Many of you are aware that I had the opportunity to see Eddie Izzard in concert last week as part of his “Force Majeure” tour. What I didn’t mention on social media that night, however, is that I had the great privilege of attending a Q&A session with him after the show.
Most of the questions that evening were the usual, non-professional interview type questions: What’s the one thing you’d tell your younger self if you could go back to the past? What inspired you to become a comedian? What shade of lipstick do you wear? You know…the usual. But the last question of the evening made me devote my full attention to the answer.
“Do you have any idea how talented you are?”
Those of you who have followed me for a while know that one of the drums I beat incessantly is “writing is a learned craft, not a mystical gift from the universe.” So you can imagine how my ears perked up when I heard this question. I had to know how a person who had obviously made it in a creative profession would comment on talent.
Eddie answered the other questions without hesitation, with the typical grace of a classy person who has to answer the same questions over and over. He did so with a great deal of humor, of course! I mean, come on! He’s Eddie Freaking Izzard!
When this question was asked, however, he paused for a second and grew very serious. People chuckled a little bit, as if expecting another punchline of some sort. But Eddie spoke up finally and politely asked us all to “shut the fuck up” (with the sort of humorous delivery that only Izzard could pull off).
I’m going to have to paraphrase what he said, because I wasn’t quick enough with my cell phone to record his answer. When the crowd finally settled down, a few folks collectively “ooh”d and “ahhh”d, but he responded with “No, I want to answer this question.”
He said the answer to that question is “not very”. People tried to laugh it off, but he quieted them down. He said, paraphrasing here, “No, I’m serious. And I want to answer this seriously because I know some of you out there want to do this…what I’m doing right now. I was not a particularly talented comedian, and anyone who attended the same comedy workshops I did when I was starting out will tell you the same. I got here through hard work. I had to work constantly at it. I had to dig down deep and wrench it out of myself, and every day was a struggle. It took me more than a decade of hard work to get good at it. I wasn’t born a comedian by any means.”
When I heard him say that, my spine tingled. In a good way. Here was one of the most successful comedians of our day, capable of switching gears and giving us some of the most incredible dramatic performances on television, and he didn’t think he was talented.
Understand, he wasn’t being overly modest or humorously self-deprecating. He was absolutely serious.
He didn’t stop there.
He told a story about an interview he did when he was first breaking into dramatic acting. He had already seen great success as a comedian, but he was determined to branch out. The interviewer asked “Wouldn’t you rather be a great comedian than a so-so actor? Why branch out now?”
His answer summed the situation up nicely. He responded “You know, I was once a so-so comic.”
So why am I telling you all of this?
It’s imperative when you’re starting out to embrace the fact that you’re going to be a “so-so writer”. I go so far as to say you’re probably going to suck at it. A lot. You are not going to start your writing career as a great writer. I’m assuming, of course, that I’m speaking to 99% of the writer population who are not prodigies. If you are a prodigy, then you’re not reading this anyway. You don’t need to read articles on writing.
The path to greatness is paved with failure. This is the way it has always been. I’ve said before that in my day job (software engineering), we have a saying: “Fail early, fail often.”
We learn through failure. We learn by trying something and discovering it doesn’t work quite the way we thought it would…or at all. This builds our base of knowledge. It builds our craft!
You’re a so-so writer now. So what! The more you work, the better you’ll get. And just like Eddie Izzard, one day you’ll look back and say “I used to be a so-so writer, you know.”
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