There’s a scene mid-way through the pilot of Bill Hader’s new, darkly comedic HBO show, Barry, where Hader’s character, Barry, asks his acting teacher, Gene, whether he was any good in his first class. Gene’s played by Henry Winkler with a coldness and abrasiveness and pretentiousness that only Henry Winkler could make funny. (Also, shout-out to Henry Winkler, Emerson grad!!).
“No, Barry. What you did was awful. Dumb acting I call it—because acting is truth. And I saw no truth.”
Barry, who’s normally unemotive, then chokes back tears telling his personal history: serving in Afghanistan; coming back to the U.S. massively depressed without a purpose; working as a hitman and “being good at killing people”; still being depressed years later but, now, finding purpose through acting. The camera stays on Barry for 80, uninterrupted seconds as he tells his story. It’s one long take as he sorts through his baggage (after he follows a would-be murderee into a community acting class and does a scene from True Romance—WITH the man he was supposed to murder). Then it finally cuts to Gene.
“What’s that from? Or are you telling me that was an improvisation? Well, the story’s nonsense. But there’s something to work with.”
And THAT, folks, is THE funniest parody of The Artist Workshop I’ve ever seen. The story (HIS LIFE) is nonsense. But there’s something to work with. Thankfully this year I’ve never had an essay that misinterpreted or rudely received. Thankfully, I’ve had really warm classmates and wildly helpful, thoughtful professors. For the first six months of the year, though, I dreaded getting workshopped. I tossed and turned the night before. Every time. I hated the spotlight effect of sitting there (not being allowed to talk!) and listening to people point out what didn’t work—as well-meaning and kind as they were. I was so thin-skinned and took all the critique so personally (when, really, the critique is a critique of the writing and not a critique of the writer; it’s all about structure and language and tonal consistency and what takes the reader out of the story). For months, I felt nauseous before, anxious during, and restless after. This was me (minus the whole Paul McCartney name-drop):
But about a month ago, something funny happened: I read a poem on my commute by Rumi called “The Guest House.” It’s a poem about being open to whatever arises. It’s a poem that’s reminded me to take in any “unexpected visitor” and make sure to “welcome and entertain them all.” It’s a poem about mindfulness and gracious receptivity and a poem that—more than than just about anything else—has helped ease the workshop anxieties:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
It’s a poem that I read every day now—along with some Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman. It’s a poem that’s reminded me to “treat each guest” (e.g. workshop criticism, anxiety, joy, doubt, flatulence) “honorably,” to pay attention to thoughts and emotions and worries as they come, to see them as they are, and let them into the guest house instead of immediately shooing them away. And in the words of Bill Hader, it’s a poem that’s super badass: