drag your blanket blindly and fill your heart with smoke

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.

32 thoughts on “drag your blanket blindly and fill your heart with smoke”

  1. Not sure about being an actor, but some of us just prefer solitude sometimes. Conversation and friends are great, but sometimes it’s just tiring

  2. I like the phrase “quiet, public solitude” and as much as I am not an actor…being a computer programmer, occasional writer, and hopefully one day a video game designer, I often feel like I approach things from a direction that most people just don’t see. I think many of us who know how to truly tap into our creativity and passion end up walking a lonely road, but as long as you keep that connection to the world you can always find your way back. 😀

  3. James Dean, having lost his mother his mother to cancer when he was 9 and being essentially abandoned by his father who couldn’t care for him (he was left to live with his paternal aunt and her husband), likely suffered from abandonment issues and unresolved separation anxiety that caused him to feel loneliness even when not alone.
    By most accounts, he was depressive and childlike in his mentality.
    I, like you, hope that to some degree, he was able to enjoy the success of his films. His wonderful acting brought such joy to others that I hope he was able to feel happiness as a result of his creations.
    Thanks for writing this. ♥

  4. Sounds like the life of a Doctoral Student. Hours spent towards the understanding of something that everyone thinks they understand fully, only to stop and realize that your friends have no idea where you are or what you’re really doing… :-/

  5. “person in thw world”
    I think the difference between “your type” of embracing the loneliness and making it work for you is that others allow themselves to be swallowed up it. By getting lost in who they are, they lose who they are.

  6. As you say, it reminds me a bit of the writer’s life, too—all that time alone with your imagination and your concentration and your characters. So much is different about the actor’s and the writer’s experience, too, but I’m always intrigued by the commonalities. Think of the writer, alone at his desk, reciting dialogue to hear if it sounds right or miming to herself in search of just the right words to capture a bit of movement. The writer has, in many ways, the easier gig, because he gets to rehearse and rehearse until one good performance is down on paper—two shows a night sounds like a lot of work to me—but I also imagine that the actor’s job is a little like being paid to jump off a bridge every night with the part as a parachute. That’s exhilarating if you’re up to it, right?
    I know that, for me, the loneliness of the writing job is some days a joy and some days a problem. So it goes.

  7. That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of acting itself as being “lonely.” Yes, I have experienced the “quiet, public solitude” and the feeling of being alone with my art in a room with ten to a thousand people, but alone and lonely are two different things. Everyone else on stage goes through the same or a similar process, and that creates a way to bond and connect right there–at least, it has for me. And as you said, you have to be intimately connected with everyone on that stage. Even in a one-performer show, that can’t be lonely…
    I will say that in dealing with non-artist friends and family, it can feel a little bit like I’m a platypus in a room full of ducks, but I reserve a different part of myself for those interactions, and while the discussions on acting and music don’t usually go too far without people looking at me a bit funny, I take consolation in the fact that there are parts of their lives I would never “get” either.
    Of course, it is a great help that I’m married to a musician. He and I, as artists, are kind of wired the same way. So even when we can’t break through what the other is doing, we still “get” it for each other. Maybe Dean didn’t find enough people he was close to who he thought “got” it the way he did. And Nat_A_Lie has a point about abandonment issues. Having a support system behind you can make all the difference in the world.

  8. Excellent quote! Excellent site!!! Thanks so much. You truly are a good bloke…
    In hopes of doing a good turn, have you heard of Quote Vadis http://quotevadis.com I recently stubmled upon that site and find tidbits of inspiration from there as well.

  9. I’ve never seen acting as lonely. Sure, you’ve got the solo time practicing lines and voices and body language, but that’s just preparation. When you get to the stage (or the set), you instantly become a part of a community. I have a saying: “Backstage is backstage, wherever you go”. Any time you get a bunch of theatre or film people together and give them a project to work on, you get the same result: lots of fun, lots of memories, some new friends, and (hopefully) a great show. That’s why I act, for that universal community that I know I’ll find on every stage and every set.

