here is the mission statement I came up years ago, sometime after my bloody epiphany but before I started dating things so I could place them later:2

To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.

I've since been taken to task by my more focused friends (i.e., all of them) for establishing an overarching goal of the mushier variety, my goal does not stand up well to the heat and pressure of daily life, nor does it offer many clues as to what "done" looks like. (If you spy any, let 'er rip.) It's even difficult to hold opportunities and projects up against a "goal" like that to see if they're a good match. Or rather, too many things end up being a good match, and I miss out on the kind of focused intent required to build empires.

Then again, I'm coming around to the idea that empires are a lot like boats, vacation homes, and fancy cameras: it's nicer to have friends who have them than to deal with the upkeep yourself.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful novel I read last fall that haunts me still. It's called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and if the horrible title doesn't put you off of reading it, maybe this will: it's about the life trajectories of two students of a masters program in poetry. (I know, right?)

Maybe after I've read it a few more times, I will be able to write a real review that does it justice. For now, the salient point is this: the author uses these two intertwining stories, one of a graduate who achieves early acclaim and concomitant financial rewards, the other of his friend who does neither, to paint as fine a picture as I've ever seen about choices, consequences, and the day-to-day costs of "success" (deliberately left in quotes). This is a chief gift of art, its ability to bypass logic and pierce the heart of the viewer, or reader, with truth through the use of meticulously crafted obliqueness. Great art may be the ultimate in teaching a man to fish: when someone connects the dots themselves, the resulting pattern truly belongs to them.

Communicating on this level, like any kind of deliberate transfer of emotion, requires off-the-charts levels of mastery. In order to do it well and consistently, provisions must be made. By the artist. At what sometimes look like extraordinary costs.

Don't kid yourself, though: there's a cost to everything. It's only the currency that varies, and the payment plan.

xxx c

P.S. Looking for links to old posts I could not find did turn up this and this (from 2008!) on the rather annoyingly sloggy slog this kind of work can be. Then again, I also found this (from 2005!) and this, which provide some actual, concrete steps one can take to ease the pain of conduit-refinery. The blog giveth, and the blog taketh away.

1I'd actually taken some acting classes as a kid, and even one in college. But this was the first one I'd taken where I wasn't, you'll pardon the pun, just playing around. I really and truly wanted to be an actor. Stakes change the game.

2I worry sometimes that this portends a future for myself fluttering with yellow sticky notes placed on everything, like that man who mistook his wife for a beret or just a garden-variety Alhzeimer's victim. Given how much I fear winding up with a faulty mind in an unbroken body, you'd think I'd be better about floating it in warm baths of alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Let us just say that my capacity for tricking myself has grown right alongside my other abilities.

Image by Matalyn via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.