There is a famous story about Alfred Hitchcock. The legendary auteur was having troubles with an equally legendary actress who could not “find her motivation” to leave her chair at one end of the set and walk to the other end of the set, as the script called for. “Your motivation is your paycheck,” explained Hitchcock. ”Please walk across the set.”
Who doesn’t love this kind of practical bluntness? Drop your Actor’s Studio pretentions and get to work. Except there’s only one problem: a paycheck is not a motivation. It may be a motivation for the actor to act, but it is not the character’s motivation to do anything at all.
I understand that what Hitchcock might have meant was, “I am paying you good money. Please come up with whatever motivation you wish to get across that stage so I can finish this damn scene.” But this is not the story.
I think there is a temptation within us all to believe that a paycheck truly is a motivation in and of itself. It’s so simple, you see. We need money and so we chop wood and so we make money. And then we die. Such is life. Except it is not a question of if but when we ask, “Do I want to chop wood?”
That is the question from which the paycheck motivation allows us to hide. As if we weren’t free not to chop wood. As if the page is not in fact blank every morning, and we do not have to choose, choose, choose every word from all the thousands of words. Money cannot tell you what interests you; money cannot tell you what your characters are thinking and feeling. You may want that money, but it hasn’t one idea about what goes on the page.
If you need the idea of money to get you to work—fine. If you need the threat of homelessness to get you to finish your book, that’s fine too. Play whatever games you must. But do not mistake mere money for motivation. The best woodchoppers are the ones who love the feel of the axe handle in their hands and the sound of wood splitting. They may not know why, but they know it’s enough to bring them back to the woodpile day after day.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com