Margaret Hoffman: Overcoming the ‘Shame Goat’ Through Enabling Constraints and the Blah Document

Gregs and Margaret visit WB

Margaret Hoffman was born in Nashville, TN, where she played a talking pig in her 3rd grade play about the solar system. This, combined with climbing oak trees, dodging wild bears, and eating Mrs. Winner’s biscuits all nourished her to become a storyteller. She now spends her time writing for Mental Floss, animation, and theater. Her roommate is a 1-inch tall plastic dinosaur that harbors delusions of world domination.

I always say this to you, but people perceive you as this light, warm-hearted individual. Is that how you perceive yourself?

[Pause] I find the world and the people in it to be very generous, and I feel that generosity gives me permission to be who I am. So I can be weird, have weird ideas, and let my imagination stretch itself. I want you to be who you are too, and that should be celebrated! That’s something I’m really passionate about—encouraging a space in which other people feel safe and comfortable to be who they are.

I can’t imagine anyone feeling self-conscious around you, but does it come naturally to you, or do you need to practice and work on it?

It’s something I genuinely believe. Sometimes I develop habits, like when I get nervous and pick my fingernails. But if I change the habit, it will change whatever belief is influencing that action. I have a firm belief that action and belief are in this circle. If you change one, it influences the other.

I was brought up in a space where generosity was part of the belief system that fed into my actions. It was a very honest space. I didn’t feel it was forced on me or anything. It just feels like a natural space where happiness is allowed to expand.

That’s so beautiful! Have you gone through periods in your life where it was harder to remain in that space?

As an artist, every time I sit down at my laptop, I have to say out loud, “I am so scared!” Somehow, saying it out loud allows me to be like, “Okay. Now we move on.” Before I started doing that, I would get paralyzed, and then be ashamed that I was so scared. Shame is probably the most non-productive emotion. It just blocks your path and it’s just going to cause more problems.

If I hear you correctly, you’re saying that we inevitably experience difficult emotions, but you acknowledge them before writing. Like, artists have to live in this space of being constantly exposed.

Exactly! Because you’re starting something new and there are so many unknowns, and they’re all colliding right now. So you just admit, “I’m scared!” For me, it starts breaking down the expectations that don’t even exist in the first place. They only exist in my brain. When I start breaking them down, that’s when I’m able to take risks. When one is in an environment of love, that is a space in which creative risks are able to happen. If you make a mistake or something could have been different, if you’re in a space where people love you, they’ll treat your creative entity with the same love they have for you. You have the freedom to fail.

I don’t think we talk about failure enough. I think there are a lot of benefits to failure.

I think there are. And acknowledging, “Wow, that was a bad idea but it sure was fun!”

The only times in my life when I wasn’t getting rejections or failing was when I wasn’t trying at all.

Yeah. You start narrowing your perspective of what you can do based on how safe it is.

And how can we do what we do if we live in that space? What if you encounter someone who doesn’t treat you in the same attitude you exude?

[Pause] That’s something I’m working on.

You’re not the only one.

We’re in a business in which criticism is going to happen. That’s part of the job we’ve taken on. We are the storytellers and people are going to tell us stories about our stories. An NYU professor once told me, when you’re in that situation, you must remember that that is a problem within them. They’re struggling with something, because there is a way to say something without projecting it with anger. Sometimes it’s hard for me not to take that anger on and cry in the stairwell.

I think that’s pretty much universal.

[Laughs] “Didn’t we stop thinking we weren’t good enough in high school? Haven’t we worked that out by now?” And that’s when the shame comes back, and it builds up. That’s something I’m working on, to listen to the core of their point, but not the anger.

Anger, fear, and anxiety are all really contagious.

Once that atmosphere is created by a person, it starts going around.

What are some things you do to get back into your space?

We have to admit when we’re at our limit of creativity for that day, and it’s time for a break. I love to run and go on walks. It gives me distance from my work. So if I’m having a problem with my work, I can see solutions once I’m given a little distance from it. I also walk or run to the grocery store and wonder around the aisles, but occasionally I’ll get my groceries there.

[Laughs] Very productive!

I have a focus of where I’m going and it gives me a pathway with a start point and endpoint. There was an NYU professor who called it enabling constraints. You put a constraint on what you have to do, but it allows you all these opportunities within this constraint that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

So it’s like having a problem, but setting a boundary so it doesn’t become exaggerated. It’s like controlled chaos.

