Last week, I read Steve Martin’s memoir of his time learning and doing stand-up comedy, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. I loved it.
It’s a terrific example of one of my favorite kinds of books: someone coming into his or her vocation. I love reading about why people become interested in particular subjects or skills, and how they master them.
Just in the last year, I’ve read several outstanding books of this type, such as E. O. Wilson’s Naturalist, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, Rosanne Cash’s Composed, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Eugene Delacroix’s Journal.
Do you have any suggestions? I just can’t get enough of this kind of thing. Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t matter if I’m interested in the underlying subject. I’m not much interested in music, for example, but I loved reading about the experiences of these musicians. And I’m definitely not much interested in ants.
Odd sidenote: you never know when you’re going to get an insight into yourself and your own experience. Steve Martin made a passing observation which very helpful to me. He writes:
“I never experienced the sensation [of knocking knees] again, but I wonder if I would have preferred it to the chilly pre-show anxiety that I sometimes felt later in my performing career. This mild but persistent adrenal rush beginning days before important performances kept the pounds off and, I swear, kept colds away.”
I’m no Steve Martin, of course, and I never feel the chill for days, but I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in myself. I’m always, always cold, but about an hour before I give a talk that has me feeling nervous, I can actually feel my body temperature drop, in the space of a single minute. It’s as if someone has turned down my thermostat. I now bring a shawl with me, so I can wrap up beforehand. For some reason, it’s helpful to realize that other people experience this, as well.
Reading Steve Martin’s memoir reminded me of one of my favorite quotations, from G. K. Chesterton: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” Although Steve Martin’s comedy looks wild and crazy, it’s the product of a tremendous amount of serious thought, rehearsal, and experiment.