Measured Authenticity for Art that Resonates

Measured Authenticity for Art that ResonatesI’m very interested in the concept of how much a person’s self-expression for an audience (whether it’s writing, performance, art, or something else) should be personal.  I’ve certainly struggled with it on this blog, which I intended to be a professional project but is ultimately informed by my personal experiences and interests. I want this to reflect who I am (both personally and professionally) but definitely prefer to hold back highly personal information, especially since it would rarely advance my purpose which is to geek out about psychology, health, and happiness in everyday life.

For many purposes, though, self-revelation can be an important tool. Inserting yourself into your work can help elicit reactions from an audience, improve the quality of the ideas, and build a relationship with others. Authenticity also brings its own benefits for the person who is being authentic. But, being authentic also comes with risks. It can be painful.

I recently read Judd Apatow’s collection of interviews with comedians and other performers, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and ComedyA recurring theme in these interviews was how bringing the authentic self into one’s art is a hard, scary thing, but also endemic to the best performances. Check it out (emphases are mine):

Amy Schumer: “It’s a part of me, too. Because the stuff you’re copping to and the saddest, worst moments of your life–that’s the stuff people connect to and appreciate.”

Sandra Bernhard: “You have to have some sort of a persona onstage to get your point across . . . that’s a part of me, that character I use onstage. It’s a part of who I am. But you can’t just do that all the time without burning out.”

Judd Apatow: “The storytelling requires that people go to some deep place, emotionally, which makes them vulnerable and raw. . . It is interesting, if you watch the arcs of so many comedians. At some point, they just become themselves.”

Jordan Peele: “I tried stand-up for the second time in my life and I realized that if I didn’t have a sense of who I am, the show would just be these empty characters–and they wouldn’t connect. So I started piecing together a few short pieces that exemplified my place in the world, and that was the missing element that is so important and has really helped us with the show.”

Mary Karr explores this theme as well in The Art of Memoir. By its nature, memoir is an incredibly personal form of art, so Karr knows better than most the pitfalls of authenticity. She considers honesty in her writing as a commitment to herself, and encourages others to work through their fears about self-revelation:

If you trust that what you felt deeply warrants your emotional response, try to honor your past by writing it that way.

No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.

I think the overall lesson here is that measured authenticity is a  valuable tool for making your art resonate with an audience. You want to protect your most vulnerable self, but taking calculated risks to reveal yourself can pay dividends. It’s reassuring to see that even polished, popular performers feel the tension between protecting their hearts and sharing them with the world.