This week, Blumen Publishing released Nine Lives, my autobiographical account of nine different periods in my life. You might call it autobiographical fiction, since it isn’t completely factual. I take liberties. It is also meant to be funny. Regarding humor, I have thought about doing standup, but, like George Burns, I don’t tell jokes. I’m not sure I tell stories, either. I tell the truth. Apparently, my life is so bizarre that just telling the truth makes people laugh. Yes, there really is a story about Nigerians in Wyoming and a Penske truck.
Just the other day someone complimented me on my writing. “I wish I could write like that,” she said. I told her that the writing is the least important part of the book. In fact, I don’t think writing is about writing at all, any more than sales is about selling or acting about acting.
What is it about, then?
If I had to put it in a word, I’d say honesty. It’s about being as honest as you can be about what happened, what you think, what you said, where you went, and who you are. Why? Because anything less that that is a lie, and lies form layers around us that we use to hide. We hide from each other. But that’s not what people want. It’s not what moves them. It’s not what closes a sale or wins an argument or gets people to give money. It’s not why we fall in love.
The other day I overheard a sales call in which the salesman was following up with a prospect. The salesman introduced himself, asked how the prospect was, reminded the prospect of the reason for the call, and inquired about the prospect’s needs. All very good, all very correct. But it was a sham. I could tell he didn’t believe what he was saying. And if he didn’t believe it, why should the person on the other end of the line? The salesman was trying too hard, and it came off as phony.
Anthony Hopkins tells the story about being a young actor in The Lion in Winter (1968) with Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. He rehearsed his lines and worked hard, delivering what he considered his best work. When he asked Hepburn’s opinion afterward, she simply told him, “Don’t act.”
I know from experience that teaching is the same way. You are performing in the same way that sales people and actors perform. And yet, just as in sales and the theatre, teaching is not a performance. It is an encounter, which means you have to be present to others but absent to yourself. In this way, it is a spiritual exercise.
How do you do the exercise? Study the product, memorize the script, know the lesson. And then forget it. This is why honesty must be accompanied by two other virtues: humility and humor. You need humility to be honest, because–let’s be honest–trying to be honest is grueling. And you need humor when all else fails, because–let’s be even more honest–it will.
So don’t act. Do it for Oscar night. Do it for Lent.
Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Not to self: It’s Oscar time again. Sylvester Stallone will win for Rocky 25. Is Adrian still alive? For still photo of Hepburn, Hopkins, go to Burton Book Review.