What I Learned About Myself from Steve Martin.

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.

  • Nupur

     Gretchen- I think you’ll love Julia Child’s memoir “My Life in France” about how she went from being a non-cook to writing a landmark cookbook and changing the way Americans think about home cooking.

  • I also read Steve Martin’s biography, and found it extremely enjoyable. Thinking about him and your Chesterton quote ““It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” reminded me of a brief quote I read in a magazine, and forgive for not remembering who it was, but the actress in question said in a nutshell that it takes a very intelligent person to “try” and succeed at being funny. A stupid person can be funny unintentionally, but it takes a smart person to try and to be funny.

    Anyway, I am a librarian and I just read your book “The Happiness Project” and really enjoyed it. I don’t know if I would take the time personally to come up with my own happiness project and to follow it through for a year, but I did find many of your resolutions and personal rules to be insightful. I think I will make a small list of them that deserve constant attention and put them somewhere I will look often. I have a 2 year old son and another on the way and I think I need to learn to be lighter, not take for granted what I have, and cut people some slack. So thank you for this book. I know I can’t change anyone else when I’m working on my own happiness, but I am definitely going to slide this book over to my loving, beautiful wife too. She’s great, but just like me I think she takes for granted the life we have and she needs to “lighten up”.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for your kind words about my work. I’m happy to hear that it resonates with you. I love all librarians!

  • I too loved Steve Martin’s memoir and was struck by how his hilarity and lightness was, just as you say, underpinned by tremendous hard work and dedication.  I also think he’s just a beautiful writer.  He’s always been one of my favorites, and after reading Born Standing Up he vaulted to the very front of the list.  xox

  • I love Steve Martin. I’ll have to check out his memoir.

    I loved Neil Simon’s memoir Rewrites – all about his career as a playwright. Fascinating. Judith Jones’ The Tenth Muse, her memoir about food and food writing, is also wonderful.

    • gretchenrubin

      These sound terrific.

  • Queen Lucia

    I also enjoyed this book, as well as Just Kids.  I’ve always been a huge auto/biography reader and as a young person read anything and everything I could get my hands on (golden-age hollywood, artists, and musicians are my favorite), but these days I only want to spend time with the truly well-written.  I would recommend “My Name Escapes Me” by Alec Guiness. It’s a diary-style memoir written over the course of a year toward the end of his life. It’s as much about his current daily life as it is about his career, and his observations are amazing. I love finding an unexpected gem!

  • James Butler

    I don’t have any suggestions, but I wanted to add a plus for E.O. Wilson’s The Naturalist.  I too am an entomologist, and identified very well with how he got into it.  I’m curious to find similar books from other science-based personas.

  • Amy H.

    I love both Agatha Christie’s Autobiography and P.D. James’ “Time to Be in Earnest” (which she subtitles “A Fragment of Autobiography.”    Both masters of one of my favorite sources of happiness — crime novels!

  • Lisa

    I just recently finished Rob Lowe’s memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, and I found it captivating. It’s beautifully written and he has some interesting insights about himself and about show business. Plus there are tons of great stories about other stars he came across along the way that make it really fun!

  • @elizabethcraft

    I LOVED the Steve Martin book.  Also enjoyed Andre Agassi’s book, which is really well written. Everyone says Keith Richards’ book is life-changing.  I’m planning to listen to it on my new work commute.

    • mshesterp

      Ooh, yes–the Andre Agassi book “Open” was absolutely terrific.  I like tennis, but this was definitely more about Agassi than about tennis.  Gripping.

      Also, Lance Armstrong’s “Its Not About the Bike” was quite good too.

  • Ooh! I get the chill, too! Sometimes it’s for days ahead, sometimes just moments before the big event (whatever it is). 

    I haven’t read it in years and years, and couldn’t tell you anything about it, but I loved reading Bill Peet’s Autobiography. 

