charlie kaufman on being yourself, finding your own voice, and wanting to be liked

Charlie Kaufman has written movies like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and others.

What I love most about Charlie Kaufman is the depth of his thinking, and how his art expresses truth. The following are quotes from a BAFTA lecture he gave on 30 September 2011:

Say who you are. Really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be… but more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world. Because that person will recognize him or herself in you. And that will give them hope and it’s done so for me. And I have to keep rediscovering it, it’s profound importance in my life. Give that to the world rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are, is the way the world must work and that in the end, selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.

Telling your own truth, and sharing your true self with the world is the greatest gift you can give. No matter what you do, there will always be someone who’s better at what it is that you do: whether you write scifi novels, or rap, or act, or paint, or compose music, or cook—you’ll never be the very best person in the world at that thing. But only you can do you, and if you become the best you can be, then you give the greatest gift to the world, and yourself.

Kaufman then quoted E. E. Cummings: “To be nobody but yourself in a world, which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle, which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

On finding your own voice

The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties. These books exist, and they’re tempting, but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying “I don’t know”. Being kind.

My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life starring Chris Elliott. The show was really mostly in the voice of its creators. Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick. They had worked together on the David Letterman show, and Chris’ character came from that show. So consequently, Adam Resnick’s scripts were the best of the show, and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice, that was the job, and I was frustrated with my results.

But it occurred to me, that there was no solution to this problem. As long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. I could maybe get close, but I was never going to get better at it than Adam. The obvious solution was not to throw my hands up but try to find myself in a situation where I was doing me, not someone else.

Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases, a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that “you” is not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen. Take it off the table. Agree. Perhaps, I’m not interesting, but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way, I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.

It is so hard to be who we really are. We’re always afraid to be abandoned by the tribe, exiled from our community. This is true even for the loners among us—even those who distinguish themselves as not giving a fuck about what others think about us. But in a way, we do—just not those people. But there’s an entire imaginary crew to whose judgment we attach a lot of value, and who we eagerly aim to please. It’s the ghosts of our pasts to whom we’ve at some point sworn allegiance, and in many ways, they’re even more difficult to resist than the real people.

“The Wound”

Another interesting idea that Kaufman shared is that of the wound.

I do not know what the wound is. I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least inarticulable. I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected. It is the thing that is tap-danced over five shows a day. It is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed.

It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret even from yourself.

But it is the thing that wants to live. It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition your philosophical treatise, your screenplay, is born.

Charlie Kaufman, BAFTA lecture, 30 September 2011

He then proceeds to talk about the importance of acknowledging the wound. He warns that if you don’t acknowledge it, you’ll end up a cynic, you’ll turn yourself into a cog in the machine.

I see this as a real danger, and as an eternal balancing act: you’ll maybe master technique, and the craft, but you’ll never create true art. You might be able to teach people, and become successful, but you won’t truly move your audience. You might entertain them, but not make them feel something deeply.

On wanting to be liked

Again and again, Charlie Kaufman mentions how much the desire to be liked drives him, but also how much of a danger lays in that. If you know that people will like you when you are a certain way, and they’ll like your work when you do it a certain way, and you know that they’ll like it when you act a certain way, then your desire to be liked might lead to you losing yourself in that certain way. Learning to play that role that makes other people like you so well that you forget your real self.

Wanting to be liked is a trap. In fact, he opened the lecture with this:

I’ve been struggling with this speech for a long time. I told them that I would do this months and months ago and I’ve been, this has been my job in a way. I sit at my desk and I don’t know what to do. And it is very much like when I have a job writing a screenplay. I think I wanted to do something true and I wanted to do something helpful.

And I think what complicates it, in addition to the fact that that’s a hard thing to figure out is that I also struggle with wanting you to like me and you know, in my fantasy I leave here, and people are saying “great speech”, you know, and “not only is he a great writer but boy, you know, I really learned something tonight.” ” He really brought it” you know and, as much as I know that this neediness of mine exists, I also also have a difficult time extricating myself from it or even fully recognizing it when it’s happening because it’s a tricky thing.

I mean, no one wants to come up here and bomb. It’s really, literally the stuff of nightmares. You know, I’ve had that nightmare a lot of times. And I know you want to be entertained. And so for me to calculatedly not entertain you in order to be true, seems sort of selfish.

So I find myself in this push-pull relationship with my opposing desires, which I think is a big part of what characters are and characters do in real life.

It’s only through self-awareness of the sometimes opposing desires within us that we can find what it is we ultimately want, rather than bounce around like a ball in a machine.

The business of selling something that’s important to them by disguising it as something that’s important to you

Kaufman is interesting in that he’s someone who succeeded in show business, while at the same time rejecting and criticizing the machinations of show business.

The business I’m in is the same business that politicians and corporations are in. It’s a business of selling something that’s important to them by disguising it as something that’s important to you. And it’s ubiquitous and I don’t think it’s symbiotic. What I’d like to express, is the notion that by being honest, thoughtful, and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big messed up power play. We don’t have to be. We can say who we are. We can assert our right to existence. We can say to the bullies and con men, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking, really thinking about who we are and we’ll express ourselves, and with this other people won’t feel so alone.

Charlie Kaufman, BAFTA lecture, 30 September 2011

How much of what you own are really things you want because you love them? I’m not someone who goes with the fashion, follows the latest trends, but there are definitely possessions I have, activities I participated in, experiences I’ve sought out, because of what my friends, my peers, my partners thought about it, because of how they felt about it.

If many of my friends want a certain thing, then I’m much more likely to somehow also want that thing—even if it is something that would otherwise not be nearly as desirable.

And the same thing happens when our “friends” are characters in movies, books, online, that we identify ourselves with. And whenever we do that, we partially make them a part of us, but we also partially loose a part of ourselves.

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