Rethinking Reese Witherspoon

Rethinking Reese Witherspoon

Rethinking Reese Witherspoon

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Let me start by saying I have nothing against Reese Witherspoon. I’ve enjoyed many of her performances, and I am a big fan of what she has done in the industry for women and stories told about and by them, and for authors, especially female authors.

I’ve just never really vibed to her.

One of my oldest friends and I have discussed the fact that this could be grounds for jeopardizing our friendship. I know Reese is good at what she does. It just doesn’t always speak directly to me.

That changed when I listened to a podcast interview she did with Adam Grant, one of my favorite writers about social psychology (and yes, I have more than one), where she had me not only thinking about a variety excellent points directly pertinent to writers and writing, but rethinking my initial ambivalence about her.

Not coincidentally, the podcast is called Re: Thinking, and it’s based on Grant’s book Think Again, where he talks about revisiting the things you think you are certain of in order to continue to grow as a person and to expand your knowledge.

Reese Witherspoon offered unexpected insights relevant to art and the business of art that really resonated with me, that made me think about common creative demons and hangups differently or more deeply (time stamps in case you’re following along with the podcast here)—and in the process made me rethink my feelings about Reese.

During rehearsal for Walk the Line (for which she later won an Oscar), Reese experienced such a massive episode of her recurring fear and impostor syndrome that she tried to have her lawyer get her out of her contract (11:17):

Every movie I’ve ever done is like, ‘Am I gonna be able to do this?’ I mean, the ones that really come up for me are Walk the Line because playing a real person, I had to sing, I had to perform instruments that I had to learn how to play. Every day I wanted to quit. Every day I had a pit in my stomach thinking, ‘I’m going to be terrible. I’m going to have to get up on this stage in front of hundreds of people and I’m going to sound awful or I’m not going to be able to do it.’ … I wanted to quit… I was just scared. I was scared about not being good enough.

And then I realized I had to be the best I could be. I was never going to be June Carter Cash. I was never going to be a perfect musician. I was never going to play the autoharp perfectly or the guitar perfectly. I was just going to show up and do the very best of my ability. And there was a reason somebody thought I could do it, and I was not going to give up trying. I’ll always try….

The first time we [sang], Joaquin and I were together in Memphis on this little stage…. It was terrifying. There were 200 extras just staring at us and I thought I was gonna throw up. But I got out there and I was like, ‘Just do it Reese, just do it.’

And I did. And it all worked out, and I didn’t perish, and I didn’t melt into a puddle. It was hard. But that actually gave me confidence to dare again….. [L]ots of failure helped structure who I am and my self-confidence.

Read more: “Are You ‘Just’-ifying Your Writing?”

Reese has grappled with rejection, auditioning for a role she really wanted and lost to Drew Barrymore. She avoids judging her worth by the success of her work, she’s realistic about her talent—and she perseveres (14:52):

I learned that just because I wasn’t right for it didn’t mean I wasn’t good enough…. I’ve made lots of movies that were no good and didn’t perform well, and you know, that weekend Wild came out, [it] made no money and it was hard. And it’s who I am in those moments that is just as important as who I am when things are successful, because I’m still the same person whether the movie doesn’t do well or it’s the biggest hit of all time…. I heard [actor] Eva Marie saying…’Sometimes you’re in the front of the bus and sometimes you’re in the back of the bus. Just stay on the bus.’ So I’m just, I’m still on the bus….

It’s important to know what you’re not good at. So that you can really focus on what you are good at. I always love when people say, “Don’t chase your dreams, chase your talents.” Because you gotta figure out what your talents are. Because you have them. But dreams are different than talents.

Read more: “Handling Rejection

In an industry with a scarcity of roles for women, and a preponderance of female and female-identifying actors, Reese refuses to fall victim to a zero-sum competition mindset—and she takes the reins of her own career (~17:32):

Healthy competition is good, too. You know, it’s good to know where you sit in a group, where you live, and what you bring that’s unique, and how you can lean further into what is uniquely you.  I made a conscious decision when I was about 21 or 22 that someone else’s success wasn’t impeding mine. But that was a hard lesson to learn, because there wasn’t a lot of space for all of us. But I learned by watching Drew produce and direct. And watching Goldie Hawn work and produce and direct. And then watching all these women I really respected, going, “I’m not gonna be waiting around for the phone to ring. I’m gonna take charge of my own career and be the captain of my own destiny.”

