I recently heard Philip Seymour Hoffman being interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. He is one of my favorite actors, because he plays the downtrodden guy so frickin’ well, and also because even when he’s not the star of a film, you can tell he’s putting all his energy into his part.
Hoffman said a couple things that I found interesting in particular. He compared acting to being an athlete, saying the performance or the game comes from a similar place, from the ability to be private in public. I thought that really made sense in terms of the boundaries a creative person must set in order to be able to create—whether the creation is a monologue or a physical achievement. I would imagine that Michael Phelps’s headphones helped him be private in public before his races.
One of my writing teachers in college was very demanding, and could be harsh, but he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had because he held high standards and expected us to meet them. While in the classroom, he was on, he was present, he was intense. When he read and wrote comments on my essays, he was focused and insightful. But when he walked around campus, I was no one to him. He didn’t seem to ever look up at anyone—he just walked quickly from one place to another, inviting no interaction. I guess that was his way of being private in public.
I’m still trying to find my own way of being private in public. As Hoffman pointed out, a creative person experiences all sorts of messy highs and lows when working on an intense piece of creation. He talked about working with a certain director and the level of trust necessary in order for him to really work. I have found this level of trust and support in some of my writing groups and workshops. Having a witness to one’s creation can really help with going deep. To me, working alone is scarier—but, of course, still necessary.