Chapman Commencement Speech (Shed That Skin)

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Originally a commencement speech given at Chapman University in 2014.

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Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the jury. (What? This isn’t a trial?) My name is Amber Tamblyn. You might not recognize me from such television shows and movies as Two and a Half Men, House, Joan of Arcadia and the One Where Some Ladies Wear Jeggings. I know what you’re thinking. Why is Fake Emma Stone here? She’s never been to college. She’s been an actress since she was 11 and is a chronic fonetic speller. These things are all true. Especially the fake Emma Stone part.

I’m here today because all of you and I are in the same big, often-crummy boat called life. And I want to talk to you about the tiny holes that make that boat leak sometimes. I want to talk to you about survival. About finding your larger self.

No doubt, many of you are graduating today knowing exactly what you want to be when you grow up. By a show of hands, who here has already chosen a career path? And by a show of hands, how many of you love that choice and believe it will be what you do for the rest of your life? (Don’t freak out if you suddenly feel like you don’t want to raise your hand. This is NORMAL).

I want to share a story with you today. Years ago, my closest friend and Chapman University graduate poet Mindy Nettifee put out a book with an opening quote by Henry Miller. The quote read, “All growth is a leap in the dark.” For years, that quote haunted me. I was in my mid 20s and had already achieved so much—awards, a mortgage, getting engaged to Tobias Funke. I thought I knew everything. Yet, what did I know? And why was it that with such confidence and assurance about my life and career, I could still look at the future and tremble with fear at its unknowns? Like considering the multiverse—we grasp the knowledge that space is most likely infinite, but we cannot even begin to imagine what that entails.

Shortly after reading that Henry Miller quote, I was being interviewed for a film and the interviewer asked me, “When did you make the choice to get into acting?” I had no answer. I could not speak. I’d been acting for so long… what was a “choice”?  When did I make the choice to be an actress? Did I ever?

Around this time I had started working on my third book of poems, which studied the lives and deaths of child star actresses. I became obsessed with the late actress Brittany Murphy and other women who had met their young demise the way she did. I began to enjoy the ideas that death had to offer—not the thought of death itself, but the idea of death’s outcome, which was, in my eyes, ultimate freedom. Brittany’s death symbolized, for me, a type of anarchistic response to the entertainment business we both had in common. A silence. A choice. And while people publicly immortalized her glamour, I privately glamorized her death. Her body dies like a spider’s, the poem began. It continued:

In the shower,
the blooming flower
seeds a cemetery.

A pill lodges in the inner pocket of her flesh coat.
Her breasts were the gifts of ghosts.
Dark tarps of success.

Her mouth dribbles
onto the bathroom floor.
Pollock blood.

The body is lifted from the red carpet,
put in a black bag,
taken to the Mother’s screams
for identification.

The Country says good things
about the body.

They print the best photos;
the least bones, the most peach.

Candles are lit in the glint
of every glam.  Every magazine stand
does the Southern belle curtsy
in her post-box-office-bomb honor.

The autopsy finds an easy answer.
They say good things about the body.

How bold her eyes were, bigger than Hepburn’s.
The way she could turn into her camera close-up
like life depended on her.

That poem, for me, was about many dependencies. It was about the sacrifices women in all walks of life make in order to appease. The poem was well loved by many friends and small literary circles, and before I knew it I was writing more poems with similar themes about many different actresses, including Marilyn Monroe, Dana Plato, Jayne Mansfield, and many more. Their stories touched dangerously close to my own. But I hadn’t connected these dots just yet. I had merely identified the dark and was preparing to leap.

Tamblyn2_600Three years into writing these poems, I had to take a break for health reasons. Mental health. Needless to say, writing about my dead peers of yore was getting to me. I was getting to me. I started to see a change in myself I didn’t like. A change I couldn’t control. I started not to care. About pretty much everything. The things I used to do so well, and so naturally, were fading. Like auditioning. I remember auditioning for the film August: Osage County, for the role of the crazy sister Karen (played in the film by Juliette Lewis). The audition required I perform the major monologue Karen gives when she’s trying to explain her fiancé’s bad behavior to Julia Roberts’s character. There I was standing in the audition room, in front of the director, producers, and executives from The Weinstein Company, and I couldn’t remember anything. I kept starting and stopping. Starting over, then starting over again. My face flushed. This had never happened to me. Ever. I had been auditioning for 20 years—what was the problem? “I’m so sorry,” I said to them. “I’m so embarrassed.” “It’s okay,” they said, “I think we’ve seen what we need to.” And like that, I was rightfully excused. I got to the elevator, past the chairs filled with famous actresses my age, and burst into tears. I shook. I convulsed. I seethed with self-hatred.