Read more: “Making Your Voice Matter in a Crowded Market

Reese, too, must deal with shortening audience attention spans (27:06):

You can’t lament what’s gone. You have to keep innovating. And if you’re a storyteller, truly in this world, you just want to tell the stories, and you want people to hear them. I don’t get stuck in how it happens.

Even when she feels blocked Reese trusts her creativity, and she finds ways to replenish her creative well even when it feels empty (38:44):

We can all get creative blocks sometimes where you just can’t write or you just don’t feel inspired. Creativity is infinite…. When you are a creative and it’s who you are, you either know it or you don’t, right? It’s inside you or it’s not. And it usually means you’ve had success being a creative. It’s coming back. It’s always there.

I always want to tell creatives that, because I’ll have days where I have no inspiration or someone has scheduled creativity for me at 11:00 AM on a Thursday, which I’m like, “I can’t be creative right now. I don’t feel it. The dog just threw up on the rug. You know, I’m feeling a little under the weather and I just, I don’t feel creative right now. But can I call you back in like an hour? Let me really think about what you said, and then let’s do it again.” … If you feel uninspired, get out of your house, go watch a movie. Go watch somebody who is inspired right now at this very moment. I promise you: it will ignite something inside of you.

Read more: “The Wall of WTF

Reese sometimes wrangles with perfectionism—but finds ways to push past it (43:02):

I do think it helps to go, “I did my very best. Everyone here did their very best. Push send. We gotta be done, guys. We gotta put down our pencils.” Because you can be crushed by perfectionism and you have to just, you have to publish at some point. You just have to.

Read more: “Most of Your Life Is Medium

Rethinking What You Think You Know

I seriously had a bit of a revelation while I listened to this episode. I loved Reese’s outlook on creativity and creative careers. I loved her genuineness and openness about her own demons and vulnerabilities in her personal and professional experiences. I loved the insights she gleaned from them, and her willingness to share them to help others—without ever sounding preachy or superior.

I had erred in dismissing her as seeming a little phony and plasticky. Dammit—I liked her. A lot.

I try to be fairly willing to consider rethinking pretty much everything I think I’m certain of in my career, and in my life. Sometimes I find the process strengthens my belief in my approach or reinforces ideas I’ve spent years honing already. But often it makes me question a certain idea or approach and pushes me to try something new. And it invariably leads me to a deeper understanding.

Yet we all have blind spots—places we may think we’re open-minded but we’re not. Grooves we’ve carved into our psyches, or bubbles we exist in that simply reinforce what we already believe, rather than pushing us to question, explore, rethink.

Rethinking has offered me insights that sparked fresh ideas of my own as an editor and writer. It helps me stay open to new ideas and new things, and continue to expand my knowledge, and not get stuck in well-carved ruts I’ve fallen into. It helps me constantly take in new information and insights and expand, fine-tune, or even revise my opinions and stay elastic and evolving as a human. It helps me know myself better and more deeply.

It may even make me seek out more Reese Witherspoon movies.

What Can You Rethink in Your Writing?

What could you rethink in your own stories or your writing career that could shift and broaden your perspective?

  • What elements of your story have you slotted yourself into may have contributed to places where you’re stuck? Is that character trait or plot point you’re married to hamstringing the story’s development? Could rethinking it open up a new avenue you hadn’t considered and get a stuck story back in motion?
  • What writing techniques or schools of thought have you accepted as gospel that may be keeping you from discovering your own organic process that might be more effective for you and your own and your stories?
  • What beliefs about yourself, your writing, your career, or any other element of your writing life have you internalized that may not be serving you? What misconceptions or old beliefs might be holding you back? 

