Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?

Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?

If sincerely posed, it’s a profound question—but, given our uniform timidity, one to which we rarely summon an honest answer. Human beings as a species seem almost ubiquitously allergic to uttering this simple phrase, either to themselves or others: “I don’t know.” It’s why we have religions and the internet is overrun with armchair experts on everything from virulent viruses to benign beekeeping to intricate Middle Eastern matters of foreign policy.

We are of course collectively in no short supply of fully-automatic answers if the question is ever posed, be it as crass as the above or in a much more civilized, genteel manner.

“I’m a mother. A father. A longshoreman. A Buddhist. A Christian. A professional badminton player. An amateur arm wrestler … a dancer, director, diabetic, or dick-for-hire.” The list goes on, all the way from noble “pediatric nurse” on up high, down to the lowly, dog-trodden “screenwriter.”

But are these conduit-to-an-easy-answer professions and philosophies who we are? In this, the age of “Identity” with a capital-I, we routinely rattle off our races and ethnicities, our genders (or non-genders), our sexual preferences and political affiliations as if these details summate us as lifeforms, or even do anything more than scratch the very surface of our souls and psyches. We might quit jobs and move west in an RV or backpack Europe or change our names or reassemble our anatomies or “find Jesus” in personal quests to “find ourselves,” but in all of that bustling activity and locomotion rarely do the real work of introspectively, Socratically taking an existential deep dive into what this question even means in actuality, let alone how to adequately answer it.

If you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s Jim Morrison bio-myth-opic The Doors (or, if you’re a real fan, the doc When You’re Strange, which contains the archival footage this bit is based on) you may recall a scene in which the band is on tour and arriving at an airport only to be greeted on the tarmac by a mic-wielding documentarian who asks each member “Name? Age? Occupation?”

“Robby Kreiger. 22 years old. Uh, guitar.”

“John Densmore. 23. Percussionist.”

“Raymond Daniel Manzarek. Born, 2-12-39. Musician. Organist.”

And, last but not even remotely least, The Lizard King himself saunters to the camera to answer the uninspired query with a simple:


To follow, when asked his occupation, he gives the camera a mischievous smile and nothing more.

This scene always struck me, even as a young teen, as so fucking gangster. It’s a prime example of a human being, as opposed to a “human doing.” Jim refused to tie his identity to even the enviable rocket ride of rock stardom. He envisioned himself a poet and a rooftop acid shaman first and foremost, but it’s telling that he didn’t even reply with either of those profound “professions” either. At least in that glorious moment he refused to play the game. He refused to define himself by his occupation, profession, or pastime. It was a playful, spontaneous acknowledgement that the whole of a person is undefinable, even as we fight so hard to find ways to easily define ourselves.

And therein lies the real rub: how we seek to define ourselves—especially as artists, who hold aloft art and the people who create it on pillared pedestals in our minds. Pedestals that we, too, inherently strive to summit and perch upon, or better yet be foisted unto by a legion of fans and admirers.

Allow me a left turn for a moment, if you will …

I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions—or at least stick to them, as my waistline will attest—so this didn’t come about that way, but just the same, I have been largely absent from social media for all but a couple of hours in 2022. To say that it has been cleansing would be an understatement of the highest order. I’ve been more productive, better able to focus, less anxious, and more centered than I have felt in years—not to mention more attentive to not only my family and household and body, but my art as well. That said, there have been moments where I’ve had to reactivate a social media account for a minute to check on something and each time I’m quickly reminded why I left and why I don’t miss it and very, very, very likely won’t return in any meaningful capacity.

Let’s take #ScreenwriterTwitter for example, a venue I have mostly observed vs. engaged in over the years (if you can’t tell, I’m a verbose motherfucker—Facebook always fit my Modus Operandi more). I have friends who swear by Twitter as a utility in terms of furthering their careers. That’s one way to do it, for sure. It’s the age we live in … but I have grown to consider this approach to forging a career as a newfangled deal with the devil. Take umbrage with this observation as you may, dear reader, but what might feel to you like a (highly dysfunctional) family or tribe of like-minded individuals with common goals strikes me—more than ever since my departure—as a “scene,” not unlike any other, in which procrastinating people desperately seek to be seen, noticed, and recognized, and as such put their egos on display like so many high-powered halogen Bat Signals on an overcast, moonless night.

