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Mara Wilson: If You Have One Idea, You Have More

Mara Wilson needs no introduction.

From her role as the wide-eyed, adorable youngster in Miracle on 34th Street, to the precocious, telekinetic Matilda Wormwood in Matilda, Wilson was the heroic avatar of every bookish brunette whose youth collided with her own. (And by that, I mean me, obviously.)

Today, Mara Wilson is hardly a former child actor, she’s a storyteller, theatre producer, author, comedian, and playwright. Her first book, Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame was published in 2016. Like many other millennials, Wilson translates her polymathic creativity into a living. In early October, she tweeted, “Romanticizing the creative process is weird, a lot of my most valuable stuff was done on my phone while I was in my pajamas.”

We called her up in Los Angeles to expand on this idea, discussing the multiplicity of ways creativity can manifest itself, and writer’s block as performance anxiety.

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Header photo credit: Ari Scott

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Can you expand a little more on the idea of how creativity is fetishized in our culture?

There is definitely this idea that the culture around creativity is exciting and cool and different. People see artists getting to do lots of fun things but don’t necessarily get to see the work that they put into it. People are always asking me, “What’s your creative process?” But creative processes are almost like feelings. There’s this quality there that you’re never going to be able to explain. [Creativity porn] is looking at other people’s inspirations rather than trusting your instincts.

I know what works for me but I’m not the most disciplined about it all the time. I wish I were better about keeping myself organized. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a lie because there are days I get up and I go to my desk and I knock something out perfectly, and there are days I sit around and watch The Great British Bake Off. It’s not always going to be ideal - I just think whatever gets you working.

You’re right, there’s almost this Pinterest-ification of creativity, where you need a cute little office and a desk with a plant on it in order to be productive. Creativity has become so stylized.

I usually need a cup of tea to focus or the right music but I don’t need that immaculate workspace.

Your thread really hits on something a lot of people have trouble with, which is how creativity, which is nebulous, corresponds to goal setting, which is quantifiable.

Structure is one of the most important things to being creative, yet there’s this idea that artists are all free spirits. My sister is an artist and she seems like somebody who is very much a free spirit but is very disciplined when it comes to working on her art. Structure is underrated when it comes to creativity!

There’s also, and this is a part that trips a lot of people up, there’s usually a time when things are bad. There’s got to be a time when things you are writing are not good, and you’re going to fail. We don’t want to fail and that’s something that is sort of ingrained in our culture, the idea that failure = weakness and we can’t ever be weak. I’m saying this as a perfectionist myself. Maybe that’s just what writers block is, it’s fear of failure. I know for myself, it isn’t so much writer’s block as it is writer’s insecurity, or writer’s performance anxiety. You need to grapple with that anxiety.

My brother is a musician, as well as many other things, and when he talks about composing music, he says some things are just ketchup drips. You know those drips that need to come out of the bottle before the ketchup comes out? I think that is a really great way of putting it - some things are just ketchup drips, the things you need to get out of the way first before you do something else.

There’s a spectrum to the way we envision creativity - that it either comes in romantic, unexpected bursts or it’s something you have to work at like a 9-to-5, but I think the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle.

With my book, there were essays I just needed to plot out and to figure out what the through line was, and then there were stories that emerged fully formed from my head, because they were compelled by emotion. It depends on the work. There’s this very limiting idea of what creativity can be and what creativity can look like and it doesn’t need to look that way. As long as you are creating and you are satisfied, that is what is important.

Of all the yardsticks we use to measure the success of creative work - money, self-satisfaction, retweets - which one do you feel the most attached to?

I do think that self-satisfaction definitely matters. And, of course, you need people to engage with [your art] in order to make any money. But you really need to think about when you first really fell in love with writing or acting or creating, and the first time you had an audience. If you never had an audience bigger than that, would you still want to do it? The more you want to be famous the less you should be, at least for being creative. That’s sort of an accepted rule.

