A few weeks ago on a warm July night, I sat with a friend on the balcony of my little studio apartment in Santa Barbara. It was nearly midnight and, while we watched stars winking at us from the deep indigo sky, I wondered aloud about why some well-known people have reputations for being casual and kind and, well, “normal,” for lack of a better word. And why others go off the rails, becoming neurotic, cocky, rude and sometimes suicidal.
I wanted to know if it’s inevitable that well-known people all crack under the weight of public attention. If all creatives are destined for rehab. If all celebrities become insufferable, with contract riders that include stipulations like “no one can make eye contact with me” and “whenever I walk into a room, all staff must turn and face the wall” and “I only want green M&M’s in the hotel candy dish” and “in my dressing room there must be three white lilies that are each 18” high in a 12” tall vase that Swarovski designed in 1982.” (Ok, that last one I made up, but the others really happened.)
I wanted to know not only if that kind of behavior is inevitable or not, but how and why it happens. Why do some celebrities take their kids to school and slip anonymously into diners for a stack of pancakes and quietly share their money with single moms and cancer patients and disaster victims?
And why do others punch paparazzi in the face and say cruel things on Twitter and file for bankruptcy because they spent all their money on Malibu mansions and Lamborghinis?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly because this year I’ve been getting more attention than I’ve ever gotten in my life. My book’s been selling pretty well. It got picked by Mississippi State University as their book of the year for the 2014-2015 school year. I’m flying to MSU in a week to deliver the convocation. And I just finished filming a video with Vanity Fair Lingerie’s Women Who Do campaign.
While I’m elated that so many people are hearing the story of The Invisible Girls, I’m also kind of afraid. Because what if it’s inevitable that, if I get enough attention, I’ll morph into a crazy person?
As midnight crept toward 1 a.m., my friend, who had listened to all my angst-filled questions, said, “You know what I think? The difference between famous people who are crazy and famous people who are normal is that the crazy people have made their career all about themselves. They lose perspective and they lose the joy in what they do. But for normal people, they just keep doing what they’re good at and they deflect all the attention onto their work. They’re not a famous movie star; they’re an actor whose movie is famous.”
The following day I picked up another friend at LAX and we went on a week-long vacation, cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway. We ended up in Carmel, a quaint town on the ocean about two hours south of San Francisco. On our last night there, we went to a Mediterranean restaurant called Dametra Cafe because it was one of the best-rated restaurants in the town.
As we were standing in the entryway waiting for the host to seat us, I noticed the press clippings on the wall. Many well-known magazines and newspapers had interviewed the two Syrian young men who co-own the place, giving the restaurant rave reviews.
The host led us to our table and as we looked over the menu, I wondered what it was like for the owners to get so much attention, to have so many reporters interview them, to have so many restaurant critics give them such good reviews.
And then, from the kitchen, we heard men clapping and singing. One of the owners, who I recognized from the newspaper pictures, danced out of the kitchen leading a parade of staff. He was playing a small stringed instrument, and as he played and sang and danced, the servers danced through the restaurant and took people by the hands, encouraging them to get up and dance.
Our server later told us that the owner does this a few times a night, putting aside work and bursting into song.
After the owner finished leading his staff in song, I asked if I could take a picture with him. And then I asked him how he was able to be so carefree in spite of the pressure of success and high expectations.
He shrugged and looked a little puzzled, as if he’d never considered the question before. “This is my living room,” he said, sweeping his arm across the restaurant. “And every night, I invite my friends to come in.”
As I was falling asleep that night, I realized that becoming crazy (or not) is largely a choice. I don’t know many actors personally, but I do have a lot of friends who are authors and artists and musicians. As creatives, we can choose to take reviews and attention and carry them on our shoulders, letting the weight crush us into narcissism and dysfunction. Or we can let the accolades and reviews and attention support our work and raise its visibility. We can invite people not to adore us personally, but to have the opportunity to engage with what we’ve created.
Instead of writing for an audience, wondering what people will think and what they’ll say about our next piece, we can sit at our desks and write blogs and articles and books for the joy of it, because this is what we love to do, and because stories are the gift we give to the world. And if readers want to sit in our living room and peer over our shoulders to read the story with us, well, that would be an added bonus. But even if they don’t, we’d write anyway.
As I’ve been thinking about this lately, I remembered Paul’s words about what motivated Jesus to do what he did. Paul doesn’t say that “Jesus, who for the fear of punishment…” or “Jesus, who, because his father was famous…” or “Jesus, who for the notoriety…”
Paul says “Jesus, who for the joy…”
And maybe, as the Dametra restaurant owner demonstrated so well, this is the best that artists can aspire to. We can choose to be people who are not for the attention or the name recognition or the accolades or the number of copies sold.
Instead, we can be people who are for the craft.
People who are for the love of words and pictures and rhythms and notes.
People who are for the artistic process.
People who are for the joy.