  • Painted Maypole

    i loved Alan Alda’s memoirs.  I listened to him read them via audiobook, and highly recommend doing it that way!

  • Dorothee

    I enjoyed Anthony Kiedis’ biography ‘Scar Tissue’ a lot 🙂

  • Nichole Persing

    I have 2 recommendations on documentaries that focus on what you talk about– someone’s singular pursuit of their passion. Both are thrilling & incredibly touching to watch. Also they are available on Netflix streaming, which (for many) makes then convenient as well! “Bill Cunningham New York” is the tale of Bill Cummingham’s love of fashion & his 50 years of documenting it on the streets of New York City, the runways of Paris, and the galas of the rich & famous. He is stunning & it is a gift to see his passion for clothes & respect for the women (& men) who wear the clothes. Second, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” is the story of how Elmo came to be, as well as a story of the man behind (up?) Elmo. Again, completely lovely! Enjoy!!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve heard great things about both these documentaries. Now determined to watch them myself.
      Did you see the Joan Rivers documentary? Amazing.

      • Anna

        The Elmo documentary is fantastic!!  My nine year old daughter loves it as well!

  • I liked Lady Blue Eyes:  My Life with Frank Sinatra by Barbara Sinatra.  

  • Marty

    Very interesting … I just picked Steve Martin’s book up about an hour ago. I’m looking orward to reading it.

    • Marty

      Of course, by “orward” I mean “forward.”

  • Cindy

    I love all of Steve Martin’s novels, so I would probably enjoy this book about his experiences. I have a recommendation for you about someone mastering their craft – the lastest book about J.D. Salinger was fascinating and talked about his learning/struggles with each book and his interactions with the New Yorker http://www.amazon.com/J-D-Salinger-A-Life/dp/0812982592/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337633210&sr=1-5 

  • Readingenvy

    I really enjoyed Decoded by Jay-Z, definitely worth a read even if you aren’t a rap fan. Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” was strangely empowering (embrace awkward), and I loved My Life by Bill Clinton.

    I also love travel writing for this feeling, as long as it isn’t “journalist paid to take a trip and have a manufactured experience.” you probably know a few in that category.

  • Jenna

    If you are looking for more books about people coming into their vocations, I definitely recommend Rob Lowe’s memoir, Stories I Only Tell my Friends. Fascinating!

  • Krystal Miller

    I’m finishing “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling, and also just finished “Talking with my Mouth Full” by Gail Simmons. Mindy is a comedian writer and actress, Gail is host/judge on Top Chef, and worked her way up to Food and Wine.

    Both books are great, and hit a sensitive note with me. I recently was let go from my job, and I am finally taking a break and thinking about what “I really want to do with my life.” I have to put that in quotes, because it is cliche. Both of these women knew from an early age what they wanted to do, and they have funny and honest stories on how they “made it.” Gail’s book especially spoke to me because I love food just that much, but Mindy’s had me in stitches with her early-life memories. Both easy reads and highly recommended!

  • Maybe one day, I’ll write a book similar to those you mentioned. Why I got into writing, ehem, erotic stories…
    A girl can dream… 🙂

  • Peninith1

    You know, fiction sometimes tells this kind of story in a really inspiring and fun way. The Canadian writer Robertson Davies comes to mind–his characters often start out in Canadian villages with narrow lives, but one goes on to be a great re-creator of Medieval art, one becomes a world-traveled investigator of the lives of saints, one becomes an eccentric and highly skilled medical diagnostician, one becomes a gifted opera singer. How they transform into interesting and somewhat exotic people despite their origins in crushing ordinariness is one of his major themes. The Deptford Trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone, A Cunning Man are the finest titles that come to mind.

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE LOVE LOVE Robertson Davies. His fiction, and also his wonderful non-fiction.

  • Karenorb

    Madeleine Albright’s book Madam Secretary is a great example. 

  • Stacey

    I loved Ashley Judd’s memoire, All that is Bitter and Sweet.