In a craft replete with well-worn tracks of information and advice, and a publishing environment that changes so fast it’s hard to keep up, rethinking can keep you elastic and adaptable as a writer, light on your feet and more nimble.

Change or die.

You can listen to the Reese Witherspoon interview on Adam Grant’s podcast here, or read the transcript here. Find out more about Grant and his thought-provoking ideas about rethinking, originality, why our success can depend on how we interact with others, and more here. (It’s all excellent food for thought not just for ourselves and our writing and writing careers, but for character development.)

Your turn, authors. In every podcast episode, Adam Grant asks his guests what they have rethought lately. What have you rethought—about your writing, your career, or yourself?

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    March 14, 2024 12:14 pm

    What I find strange is that I’m always on the lookout for new ideas that will help me grow as a writer. Yet, I so often will adopt a new idea after realizing I’ve been clinging to the old one for awhile. I think I have more than one subconscious and they don’t always get along (that’s me laughing at myself, by the way).

    What I’ve rethought lately was a small, yet critical, part of revising my own work. In the past, I’d find that, yes, the changes I’d made were technically correct, but somehow lacking. After too long, it hit me. I’d make needed changes with a dispassionate mindset. I now have a note to myself, “Edit from the heart.” What a difference it’s made.

    • Oh, I think I share your bifurcated subconscious, Christina! My entire life is a weird balance between fascination with the new and fear of change. 🙂 That’s one reason I really like the Re: Thinking podcast–it pushes me toward that expansion of ideas that I gravitate to, but sometimes hesitate in front of.

      I LOVE more than I can tell you the “Edit from the heart” advice you give yourself. I adore the editing process (obviously) and think it’s the most magical part of writing–but so often I think authors approach it like a necessary evil, a slog, or a slash-and-burn of their finely wrought work. But it’s none of those things–or doesn’t have to be. It’s a chance to get even more creative, to immerse yourself even more deeply into the story and characters you created, and to make your vision come to rich, full life on the page. Thanks for sharing that–hopefully it helps other authors rethink their approach to the process, if they think of editing and revision as a negative. It can be every bit as heartfelt and creative as the drafting process, as you point out. And often even more so.

  • Tiffany, thanks for this. I’ve liked Reese Witherspoon’s acting ever since her first movie, The Man in the Moon, and I admire her book club (not all the title, just the fact that she HAS one, and then makes movies with good women’s roles). This podcast tells me she’s not afraid to rethink things–which means she’s not afraid to be wrong and to admit it. That reminded me of a favorite book, “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz–it shows you how how wrong EVERYONE is at one point or another (and WHY), which I found enormously comforting. And liberating.

    • That was a big part of my takeaway too, Nan–that she’s very open to growing and learning, and not feeling her way is the only way. While I’d admired her efforts to use her platform to raise the profile of women authors and storytellers, I think I had slotted her into a category in my mind, but really was made aware of her genuineness and depth in this interview. I liked her a lot in it.

      Being Wrong is now top of my TBR pile. That’s an area I’ve struggled with. I was the kid who was afraid to admit I didn’t know something or make a mistake because I thought it made me stupid. It’s been a lifelong journey to realize this is how you learn, and that pretending you know something has the opposite effect–keeps you ignorant and makes you look it. I’ve become very comfortable with the “don’t know.” I even had question marks tattooed on my body when I was almost forty years old (not lying) to remind me of it. Love your description that it’s comforting and liberating–it’s true. Thanks for the comment–and the book recommendation!

  • Thanks for an exceptionally insightful newsletter. Lately I’ve started strength training, and started out thinking I was a weakling and might not be able to get stronger quickly. Neither turned out to be true. I’m wondering if Adam or Reese mentioned how thinking differently in one aspect can snowball, in a good way, into many instances of rethinking.

    • Don’t thank me; thank Reese. 😉 But thank you for the kind comment. Yes, Grant talks a lot across various episodes about exactly this–it’s one of his central tenets: that rethinking does in fact snowball into other areas. And should.

