Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

Zen Mind, Signet Mind

I wrote the following for a speech I gave for the Harvard Signet Society this past Sunday.  The Signet Society is “a society for Arts and Letters” at Harvard and I was a member my last year at college.  It is filled with super creative, brilliant artists and at the time, I felt “I was not worthy!”  It is also filled with wonderful, wine-fueled dinners with some of the most remarkable conversations you’ll ever hear.

I found myself musing on how to keep the creative fires burning, lo this quarter century since college…

Remarks for Signet Society Dinner

April 1, 2012

“Zen Mind, Signet Mind”

So here’s the deal:


I am really excited to be here.


I am really nervous to be speaking in front of you guys.


“You guys” were the guys that I heard about for three years before joining your tribe senior year at Harvard.  I heard about “you guys” through my roommate Nita Lelyveld, who had one foot in the world of ordinary people like me, and one foot in your world – the smart world, the land of wit and well-readness, the land where, well, the land where her father ran the goddamn New York Times.  Yeah.  That land.


We all have our little secrets of low-self esteem, right?  The tiny spaces (or enormous caverns) where the decay of not “good enough” can, without proper psycho-spiritual hygiene, create cavities.  Mine is this:  I’m not terribly educated or well read. Still more:  Even after five years at Harvard and loads of dough spent on my education, I’m still not very well educated. And even worse for someone who works in Hollywood and is married to a film director:  I don’t know that much about movies, nor growing up was I very interested in them.


Okay, I feel better.


Now what I do have going for me (as I’m sure you do as well), is natural curiosity about the world and people, and not a small amount of chutzpah that makes me not get paralyzed at the idea of walking into a room full of strangers and demanding their attention.  (For instance … here.)  I could also make a case for a certain kind of ignorance, which keeps my responses “fresh.” For example:  when I was cast opposite Robert DeNiro in “Heat” I really hadn’t watched too many of his movies. I hadn’t memorized the dialogue from “Taxi Driver” nor copied his mannerisms from “Godfather.” (My husband had to remind me that it’s actually “Godfather II” that I’m talking about.  Case is rested.)   I mean, I knew DeNiro was a legend and all, but I also knew that he was this sweet, buffoon-y guy who kept his script pages folded in his suit jacket and would take a loooooong time taking them out – while cameras rolled – to check them.  We had fun, he was generous, and we were friends.


So a year later, when I finally saw – by chance – “Taxi Driver” on the tube, I thought:  HOLY SHIT.  THIS GUY’S A GENIUS.  I AM SO GLAD I DIDN’T SEE THIS BEFORE I WORKED WITH HIM OR I WOULD’VE BEEN PARALYZED WITH AWE.  And I definitely wouldn’t have let Travis Bickle kiss me.  Ew.


So I still get embarrassed, around people like you, about how poorly read and educated I am, it’s true.  But the longer I live and the longer I slog away in the trenches of creativity (or something resembling), I think that it’s less about how much I know and more about how able I am to empty my mind of preconceptions and actually respond authentically to what comes along.  (Another nice thing about this theory is that it justifies laziness.)  As a Buddhist major at Harvard I read “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” and honestly – it was a snore.  I didn’t get it.  It was dry and dusty – I gravitated toward juicy Tibetan Buddhism, which honestly was one click away from a Grateful Dead show.  I needed much more stimulation back then.


Now I have more than enough.  And now, like every old fogey that ever came before me, I crave the quiet places where amid the din of the incessant chattering of the world, I begin to discern the shy, shaky sound of my own authentic voice, which, If I’m very lucky, carries with it the miracle of an original thought.


I chase that original thought like elusive prey.  I have them (if I’m lucky) when I go running and I’ll chew on them for weeks afterwards.  And here’s the deal:  when an idea is taking shape, I won’t – I can’t – read/see/listen to other people’s stuff.  The ever-ready siren song of “You’re not as good” leaps in and I’m dead, dead, dead in the water.  But if am a wise guardian and can keep the idea’s heartbeat alive, then it can grow into a THING – a script, a character, a show – that is hearty enough to survive the storms of low budgets and bad notes from actors.  (Mine, chief among them.)


I am lucky to have been partnered for the last 18 years by a fellow artist.  Before I met Brad Silberling, I had a weird notion that “I should be with a non-artist.  Because artists are crazy” (read:  “I am crazy”) and “one of us needs a steady paycheck.”  So the world (read:  my mother) said.  Turns out that the world (my mother) was wrong about this subject.  Turns out a life in the arts is so audacious and such a high wire act, it is insane to think of being alone in the endeavor.  Brad and I understand the ups, downs and vagaries of the artistic journey.  The creative harrumph (Brad’s phrase), the lost in the woods feeling, the wonder of collaboration, the depths of self -loathing.  And through it all, I think he’d agree, the jewel of staying non-jaded.  Of being a true believer.  Of knowing that art can, and will, save our lives over and over and over in ways that we can’t even imagine.


You guys know this, and being here reminds me of this.  And how grateful I am that this belief was nurtured in that white clapboard building in Cambridge, where so many lovers of art  — and Scotch – had come before.  Thank you, for accepting me, into those hallowed halls and thank you for accepting my bratty, joyful, idiosyncratic voice into your erudite ones.  Together we form the chorus that will somehow, someday, with a great deal of faith and courage, finally drown out the Kardashians.


Thank you.