Charlie Kaufman does public self-therapy

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I hope to rewatch Synecdoche, New York soon—and while reading about it I stumbled upon a BAFTA lecture from Synecdoche’s director and writer, Charlie Kaufman.

Here it is: Worth reading in full.

Kaufman is talking about public self-therapy, opening up, and what comes out of it. Perhaps he’s even talking about public self-therapy as a way of life. I’m not sure.

Let’s start. Why is he doing the speech at all?

I think I wanted to do [with this speech] something true and I wanted to do something helpful.

Relatable, perhaps boring. Nobody would mind being true and helpful, right?

But his way of being true and helpful is not giving advice. It is talking about his own experience giving this speech, and simultaneously trying to explain—demonstrate—how this kind of thing can be useful to others.

Note: his experience is not the only possible experience. It won’t be useful to literally everyone. But to some—yes.

The primary experience he is going to dissect is “wanting to be liked”, the fear of opening up, an entirely valid fear:

What complicates it, in addition to the fact that that’s a hard thing to figure out, is that I also struggle with wanting you to like me. In my fantasy I leave here and people are saying, ‘Great speech!’ you know, and, ‘Not only is he a great writer but boy, I really learned something tonight, he really brought it!’ So as much as I know that this neediness of mine exists, I also have a difficult time extricating myself from it, or even fully recognising it when it’s happening.

This is the struggle—by wanting to be liked, you give up a) being true, b) being useful to others, and c) advancing your own development. It sucks.

His brain tries to find excuses to not be true, to make “being liked” a good thing:

I’ve had that nightmare a lot of times, and I know you want to be entertained, so for me to calculatedly not entertain you in order to be true seems sort of selfish.

So he tries to counter-convince himself and others that this thing—talking about your own experience rather than trying to entertain people—has value:

What can be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world.

A side-note: yes, it has value, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you “should” do. Nobody is saying that being yourself is “enough”, or “not enough”, or whatever. The only claim is that opening up is good for you and for others. And yet, for many it’s still a controversial claim, and this is why this speech is necessary.

Does he say that everybody’s inner world is interesting and thus writing about your own experience is a good thing? No. He’s saying that you won’t be able to convince yourself that you’re interesting, anyway, but rather—it’s the only thing you can offer so you have no choice:

[When writing, do yourself, not somebody else.] It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.’

It’s simultaneously true that “internal experience ≠ entertaining” and that “internal experience = can be useful to others”. This is the tradeoff—you won’t be entertaining to many people, but you will be deeply helpful for some people.

And it’s a hard tradeoff to swallow. Being entertaining to many people seems just so much cooler. In fact, it might not even be a “universally” good piece of advice, but it’s okay. The speech is self-demonstrating. It’s great advice for some, and useless advice for others, and it’s fine.

The bit about “this speech is self-demonstrating” is very important. He doesn’t just say “don’t care about being liked”—he shows how it feels to not try to be liked. He’s doing, right now, not-being-liked as an experiment.

‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favourite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. […] So you are here, and I am here, spending our time as we must, it must be spent. I am trying not to spend this time, as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me; trying to control your thoughts, to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.

As a part of the experiment, he actually wrote a piece on how it would feel to give the speech, before giving the speech. He reads it out—“he” in the quote below is Kaufman himself:

He is to speak on a subject, he has been chosen as an expert, but the subject is unclear to him and he’s lonely, is the truth of it. He feels trapped under burdens so immense, the history he carries, the thwarted relationships, the compromised relationships, the longing that drapes him like a shroud. The want. He is a wanting machine, ever wanting. He looks out at the audience. They don’t know what to make of him. Why is he reading this story up there? He is to be giving a speech about screenwriting. Someone in the audience is happy, a train wreck is in progress and he is witnessing it.

The speaker knows this. He believes he has considered every possible audience reaction. He wants to be liked by them, he wants to be admired and adored, he wants to be found attractive. He hates himself for this, this is the stuff that it always comes down to and his goal here tonight was to be different. He wants to be real. Real in this contrived place. But he can’t be. The truth suddenly stares him in the face, this is who he is, this is the real him. This needy, wanting thing. Up here for the same aggrandisement as everyone else who does this. ‘Look at me.’

Another aside: is everybody a “needy, wanting thing”? Nobody knows. There is great danger in listening to people who sound certain, and thinking “They must be fools for acting so certain! Everybody is different”. Yes, everybody is different, but perhaps certainty is what it takes to get people to even consider they might have the same issue. It’s easy to say “oh, I’m not X” when you’re told “some people are X”, but when you are told “you are X”, maybe you will consider it more seriously.

In fact, this is what Kaufman needs for himself to consider it more seriously. “Possibly” is the mind killer in self-therapy. And he admits that the speech is for himself more than it is for others. (It doesn’t mean it will be useless for others, but admitting your true intentions matters a lot.)

The speaker stands on the stage, he looks out at the audience, he doesn’t really know why he’s here. Not really. More and more in his life he finds himself in places he can’t explain, not really explain. He knows he’s here to give a speech and he’s told himself he intends to do some good with it. But he knows that reason crumbles to dust under investigation. What he wants is to change who he is. Each predicament such as this one, each challenge, he accepts. He accepts in order to move himself to the next level of truthfulness.

He contrasts it with a different approach: go and say something entertaining. Give useful advice. Deal with rejection one way or another, but without accepting it. And as you do it, the wound will grow deeper.

If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form. You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back. I will do this to indicate my lack of love for you.


I will do this to communicate that you are a waste of time as a human being. It will be an ugly thing for me to say. It will be intended to hurt you. It will be wrong for me to say. It will lack compassion. And it will hurt you. And you will either dismiss it or take it in, but in either case you will hear it and it will affect you. And you will think about what you can do next time so you can be more lovable, and with that your wound will be buried further. Or you will think about how hateful people are and how your armour needs to be thicker so that you can proceed as planned with your ideas. With that, your wound will be buried further.

What is this wound? This piece of Kaufman’s speech is the most cryptic and probably the most important. Try to decipher it.

I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.

I think the wound is not merely “fear of rejection”, fear of being disliked. It is that, but combined with the belief that it’s not okay. Either not okay to be someone people dislike—or not okay to care about being disliked—or not okay for other people to dislike you—or all of these at once. And as you try to fight it, challenge it, bury it, you also make it harder for everybody else with the same wound.

I don’t think everybody has it as bad as Kaufman. If you do, reading Scattered Minds or The Courage to Be Disliked might help. But, regardless of whether you share the experience, it was a beautiful piece of self-therapy.