About a year ago, my husband was sitting quietly reading the newspapers one weekend when he suddenly exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, my cousin has written a book!’ Now, you should know that he comes from a very large family – he has about 27 cousins in all – and there’s quite a tradition for enterprise and unusual occupations. We often hear through the grapevine that cousin x has headed off to Uzbekistan to do volunteer work, or cousin y is taking a year out to form a chamber group. I don’t think I have ever met this particular cousin face to face, but was aware she trained actors at a drama school in London, and now, according to my husband, was writing a book about stage fright.
In fact, Caroline Goyder’s book The Star Qualities is about transferring the skills of acting into everyday situations where a performance of some kind might be necessary. In the same way that fiction has a great deal of insight on the nature of reality, so actors are obliged to delve deeply into the nature of identity, and this book uses their advice and tricks of the trade to bolster the confidence of ordinary folk who find themselves required to step into the limelight. Some chapters discuss demanding social situations, such as parties, interviews and public speaking, whilst others speak to more nebulous but equally taxing concerns, like the desire to stand out from the crowd, to become more empathetic with others, or to bounce back from rejection. The book is studded throughout with interviews with famous actors – Kate Winslet, Ewan McGregor, Minnie Driver (who is particularly good, I thought), Helen Mirren and Sarah Jessica Parker among others. What’s particularly charming is the way these ‘celebrities’ come across as down to earth, humane, compassionate types. They are quick to share the worst parts of their experience, no strangers to distress, anxiety, shyness and vulnerability, and more than ready to admit that overcoming awkwardness means time spent on the gentle art of incorporating difficult experiences of life into our souls, rather than rejecting them out of hand.
On the surface this appears as a light, frothy sort of book, but in fact it has admirable depth. There was a great deal of good advice that I ended up noting for future reference. For instance, if you want to really listen properly to someone, make sure to rest the tip of your tongue at the base of your mouth. Apparently, when we’re busy thinking out our next conversational sally our tongues make tiny ‘talking’ movements – a sign of internal distraction. I’m also fascinated now by checking out whether people are behaving as if they are high status or low status. High status types exude leader-of-the-pack power, low status compliant types exude humility. It’s the difference between ‘Keep away, I bite’ and ‘Keep away, I’m not worth biting’. Become aware of the power dynamics in the situations that surround you, Caroline suggests, if you want to be effective. Also extremely interesting was the information that ‘every time you experience your fear, and the memory that triggered it, you open the ‘file’ exactly as you last stored it. How you feel about the memory depends on whether you modified it the last time you looked at it.’ If you want to lessen your fear when heading into situations that scare you, you have to return to your previous memories and insert a little flexibility, soften them up, tone them down.
There were great lines from the actors, too. Salma Hayek, discussing how to make your dreams come true suggested it was very important to distinguish between the dreams you held for yourself, and those assumed (however unconsciously) to please or appease others. ‘If you enjoy the process, it’s your dream. If you are enduring the process, just desperate for the result, it’s someone else’s dream.’ And I particularly liked Glenda Jackson’s advice for tackling the difficult moment of walking into a party. To get you to breathe in the right place, and therefore access your calm, she said that a friend from the Royal Ballet told her ‘Display your diamonds, display your diamonds.’ Imagine you have a gorgeous necklace on and you want to show it off. I do hope the male readers of this blog are enjoying this tip also; gentlemen, you may wish to think medals rather than medallions.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on public speaking as it was an experience I was familiar with and made me feel that the advice in the book is spot on. I remember vividly the first lecture I ever gave at the university. I’d been scheduled for a slot in Easter term, shortly before the exams began, and was speaking on Colette, a little-studied author back then. You may imagine that I went through all the usual terrors in anticipation – I don’t think that any public speaker ever finds a way to outwit them entirely. But when I finally walked up to the podium, I realized there were only seven people in the audience. Seven people! I wondered what on earth I had been so worried about. And then I felt overwhelming gratitude for the students who had put aside their revision to attend a lecture on an author they would be unlikely to prepare in time for the exam. When I was a student I rarely attended lectures because most were a waste of time. I was determined that anyone who came to mine should have an experience worth the trouble they’d taken. I must have done something right because the following week, when I gave my second lecture, there were more students than before. Over the years I’ve spoken to packed halls and to small groups, but I’ve always wanted every person to have a good time, and been grateful for their presence. And the point of lecturing to them was to talk about some fabulous author whose work I really wanted them to enjoy; the more I forgot myself in the desire to communicate, the better it all went. Caroline’s chapter in her book says much the same thing – prepare well, think about your audience, see them as your friends, get out of your own line of vision. I can agree that it makes all the difference.
So my feeling overall by the end of the book was that it had some seriously valuable advice, presented in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to improve their social interactions. The inclusion of acting stars was fun and entertaining, but actually, I felt that Caroline’s firm, guiding voice and her pertinent research were the real stars of the show. In some ways, I would have been more intrigued to read about her coaching of struggling actors, politicians and broadcasters, as on some levels their stories would have been rather fascinating. But that would have made it a very different kind of book. If you have any interest in self-help, or indeed in acting, then I would warmly recommend this. It has a lot to say in an entertaining and highly accessible manner.