“What I have to Offer”… by Charlie Kaufman

I was on the brink of posting something just now that I wasn’t all that happy with. I felt as though I had to post something, and it, I thought, was good enough. I knew, though, as my finger was floating above the button that would have excreted it onto the internet, that it wasn’t right. The voice wasn’t mine. It was funny enough, maybe even hilariously so, but there was a tinge of mean-spiriteness that just didn’t feel right. My hand was literally just above the button, ready to push it, when it occurred to me that I should give it a little more thought. I decided to check my email. And it was there that I found a link to the following video inspired by a speech given a few years ago by the brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It couldn’t have come to me at a better time… My hope is that it reaches some of you at just the right time as well.

What I have to Offer from Eliot Rausch on Vimeo.

Kaufman’s entire speech, which was delivered as part of BAFTA’s 2011 Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, can be found here.

For those of you who didn’t watch the video, here’s a clip from the transcript.

…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.

It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.

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.

It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. 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.

As I’m sure you know, there is a fungus – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – that infects the brains of carpenter ants and it turns them into zombie slaves, more or less. What happens is that the ants climb to the underside of leaves near the forest floor, secure themselves to the leaves and then die, becoming a food source for the fungus.

Eventually the positioning of the ant corpse serves to allow the spores to burst out of the ant’s head and rain down on other ants. This is true. And it’s very successful. There is fossil record of this occurring up to 48 million years ago. The thing that’s fascinating about this to me is that the ant is acting mindlessly against its own interests and the interests of its fellow ants by becoming a tool of the fungus. I think a similar system has evolved in our culture.

When I first started to work in series television I didn’t need to take a course in how to write a half hour comedy. I knew what to do because I had been raised as a consumer of TV series. I understood the rhythms, I understood the types of jokes that were acceptable, I understood the stock characters. And of course all of this was in service of the perpetuation of the same consumer culture that trained me and made me desire to be part of it. I was a zombie.

It’s a massive issue because the business I’m in is the same business that politicians and corporations are in. It’s a business of selling something that’s important to them by disguising it as something that’s important to you. And it’s ubiquitous. And I don’t think it’s symbiotic. As far as I can tell the carpenter ants don’t get a damn thing out of it, so my thinking as a carpenter ant is that I want to do what I can to understand my carpenter ant self and not mindlessly disseminate the fungal spores of my masters. I like that line too.

I think the best way to begin to combat the systemic indoctrination is to look at intention. The aphorism, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ doesn’t ring true to me. I think intention is at the bottom of everything. My intentions are shifting and complex and often at odds with each other. And if I know what they are, and watch them closely as they slip and slide all over the place, I have a better chance of putting something honest into the world and this is my goal. My own Hippocratic Oath – I do not want to harm.

I am painfully conscious of the harm that occurs when participating in the media with unclear intentions. I do not want to be a salesman, I do not want to scream, ‘Buy me!’ or, ‘Watch me!’ And I don’t want to do that tonight. What I’m trying to express – what I’d like to express – is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play.

We don’t have to be. We can say who we are, we can assert our right to existence, we can say to the bullies and conmen, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking – really thinking – about who we are, and we’ll express ourselves and other people won’t feel so alone…

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7 Comments

  1. am
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    As much as I love this I’m curious as to what you chose not to post.

  2. Edward
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Kaufman got his start as a writer for Chris Elliott’s “Get a Life.”

  3. Meta
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Kaufman mentions Get a Life in this speech.

    My first writing job was on a TV show called Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick. They’d worked together on The David Letterman Show and Chris’ character came from that show. So consequently Adam Resnick’s scripts were the best of the show and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice; that was the job.

    I was frustrated with my results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution to this problem as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. I could maybe get close but I was never going to get better at it than Adam. Rich Little can’t be better than Johnny Carson at Johnny Carson, you know?

    The obvious solution was not to throw my hands up but try to find myself in a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. Do you. 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.

  4. Kim
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    His success amazes me. I would have thought him too smart for mass appeal.

  5. Posted January 8, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never heard of him.

  6. Posted January 8, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    The post I decided not to run was about masking. I still think I made the right call…

  7. D.
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    A wonderful speech but he doesn’t address my specific situation. What if you have absolutely nothing to offer.

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