Great interview with Ta-Nahisi Coates, one of the country’s foremost thinkers and writers on race, and a brilliant prose stylist. Here he is talking about the creative process, writing in his case. Really terrific, really important insights. It’s worth watching the video, but I know some of y’all (I see you!) don’t like to watch videos online, so I have transcribed some it here (although the whole thing is worth watching, it’s about three and a half minutes.):
When I came to the Atlantic I was in a very frustrating period because I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was not becoming that writer. I was looking for a breakthrough and I was not finding that breakthrough. I was banging my head against the wall and nothing was coming out. I would say it was very depressing. So, in my first year here I actually had to finish my first book, my only book, and I had to write my first story for the Atlantic. I had to write an 8,000 world piece for the magazine which was absolutely, I mean it was just hell. I was on unemployment at the time, I had just been laid off, and I was under a great degree of stress. I think I gained, like, thirty pounds that summer but what I’m trying to say is that I think breakthroughs come from that sort of stress.
When I got done with that piece, when I got done with that book, I was clear that those were things that I was not capable of doing before. You know, like, the writing was very, very different, the sentences had much more power. And I think a lot of that had to do with the stress I was under, you know, and I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself, like seeing what you can take, and hoping you grow some new muscles. You know, it’s not really that mystical. you know, it’s like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something that you had no idea that you could really be…or you quit the field and just say “I suck.”. That could happen too, but, hopefully you have a breakthrough, you know.
So much that’s important here. I acted in a play at the Magic Theater in San Francisco close to a decade ago. I don’t usually act myself. My main focuses are teaching and directing, but someone approached me about reading for this play, and I decided to do it, and was offered the role. I remember, close to the end of the rehearsal process, after one of the final rehearsals, I was out in the parking lot with some of the other actors, and someone asked the actor who was playing the lead role how she felt. “Like I want to disintegrate into a million pieces.” was her response. But then you know what happened? The production opened to some appreciative notices and audiences.
I don’t know whether the leading actor felt like she grew or not from the experience, but the point is that sooner or later every creative person finds themselves in this sort of crucible of exhaustion and doubt. What’s important about what Coates is saying is that such episodes are necessary to have breakthroughs. I think Coates’ insight is a healthy and necessary corrective to the attitude that many people aspiring to acting careers have. They aren’t ready for it to be hard. And acting teachers who assure actors that they don’t need to rehearse or prepare, but simply need to “be in the moment” and “follow their instincts” and take to heart other such banalities, aren’t helping matters. This profession will test you, in all kinds of ways. Finding work will test you, and then doing the work will test you. It will push you to the breaking point. And this a good thing, according to Coates. Einstein: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” It introduces us to strengths that we didn’t now we had and to liabilities to which we had been turning a blind eye.
This is my experience with directing: it is always an existential crisis and a physical ordeal. And I’m not the only one:
Most people think it’s an interesting career path. It’s not. It’s a terrible waste of your life, making movies. Your life will be sucked into an awful black hole of nothing but unpleasant things going on. “How should I go about making my first movie?” If you have to ask me, don’t do it.
Pretty much. And it’s enough to make you ask yourself what the hell you’re doing. But what’s heartening about what Coates is saying is that subjecting yourself to this type of state of siege is necessary to break through and come into your full powers as an artist.
From an NPR story this morning on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on people’s lives, ten years later:
The researchers were able to track down 334 of the study participants who had been living in New Orleans at the study’s start. They found that 10 years after the storm, more than 60 percent of the women in the study had bounced back emotionally to where they were before Katrina. And more than half of these survivors of the storm had gone on to experience significant emotional growth — making positive life changes.
So if you experience this kind of Hurricane-Katrina-of-the-soul moments from time to time, YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT!
And if you’re not, well, you may be playing things a bit too safe. Or you may not be in the right business.
Some years ago, I became friends with an author and filmmaker who is now completing training to become a Zen monk in South Korea. I told him (this was in 2013) that my most recent production had nearly killed me. “GOOD!” he said.
Now I know why,