Genius and Creativity

I have listened to this talk by writer Elizabeth Gilbert many times.  I love her brilliant reflection on not being afraid to do the work you believe you were put here on earth to do – whether you’ve published nothing and are afraid to never succeed, or whether you’ve published a huge best seller and are afraid of never doing anything worthwhile again.

Are creativity and suffering truly linked? Why do we find it so easy to believe that artists must suffer? She examines the difference between being a genius and having a genius, and discusses the ways that creative people can get a certain distance from their work that allows them to be less afraid.

“And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow.” (Elizabeth Gilbert, 2009)

Neil Gaiman reminds us to Make Good Art

I am currently reflecting deeply on Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech to graduating class of the University of the Arts. I’ve listened to it twice in the last two days, and will probably listen again today. In it, he gives the graduates advice about making art, encourages them to break rules and be themselves, and gives them the best advice he ignored – which he received from Stephen King.

Go ahead.  Give it a listen. You’ll thank me.

I often ask people what their secret artist’s life is. Almost everyone – no matter what their paid job is – has an answer to this.  They play guitar on the weekends or keep a photography blog. They are planning to take a watercolor class this winter or they sing with the church choir. Someone recently told me that his grandmother taught him how to quilt and sew and that he has an unfinished project in his closet that he’s about to get back to. I believe the human spirit has a drive to create, even though much of the culture undervalues art because it’s hard to buy heath insurance with it.

What I love about this speech is that Mr. Gaiman is so very clear that a life in art does not have a clear path, and that we have to make things up along the way – stories, knowledge, job experience. He urges us not to be limited by own own limits, to be playful even when we don’t know exactly how to do what we want to do.

“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”

Mr. Gaiman is clear that in art, as in all other areas of work life, you don’t have to be able to do everything well.  Two out of three skills works.

“People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”

Finally, Mr. Gaiman does something that the Capricorn in me loves.  He describes that as he was starting out as a writer, he imagined his goal as a mountain:

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

We would do well to remember, no matter what happens in life, to Make Good Art.

And, by the way, what is your secret artist’s life?

Music at the End of Life debuts on NPR!

A few weeks ago I was invited to be a guest on an NPR show called “The Jefferson Exchange,” in Ashland, Oregon.  The producer and host had reviewed Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage and invited me to answer questions about the book and about music-thanatology.  They also invited two local music-thanatologists, James Excell and Elizabeth Markell, to bring their harps into the studio to play music and participate in the interview.

It was more than a dream come true to be invited onto the show.  I had never been on the radio before (let alone an hour-long live broadcast!) but after the initial nerves passed, the experience was truly enjoyable.  It felt like an interesting conversation between the host, my colleagues, and the people who called and emailed during the show.  

Here is the podcast: The Jefferson Exchange, September 8, 2010

Reading at Reunion

Last weekend I headed to Connecticut College with a dear friend for our college reunion.  The reunion planners were kind enough to include me in a panel called “Natural Wellness: Alternatives that Connect Body, Mind and Spirit.”  It was a really interesting conversation, and I had a chance to learn about Zero Balancing, and to meet Dr. Kenneth Larkin, known as “The Almond Doctor.”

Later in the afternoon, I was thrilled to participate in an author’s panel with other alums.  Their books were fascinating.  They included Donald Gallinger’s novel The Master Planets;  Anne Marguerite Herbst’s beautiful book of drawings with poems, Line by Line; Anne Verplank’s Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720-1920; and the photographs of Miles Ladin in Celebrity and Performance.

We each offered brief remarks or a short reading.  It was my first public reading for Music at the End of Life, and I was honored to be among such talented writers and artists.  It was a pleasure to hear their remarks about art-making, as well as their reflections about how faculty at Connecticut College helped to shape their work.

Following the reading, we had a chance to sign books and meet some of the participants.

For those of you who are wondering, the answer is yes, that isphotograph of Paris Hilton behind me.