My idea of what was successful at one point in my life is different than what it was at another point. I also think that success might not be what you always thought it would be. I know so many people who put all of their thoughts and hopes and dreams into one idea and that can be dangerous because you can feel let down. If you have one idea in you, you have more ideas in you. I know people who wanted to be standup comedians and are now wonderful authors. I know people who wanted to be on Broadway and are happier than they ever were being yoga teachers. Sometimes, the idea that you pitch last, the one you didn’t think the most of, is the one that is the most interesting. That’s definitely happened with me before.

How did being a young actor inform the creative work you do now?

I think it’s made me more of a perfectionist, which is a bit troubling. I had to unlearn a lot of that. On film sets you’re always going for the best shot, the perfect take. That’s especially hard to get out of your mind when you’re young. I remember when I went to theatre school in college, I was always wondering what the goals were. I wanted to know what the endgame was. [The faculty] would just say, “We want you to think, and feel, and relax a little bit.” I couldn’t stand it.

I had a very hard first year at college because it was all about being open and experimental and not censoring yourself, and I felt like I had been doing that for so long. I was very hard on myself when it came to acting classes and would self-sabotage a lot because I worried that people expected me to be the best because I was a child actor. I was, by far, probably one of the worst actors in the class. That was very difficult.

At the same time, I know [acting] gave me an advantage because I have a built-in audience. I feel grateful to have that. And I don’t think I would have that if I hadn’t acted. I might still be thought of as someone who is funny or a decent writer but not to the way I would be now. It gets my foot in the door. I also think that growing up on film sets and eavesdropping on adult conversations is a really good way to learn about dialogue, as well as reading scripts nonstop. So I feel fortunate to have had those experiences.

You work so many different mediums. Does your creative process shift depending on the medium you’re working in?

Oh it definitely does. When I need to write an article, I am much more about outlining everything, scheduling a specific time [to write] and getting everything to fit a format. There are half hour blocks where I focus really hard. But when I’m writing plays, plays tend to meander. You get to let these characters talk and figure things out. Things happen much more slowly you can go back and explore with them what’s going on.

Since I’ve gotten practice, I feel like writing a book made me a better writer. There are still pieces I look back on and cringe. I think that I wanted to do everything and in the past few years it’s been important for me to learn how to say no to things. And that is one of the most important things you can learn. What does it take for you to be proud of something you’ve done?

Sometimes it’s hard to look back on things and feel proud. It feels good when other people compliment your work, when other people are interested in it, but I do think you have to try to work towards that inner satisfaction or you won’t ever be satisfied. Did you accomplish something you wanted to accomplish? Did it mean something to you? And if it did, you can hold onto that. That I think is really important.

Is there a thread that brings all your creative practices together?

Well, there’s definitely my core values and the way that I live my life. I do think I always approach things as a storyteller. I think that the narrative in my life is I have had to find a narrative in everything. (laughs) I get the same excited feeling when I’m pursuing something but the methods I use vary.

There’s another reason why I think that having a prescribed creative process is dangerous. There are times where it’s like, “I just brainstormed this whole thing during a yoga class,” and then there are times where it took me crying and staying up all night to do it. Which I don’t recommend, by the way. There’s this idea that you need to suffer for your art, but when it affects your physical health, try to take a break and take care of yourself. It goes from being fun and romantic to dangerous very quickly.

I’ve dreaded in the past people talking to me about creative processes, because I know that mine is not as exciting or as disciplined as people would like it to be. Which is probably pretty self-evident. I’m all over the place, I’ve been diagnosed with adult ADD, I have trouble focusing. But I think it’s nice to be able to admit it, “Hey, it doesn’t always look the way you thought it would.”

I think people really appreciate that too, because a lot of people feel the same way but just don’t want to admit it. So when you see that model of yourself reflected back, you’re like, “Oh thank god! It’s OK!” That was a very life affirming conversation.

I’m glad to hear that.

Isabel B. Slone is a freelance journalist. She’s previously written for the Globe and Mail, Real Life Magazine, and Noisey.