Versions of this kept happening to me. The creator of a famous T.V. show (let’s call him Dumby McNO) was working on something new, and had written a character with me in mind (the character even had a rock star friend who was in real life, one of my best friends). She walked like me and talked like me, saying “solid” and holding her own with any guy at any bar with any type of bourbon. Her physical description matched mine, right down to the tiny teeth. Still, I needed to prove myself to the studio, so Dumby brought me in to do what is called a test audition. The next day I heard I didn’t get the job. Wow, I thought. I can’t even get a job playing myself.

For the 18 years I had been acting out of the 28 I had been alive, I had always just sucked up these types of moments. Sucked them up and held them in and declared they meant nothing and declared I meant everything and pretended and swallowed and swallowed and swallowed.

That day, I went and threw myself what Mindy Nettifee would call “a serious pity party.” And I don’t mean just a sulking session. I went and did EVERYTHING I had threatened I would do. I threw it all up. I took my favorite pair of high heels and threw them into the East River. I took kitchen scissors and cut off 7 inches of hair.  I got drunk and road the subway the entire length from Queens to the edges of Brooklyn. Twice. I looked my fiancé in the eyes and said, “How can you love such a failure?”

At this point in my life, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t finish my book about the dead actresses, I couldn’t stop drinking, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t even know I was in a tunnel. My agency of 15 years dropped me as a client. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My mother had 7 generations of family heirlooms stolen from her house. I got adult chicken pox. Everything seemed to be happening to me, and I didn’t seem to be happening to anything.

*

Poem from the Epilogue:

I took a break from writing about the dead
and drinking from writing about the dead
to walk around my childhood neighborhood.
Everything’s for rent. Or for sale, for ten
times the amount it’s worth.

Palm trees are planted in front of a mural
of palm trees under the Ocean Park Bridge.
In the painting, the metal horses of a carousel are breaking
free and running down the beach. Why didn’t I leave

my initials in cement
in front of my parent’s apartment in the 80’s?
Nikki had the right idea in ’79.

I walk by a basketball court, where men play
under the florescent butts of night’s cigarette.
I could have been any of their wives,
at home, filling different rooms in different houses
with hopeful wombs. Agreeing on paint color

samples with their mothers in mind.
I’ll bet their wives let their cats go out
hunting at night like premonitions of future sons.
They will worry, stare out the front window,
pray that privilege doesn’t bring home bad news
like some wilted head of a black girl in nascent jaws.

To say nothing of the owl who’s been here for years.  I hear him

when I’m trying to write about the deaths I’ve admired.
I hear him when the clothed me no longer recognizes
the naked. I hear him while writing and shitting and sleeping
where my mother’s seven guitars sleep.
I hear him in my parent’s house,
their walls covered in my many faces,
traces of decades of complacence.

My childhood neighborhood is a shrine to my success,
and I’m a car with a bomb inside, ready
to pull up in front of it and stop
pretending.

Tamblyn3

*

I want to speak to you now about revelation. Not the biblical kind. Or, yes maybe the biblical kind—player’s choice. On the other side of this time in my life came revelation. Yeats once said, “In order to be reborn, you must die first.” I realized that all along, what I had craved and explored indeed was happening right before my very eyes. Le Petit Mort. A Small Death. A part of me was dying, like shedding skin. I realized that life would forever be a series of shedding skins, some more painful than others. Even my father, Russ Tamblyn, who is here today in the audience and who is turning 80 years old at the end of the year, has been shedding skin while he writes his autobiography—while he faces the fear of the unknown, or, in his case, the unknown of revisiting what you already know. Even for him, at his age, he is leaping into the dark.

