Dare to be Foolish
Saturday, January 22, 2011
I've been thinking about another aspect of "finding ones voice" as a creative artist: developing the courage to let that voice be heard -- despite the personal nature of art, and the things that our art reveals about us.
For women in particular, schooled for centuries to be the "invisible helpmeet" (what Virginia Woolf called "the angel in the house"), daring to speak and be heard can be a fearful prospect even while we professionally seek it out; but some men, too, suffer silently from the writer's/painter's version of stage-fright: the fear of putting our work, our soul, out there, having it judged, and appearing foolish. So we then hold back, or tone the work down . . . or worse, we don't create at all.
The simple truth is that being a creative artist takes courage; it's not a job for the faint of heart. It takes courage each and every time you put a book or poem or painting before the public, because it is, in fact, enormously revealing. (Delia Sherman once likened the publishing of a novel to walking down the street buck naked.) Worse yet, what our work often reveals is not the beautifully-lit, carefully-presented surface of our creativity, but the darker shadow-play at its interior. That can't be helped. But the good news is: that's precisely where the best art comes from.
While our intellect chases its bright and lofty visions, our most original, powerful ideas tend to rise from muddy, murky depths below: from the clouded waters of the subconscious; from the baffling landscape of nightmare and dream; from the odd obssessions, weird fixations, and uncanny flashes of intuition that rise up from those strange parts of ourselves that we know and approve of least; from those places most likely to make us feel ridiculous, and exposed.
The muse, if we follow her far enough, and honestly enough, demands that we bare it all: our angel wings and our asses' ears. It doesn't matter if we're writing genre fiction and not memoir; it doesn't matter if we're painting fairy tales and not self-portraits.
"All art is autobiographical," said Federico Fellini; "the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."
When Ellen Kushner and I were young writers together in New York City in the 1980s (that distant, different pre-Internet age), Cynthia Heimel published an essay called "How to be Creative" that we adopted as a kind of Call to Arms, passing a dog-earred copy around to all our friends for many years thereafter. First published in The Village Voice, the essay contained the exact advice that earnest, anxious, ambitious young writers and artists like us most needed to hear. I haven't been able to find a copy for you to read online, but here's another quote from the author of our Sacred Text (as Ellen and I referred to it) that pretty much sums up the article in question:
"When in doubt, make a fool of yourself," says Heimel. "There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap."
Three decades later, this is still the best piece of art-making advice I know.
I hereby pass the [paraphrased] words of the Sacred Text on to the next generation of writers- and artists-in-training:
Don't be afraid to be weird, don't be afraid to be different, don't worry too much about what other people think. Whatever it is that's original in you and your work might sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. That probably means you're on the right track, so just keep going.
Dare to be foolish.
Pictured above: Howard (Fool), William Todd-Jones (Bear), and Geoff Beale (Cavalier) performing with Daughters of Elvin in Devon and Northern Ireland.
A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).