  • Dineke

    Have you read Tim Parks’ book ‘Teach us to sit still’ ? A well-written and fascinating book about his search for a way out of pain.

  • Anna

    You might enjoy Ruth Riechel (not sure that’s spelled correctly?) writing about becoming a food/restaurant critic and chef Marcus Samuelsson is coming out with a book very soon called ‘Yes, Chef’ that has a lot of buzz about it.  As well, I’ll add my vote for the Rob Lowe book – I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, not so much for the gossipy parts but more so for his thoughts on being a father & husband.  Also, check out the brief interview between Oprah & Deepak Chopra in June issue of ‘O’ magazine – it’s shorter than I would have liked but there are a few gems in there!  Enjoyed this post – thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      I love all of Ruth Reichl’s books, especially Tender at the Bone. So good.
      Who knew that the Rob Lowe book would get so many votes? I have to read it!

  • “A Year Without Made in China”  by Sara Bongiorni. Somehow reminds me of you: extremely funny and wise and honest. And about going into one subject for one year 🙂

    I’ve never before been into anything else but fiction or foucault (kind of). But actually your happiness book changed this for me, so I better write down your suggestions…

    Best wishes

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, fiction or Foucault. I want to see YOUR reading list.

  • Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail? It’s amazing. Slightly different kind of story but one that you would find interesting. What makes us happy when we’re stripped down to only those things we can carry on our back? Good book if you’ve ever done any long-distance backpacking or ever wanted to…

  • If you want a draw dropping, insprirational memoir to read I suggest Cheryl Strayed’s new book, “Wild”.

    I read a lot of memoirs for the same reasons as you. Ruth Reichel, Patti Smith, Steve Martin, Augustin Burroughs, David Sedaris, the list goes on…

  • Anniegrensprings

    You might enjoy reading how Jeannette Walls became a graduate of Barnard College and a critically-acclaimed author of the book “The Glass Castle.” It’s a memoir about overcoming wrenching childhood neglect while acquiring the tenacity of  spirit to overcome adversity, poverty and abuse to find her calling in life. 

  • Rachel

    Helen Keller’s biography was fascinating.  Loved “Just Kids” too.  “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a life changer.  It’s kind of half biography, half self-help/philosophy.

    • gretchenrubin

      Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl—is a masterpiece.

      As a child, I was fascinated by Helen Keller, but never read her biography as an adult. Library list.

  • ALibera

    Another much earlier but also great memoir of a budding comedian is Moss Hart’s 

    “Act One” – I love his descriptions of being the entertainment coordinator at those Catskill’s style summer camps in the 40’s and then meeting George S. Kaufman. 

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE Act One.

  • Bibliovore

    You might also enjoy “Animal Days,” by Desmond Morris — it’s his autobiography tracing his fascination with animal life (among other things, including art) through his stint as curator of mammals at the London Zoo. 

  • Kat

    It’s not a book, but I loved watching “Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story”.  Deeply personal and it really made me realize how much work goes into a comedian’s apparently off-the-cuff pieces!

  • Goreedgo

    I just read John Lithgow’s memoir and loved it. He is a very entertaining writer and his account of his relationship with his father is so touching.

  • SW

    Two fascinating and poetic career autobiographies–both by psychoanalysts–are “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by Jung and “Listening with the Third Ear” by Reik

    • gretchenrubin

      Memories Dreams Reflections is SUCH a tremendous book. Haunting.

  • Deepak Jagannathan

    This is kind of freaky as I just finished Sir Ken Robinson’s book called “Element.” He is curious about the same topic; how do people discover their passion. 

  • DSeely

    By chance I happened upon the documentary, “Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World” on Netflix, and minutes into watching it, I was hooked!  Although I do not have a tattoo at present, I do love all visual art and drawing in particular.  Listening to Ed Hardy articulate his journey from childhood on as he found ways to incorporate his strongest passions into a practical, self-supporting and meaningful career was intriguing. 

