Artists are well-known for their wild, bohemian lifestyles. Drinking, substance abuse, temper tantrums—for artists, madness is a fact of life.
Or is it?
Los Angeles psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo doesn’t think so. He helps Hollywood creative types get sane.
A View From The Other Side Of The Couch
Palumbo has seen the creative process from both sides of the couch. Before becoming a licensed psychotherapist in private practice twenty years ago, he was a stand-up comic and then a writer for TV shows such as Welcome Back, Kotter. He also co-wrote the Peter O’Toole movie My Favorite Year.
Palumbo’s clients are mostly Hollywood creative types, including Emmy- and Oscar-award winning writers, directors, and actors, as well as some novelists. When they present with problems such as writer’s block, procrastination, or fear of failure, they’re talking to someone who knows where they’re coming from.
“If they have anxiety about pitching a story to a network or a series idea to a producer,” Palumbo says, “I’ve been in that situation hundreds of times, so I can identify with them.”
Success And Money
Working in Hollywood may be the ultimate fantasy for those of us outside the industry, but listening to the woes of the battle-scarred industry workers in his practice, Palumbo knows better.
“[Hollywood] isn’t very glamorous,” he says. “Because there’s a lot of money if you’re really successful, which very few people are—people tend to think of it as very glamorous.” The truth is otherwise, according to Palumbo. Hollywood is intensely competitive with very little room at the top for the big successes we hear about in the media.
To a writer who must put aside his fantasies about how wealth and success will change his life, Palumbo counsels, “the only thing success and money gives you is success and money.”
Palumbo notes that many creative people come to Hollywood looking for external validation – and that’s a bad idea. “I often jokingly say, ‘Creative people all come to Hollywood looking for an approving parent, and it’s the worst place in the world to find one.’”
If you don’t like yourself, Tinseltown success won’t change that. “If you come to Hollywood and you’re filled with self-loathing and low-self-esteem, and anxiety about how lovable you are, you can have five TV series on the air, and that doesn’t mean you then feel more lovable.” External success might numb the pain of internal conflicts, but it won’t resolve them. “They don’t dissolve,” Palumbo says. “They don’t go away.”
One of Palumbo’s main messages is that of self-acceptance. Validation must come from within. “Whenever you’re looking for acceptance and validation outside of yourself,” he says, “you’re kind of doomed to be chasing after a carrot you’ll never get.”
His overarching goal in therapy is to keep reinforcing for his highly-pressured clients that who they are is OK. “That their anxieties, depression, and frustrations—given how difficult their goals are—are understandable.”
It’s not an easy sell.
“The hardest thing is to help them see that the lack of success they may be having so far is not a referendum on their worth.”
Don’t Take It Personally
There’s little job security in Hollywood even in good economic times, so in the current recession, while veteran writers and directors are struggling to get jobs, Palumbo gets an earful of their suffering. His message for them is to not take career setbacks as denunciations of their worth or talent.
“The message this patient may take away is, ‘I’m not getting these jobs because I’m not good enough.’” Palumbo counters such self-criticism with a dose of reality. “The decision-making process in the marketplace—whether you’re a novelist or a television writer—is so arbitrary, that you and your talent is only one of the factors involved in why you get hired.”
The Importance Of Diligence
So how do artists keep themselves together psychologically and emotionally? For Palumbo, a self-described blue-collar kid from Pittsburgh, the best thing an artist can do is develop a strong work ethic. He rejects the image of a creative person sitting around sipping absinthe, waiting for inspiration to strike. If you want to be an artist, roll up your sleeves and go to work.
“My experience is, the most creative people are the ones who work the hardest, most consistently, the most diligently. An artist is a person with their work to do.”
Creative people need to view their creativity as their gift. It’s what they have that everyone in the marketplace doesn’t have. “So whether you’re hired this week or next week, whether your novel sells or it doesn’t, doesn’t invalidate you or your work.”
It’s also important for the creative person to take responsibility for his or her gift, just as a parent does with a child. “When you have a child you have a responsibility to get up every day and feed that child, and go to work and support that child. I think your creativity is like your child. You have a responsibility to get up and support it.”
Although Palumbo no longer works as a screenwriter, he still writes fiction. His newest crime novel comes out in August: Mirror Image features a psychologist who helps the Pittsburgh police solve crimes.
Dennis Palumbo’s self-help book, Writing from the Inside Out, is for creative people who struggle with the doubts and frustrations of the writing life.
Visit Dennis Palumbo’s Web site here.