Thoughts on reading Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up”

June 14, 2014 by Joshua
in Art, Creativity, Freedom, Humor

I read and recommend Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up.”

He writes honestly and concisely. He persevered through a challenging life. Unlike many people we admire, he didn’t overcome obstacles that befell him. My list of inspirations on my “Resources and Inspirations” page includes three big ones for me who overcame outside challenges that they couldn’t have foreseen and have to handle—Victor Frankl, Jean-Dominique Bauby, and Mark Zupan. Overcoming challenges is hard and brings out the best in some people.

Steve Martin’s challenges came from inside. He lived his passion without compromise—as challenging a task as overcoming an injury. As a comedian, that meant playing five to ten shows a week for years to empty rooms, handling hecklers, and barely making ends meet. It meant declining opportunities for mainstream paying jobs. Creating and delivering his own material meant that a show that bombed, it was all him—not the writer, director, or sound guy.

How many of us know that feeling of total responsibility and vulnerability for your work?

Working for someone else is incomparably easier. All most people have to deal with is annoying work or a difficult manager. However difficult the manager, you can always externalize the challenge.

The arc of the book that resonated with me

He begins performing around ten years old by copying other people. He realizes he has to create his own material. The more experience he has, the more his shows become his natural self coming out.

The arc of the book, to me, is about this natural self coming out. It seems to me he didn’t create anything new inside him. Instead, he removed inhibitions and protections that covered this inner part of him that was always there, yearning to express itself freely. Art, and I think it’s fair to call his performance “art,” is about truth and honesty. We like seeing people express what we know but are too inhibited, afraid, unaware, or something like that to express ourselves. As far as I know, the only way to discover parts of yourself that are both universal but not expressed by others is to make yourself vulnerable, handle the embarrassment, shame, fear, and so on, and emerge without the inhibitions that protected you from those emotions.

I’ve avoided getting a mainstream job for nearly my entire life. If you’ve read my blog long enough you know I detest the question “So what do you do?” that assumes submission to others’ values at the expense of discovering and living your own. The ease of mainstream life sacrifices something I value more than comfort: the challenge you sacrifice is the challenge of uncovering yourself. I’ll take that challenge any day. But it’s hard.

Reading Steve Martin’s book reminded me of the value of sticking to your passions. You don’t need a disaster to befall you to overcome huge obstacles. You can be a regular person. Regular life has enough challenges if you face your challenges. The reward either way is discovering and revealing yourself. Steve Martin did it and became the greatest comedian ever by some measures before he walked away from it.

More personally, reading his book reminded me of why I’m sticking with developing my own material for coaching and presenting. Performance is an art of exposing and expressing yourself. If you create your own material, doubly so. I create my material to inspire emotions—maybe not laughter or tears like most performance art, but deep and meaningful ones nonetheless—but I’m in this as an artist.

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