Untangling the messy quest for “authenticity” in two easy(ish) steps.
by Amanda Louise Miller, grad student
If my past week was an episode of Sesame Street, it would have been “brought to you by the concept of AUTHENTICITY and the letters B and U.”
From class discussions on historical performance practice to pictures on my Pinterest feed, nearly every important conversation or epiphany I had last week dealt with this hard-to-define, easy-to-throw-around-as-a-self-help-buzzword idea:
Normally one to turn up her nose at such a “frou-frou” or “touchy-feely” topic, I'd never given much thought to authenticity-as-a-ponderable-concept. But it’s kind of hard to ignore authenticity when the universe apparently sends metaphorical cheerleaders to follow you around shouting, “be authentic, be be authentic” for an entire week....
So, without further ado, here are my thoughts and reflections on this messy, only-slightly-frou-frou idea of “authenticity”:
First, a definition... umm, anybody?
Well, as it turns out: “Authenticity” is really hard to define. It can mean anything from something being created by who it was supposed to be created by (as in, an “authentic” Picasso painting was without-a-doubt-painted by the guy) to something being an accurate reproduction of something else (as in “I’m pretty sure that production of Jesus Christ Superstar was NOT historically authentic”).
And then, there's the touchy-feely/frou-frou definition, in which the word "authentic" is usually followed by the word "self," and for which the explanation usually includes phrases like "true to oneself" or "honest and reflective of your human experience."
This last definition, of course, is where authenticity gets its "new agey" reputation. However, I'm pretty sure it's also the definition the universe has been beating me over the head with this past week. Luckily, thanks to Shel Silversteen, I found a very un-frou-frou way to express it:
My translation: "Being authentic means being able to take off the masks, armor, and bad habits you've donned in the past. In short: getting (metaphorically) naked."
Even though getting authentic(ally naked) can be terrifying, it’s one of the most amazing things we can witness someone do.
(We're reading The Naked Voice by W. Stephen Smith in my voice studio this semester. The Introduction -- titled "In Pursuit of Authenticity" -- starts with one of the greatest opening lines ever: "I have spent my professional career teaching singers how to undress (vocally, emotionally, and psychologically)")
Fact: Humans are programmed to respond to authenticity. It’s how a parent can know what a crying baby needs or what we emotionally respond to in a really good performance.
Another Fact: Our propensity to respond to authenticity-as-nakedness is responsible in no small part for the procreation of our species!
After all: what is the most common advice given out to single people on the prowl (not to mention job seekers and wanna-be YouTube celebrities)? "Be yourself."
But, that's easier said than done, right? Of course! That’s because we've been programmed to think there is one, singular and ideal, RIGHT WAY to do things in life, and if we can’t be THAT, then we're subpar.
Beauty magazines tell us there is a RIGHT WAY to look. Autotuned and computer-generated recordings convince us there is a RIGHT WAY for music to sound. And Photoshop is just the devil.
Never mind the fact that there are as many ways to look and sound as there are people on the planet -- We have been fooled into thinking that perfect is possible.
And when we inevitably feel like our imperfect selves can’t measure up to our fictional ideals/idols, we either knock ourselves out trying to create the illusion of perfect, or we lock ourselves down in hopes that, by blending in, no one will notice how un-perfect we are. We don the masks, armor, and self-handicaps that make us inauthentic.
But, there is hope! Now, I certainly don’t think I have all the answers to the Authenticity Puzzle, but this week I have figured out my own two-step (and I hope, un-new-agey) game plan that can start one inching closer to Authentically Naked Nirvana (at least where kicking perfectionism to the curb is concerned).
Step One: Try (and embrace) something you know you’ll be bad at!
For me, this is running. I am not now, nor have I ever been (nor will I ever be) a great runner. I’m not even a particularly good runner. But I started with this really friendly couch-to-5K app last year, and now I’m hooked. When competing with others is not even remotely possible (because, let’s be honest, all the “real” runners have lapped me twice already), the only person I have left to compete with is myself. And it's wonderful.
I’m not "A Runner," I’m just “someone who runs.” I don’t have to handicap myself, I just have to set another goal and try to meet it. And that’s pretty darn rewarding.
It doesn't matter what it is - running, tap dancing, oil painting, underwater basketweaving - as long as you can honestly (and authentically) say the following about it, it will work for Step One:
"I will never be 'good' at this... but I'm a helluva lot better at it today than I was last year (month, week, etc.). And because I'm perfectly content with the fact I'll never be 'good,' I have no problem asking for help when things go wrong or bragging when things go right."
Step two: Apply the same attitude you enjoyed in Step One to something in your life that you are legitimately good at.
Ok, here’s where it gets tricky. Because when you’re naturally talented at something, when performance expectations are high, then so is the risk of failure. And that's when those inauthentic "vampires" tend to rear their ugly heads.
(The Candy Project 2010 -- I'm the girl in green :)
But I asked myself, "What if I applied the same attitude I have towards running to my creative life? What if I swapped thinking of myself as 'A Writer' or 'A Singer,' for 'I am someone who writes' or 'I am someone who sings'? Would that help kick some of my toxically-perfectionistic tendencies to the curb?
To get you started on Step Two, take the sentence from Step One and replace the word "good" with "perfect" or "the best." Then apply it to the creative endeavor of your choice:
"I will never be perfect at this... but I'm a helluva lot better at it today than I was last year (month, week, etc.). And because I'm perfectly content with the fact I'll never be "perfect," I have no problem asking for help when things go wrong and bragging when things go right."
Make living up to this statement your goal, and you will be well on your way to an authentic creative life.
To wrap this up, it’s important to remember that none of these steps to authenticity can happen overnight. Just like you can’t start training for a 5K race the day before you run it and expect it not to kick your ass (trust me on this), you can’t cram for an exam in Being Authentic 101.
But that’s ok. Because the quest for authenticity doesn’t have a finish line. It’s not a competition you can win or lose, because the only person running the race is you. And the more masks and extra layers you can peel away from your beautiful blue self, the more willing you are to “get naked,” the more rewarding and, yes, "authentic" your lifelong race is going to become.