Something I found while I was working on performance creation was that while some actors were proud of themselves, very few of them had functional vanity.
So let’s talk about selfishness.
Being selfish is bad, right? Except it’s not. Unless it is.
The morality of self-absorption is contextual. Let’s look at an example, and we’ll see if we can get the story to illustrate for us.
George was so full of himself that he never thought about other people. He spent way too long over the way he dressed and over his hair. He was vain! Also, he never gave other people compliments. That was bad!
George had a job, but he never did more than was precisely expected, because he valued his time far too highly to spend his effort on stuff that wasn’t directly connected to him. George was a snob! He would probably fail in relationships, if he took the time to form any. Alas, George was too busy admiring himself to make friends or attachments that way. He liked to look at himself in mirrors, too.
George avoided the crowded compartment on the train and sat down at the end, next to the smelly, homeless-looking people. He didn’t mind the smell so long as he could keep about three feet between himself and anyone else, no matter who they were. He smiled at everyone, and they glared suspiciously back at his effortless, glossy business clothes, and then George pulled out his latest self-improvement book and buried himself in How To Talk Kindly To Yourself In Your Thoughts.
When George left the train, he stepped around the spots of grease on the sidewalk. It was a game he’d picked up as a kid; he pretended that any dirt outdoors was a kind of virulent poison that would eat away his clothes and mar the scrupulous cleanliness of his skin. He wasn’t obsessed at all, and didn’t play every moment, but when he was thinking, which was most of the time, he liked to study the pavement and find clean patches. Safe, safe, oh no! Poison! George thought as he wove his way, smiling, through the crowded pedestrians.
Victor Poole, That George Character Wasn’t Selfish!
Yeah, he was. He was self-absorbed in a healthy way. Did you notice how he didn’t talk to any of the people on the train? Or how he wasn’t making sure to walk so that everyone else on the sidewalk had plenty of space? He was weaving all over the place on the sidewalk! Selfish!
Let’s look at another example.
George met the landlady outside his apartment door.
“Oh, hello,” George said, his heart falling.
“I need help with some chores,” the landlady said.
“I don’t have time to help you, though,” George said.
“I’m so old. I’m probably dying soon. Don’t you want to be a good person who helps old people?” the landlady demanded. George sighed.
“No, Mrs. Brickenhoft, I’m too busy for anyone, even old people,” George said.
“I’ll make you cookies,” she said.
“What kind, though? And how many?” George asked, folding his arms.
George walked slowly up his stairs daydreaming about the concerto he’d been composing in the evenings. Tonight he was going to work on a complicated passage in the string section. George held in a sigh and shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking about the wealthy music aficionado who had promised to look at the concerto in the spring.
Mrs. Brickenhoft was looming outside George’s apartment door, looking like a diseased spider.
“Morning,” George murmured, though it was evening now.
“I need your help,” the landlady announced, as if it was a roll-call in a church school. George unlocked his door and Mrs. Brickenhoft put a hand out. George slipped into his apartment and shut the door in her face. She knocked on the door.
“If you knock for more than five minutes, lady, I’m calling the cops,” George called, setting down his work bag and loosening his tie. There were no more knocks, as George had called the police twice on Mrs. Brickenhoft for harassing him in the past. George smiled, shed his clothes on his way to the bedroom, laid out his sheet music, and started to tinker contentedly with his violin.
That Was A Silly Example, Victor. You’re Just Making Stuff Up
When I worked with actors, both becoming a better performer myself and teaching others what I was learning, I found that there were a lot of selfish actors who were vain the bad ways, in the poisonous, not-glowing ways.
There were a few, though, who had managed to hit on boundaries, self-respect, and actual vanity, which is essential for even rudimentary performance.
Anyone who is standing up in front of other people, through writing or acting or anything else, has to have enough internal pressure to withstand the outer pressure of observation and unavoidable criticism.
Pride can be toxic or beautiful. Selfishness can be necessary and good or damaging and bad. Vanity is essential to the accomplishment of anything in your life.
You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Finch the assassin is about to bring an invalid some ice cream (butterscotch, I believe).