Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining is on Netflix now, so my husband and I recently rewatched it. It had been over a decade since I saw it last, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up. (Don’t worry, horror fans; it holds up.) Despite Stephen King expressing dissatisfaction with this movie version of his novel, I think we all know that it’s the best version, plain and simple, and there’s really only one reason for that: Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance is stellar. Outstanding. To this day, it remains one of the most chilling roles in cinema history.
When my husband told me about a YouTube video he’d come across showing behind-the-scenes footage of Nicholson pumping himself up for the infamous bathroom scene (aka ‘Here’s Johnny’), I knew I had to find it. The relevant pre-scene footage is only half a minute long, and necessary for the point of my post today, so I hope you’ll go give it a quick watch: “Jack Nicholson Prepping for The Shining.”
My husband’s commentary? Something along the lines of, “He’s acting like an actual lunatic. Can you imagine being on set with him?”
Yeah. That’s what struck me, more than anything else: to get that iconic scene, Nicholson was willing to make an absolute fool of himself in front of his support staff, coworkers, and bosses. He was willing to really go there, because that’s the only way, I’m convinced, we can get to deeply authentic art.
My next thought was: Thank goodness that, as a writer, my art happens alone. Thank goodness I don’t have to embarrass myself in front of other people to really go there.
That thought has been haunting me for a week now, because it’s a lie.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very useful lie. Still, it’s one I think we should remember, because lies are sneaky. If we don’t occasionally shine a light on them and call them what they are, they begin to look very much like truth. Writers usually create alone, yes, but we don’t create in a vacuum. The biggest difference between us and Jack Nicholson (besides impressive eyebrow dexterity) isn’t that we write words and he acts out scenes; it’s that his vulnerability comes in the enacting while ours comes in the creating.
If Nicholson worries at all anymore about acting a fool, it’s probably because he’s worried about people judging how he’s doing – not what he’s doing. For writers, I think, the truly crippling fear comes before that. We’re most likely to stop ourselves before an idea ever gets to the page. To fill the analogy out the rest of the way: We’re King, not Kubrick, not Nicholson. We’re the ones telling the story itself. We’re the ones choosing which story to tell.
For writers, that pre-scene pumping up takes place in private, in our heads, and despite the seemingly solitary setting, we absolutely feel the audience hidden behind the camera lens. I do, anyway. Don’t you? Readers can’t see me stalking around my office getting mumbly, but they can sure see which idea I grabbed by the tail. They can sure see which ideas strike home, and probably why. They can see me not just acting a fool, but acting a fool metaphorically naked. If we allow worries about what readers may think (Why would she write this? Did this happen to her? Is this how she sees the world?) to hinder our pre-scene pump up, we won’t get there. We won’t shed our inhibitions and swing that axe, muttering. And if we don’t do that, where will the magic be in the final shot?
Our audience is invisible, but they’re present. There are voices on set with us before we write, even if they’re of our own projection. But to get to the really fantastic art, we can’t let them stop us. We can’t let them hold us back, which brings me to a final useful lie: No one has to read this. If all else fails, when we choose the story to be told, we can comfort ourselves with that lie. No one has to read this. If it crashes and burns, no one has to know we even tried. They don’t, really, but I’ve found that nine times out of ten, the stories I need to tell myself that lie about are my best stories, and they always get read in the end. But, hey, as far as lies go, at least this one works in my favor, because with that lie as my safety net, I can really go there.
We should never be able to write horror without creeping ourselves out. We should never be able to write tragedy without making ourselves cry. No poetry without awe, no literary fiction without profundity, no mystery without curiosity, no thriller without nerves, and we should never, ever, be able to write erotica without turning ourselves on. These are the truths of our craft. To make it, we have to feel it. We have to become it. To reach that level of masterpiece – regardless of whether it’s to be art, entertainment, or some glorious melding of both – we have to really go there, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
Scary, isn’t it? It scares me every day.
I have good news though. Let’s watch the video one more time. Just the first 30 seconds of it: “Jack Nicholson Prepping for The Shining.” This time, don’t watch him; watch everyone else. Notice anything new?
No one batts an eye. People look at him, sure, but not a single crew member looks judgmental, disdainful, scornful. The one guy who ducks out of the way a little looks understandably nervous, but no one is making fun. They’re impressed as hell. They see Nicholson gearing himself up for something spectacular, they see great power building, and they get to their marks, because this is a masterpiece in the making and they can feel it, and they want to get the shot. They want to absolutely nail the shot.
And you know what? They did. If ever there were a lesson for not letting that fear of judgement or embarrassment stop us from really going there – no matter how different “there” looks for each of us – I think this footage is it.
Every time I sit down, a new and uncomfortable story idea lurking, I shine a light on the hidden fear of judgement, remember creation privacy as a lie, and decide not to let it stop me. Don’t be afraid. People might be watching, but they aren’t judging. And if they are? Oh well. Everyone else is impressed as hell, simply waiting for that masterpiece. It’s time to get to work.
Do you let fear of judgement stop you from creating the art you really want? Do you worry about how your writing will be perceived before you even write it? How do you handle that pressure?
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