In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: This essay redefines the word fear and I feel seen. Fear is not something we should be ashamed of. It’s what makes us human and it’s what can push us forward.
Initial publication date: 03/01/2016
When the Person in Your Documentary Is Full of Crap
“You should talk to my friend. He’s doing a documentary on fearlessness,” says the artist.
I wait for someone to respond. After five seconds of awkward silence I realize she’s actually directed the statement at me. What the hell could possibly qualify me to be interviewed about fearlessness? I open my mouth, and my vocal chords betray me. “Sure. If he needs some help.”
I assume the friend is some guy in his mom’s basement with an iPhone and a half-ass dream. On Saturday morning I arrive at a super legit contemporary building in downtown KC. I ring the doorbell and a woman answers the door, introducing herself as the production assistant. People who live in their mom’s basements don’t have production assistants. I’m handed a list of brief questions to look over, before they get me into hair and makeup. People filming on an iPhone don’t have their own makeup person. I should have known: my friend who got me into this is one of the only people I know who manages to make her living out of entirely artistic endeavors. She’s been in the game much longer than me and operates on levels I don’t even know exist.
“OK, we’re ready for you.” I’m led into a nest of lights and equipment, gadgets and reflective umbrellas. I nestle into the chair centered on a plain backdrop. A handful of men adjust angles or levers or sensors. Someone moves the chain on my necklace centering the clasp at the back of my neck. “Remember just talk into the camera.”
Right, the camera. Nothing here looks like a camera. I assume the box and the screen with the directors face staring at me is the right place since that’s the direction my chair is pointed. The director is in the corner, looking toward a wall—facing perpendicular to me. We may as well be on a Skype call from three feet away, and all I want to do is look to the corner where he is, but I look in the “camera” and do my best to answer his questions. None of the questions address my immediate concerns: Will I look like a vampirey ginger on camera? What if I’m actually in this thing? What if I’m boring? What if I’m not in this thing? What if I sound like an imbecile?
It takes less than ten minutes. When we’re done he says, “Thanks. I think we got some really good stuff,” and reminds me that 99% of the stuff they’re shooting will end up on the cutting room floor. I go on my way and that is that.
Two months later I find out the video’s been released, and I find it online. The opening shot is a gigantic screen emblazoned with WHAT IF?
“What if” is the game I’ve always used when I wanted to torture myself. I’d lie in my bed at night and go through every single scenario. What if I had stayed with that guy? What if I was supposed to move? What if I was supposed to stay? What if I gave up the only reliable income I’ll ever have? What if I’m not good enough? Whatifwhatifwhatifwhatifwhatif? Late into the night until I either passed out from weary anxiety or was freed by the sun peeking through my window.
I’m not fearless. I’m the most fearful person I know. I watch my friends do things I would never try in a million years, and think why can’t I be that brave? My friend who always talks to her boyfriend about what is upsetting her so they can communicate better. My friend who’s going on an adventure to a foreign country where she doesn’t know a soul or speak the language. My friend who moved all the way across the country to do the job she loves.
But maybe they don’t think they’re brave either.
Fearlessness is partially about perception, making “brave” different for each person. I learned that much when I was sixteen and working at a doctor’s office. One of the nurses was talking about her friends working in an inner city school and how dangerous it was. She was angling for support in her discussion with the third party in the room when she asked me, “Don’t you think it’s too dangerous?” I answered, “Somebody has to teach those kids. And it’s good your friend wants to do it.” The nurse left and I don’t think either of us thought about it a minute more. But then, from the next room one of the transcriptionists came out—a kind woman, who was “mom-age”, and quiet. The one who would notice I had an ear infection before I did by how I would rub my neck. She told me, “I’m so proud of you, for saying what you thought—I could never be that brave.” And the funny thing was, to me, there wasn’t anything brave about saying what I thought in the break room at work—but for her, clearly it was something that meant much, much more.
I meant what I said in the documentary. “It’s not that I don’t have fear. It’s that I acknowledge the fear and choose to move past it.” I’ve got fears by the truckload. When they start to push on me, like they are right now, I try to remind myself that right now, today it is fine. Everyone says take things one day at a time, and that’s great. But I’m a hardwired planner, so it’s rough to live by those words. I’d been planning this escape from corporate life for five years. There were lots of hidden steps made to make it more likely I would have a real shot at making my living outside corporate America.
Obsessive impulsive is what my career coach called it. I obsess about every detail and action for years, but when I pull the trigger it is done.
After a few months the fear has evolved, but it is definitely still there. Now I’m on to the trial of patience. I’m not very good at patience—I watch entire TV series in one sitting. I read books from front to back. I do the whole puzzle the first day. I clean the house as soon as I get home from vacation. Living day to day requires patience—maybe it’s what my Buddhist friend is writing about when she talks about mindfulness. Just reveling in the moment, whether it is fearless or fearful, and realizing that right now everything is okay.
And if I ever need to relive that moment of what it was like to face the fear of being interviewed on camera the first time I can just click here and remember that it all turned out okay.
By Jessica Conoley