Celebrity Lessons for Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I picture Steve Martin in dozens of situations. I’ve seen him tell jokes on talk shows, woo a woman in the movie “Roxanne,” and anxiously fuss over his daughter in “Father of the Bride.” The more I think about Steve Martin, the more I remember him. It feels like we have been hanging out together for years. So when I heard about his memoir, “Born Standing Up,” I should have jumped for joy. But instead, my impulse was to run away. One reason for this aversion is that I prefer the lives of “ordinary” people. Another reason is that I’ve been burned.

Years ago I purchased a memoir by Ruth Gordon, an actress whose performances enchanted me in movies like “Harold and Maude.” I looked forward to reading more about her, but the prose was so boring, the situations so leaden, I actually returned the book for a refund. From that experience I formed the prejudice that celebrity memoirs are on the shelf because the author is famous, not because the book is good.

My conclusion was based on a sample size of one, hardly an impressive scientific test. Furthermore, famous people exert enormous power in our culture, and unless I break down and read their memoirs, I’m going to remain ignorant about them. So when an online friend suggested that Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” was authentic and introspective I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be an excellent book about a boy’s climb from ordinary childhood to international fame.

Desire, Effort, Sacrifice

When Martin was a child, he looked at the stage and knew he wanted to be on it. At first he thought he could achieve success by performing magic acts. Later he incorporated comedy into his routine and then banjo playing. Basically, he didn’t care what he did, as long as he performed. Of course, reaching the stage was only the beginning. To be invited back, he had to learn how to please audiences. It was a long journey.

Writing Prompt

Consider your own life achievements. What sacrifices and hardships did you make in order to achieve some greatly desired goals?

Writers want to reach the public, too

Most writers think they will be finished when they type the last word. They seldom anticipate the public leg of their journey. And yet, to succeed we must reach out to readers. Many memoir writers are interviewed on radio, speak at meetings, and greet people at book signings. People want to learn more about us. So we writers need to face audiences gladly, learn to please them, and damp down our sensitivity to the weird mix of scrutiny, criticism, and indifference.

Hardly any of us will become famous in the way Steve Martin is, and yet his memoir provides insight into our situation. Like so many successful artists and performers, Steve Martin claims his fame had more to do with persistence than talent. He relentlessly pursued public attention, and refused to accept defeat. Week after week, he found an open microphone or a low paying gig, stood in front of the crowd, failed miserably, tried to learn from his experience, and did it again.

Famous writers often tell similar stories. Stephen King persisted despite many rejections, and I’m beginning to believe that willingness to reach for the public is indeed the entry fee. Martin sought fame as if his life depended on it. It makes a good story. His desire established the momentum. We accompany him through those years as he tried to fulfill that desire despite seemingly impossible odds.

As writers, we need to develop this dramatic tension in the stories we write. And to succeed, we also need to follow the dramatic tension in real life. By following our desire, we make choices and take chances that lead us further towards our dream of communicating with readers.

Writing prompt

What tenacious drive did you follow? Making babies.. your career.. your art or sport? Write a scene of rejection or failure, and show how you picked up and kept going.

Even spectacular success becomes just another chapter in a long life

His fame grew so large he was performing in large halls where he was barely visible from the back. And yet, surprisingly, even during this period of exploding fame, he continued to experience terrible anxiety attacks, private hells he can’t really describe. He was intensely lonely and scared much of the time.

Then Martin walked away from comedy and shifted to movie making. He says he never looked back. He even claims he forgot about those years when he was trying so hard to earn a living by making people laugh. Considering how much psychological pain he suffered during this period, it makes sense that he would forget it when he moved on to the next chapter in his life. Later, when he tried to write about it, this period came into focus and took its rightful place in the whole journey of being Steve Martin.

This is an excellent example of the way life really works. When we move on to a new challenge, a new city or relationship or career, we often have trouble remembering the old one. We don’t even know we’ve forgotten. The years are simply gone. By writing we can re-integrate those lost parts, making ourselves more whole.

Did it for you dad

Martin’s story includes a tragic portrayal of his relationship to his father. He could never please his dad, and so he kept wondering what he could do to impress the old man. When his dad was close to death, Martin reached out to him and said, “I did it for you, dad.” Then turning to the reader he says, “I should have said, ‘I did it because of you.'” In other words, he became a successful comedian in order to break past his dad’s relentless disapproval.

By sharing this intimate moment, Martin proves the point that celebrities are people. The work of a memoir is to offer that humanity to readers. And so, I’m glad I read this book about a celebrity, who was also a real human being, who wanted the same things I want, and who was later willing to take the time to go back, organize those experiences and share them with me in his memoir.

Please comment about your best or worst celebrity memoir, or your experience with tenacity.

Note
Another memoir “Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers also highlights the shocking tenacity needed to go from obscurity to fame. She also endured years of hardship and rejection. To read my essay about Joan Rivers‘ tale, click here.

4 thoughts on “Celebrity Lessons for Writers

  1. “Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s nothing like what you would expect from Joan Rivers (the comedian).

    It’s all about believing in yourself and tanacity and hard work. Any time I get really down and think I’m never going to accomplish the goals I have set for myself, I open that wonderful book again. I’m so glad to hear it mentioned again after all of these years.

    Joan Rivers’ “Bouncing Back” is another well-written and truly inspiring book about surviving literally anything that life has to give. It’s the basis of Joan’s very popular lecture series on the subject. It’s absolutely terrific!

  2. Thanks, Shane. Enter Talking is surprisingly inspiring. I’m almost finished and working on an essay about it. Thanks for the advice about Bouncing Back and her lecture series which I didn’t know about. I’ll look into that and see how it all fits.

  3. I can recommend Audition by Barbara Walters and Finding My Voice by Diane Rehm also.

    What all these celebrity memoirs seem to have in common is the enormous energy it takes to “make it” to the top of one’s profession and the hidden insecurities most celebrities have.

  4. Jerry, I would recommend former Kansas Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole’s book, “A Soldiers’ Story”

    It is not about politics, it is about how he overcame his horrific battle wounds in WW II and rose through the ranks of leadership.

    I found it inspiring.

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