Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Write and act in a trance

24 November 2018

This comes from Mike Birbiglia’s podcast episode on Tim Ferriss’ show a while back. I was reviewing some notes on that episode, to see how Birbiglia uses journaling.

He drops a few goldmines on his creative process:

My minimum is three hours; I’d stick myself in a coffee shop with no internet and no email, no anything. If it’s going well, I go up to five hours and if it’s not going well, I just end at three hours. I try to do 7 a.m. I try to write before my inhibitions take hold of me. Because I’m an actor, as well, I always say write in a trance and act in a trance. You don’t want to even think consciously about what you’re putting on the page.

I’ve talked about creating from the unconscious, but Birbiglia expresses it really nicely here. Get yourself into a trance in the morning, and start putting things down. Before the demons of inhibition and rationality can get to you.

Mamet (I know) writes about this in Three Uses of a Knife:

Artists don’t wonder, “What is it good for?” They aren’t driven to “create art,” or to “help people,” or to “make money.” They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so to achieve peace.

This “trance writing” is what I do and recommend with morning pages, which I learned from Brian Koppelman: each morning, wake up and write three long-hand pages, stream-of-consciousness style. Around the 1.5 page mark, you often hit a “truth point”, where you kind of run out of bullshit to write about and end up getting to some deeper parts of the subconscious.

I like that he also mentions acting in a trance, though he doesn’t expand on it in the interview. The idea is one I strive for in my acting: to not really think about it too much. Do the work, then let it move through you, bringing yourself and all your experience onto the stage as well. It can be quite an exhilarating trance, and you often know if you aren’t in it (usually it’s because the demons of rationality have come to your shoulder and let you know that you are on stage acting in front of people, and it is really a ridiculous thing to be doing).

There’s one more thing in the interview I really like a lot:

Don’t waste your time on marketing, just try to get better. … It’s not about being good; it’s about being great. Because what I find, the older I get, is that a lot of people are good and a lot of people are smart, and a lot of people are clever. But not a lot of people give you their soul when they perform.

This is the same idea I discussed in “Getting good”. Worry less about getting seen, focus on learning and doing and getting great at what you do. Acting and writing in a trance is a good start.