There are endless possibilities, but there are only this many possibilities at the same time.

So let’s say you are applying for a job you really want. You don’t go crazy with the worst thing that could happen, like a meteor falling on you. Here are the possibilities if I do take a risk and apply for this job. Something like that?

Kind of. There’s something I use for that! I call it the Doomsday and the idealistic scenarios. With any sort of anxiety scenario, the first thing my brain goes is the Doomsday scenario, and I’ll take it to the very bottom. The world will open up a sinkhole and it will swallow me down!

The shame will kill me!

The Shame Goat that lives in the bottom of New York City will come bounding through your window and at the same time, the super will bust in and be like, “Why is there a goat in my apartment?!”

There’s your next animated villain. The Shame Goat!

[Laughs] And once I’ve gone to that very bottom place where it gets so absurd that I can laugh at it, I can say, that’s probably not going to happen. Then I go to the idealistic space. The Angels in the sky will burst open as the Nickelodeon boss comes begging on his knees and says, “Where have you been all my life?! Why have you not been hired in animation sooner?! Come with me, come with me!!” And he takes me on his cruise ship which is accompanied by woodland creatures that are sing songs to me, and I understand them all! But I set those standards to the point that they’re so unrealistic, so I can go, it’ll probably fall somewhere in the middle of that.

That’s what I do, because I can get caught up in that, where you spiral downwards. And that’s when shame kicks in. It’s so hard though.

That’s a very useful thing to rehearse in our head.

As far as setting up personal projects, it’s been a very beneficial tool as well. You can do anything, but then you’re overwhelmed. I usually give myself 48 hours to play around and burst everything out of my brain. I call it my blah document, where I just blurt everything that is on my mind creatively within the constraints I’ve set. Your first idea is usually not going to be your best idea. But not always! After that, I start playing Tetris and put everything together.

Do you rely more on having a support system or developing self-reliance? Or maybe a mixture of both?

I read an interview with the Nathan’s Hot Dog champion where he said, “We have these beliefs because people tell us we can only go so far.” He said that’s just a belief, so if he believes he can go farther, he will come up with creative solutions to get there. I’m not saying I’m not one to fall prey to self-doubt, but I just grew up in a family where I was told, not that I could do anything but just, “I can do this.”

Do you ever call your parents to seek out that reassurance?

Oh my gosh, yeah! I originally had a sociology degree from undergrad.

I did not know that.

I was in space where I had a lot of anxiety because I wasn’t producing anything creatively. I was reaching the end of my degree only to feel, this is not what I want to do with my life. What have I done with the past four years? I had all kinds of anxieties as a child, like the Bugs Bunny dying, but now they’ve become real-life anxieties at this point. I wasn’t feeling useful to society and it made me really sad!

So I had some counseling for about two years and it gave me some distance from myself to be like, “We’re just going to be okay with being anxious!” [Pause] Change is the only thing that’s consistent in life, so suck it up and deal with the unknowns girlfriend! Just keep going one little step at a time! Let’s put some purpose in your life!

For what it’s worth, I think every single person you’ve encountered is happier for meeting you. Every single person gets lifted by your presence. You should know the positive influence you have on all of us. You’re a talented writer and you’re also an amazing person.

Aw, thanks! During that time I was getting counseling was when I found playwriting. I had counseling for two years and I got in this space where I was like, “I’m cool now!” And because I was cool, I was open to [playwriting]. I would’ve never seen it if I had been anxious or ashamed. So now I just go for walks. [Laughs]

What would you say to someone who’s really struggling to find purpose and manage their life?

[Pause] I’m saying this to them, and not the “voice in the head,” right?

Hm. Whatever comes first. And it could be something you would do, as well.

[Pause] It’s really interesting, that space. Because there’s the desire to talk about it but also a desire to not talk about it.

Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t help [to talk about it].

You know, it’s so individual how people feel…useless. You know?

Yeah. There’s no blanket solution.

For me, I would try to set up a space in which people feel loved and allowed to fail. Whatever that is for that person where their vulnerabilities and feelings are valued and not something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean they have to stay there, but it’s an honest space. It’s what encourages me, you know? It’s a good space.

Everyone deserves that space.

But if you are not in that space right now, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Yeah, you’re finding it. It’s okay.

It’s okay. And if anything, you don’t need to hear the cookie-cutter, “You’re not alone! We’re all in this together!” This is honest, and it’s going to take a vast expansion of trust and patience to get through it, which is not easy.

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