My revelation was that I had earned the right to rest. That life, or God, or Jay Z, was going to make me take a breath, no matter what I thought I wanted, or what was good for me. I had earned the right to let a part of me die and be reborn.

Since my revelation, I’ve completed that book about the actresses and found new avenues and ways in which I can love the experience of acting again. I got married. I’m directing my first film next year. My pops beat cancer. I let myself take long walks in the woods of upstate New York without being riddled with anxiety about what I should be doing instead. I paint. I go dancing. When someone asks when it was that I knew I wanted to be an actress, I tell them, “the day I realized acting is not what I do for a living. Shedding skinWhat I do for a living is get rejected.” I have more of a sense of humor about the world around me and how I affect it and how it affects me. I take in life as a large, beautiful, breathing, complex, terrifying, ugly, extraordinary organism, of which I am one of millions of molecules diving in, multiverse first.

I want to close by saying what you probably don’t want to hear: Some form of this experience I’ve shared with you today will happen to you. It might be next Thursday; it might be when you’re 80.  I want to say, simply, that it’s going to be okay. That when you start to panic, and feel like you want to throw a thousand teacups against a wall, shed that skin. When you want to run away from it all, shed that skin. When you want to float in your own darkness until you feel you might drown, shed that skin. When you want to turn your world upside down and see what falls out of it, shed that skin. When you want to tell someone “no” but haven’t figured out how to yet, shed that skin. When it’s time to enforce boundaries between you and the “you” that thinks you’re not good enough, shed that skin. When you want to wear fluorescent pink hot pants to the mall because, look at you, you’re amazing! Shed that skin that prevents you from wearing that skin. Have that revelation, and then have it again, and again, and again.

Know that you are not alone. Somewhere, someday, someone else will be riding the change with you. Maybe it’ll even be me. Maybe it’s everyone you’ve ever loved. Maybe it’s everyone you’ll never meet. No matter what, you will come out stronger then you ever thought possible. Your growth—your survival—will be the most beautiful accomplishment of them all.

And here was my own foreshadowing, a poem written at the age I would have been graduating from college, had I gone. The age before my revelation. The age a lot of you are now.

Dear Demographic

I’d like to say:
As a former member of your clique
(and a current member of your representation)
I know it’s hard to be a young woman ages 18-to 24-years-old.

They put you in a time slot
that doesn’t reflect your views
with a ratings system
that doesn’t respect your truths.

Listen:
From one cynical self-hater-by-default to another,
please put down the magazine article that has bored you
into hair extensions and reality television.

Stop with the 20th century redux:
Make your own era. You are not out of your own league.
Fake eyelashes will not get you Ryan Gosling.
Nor will sporting a Barack Obama keychain.

No need to break all the rules:
Just bend them into balloon animals,
give them to your little brothers and sisters.
Show them how silly and cute American culture is.
Time will naturally deflate all of it.

Start mosh-pits in the crowded thoughts of tycoons:
Stir something up with your tongue.
Sip someone else’s logic then spit it out
(preferably when they’re looking).
Taste test your own style.

Get your mind into the gutter of others:
Search for the things they let go down the drain or threw away.
Everyone’s scared to tell you how they really feel.
Including Oprah.
Stop getting wasted and throwing up
your individuality outside of clubs.
There is no fast food to help you cope with that.

Leave your mark on the world
with something that can’t be chosen from
a tattoo book of Chinese symbols
for the lower back.

Pierce something other than your skin:
When I tell you to think for yourself,
don’t give a shit what I say.

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“Dear Demographic” appears in Bang Ditto (2009) from Manic D Press.

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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Amber Tamblyn is a Venice, California native. She has been a writer and actress since the age of 9. She has been nominated for an Emmy, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award for her work in television and film. She has two collections of poetry, Free Stallion (Simon & Schuster 2004) and Bang Ditto (Manic D. Press 2009). She co-founded the nonprofit, Write Now Poetry Society and has a poetry review column in Bust Magazine. Her forthcoming third book, Dark Sparkler, is an intimate look at the lives and deaths of child star actresses with accompanying art by such artists as David Lynch and Marilyn Manson (Harper Collins 2015). She lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →