On Performance and Sincerity
So, this is basically more or less random musings triggered by this post by John Scalzi about doing readings.
Now, I completely agree with him on the value of being prepared, and knowing that at a reading (or on a panel, or some other sort of public appearance), you’re performing. I have also noticed the overlap between writers whose readings are lively and enjoyable and writers who have even some small amount of performance experience.
My own preparations for readings are a good deal less elaborate than John’s, but then I suspect I write very, very much more slowly than he does and I haven’t practiced my ukulele in quite a while. But basically, I pick a thing to read, trying to make sure it’s not too long (y’all at WorldCon got solid read-aloud, sorry, but then again not too sorry since folks seemed to enjoy it), and then spend any remaining time taking questions. I probably ought to think if there’s something I can add to switch things up for this fall.
Now as it happens, I have a tiny bit of theater experience, along with that music degree, so I’m actually pretty comfortable onstage. But you know what else I think has helped me–years of waiting tables. I am a serious introvert, but working at waiting tables gave me practice interacting with lots of strangers for hours at a time, keeping my demeanor pleasant and mostly cheerful. It’s practice that has stood me in good stead for a lot of my non-writing-related life, actually. In a lot of ways waiting tables can be a really miserable job, but that aspect of it, learning how to be “on” very pleasantly and confidently, has been super valuable to me.
So, a while ago, I think it might have been on Tumblr, I saw someone reblog a post where someone was saying that they wished there was some way to politely tell a waiter that it was all right, the waiter didn’t have to be fake cheery with them, the poster cringed at the idea of a waiter having to do that and it was okay to just drop the act.
This bugged me, but it took me a while to figure out why. Finally I decided that there were two things about it that bothered me.
First, the assumption that a waiter’s cheerfulness was fake and therefore bad. It’s true that the cheerfulness is a performance. No question. But “performance” and “fake” are…I mean, they’re related? I could perform a fake attitude, yeah. But I could also decide that a conscious performance is the best way to convey my actual attitude. And I know that, when I was waiting tables, one of the things I enjoyed was being able to put on the persona of someone who was cheerful and extraverted, comfortable with talking to strangers, and happy to help. Yeah, I enjoyed it less when I was working with a table full of assholes, sure, but there’s value in practicing one’s “I am a person who is unfailingly polite” persona under adverse conditions.
I could go off on a tangent here about the way the culture I grew up in and am surrounded by values “sincerity” over “performance” and defines sincerity in a way that doesn’t just mean “honest” but also unscripted and spontaneous. And confessional–to be sincere is to bare your soul, to show the intimate you. In fact, bets are you associate “honest” with unscripted and spontaneous and confessional.
But a lot of things that we consider to be spontaneous and heartfelt are, in fact, scripted gestures. They kind of have to be, you have to speak in terms another person will understand, if you want to communicate with them. If you look closely you can see the underpinning of social expectation and convention that mostly goes ignored.
The clearest example of what I’m talking about is a religious one. I grew up Catholic, and that meant I spent a good deal of my childhood memorizing prayers. The Mass, its variations throughout the liturgical year notwithstanding, is essentially the same carefully scripted ritual over and over and over again. I could recite much of it in my sleep. Or, I could have before they re-did the approved English translation.
It’s commonly assumed that the recitation of these prayers is nothing but empty ritual. That there’s no way they can be real engagement with the spiritual, no way they can truly express any kind of profound emotion. I am here to tell you that the common assumption is one hundred percent fucking wrong. In fact, the pervasive presence of those prayers lends a depth and eloquence to them that I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t had that experience.* From the outside it looks like droning meaningless syllables. From the inside it’s very different.
In opposition to the Catholic style prayers we have the supposedly spontaneous prayers of some Protestant churches. A true sincere and unscripted upwelling of praise and prayer! Except not. Listen to enough, and you realize they’re built out of pre-fabricated phrases, strung together at length, with various techniques for vamping until the next thought is organized, the next unit chosen. I assume that the folks who pray this way find it a deeply emotional experience, and consider themselves to be praying very sincerely. I don’t hear spontaneity though, it’s just as formulaic as the supposedly nothing but rote Catholic prayer I grew up with, just handled a different way.
My point isn’t that there’s a right or a wrong way to pray. My point is that both these practices are equally sincere, and calling the second sort spontaneous isn’t actually terribly accurate. It’s really a performance of something that purports to be spontaneity.
My point is that “sincere” and “spontaneous” are not the same thing.
Nor is “sincere” and “intimate.” Which was my next problem with the idea that it would be kind and generous to tell a waiter they could let the act drop, and be honest with the poster who wished to ask for this.
They weren’t, as they appeared to think, offering a chance to relax. No, the poster was, in a sense, wanting to demand an intimacy with the waiter that they just hadn’t earned. A waiter does not owe you any glimpses of their private self. That’s maybe for friends and family, right? We all behave differently with intimates and strangers. Strangers generally get a more formal, more distant face. You don’t tell someone to show you that part of themselves. Well, unless there’s a big enough power differential that you don’t even notice that’s what you’re doing.
It’s not generous. It’s insulting.
Anyway. I think it’s worth taking a second or third thought when we value actions as sincere or insincere based on whether or not we think they’re spontaneous or scripted or conventional. Are they really any of those things? Why does a conventional action that gets called spontaneous but really isn’t, why does that get valued so much more highly than an action that’s just as conventional, but more obviously so? Just something to ponder.
Anyway. That’s my random musings, from reading John’s blog post and connecting it with some stuff I’d been thinking about not long ago.
Like John, my “on” demeanor is me. It’s not fake. But it is a performance, in a lot of ways. It’s a public me. I enjoy the heck out of that performance, partly because it helps me be comfortable meeting lots of awesome people. It’s exhausting, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it.
*I occasionally wonder just how Fredo’s death in the second Godfather movie must seem to someone who doesn’t feel the end of the Hail Mary hanging there unsaid, a background echo to the shot. Does the scene have the same emotional weight? I suspect it doesn’t, quite.
**In case anyone worries, or feels I need reassurance, no one to my knowledge has accused me of being fake in public. And I’m not particularly worried that anyone might think that. It’s just that the question of what’s sincere, what’s spontaneous, and how those get valued by the people around me, is one I chew on sometimes, and I figured I’d share some of those thoughts.