      How are you liking strength training? I came to it about five years ago, as a lifelong non-gym person, just to rehab an issue I was having…and then I got hooked, to my shock. And strong–also to my surprise, as you say! But I love it so much, and it’s had fantastic reverberations across many areas of my life, unexpectedly. I feel powerful and competent and confident, and more fit than I’ve ever been, here in middle age. Who’da thunk? 🙂

    • Excellent perspective on thinking artistically and how to view a successful career such as Reese has..

  • Garry LaFollette
    March 15, 2024 1:30 pm

    Thinking is hard. Thinking takes energy. Alas, the human brain is wired for conservation of energy. Makes sense that way, this little organ inside our heads takes up 2 or 3 percent of our bodyweight, but in hard use can pull over 20% of our energy. So mental shortcuts and reliance on off the shelf instructions – ideas and practices we’ve already formed – are the defaults.

    To that and other ends I whole heartedly endorse all things Adam Grant, and will echo Nan’s recommendation of Being Wrong. The whole ‘Now I’ve got this nailed’ mindset, along with the sunk cost mentality of I’ve invested so much in doing it this way, so I need to cling to it, is self limiting. And that brings me to a pair of diametrically opposed books which are among my favorites of their genre. ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman and ‘Sources of Power; How People Make Decisions’ by Garry Klein. Kahneman and Klein are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to cognitive processes. Let me say quickly that these are not books about or for creative processes and I’m NOT recommending them to anyone seeking to better understand their own creativity. That out of the way, anyone who has tried to write by the seat of their pants and found themselves stuck in a corner might better understand how it happened, and the benefits of careful weighing, planning and outlining, by applying Kahneman. Ditto someone who like me flat out can’t outline, but prefers to leap in and trust our instincts might find a patron saint in Klein’s studies of how firefighters and first responders rapidly process decades of experience and make split second ‘instinctive’ decisions without consciously weighing multiple options.

    And that is why, for me, reading only Klein would be a mistake. His research and methods offer all the nerd cover I’ll ever need for defending my processes (I’m not a pantser, I’m an adherent to the principles of Recognition-Primed Decision Making) It takes adding Kahneman to the mix to better understand where short cuts and patterns in my thinking have sent me down narrow plotting hallways that left me with limited range of motion somewhere around 60k words.

    It is comfortable to stick with one way of doing things, and there is natural resistance to look at alternatives. Partly because of a fear of admitting we have been wrong. But the words right and wrong are but convenient labels for something far more complex. Many of our discarded ideas were effective in their time. Or the absolute right conclusion based on what we knew or were capable of working with then.

    Huge paradox here, I’ve always approached writing from a mindset of the joy is in the doing. This is the story I want to tell and the way I want to tell it. And while it’s wonderful to see that as an exercise in creative freedom, we are often the last people to recognize the self limiting ruts we’ve channeled ourselves into. Yes, we chose to do what we like and believe in, but it’s also true that we can tell ourselves that we like and believe in something merely because it’s what we’ve long been doing. Is this our approach because it’s right, or do we just accept that it’s right because it’s long been our approach?

    • Garry, I love everything about this thought-provoking comment. YES, I’ve read about how we’re wired for shortcuts too–it’s one of the things that keeps me striving to notice when I default to that kind of thinking, and encourage myself to rethink. Being Wrong is in my Kindle as we speak, and I started it last night. It’s not as readable and accessible so far as Grant’s work, but I like the premise. I’ve added the other two you recommend to my TBR list.

      “Wrong” has been a tough concept for me most of my life–I tended to equate it with being ignorant. I like how Being Wrong quickly deconstructs that idea, and as I got older I eventually began to see that being able to consider and/or admit when you’re wrong is not just a strength, but the only real way to stay open to expanding your knowledge and perspective, to grow.

      I agree that one of the biggest challenges of writing (and editing) is to balance our intention and our voice with outside perspective that may help us make our stories more effective or impactful. We do need to know our vision and enjoy the creation of it–but also be open to feedback that may help us convey it more powerfully or effectively.

      Thanks for lots of food for thought.


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