    There are so many valuable lessons embedded in his story, especially if one is striving to create an authentic life that for whatever reason is not squarely within the mainstream.  The film is beautifully made and Ed Hardy’s art is captivating, demonstrating how one man came into his true vocation by following the strong voice of his soul, and skillfully navigated around the various obstacles before him.  It is also heartening to witness his appreciation for the mentors throughout his life who saw his gift and encouraged its genuine and full expression. 

    From another perspective, you might be drawn in to this subject as a lover of Flannery O’Connor, especially if you enjoyed (or were awestruck by) her short story, “Parker’s Back,” a story about a man and his tattoos.  You referenced Ms. O’Connor’s wisdom for writers in an earlier blog entry, and her concept that, “the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.”

    It is interesting to contemplate the difference between viewing tattoos as simple, visual expressions (the physical, and the particular) and understanding the deeper, symbolic layers of meaning in the tattoo art itself and the experience of the individual who wears the tattoo.  There is a more primal, essential and mysterious quality in tattoo art than meets the eye (or perhaps than one might learn in Art History), and you can be transported into this evocative, enchanting, thought-provoking world just by listening to Mr. Hardy share his life story, and by taking in his exquisite visual work as you watch this biographical documentary. 

  • Jenn S.

    I remember loving “Bunny Bunny”, about Gilda Radner by a friend, and Gilda Radner’s bio “It’s Aways Something.” Anything about my favs, Gilda & Gene, is so sweet.

  • Andre Harris

    my family and other animals by gerald durrell is a classic. It is about a young boy becoming a naturalist and is set in corfu in Greece. It is very comical too. 

  • by now you have many options but I thought I’d give another vote for “the glass castle” and add “open by andre agassi”, “i have life, Alison’s Journey as Told to Marianne Thamm” and “the elephant whisperer by lawrence anthony” oh and one other that’s just popped into my head “don’t lets go to the dogs tonight by alexandra fuller”

  • Perhaps you’ve received all the recommendations you need (and more!), but I just wanted to mention Frances Lefkowitz’s award-winning ” To Have Not,” her memoir of growing up poor in San Francisco in the 70s.  Naturally, I’m a little biased, since we were high school classmates and friends, but at the same time, I had NO idea whatsoever what her life was like, except in the most superficial of ways, and her writing and her story blew me away.  It’s a terrific narrative about overcoming odds (not just poverty, but everything that comes with it), surviving college and finding success and peace, at last.  

  • Alice H

    I recently read your book and got a lot out of it even though I’m 64 and have had a great
    many challenges in my life. You’ve inspired me to follow my 1st blog! Hard to know where
    to begin with books but I assume many people have read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
    Some others: The Paper Garden, Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock; the autobiographies of Michael Redgrave, Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and esp.
    Peter Ustinov because someone mentioned those by Alec Guiness. Another interesting book is 800 Years of Women’s Letters (Olga Kenyon, ed.). I don’t know if it’s OK to add more
    titles as I sift through almost 6 decades of voracious reading, as well as a career as a teacher and a Teacher-Librarian. I know my passions now but it’s hard to find time, give
    myself permission to “play” at them, have the energy and physical abilities to do something. As you discussed, it’s the challenge of just beginning and being OK with not
    being perfect.

    Alice H

  • Barb Stepan

    A fish starts to stink from the head.   Japanese proverb.

  • Thanks for all the suggestions! I’m off to put in a ton of reservations at the library now…

  • Kross825

    I really enjoyed Shania Twain’s “From this Moment On” to learn how she evolved into the professional singer and person that she is today.  

  • Fel

    steve martin + patti smith’s memoirs are fantastic and have really inspired me. i have heard “Autobiography of a Yogi” is supposed to be great–I’m yet to read! Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson is amazing as well.

  • Jan

    Unbroken by Hillenbrand and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

  • mom2luke

    Bossy Pants by Tina Fey!