A few weeks ago, I did something difficult. I stood up in front of a room full of people and told jokes. For five minutes.
I remember very little of the experience. I went into it prepared, and it actually went pretty well from the start, but I was nervous as hell and at the same time — very excited. The time went by quickly. I didn’t even get to finish the set I had timed out to last the full five minutes, because I forgot to allow time for laughter. Good problem to have.
The reasons I did it are few but significant:
- I had wanted to try stand-up for a long time.
- I was terrified to try stand-up, and was “required” to face this fear (more on this requirement in a moment).
- Despite number two, I had a feeling it would be a lot of fun.
- It wasn’t filmmaking or writing (at least not the sort of writing I’m used to doing), which to me meant I could express myself an an artist in a more immediate way than I’m used to, which was attractive to me.
In truth, the idea and the opportunity emerged from the process of completing a group journey through The Artist’s Way, which I can now endorse wholeheartedly (along with countless others) as a fantastic resource for engaging, reengaging, or deepening our relationship with our inner artist. Following the exercises and tasks in the book led me to admit reasons 1-3 listed above. Additionally, the book defines and advocates for synchronicity. In the context of the present example, this meant that, in order to honestly commit to the process of artistic recovery/discovery embodied by the book, I had to sign up for the inaugural open “mic” at my local go-to neighborhood cafe — because I truly did want to try stand-up and because the list “appeared” there in front of me.
But that’s all context. We’ll return to it in a minute. What I really want to talk about is The Wolf.
I am The Wolf. Me. Not Harvey Keitel. Not Michael J. Fox or whoever plays the same character in the TV remake. Definitely not Taylor Lautner — not even Joe Manganiello. No to Seth Green. Jack Nicholson is only the wolf during jumping competitions. Possibly, possibly, Russell Tovey is also The Wolf. I can’t take away the “authenticity” that man brings to the transformation.
All kidding aside, I found The Wolf in me early on in the process of completing the The Artist’s Way. He rose up out of my morning pages. Morning pages are essentially three stream-of-consciousness pages you write every morning, immediately upon waking, in order to flush your brain and/or expose your wants and needs to yourself. They’re also a space where you can safely complain, which is actually kind of nice.
I’ve written about The Wolf before, but at the time he didn’t have a name. To boil it down, now that I have a greater understanding of the situation: The Wolf is the artist in me.
He is wild, and sometimes violent. He survives, despite not getting everything he needs, however he must. There is the potential for the dog’s love and loyalty in him. But, at bottom, he’s a primal sort of animal.
Now, of course, all that comes off as a little dramatic. I realize that. But, as I’ve said before — I’m a dramatist. Drama is my business. Also, along the way of getting to know that-which-I-call-The-Wolf a little better, while I worked through the book, I did at times acknowledge that the artist in me was actually more changeable. Sometimes I am The Eagle, and not The Wolf. Sometimes The Wolf does, in fact, become more of a wild dog. Sometimes the metaphor (thankfully) looses its grip on rugged individualism, and my conception of myself as a Lone Wolf softens more towards “realism” — and I acknowledge the fact that wolves live in packs and that we all need each other to thrive and survive.
But here’s the thing: being an artist is incredibly difficult. And, without starting any wars, sometimes I feel like independent filmmaking is the hardest artistic endeavor out of all of them — at least in terms of implementation and longevity. Identifying and communing with The Wolf is really just my way of “digging deep” to remind myself of why I do what I do and why it’s important not to give up. I turn to The Wolf when things get desperate. The Wolf is that part of me that knows how to fight, that is almost incapable of giving up. He is my anger incarnate.
In this way, The Wolf is also dangerous.
If (when) I let The Wolf out, on his own without any fetters from me — I’m left struggling to maintain balance. The Wolf exists in dangerous proximity to my id. He promises power and delivers it and then begins to hunt and to eat in order to replenish himself, yes, but also to satisfy a mad craving that won’t ever be fully sated. This is a lesson I have learned, sometimes the hard way, over many years of struggle. It’s why, for the most part, I don’t let The Wolf out any more.
But this doesn’t mean he isn’t always in me, so I had had to come up with another solution in terms of mostly stabilizing my relationship with this primal part of me that I need and love despite its flaws.
So what do I do? In a word: I cage him. And I only open the door to the cage when I know he’s alone except for whatever I consciously put it front of him.
I’ve always loved this quote for Gustave Flaubert, since the first day I encountered it many years ago, and I think it’s appropriate to share it now, in the context of this discussion:
When I was minutes away from facing that greatest of fears that is public speaking — in the form of my stand-up debut — I was, naturally, a wreck. Maybe some people have an easier time of it, or would. For me, the experience proved as difficult as I imagined it would. At least in the early goings.
As I said, I prepared: for two weeks. Every day, for two weeks, I wrote and rewrote jokes. I practiced in my head. I tried to focus on the great advice I received from a few experienced stand-up friends, which ranged from the existential (focus on presence and on being you and nothing else) to the practical (have an idea of what you want to do with your hands, don’t tell them it’s your first time). In the days leading up to my spot, I studied less. I focused on relaxation and sleep and (fun) distraction. This worked, right up to the point when it was almost time to finally get it over with.
As I mentioned, the open mic was at a cafe. I didn’t order coffee before I went up. I decided on chamomile tea instead, which my wife bought for me because I could hardly focus on anything but not-freaking-out and I think she could tell. I know what you’re thinking: “Tea instead of booze? Bought by your wife? You can’t even buy your own tea?” What can I say? I am that hardcore.
I had signed up to go second, figuring it would be good to get it over with early, but too terrified to go first. The event started and the moment got closer. I hardly heard anything anyone said until the host called my name. But let’s rewind to that.
As you may have guessed by now, in the minutes leading up to my slot, I found myself locked in an epic struggle to STAY COOL.
It wasn’t easy to stay cool.
First, I told myself I wasn’t anxious. I told myself I was excited, instead, following the suggestion of this article which I had read recently. This worked for a while, as a sort of mantra, but the effectiveness wore off quickly. So then I told myself that the stress I was feeling was my body’s way of preparing me for the test to come. More advice from an outside resource. This tactic also worked — a little. I alternated the two practices through my head until I felt that the moment of truth was immediately imminent. Less than a minute away. And then nothing worked. I thought I was going to explode.
But, then, suddenly, I remembered The Wolf. And I knew it was time to let him out.
“I am The Wolf,” I thought to myself. I am The Wolf. The words became a mad mantra. I was still repeating them when the moment came and I found myself standing up and suddenly doing what I had been so frightened to do for a very long time.
Like I said, the set went well. Better than I expected. And when it was over I felt proud. I felt I had figured something out — or, more accurately, proven to myself what I knew to be true but couldn’t quite believe without the evidence. The Wolf is, in fact, dangerous. However, while he is a part of me — he is not me. I am The Wolf but The Wolf is not me.
He and I can work together, quite effectively, as it turns out, but that’s got to be it. My job is be regular and orderly and civilized to the point of being able to loose The Wolf upon the world when I choose, when it’s appropriate.
I am the man and he is the art. It’s a difficult lesson to remember but an important one, I think.
Thanks for reading.
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