“Be in love with the process” — thanks, Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins
By AkaiAkai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54485717

Picking up his Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins exclaimed:

“Be in love with the process, not the result.”

I’ve been catching up with the Oscars on my DVR (I was too sore to get out of bed last night to watch them live). It’s nearly 6:30 on Monday night and I didn’t have a blog written for—well, when you’re reading this it will be “today,” so—today. But a commitment is a commitment, so here I am at the old laptop.

I am definitely not in love with the process of healing from this operation I had five days ago. But like Mr. Jenkins, I am in love with the process of writing. And with the result, too: my 308-day writing streak (I’ll hit 308 as soon as I’m finished writing this). Sense of accomplishment, blah, blah. I’ve written about all of that before.

But I know that’s not the kind of result Barry Jenkins was talking about. He meant, don’t sweat over your laptops trying to write an award-winning screenplay: just write your truth.

“Just trying to drill down and get that right…If you create something that’s distinct and unique, you get a genuine, visceral reaction out of the person receiving it.”

Barry Jenkins offers great advice for filmmakers…and speakers

Even if you never write a movie—heck, even if you never see a movie—you’d do well to take Barry Jenkins’s advice seriously. Create something original. Create something true and your audience cannot help but feel and respond to your truth. Not with polite applause, but with a “genuine, visceral reaction.”

Visceral reactions stay with people—I still remember the visceral reaction I had to James Baldwin, the first time I encountered his words. I’d never heard anyone speak so bravely.

I’d seen the musical Gypsy at least five times before I saw Patti LuPone take on the role, and when she finished her big number in the second act, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Visceral reactions don’t get much more literal than that; I even emitted a small “oof” in the stunned silence after she finished.

I digress…or do I?

I saw the LuPone Gypsy nearly a decade ago; my James Baldwin memory is about three times as old. But both made an impact on me; both remain fresh. When you speak your truth, when you convey honest emotion, you give people the most precious gift possible.

Would you like to write like that? Would you like to leave that kind of emotional legacy when you speak?

Just listen to Barry Jenkins: Love the process. Drill down as deeply as you need to do to get it right. Not because you’re aiming for any accolades; just because you honor yourself and your audience enough to do the best damn work you can, every damn time.

“I know you believe that”—the wisdom of Hidden Figures

There’s a lot to love in the movie Hidden Figures. It not only tells the story of three remarkable Black women whose analytical skills enabled the space program to succeed. It’s also an eye-opener for anyone who doesn’t fully understand all that white privilege has handed us over the generations.

 

If you think police antagonizing Black people is a new phenomenon, feast your eyes on the opening scene, when the women’s car breaks down on the side of a country road. A police car rolls up, lights flashing, and tells them they’ve picked an inconvenient place to break down. As if they had a choice.

If you think the judicial system can settle anything without local support, feast your eyes on the “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, the segregated schools—heck, even the libraries were segregated. And if you wanted to educate yourself on something important, forget about finding the book you need at the “colored” library. As a judge helpfully reminds the audience, this happens after the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” facilities in Brown v. Board of Ed. Also after President Eisenhower overruled the Arkansas governor and directed in the National Guard to escort nine black children into Little Rock’s Central High School. But none of it mattered in Virginia, not back then.

Dorothy Vaughan, one of the Hidden Figures at NASA
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Vaughan’s family, posted on NASA website

For me, the emotional high point of the movie wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering flight; it was a short encounter in a newly integrated ladies’ room at NASA. The white woman supervisor looks at Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and says, “I don’t have anything against you.”

And Vaughan replies, kindly, “I know.” She pauses. Is that all she’s going to say? It is not.

In the same tone of voice she adds:

“I know you believe that.”

Spencer has been nominated for an Academy Award. If you ask me, she deserves it on the strength of that line alone.

Hidden Figures and the banality of prejudice

Hidden Figures does an excellent job of not demonizing its main white characters, and while they do and say some despicable things, they’re not mustache-twirling villains. They’re not neo-Nazis. They’re just office workers, trying to do something that’s never been done before under an impossible deadline.

But there’s nothing new about their behavior, and surely their parents and grandparents did even worse. They have no concept of how their actions affect the Black they work with (who they would never imagine as “colleagues”). In fact they barely even notice them, except by their absence.

Prejudice isn’t always easy to see. Oh, the people being discriminated against see it very clearly. But the rest of society may just mistake it for life. Sometimes prejudice is utterly banal—and that’s when it’s scariest.

So in 2017 when the nice people in what’s left of the United States of America start talking about LGBT people and people of color wanting “special rights”—when the good Christians start talking about how they “love the sinner but hate the sin” and that Muslims are free to practice their religion, elsewhere—when someone tries to identify any group of human beings as somehow less deserving of respect and dignity—let’s start by channeling our inner Dorothy Vaughans: “I know you believe that.”

And then what?

Then tell a story—a real story. If you can touch someone’s heart, you might be able to open their eyes. Hidden Figures does.

Comedy & authenticity: Laughter connects people

Laughter connects people. Whether you’re on a first date with one person or onstage in front of 1,000, sharing a laugh remains one of the best ways to break the emotional ice.Comedian Jane Condon understands that laughter connects peopl

My very funny friend Jane Condon recently wrote a piece for Women@Forbes about using comedy in business speeches. I agree with just about every word she wrote, including “and” and “the.”

But I want to highlight a couple of points she made.

Jane says, “Know your audience.” I would add, “and the occasion.”

Understanding the purpose and tone of the gathering might have helped Trump avoid getting booed at a high-society dinner. Then again…Trump.

Jane says, “Be you. Always.”

I don’t have anything to add to that, other than an emphatic head nod. But don’t confine authenticity to just the humorous part of your remarks. If your personality doesn’t shine through your words, the audience will sense the disconnect. At best, they’ll leave the speech feeling puzzled by you; at worst, they’ll dislike you, maybe without knowing quite why.

Something like that happened to the actress Anne Hathaway in 2013. She recently revealed that she’d been navigating a deeply unhappy period following her performance in the movie Les Misérables. Yet once she was nominated for—and won—an Academy Award,

“I had to stand up in front of people and feel something I don’t feel, which is uncomplicated happiness,” she says…. “I tried to pretend that I was happy and I got called out on it, big time.”

Somewhere along the way, Hathaway got transformed from, as the Vanity Fair article described it, a “friendly famous face into an actress the public loved to hate.”

I’m not an expert in the vagaries of an Oscar campaign, but I can’t help thinking that authenticity might have served Hathaway better than, well, acting.

Yes, her feelings were complicated, difficult to encapsulate into a sound bite. But imagine if she’d said, “Playing this character reminded me that so many women face these terrible situations, even today. That’s a tough thing to shake, and I haven’t quite done it yet.”

Who couldn’t connect to that?

Okay, back to Jane.

Jane says, “Lastly, be you.”

Yes. Authenticity is so important she mentioned it twice. She says,

Audiences are smarter than we give them credit for. Comedy comes from the true place. And authentic will read to the back of the room. So take risks (yes) but be you. There is only one you.

“There is only one you.” Even if you’re talking about a subject people have heard a million times before, when you come at it from an authentic place, you make it new for your listeners. No one else has your experiences, your perceptions. If laughter connects, then authenticity cements that connection.

Make ’em laugh, yes. But make ’em feel, too. And let them get to know the real you.


Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Thursday, November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.