Take the bios, always leading with “screenwriter” or some derivation even if the person would be more accurate in describing themselves, if they’re leading with a profession, by way of what actually pays the bills. You might argue they’re listing primarily their passions, not professions, which is fine … but when one chooses, out of all of the passions on earth from altruism to seeking enlightenment to actively solving the problems that truly vex humanity, “screenwriting” ... that in and of itself says a little something about them and their likely subconscious agenda, doesn’t it (a nod to Orwell here, who acknowledged in his essay Why I Write that ego is the primary driver)?

When writers who’ve achieved some modicum of success in the industry make it their mission to mentor the #preWGA strivers—as opposed to donating their time and energy at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club or some other place where real people in real need could use actual, real guidance—I can’t help but wonder if it’s more so to feed a psychological need to be seen as a success and authority on the subject—often in order (most likely, depending on the actual level of success achieved by the self-appointed mentor) to combat imposter syndrome within oneself or something of the sort. Especially when the advice being proffered is often anecdotal, well-tread and easily Googled, or irrelevant in an industry in which everyone quotes Goldman’s “nobody knows anything” and seemingly every career takes its own organic, winding road to success or doom. It’s like a long-play form of the notorious humblebrag—a practice which even the most ardent Twitter devotee and Stan has to be repulsed by. And then there’s of course the endless name drops and wasted energy and flame wars that any scene finds itself mired in, exponentially exacerbated in a digital space in which anonymity—and lack of punching proximity—runs rampant.

For the record, I’m not being holier-than-thou here. And this isn't some passive aggressive snipe at those of you whom I'm friends with who do some of this (cue music: "You're so vain ... you probably think this article's about you"). Trust me. I’ve done all of the same lame shit in the very-near past, as much as it shames me to admit it. This is about and aimed at myself as much as anyone. But stepping away from The Scene even these two short months has allowed me the vital space and brain-quiet to gain at least a mote of self-awareness. When you’re mired in the social media dopamine feedback loop, these things are hard to acknowledge or admit to oneself. We get so busy trying to project to the world what we want them to see or know us as, we allow our egos to glide on greased rails and forget that looking inward is so much healthier and enlightening than projecting outwardly.

As much as I feel the stoner impulse to launch into “who we are is really just an illusion anyway, forward consciousness is merely a trick played on us by our brains as they try to cope with the tsunami of sensory information flooding in at any given moment, as we’re in reality—whatever that means—merely doing the bidding of our gut bacteria and producing outputs we mistake as free will but is in fact a form of biological autopilot predicated upon untold inputs from both the distant and relatively recent past (and near-present, since we live a matter of milli-, nano-, and picoseconds in the past due to the infinitesimal lag in neural processing speed) …” yada, yada yada.

I will instead try to leave those of you still preposterously reading this preaching proclamation a hopefully useful bit of wisdom I’ve recently learned while studying both Stoicism and sports psychology in my social media sabbatical:

Be careful to avoid binding your identity too closely to your pursuits.

In my departure from the online shitstorm, I’ve tried to put my money where my mouth is in trading social media armchair punditry and masturbatory mentorship by actually volunteering in my local community. I’ve been coaching in an inner city baseball Little League, helping these kids get an early start on the season (and life) in an indoor facility as the winter cold still encroaches. In doing so I have, again, been reading up on sports psychology and this above axiom is one thing I’ve gleaned that I think could be extremely instructive and beneficial to bring back here to artists.

The Arts, like baseball, are rife with failure (often in the form of rejection). To subject oneself to trying to make a living at this shit is a form of self-flagellation that would inspire in most reasonable people a Dickinsonian retreat from any formal quest towards combining art with commerce. And achieving success in any art form usually requires a singular obsession ... and therein lies the true danger:

When one ties their identity to a pursuit that is extremely difficult to achieve success or notoriety in—let alone an actual living above the poverty line (though no, it’s not even fucking remotely nearly as hard as making it into the NFL, as so many #screenwriters love to equate in terms of joining the Writers Guild, for example)—and they are dealt crushing blow after crushing blow … what then? What impact is had on the psyche, the self-esteem, the vitality of the person?