  10. Isn’t that sort of self imposed sometimes or a sign maybe that you’ve become a little self absorbed? When I was home with my kids all day, I know it was hard to concentrate on writing while I was being asked to fetch snacks every five minutes, but I got it done. With my photography I can’t help but have to interact unless I’m doing some still life. Still, when I feel myself being too absorbed with whatever I’m working on and not paying attention to my friends or family, I force myself to disconnect from the project and engage myself with the real people right in front of me. It’s the only way to remain sane and not be totally friendless!

  11. I think that this could be said for any creative field / endeavor. It is hard for those unfamiliar with the commitment and need to express one self that you must walk away from your friends from time to time to wrap yourself in solitude to create. That solitude can be refreshing for some, a nearly unbearable loneliness for others, or experience fluctuating between both extremes over various times.
    As an artist who works in oil, pastels, pencil, pen, and other similar mediums, I know I both crave the need to be alone to make something and the needs for crowds to show what I created. But I can truthfully say sometimes when I am alone creating I am not at all lonely, and sometimes in the midst of that crowd, I feel so disconnected as if I am alien on a strange planet so far away from home.
    But I cannot imagine not creating.

  12. I’m a naturally solitary person- and I love to write as well. I sometimes have to drag myself out of my shell to see friends- but when I do, it refreshes me.
    I reach out to fellow artists in similar situations- when one of my writer, musician, artist or other friends says something about loneliness or hard times on one of their feeds- I respond to them. We keep each others’ spirits up. Any more, the web-o-sphere is the bastion and refuge of those of us who are solitary. No replies are still sad, though.
    But solitude does feed my soul, and I relish it.

  13. I feel the same thing when I think of Heath Ledger. There were so many wonderful parts he would have played that we will never get to see.
    On introverts…we are less than 30% of the population. It helps that the percentage goes up as IQ goes up, but still we feel like the world isn’t made for us because it’s really not, not when 70% of the population doesn’t understand how we think — and how could we actually enjoy being alone?

  14. it’s probably not about being an actor, artist, or a musician… they are maybe more sensitive, it is something deep within a person that is sensing something more to this reality and pursuites and desires, but it does not know what. Kurt Cobain left a hole in my heart when he left this world, but somehow, in some way I agree with that state of mind that wants to die. But it is not physical death that would solve the suffering, what actually is happening -it is the ego needs to “die”, because there is that centre inside, within us -that is like foundation, and it is limitless and it is what I think religions are talking about, as far as I know. For example in Buddhist meditation, – it is to reach that inner depth and let go all to that centre. When “I” dissolves into that place of foundation, then it is a proper way to “die”, the “suicide” of ego brings alot of relief and solves alot of problems, because they melt, but it is a long process (without this practice of meditation I sure would’ve followed people like K. Cobain)

  15. That’s something that both scares and thrills me about being an actor. I fear losing connection to other people, like my husband, or even myself, to the solitude and concentration needed for the craft. So I know I hesitate, and fully committing is a hurdle I have a hard time getting over, but until I do I’ll never be a very good actor I’m sure.
    How do you stay connected to the world as an actor while still fully committing?

  16. “a chance to figure things out the way we do when we get into our thirties.”
    HA!!! HAHahahahaha! Truly, that’s unintentionally funny.
    I’ve got news for you. It never ends. Every new life experience and each passing year brings new things we learn, things that let us feel, for however briefly, that we’ve figured things out.
    So, while you grow in confidence and in ease with the things you’ve figured out, at some point you realize you’ll never fully figure things out and you become, hopefully, okay with that.

  17. I’m curious how Wil would answer, but it’s usually an active thing. It’s knowing that you want to be where you are in the real world but still disappear into a role in your work. So, you give yourself reminders when you come out of that role–things to ensure you remember who YOU are when you emerge. It can be confusing sometimes, and yes, you can disappear if you’re not careful. But with intention, you can, as AlyGatr said above, force yourself out and back into the world you are connected to.
    At least, that’s my experience. IMHO, the risk is worth it!

