What Bryan Cranston Can Teach Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve always liked the actor Bryan Cranston. He was my favorite secondary character on Seinfeld, playing WASP dentist Tim Whatley, who converts to Judaism so he can claim the rich history of Jewish jokes. (When Jerry objects, he is accused of being an anti-dentite.)

Cranston made regular TV appearances throughout the 90s, and spent seven seasons as the goofy father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. Then came his signature role as Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in Breaking Bad. Quite a jump for an actor known mostly for light comedy! But he was perfect casting in this binge-worthy descent into the heart of darkness.

On a recent long drive I listened to Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts. Read by the author, it’s an enjoyable account of Cranston’s rise as an actor. What’s clear from the book is that he takes his craft seriously. That’s why he went from bit-part support to respected lead—evidenced by four Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Tony (for playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway), and an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

What made the book all the more interesting for me is that he and I are about the same age and grew up in the same place—the west San Fernando Valley. He went to Canoga Park High School; I went to nearby Taft. I was a young, struggling actor at the same time he was. We may even have crossed paths in Los Angeles at an audition for a commercial or TV show.

I really connected to that part of the book where Cranston describes the cold chill of auditions. How well I remember walking into waiting rooms with twenty other guys my age and look. Everybody sizing each other up. Then going into a room with a camera and a panel of unsmiling casting folk and reading the lines I’d been given. When I was finished, someone would say, “We’ll let you know.” I’d walk out, past the other actors, all trying to read my face as I attempted to hide what I was thinking: I blew it! Why did I say the line that way? I bet that meathead with the perfect chin gets it! What teeth whitener does he use?

Cranston covered this process with good humor and insight. But at one time the attendant anxieties were starting to debilitate him. So his wife, as a gift, purchased sessions with a life coach, who …

… suggested that I focus on process rather than on outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something.

I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.

And this wasn’t some semantic sleight-of-hand, it wasn’t some subtle form of barter or gamesmanship. There was to be no predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. I couldn’t afford any longer to approach my work as a means to an end.

Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free.

That, it seems to me, is perfect advice for a writer, too. Get rid of expectations! You can’t control outcome, only process. Keep your focus on the page in front of you. Connect with your characters. Tackle the challenges.

You’re not here to get something, you’re here to give something—entertainment value to a reader.

When your book comes out, as far as you are able (you’re human, after all) nix any expected outcome. Keep working on your next book and developing more projects. Sure, you go through the marketing routine and learn what you can. But don’t obsess about rankings and reviews. Forget the awards and the honors, which you can’t buy.

Just love your craft, the way Bryan Cranston loves his.

Then you will no longer be a supplicant. You will have power on the page. You’ll be free.

Where are you in the expectations game?

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26 thoughts on “What Bryan Cranston Can Teach Writers

  1. Absolutely excellent advice, Jim. Fortunately, I learned awhile back about not being attached to Outcome. It’s always better to live in the moment and enjoy the process itself. As I’ve told countless others, “that” I write is important, but “what” I write is not. By that I mean no individual novel (or short story) is “special.” Each is the best I can do at the time, at my current level of skill as a writer. It’s a good way to remember to remain grounded in process.

    Similarly, this also speaks to the difference between dreams and goals. Everyone would prefer to be a bestselling author, make millions of sales, etc. But those are dreams, things that by and large are out of our control.

    Goals, on the other hand, are things that are within our control. “I will write X number of words per day (or week)” or “I will write X number of short stories or novels in X amount of time.” And of course, always “I will tell the story to the best of my current ability.” All of which requires that we remain firmly fixed in the present and in the process.

    • Excellent note about the difference between dreams and goals, Harvey. Dreams and desires are part of being human, but you can’t dwell in them. You’ve got to put on walking shoes (goals) if you’re going to get anywhere.

  2. JSB and Harvey –
    Good thoughts to hold when ambition, desire, self-doubt or envy threaten one’s focus and fun (been there).
    Well said and thank you for sharing!
    – Tom

  3. Hi Jim,

    Managing expectations have been one of my biggest challenges as a writer since I went indie two years ago. I was exclusive with Amazon at the time, and obsessed on sales rank, and went into a funk the night, about ten days after my first book launched, when the book’s sales rank dropped. I had dreams of indie bestsellerdom. The fact was, I’d managed to move a few hundred copies the first couple of weeks the book was out, which in hindsight was a great start for someone coming out of nowhere as far as Amazon readers were concerned.

    I found the key to be, as you put it, to not focus on the outcome. I love the advice to focus on giving rather than getting, and strongly agree with it. Last Halloween I published a short story to my newsletter (“Halloween Duty”) which got a great response, which was wonderful, but I really just wanted to write a fun side-story featuring the hero of my new series and give it to my readers, as a gift.

    • Dale, your story is not uncommon among those going indie for the first time. Or even traditional. It takes years and several books to establish a trajectory, so staying focused on production is the way to go.

      I like how you wrote a story just to “give it to my readers, as a gift.” That’s how you make fans. Nicely done.

    • I know, right? It was interesting to observe myself, and then try to explain myself to those who asked, “Why are you watching that?” Most often I’d answer, “You slow down to look at car wrecks, don’t you? Don’t you?!”

  4. I love this, Jim. It reminds me of a communication course I took about sharing feelings in relationships. Basically, you can’t control how other people react or feel. You can only control YOUR side. Speak in terms of how a situation makes you feel and avoid saying things like “you always…you never…” which is adversarial. The idea puts you in charge of the only thing you control–YOU. It removes the head games that can plague your “performance.”

    Good stuff.

  5. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the dream. It’s focusing on the the process, the baby steps—reaching the goals, perfecting the craft—that keep me marching forward.

  6. Great post, Jim. Your advice reminds of the freedom I found, early in my career (not acting or writing), when I quit worrying about not being good enough or not knowing everything. I was me. I gave my best advice. If those I served didn’t like who I was, hey, they could find someone else. I discovered that freedom greatly increased my ability to connect with others and made me more successful. A bonus, I enjoyed what I was doing a whole lot more.

    Where am I now in my expectations game? I’m writing middle-grade fantasy for my grandchildren. I have a 5 – 10 year head start to write as many books as I can. If no one else likes the books, that’s fine. If someday my grandchildren discover what a crazy old man I was, and along the way discover a few life lessons from the books, that will be worth it all. In the meantime, I’m having a blast.

    Thanks for all your wonderful weekly words of wisdom!

    • Steve, I think writing for your grandchildren AND having a blast are two of the best reasons to write in the first place. That infectiousness will show up on the page and, I’m quite sure, translate to other readers.

      Carpe Typem.

  7. Having just returned from a conference focused on business more than craft (although I did take a half-day intensive craft workshop from Jeffery Deaver), so many of the speakers focused on ‘building trust’ with readers, focusing on getting the work done, because without a product, nothing else matters. As always, your wisdom is timely and helpful. If you can’t love the writing process, you’re probably in the wrong business.

  8. Sound advice, Jim. It takes some writers a while to figure it out, I think. When they finally do, their souls flourish, their creativity reaches new heights. Conversely, if a writer thinks only of awards and ranks, they’ll create the perfect storm for writer’s block or burn out.

  9. Great post and great timing, at least for me. I’m going through one of those periods where the writing is going along okay but nothing else seems to be progressing. I always tell people to focus on the things you can control, but it appears that even I need to be reminded from time to time.

  10. Sorry I’m late to the comments. Love this post and the previous comments. This paradox applies to so many facets of life, including writing. The more you give the more you get. You don’t give to get. You give because willing the good of others is a reward in itself. Thanks for sharing the excerpts of Cranston’s book and for the reminder.

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