There was much to love in writer Neil Gaiman’s recent “Make Good Art” commencement address to the University of the Arts. His advice about pretending to be someone else has been swirling in my mind for days. Not to be someone else or copy someone else, but to behave like another person to do the thing that you think you cannot.
“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.”
To find more courage to do the work you really want to do, who might you pretend to be?
As you pretend to be that person, how might your work change?
When I was in high school I sometimes pretended to be the late actress and writer Ruth Gordon. At 15 I felt like an outsider and misfit in my huge, urban high school. Yet I had drive, confidence and a hope that things would be different once I got out of that adolescent jail. After performing the role of the prostitute Kitty Duval in William Saroyan’s “The Time of Our Life” my sophomore English teacher Mr. Roberts suggested I read Ruth Gordon’s rambling autobiography “Myself Among Others.”
Gordon, also a five-foot average looking girl from Boston, wrote of her determination, her perseverance and her “screw them” kind of attitude. The Ruth Gordon line that sang to my young self was, “A Star is Born was the movie, but that’s fiction. A star is not born, a star makes himself or herself a star.” I loved that book. I loved the Ruth Gordon that I had conjured up in my mind. She was a young rebel heroine.
In my freshman year of college I entered a talent contest. Panicking that I had none, I channeled Ruth Gordon and did my Kitty Duval monologue. I won.
Years later I bought Gordon’s autobiographies at a used book store. Re-reading them I was disappointed. Her advice and writing seemed so flippant and superficial.
But I’m going to start pretending to be Ruth Gordon again. In my mid-50’s with so many ideas and exciting projects yet to be done I sometimes sabotage myself by playing a “you’re too old to do that now” narrative. What’s with that? Using ageism against myself?
Ruth Gordon worked steadily on Broadway and in movies, and then her career took off when she was 70, becoming a star in movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Harold and Maude,” and winning an Emmy for her guest appearance on the television show “Taxi.”
Her grit, her vanity, her love of her work (and herself) kept her relevant and thriving.
When she died at 88 — still working — The Los Angeles Times wrote:
Gordon was unique among actresses, not only because she defied the passing of time but because she used it like a bonus, a spiritual annuity paying off…Gordon’s salty, uninhibited, sexy, sharp-witted, energetic, convention-snubbing, life-celebrating and joyous assertiveness on the screen obviously reflected what we might call her own soul-set…But she was above all a woman whose whole life, the bruises and the triumphs alike, informed and enriched her performances. She was a life force who became a symbol of the vigorous and even riotous possibilities of the upper years.
So on the days that I need a little push to take on all that I dream of doing, I will be pretending to be Ruth Gordon exhibiting all of her joyous assertiveness, and trying to dress as well, too.
And you? Who will you pretend to be so that you can stretch and do the work that only you can do?