Letters of Note is one of my favorite websites.
Yesterday, LoN shared this note from James Dean, which he wrote shortly after moving to New York to pursue an acting career, and before he became James Dean™:
Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. The stage is like a religion you dedicate yourself to and then suddenly you find that you don’t have time to see friends and it’s not for them to understand you don’t have anybody. You’re all alone with your concentration and your imagination and that’s all you have. You’re an actor.
He wrote that note in 1952. During the next three years, he would star in East of Eden, Giant, and Rebel Without A Cause … then his life was over. I can see him, sitting alone in New York — a city that can make the most gregarious, confident person in thw world feel tiny and insignificant — writing that down, staring at an uncertain future that stared right back at him. It's hard to separate the actor and his work from the legend, but when I read this yesterday, I wondered if he was able to enjoy the success that he eventually had, or if he was just one of those artists who need the pain and anguish to create.
But this stuff that he thought made being an actor feel so lonely? I think it’s what makes being an actor awesome. I love being left alone with my concentration and imagination. I love making something where something wasn't before, using my imagination and that weird thing in my artists' brain that makes me weird. (Come to think of it, that’s what I love about being a writer, too.) One of my favorite acting teachers, who helped me level up quite a bit, once told us that when we're performing, whether it's for an audience of thirty or an audience of three thousand, we have to be committed to our character, completely consumed by the scene, and intimately connected to the other actors. She said that acting was "quiet, public solitude," and for some reason I never bothered to examine too closely, I grokked that, and it's stayed with me ever since.
I always feel sad when I think about or watch James Dean, knowing that he died so young, before he really had a chance to figure things out the way we do when we get into our thirties. I hope that, if he had, the lonely kid who wrote that note would have once day found comfort in quiet, public solitude.