Sports psychologists will warn even the young prep player of making the mistake of binding their identity to their sport.

What happens to young Bruno the varsity wrestler when, with the hopes of his entire school or even state on the line, he gets pinned in nine seconds by the opposition? Or Timmy the All-American D-1 shortstop when he suffers a catastrophic injury or can’t hit hard sliders and fizzles out in the minor leagues? It depends. If he’s myopically seen and projected himself as a “ballplayer” and nothing but in his singular, obsessive pursuit—as is, to reiterate, often requisite in terms of achievement at the highest levels along with a lot of luck—the blow to his soul, psyche, and very being will likely be as catastrophic as the injury that derailed him. The ego puts into effect an insidious form of the transitive property: "I failed at being a ballplayer. I am a failure. As a failure, I have no worth. Meaning I am unworthy of love and, most importantly, self-love." He seeks solace in opiates to numb the pain, both physical and emotional. He drives drunk one night. He kills a family.

OK, that’s a worse case scenario, but what can I say … I’m a screenwriter (hypocrisy noted)!

Surely you see the analogy: “I devoted years or even decades of my life to being a professional screenwriter. I got close but never captured the brass ring. Maybe even made some money, but never enough to sustain me. I’ve failed at the endeavor. Wasted years of my life. Passed up untold opportunities, chances to land a more attainable but promising career, to find love, to raise a family. I’m a fucking failure."

What I try to teach the kids in the league is this: we must be process-oriented, not outcome-oriented.

I don’t let them look at the ball in hopeful flight after they hit it off of a tee. We are so focused on the process of load, stride, weight shift, balance, hips and hands, bat path, keeping our eye on the ball and all of the other components of a successful swing that must work in concert to the point that we attempt the impossible of actually seeing the bat make contact with the ball, so that our head stays down and in vs. pulling out and throwing the entire orchestra off rhythm.

I’ll tell them if they did well or not, based not on the outcome of where the ball went or how hard they hit it, but on the fundamental fluidity and competency of their swing. In this league with the age group I’m coaching, we don’t keep score. I remind them that the only person they are in competition with is themselves, with the goal of being a little better than they were yesterday … which is achieved by focusing on the process. Taking ground balls, running the bases hard and with intention and awareness, staying alert and engaged, knowing where the play is, hitting the cut-off man, backing up their teammates—these are the fundamentals that comprise the process that will one day lead to victory, both on the field and in life.

Pursuing the Arts should be no different. We should remain oriented to the process, not the outcome.

Instead of spending so much of our vital time in these short, precious lives, attempting to grandstand on or game Twitter, we should focus more fully on the creative process itself, while remembering to engage with the world around us in a meaningful manner—which is, in my opinion, in service to those who truly need it, not those to whom we find an eager audience for our displays or expertise or even camaraderie in the struggle (though there is of course room and need for some of this, and while everyone should feel free to have fun on these platforms, the knowing Stoics would most assuredly warn us to practice extreme caution and discipline when it comes to social media and like distractions masquerading as pivotal cogs in the machine).

And, for the sake of all that’s Holy, if you find yourself not enjoying the process—QUIT! Find something else to do with your time. Try, again, something that services others while asking nothing in return. Even on a small scale, I promise it’ll make you feel better than striving to see—or even seeing—your name on a silver screen or television ever will.

Repeat after me: Process over outcome. Process over outcome. Process over outcome.

So there you have it, to those of you who stuck it out and have probably been asking yourselves, “Who does this over-verbose, pedantic, purple prose motherfucker (who probably could have summed all of this up in a handful of tweets, ironically) think he is?”

To which I will do my man Mr. Mojo Rising one better:

Hell if I know.

*Feature photo (cropped) by Joey Zanotti (Wikimedia Commons)

As one half of The Thornton Brothers—along with his bro Chris—Jay's a filmmaker (Cactus Jack), writer, podcaster (Hard Out), binge eater, gadfly, and non-practicing humanist. Repped at Rosa and UTA.
More posts by Jay Thornton.
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