Last night, while browsing the internet avoiding doing my 500 words of daily writing—I’m working on a novel—I happened upon Jerry Lewis’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. For those of you familiar with that program, I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.
I’m not sure what I think of Jerry Lewis. When I was a boy, I loved his films. As I got older, I probably felt that I outgrew his comedy, and I had more mixed feeling about that whole generation of entertainers, the whole Rat Pack scene, a mixture of the admiration for the range of their talent but uncertainty about their politics—racial, political, sexual. Honestly, I started watching the program because of the mixture of those phrases “Jerry Lewis” and “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
The program blew me away: a study in relentlessness, in focus, in unexpected self-awareness, in an incredible drive to create and succeed in music, comedy, stand-up, acting, directing, editing, writing. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. From that cerebral din, still going on, the following lessons have so far emerged. None of these come from Lewis himself said. He said little, for example, about writing. I’m not even sure whether I believe all of them, or any of them. But in this fever, I want to get them down:
- Don’t waste time and energy lamenting that the world doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. You have no idea what the world wants. The world is a big place with lots of people who want and don’t want lots of things. Some people watch and lov Dog the Bounty Hunter. Some people’s lives revolve around Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (Let us hope that, for their sake, they are not the same people). Some people choose not to own television sets at all. Find someone who does listen. With the time that you are not spending getting better at your art, hunt that someone down. Create for yourself and for that someone.
- When you do find someone who isn’t listening, stop writing for that person. Fuck them. Stop putting all of your hopes into someday convincing that person that you are valuable. You are the only one who needs to know that you are valuable. Get back to work.
- Teach yourself to enjoy every last part of the process. Even when you hate it, enjoy it. Enjoy the suffering; enjoy the rejection. Wallow in it. Wallow in the ache of it. Then put it in your writing.
- Always demand more of yourself. But when you fail to meet those demands, don’t stop. Keep writing.
- Don’t measure your writing by whether it’s perfect. Measure your writing by what you learned from it. Measure it by whether you’re testing yourself, whether you’re improving, whether you’re doing things now that you never dreamed at the beginning you’d be able to do, things that you didn’t even know were worth attempting to do when you began.
- Use everything. Use your talent; use your vices and failings; use your ambition; use your ego; use your insecurity; use your fear. When in doubt, let it come out in the creative work, even if you end up talking about yourself. At the end of the day, who we are is all we have. Be who you are and see what happens.
- Don’t let your emotions prevent you from writing. If you’re sad, cry while you write; if you’re happy or in love or getting laid, smile while you write; if you’re despondent, sigh heavily while you write. If you feel like shit all the time and believe that no one loves you, let your writing be about that. Imagine the wonder of actually capturing that in words.
- Put down words all the time, every day. If you have ten minutes, make a list of words or ideas or scenes or character names. If you’re watching TV, take notes on what you’re seeing or feeling. If you get into a fight with your teenaged kid, write notes about it at the first opportunity. Write when you’re eating. Write when you can’t sleep at night. Write when you’re sitting on the toilet.
- If you aren’t writing, read. Keep yourself up to your neck in words. Don’t worry all the time about being discerning.
- If all this sounds ridiculously difficult or demanding or even insane, you may be one of those people who doesn’t need to write, and that’s okay. But if you’re one of those other kinds of people, if you write—or do whatever creative work you do—because you can’t not do it, then there’s only one thing to do: Get started.