  18. “I love making something where something wasn’t before…”
    That’s EXACTLY why I love to write and make music.
    Whenever I read something or listen to a track, I suddenly forget what it was like before I read/heard it. I can try to picture a time not five minutes ago when this piece of media was completely unknown to me, but now it’s a part of my knowledge base. It’s something that I have stored in me, and every time I read or hear it from now until the day I die, it will never be new again.
    Knowing that even just a few people experience that feeling of something being NEW because I made it is amazingly rewarding.

  19. Wil, take another look at your last sentence, “I hope that, if he had, the lonely kid who wrote that note would have once day found comfort in quiet, public solitude.”
    Did you mean “one day found . . .,” “once found . . .” or something else?

  20. It seemed less scary when I was younger, but then again, back then I didn’t have as much reason to stay connected as I do now. My biggest worry is my is my relationship with my husband, that I could damage it somehow or push him away, so I hold back a lot more these days. But he’s also something that will keep me coming back, keep me grounded, so I want to try and trust that. It’s this balance I need to find, and I *always* want to know how other actors do it. So thanks for replying, that makes sense.

  21. This isn’t something that just actors feel about their profession. A friend of mine who worked in fine arts (painting) said he realized one day that what he’d signed up for was in fact a lonely profession. I’m an academic philosopher, and it’s a lot that way for me too, except that it’s books, a word processor, and a really difficult intellectual problem.

  22. I think you have to always be aware of what is important to yourself and how you spend your time. It is very easy to let things that are not truly important take up too much time.

  23. The thing that always struck me about acting and writing (and possibly any art form, maybe?) is the double vision. When I’m caught up in an event in my life, whether it’s a funny date story or traveling cross-country or getting a C-section, there’s always a part of me that’s scribbling notes and examining the entire event from all sides, so I can use it later. It’s the thing that makes my husband say, “Don’t blog about this later.”

  24. I have had to make a conscious effort to turn off my mental recording device, so I can just enjoy whatever is happening in the moment.

  25. I’ve been acting for 20 years now, and I’ve got to say, sometimes acting is my only social outlet. Granted, I’m performing on stage, and not on film, and maybe that’s why I prefer the stage. I particularly relish roles where I can interact with the audience, such as the one I’m currently playing (Launce in a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which as one of Shakespeare’s clowns means not only interacting, but, regardless of what Hamlet said, slipping in improvisational bits as well).
    That being said, I’m no James Dean, and I’m no method actor either. I have fun with the rest of the cast during downtime, rather than going off to brood in-character.

  26. I would be fascinated to examine how actors’ normal-range personalities differ from ordinary peoples’ personalities. I would hypothesize that actors would be higher in the dimension of absorption, which indexes a person’s ability to lose one’s self in sensory and imaginal experiences. It’s also about equally related to positive and negative emotionality, which would give an actor the ability to be more emotive during performances than those low in this dimension. I’d think that they’d also be higher ins social potency on account of their enjoyment of being in the spotlight. Actors like James Dean might be higher in alienation, the propensity to feel suspicious of others and mistreated.
    Oh, how I’d love to be able to administer anonymized personality inventories to some well-known actors to understand some of what would make you all tick, especially as compared to other creative professionals.

  27. Yes I’d definitely say that the tortured artist bit is where we get started – something inside us that is stuck that wants to get out makes us start creating. But as we age, those of us who are lucky enough to look at our own lives and creative processes from the side and not just through a lens of anguish, can start to enjoy the process, and still draw from the past but get inspired by the future. There’s a pretty amazing thing that starts to happen when you shift from post-teen to becoming an adult. Creatively, I’d say that 30s and 40s are the best times to get it all out there.

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