On Titles: What You Do is What You Are
The only thing I wanted for my twelfth birthday was a Sony Handycam. And my parents—ever generous and supportive of my creative passions—came through.
This was, admittedly, a large and expensive ask. But in the days before bargain digital cameras and ever-present iPhones, this camcorder was the most affordable device with which I could make home movies. Although these weren’t “home” movies, per se, at least not the kind your dad would make. I’d spend weekends with my friend Miles, digging through the Halloween costume box and filming nonsensical Lord of the Rings-inspired epics in the park across the street.
At the time, I was only in sixth grade, but I had big dreams of film school.
But as with all creative pursuits, we ultimately hit a wall. New ideas were few and far between. Finding different costume combinations became burdensome. The primitive editing software of the era was indecipherable. None of our movies made any sense to anyone (not even us). And they didn’t look anything like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. We were discouraged. We were stuck in “the gap” between taste and talent. So Miles and I started spending more weekends playing video games and fewer filming videos.
I was still planning on film school, though. All the way up to my junior year of high school. Somehow, I didn’t see the disconnect. But one day, my dad finally asked why. Why was I was still heading down this path? If I wanted to make movies, why wasn’t I making them anymore? It’s not like a needed a degree to pursue a passion.
“Why,” he asked, “did I imagine I’d enjoy film school if I didn’t actually like making films?”
As Austin Kleon says:
“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”
That was me. I wanted to be a filmmaker but I didn’t actually want to do the hard work of making films. I wanted the glossy dream without the messy and challenging reality.
Eventually, I realized my dad was right. I studied history instead.
In one of my improv sessions, we did a simple listening exercise; students paired off, exchanged stories (deeper than surface level stuff), and then shared their partner’s story with the class. There were an odd number of students that day, so I had to join.
It took me a minute to come up with a story, but eventually, I told one about my own journey through improv, one I’ve written about a few times before (last week, actually). There was a new show starting up at the theater, and I really wanted to be in it. I thought I was pretty good—I’d just finished taking a year of classes. I kinda of thought I deserved it. But then, I wasn’t cast. I was angry and disappointed. I felt wronged.
But on reflection, I didn’t deserve to be in that show. I was a brand new improviser. I was decent, but not amazing. And it wasn’t like I was working my butt off—I was doing exactly what was expected of me, not much more. Nothing to prove my commitment or really boost my skills. I wanted to be an improviser more than I wanted to do the work of becoming one, and not being cast was just proof that this wasn’t a winning strategy.
Realizing that made me want to do the work. It made me want to get really good at improv, so that next time there was an opportunity, I’d be ready.
A day is short. Just twenty-four hours. And in those twenty-four hours, there are a lot of “musts” demanding your time. You must eat. You must sleep. You must take care of yourself. You must (or, at least, really really should) take care of your partner, children, and/or pets. All of that leaves you with a precious few hours (if that) each day to “do the verbs.” And so, you must pick and choose.
I wanted to be a filmmaker but I didn’t want to film. I wanted to be an improviser, so I improvised. The answers were right there in front of me. Those things that felt too much like work revealed a lack of passion. Those things I did despite challenges and difficulty, I kept doing.
The noun is the dream; the verb is the reality. And if you won’t invest time in the verb, put the noun back in the dictionary rather than on your business card.
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