October 9th, 2021

eyes black and white

Tonight's dream: the creative life

After some sad news, Jacques Brel has everyone in the assistance sit around, and invites whoever volunteers to say something to turn sadness into gaiety. The group thins down as the speakers are not Brel himself singing. Another group of latecomers forms as audience to the few that stayed in the first group. One of the "speakers" heckles me to speak about Glow. I am wondering what story I can tell of how someone made me happy when I was sad. I am surprised to hear myself instead talk roughly as follows.

“If you have any creative talent (the audience laughs uncomfortably at the lack of modesty from someone unknown), you have to believe in yourself. And I don't mean that you should have no criticism for your own ideas, quite the contrary. I mean that you have confidence in the value of your work, of this painful process, of what comes out of so many refinements and failed attempts due to this constant self-criticism. If you have any creative talent talent, by definition, what you end up creating will be original. It will be personal to you. Unique. No one else will have seen it. No one else will have conceived it. No one else will have any idea of it. No one else might even be able to understand it. It will be a most intimate part of you. And yet, if you want your talent to not have been in vain, you now will have to sell your creation. You will have to find a public, and make your creation not just yours anymore, but theirs. And that's just as painful as the creative process. Sometimes more. But if you succeed the pain will have been worth it.

Because your idea is so personal to you, so foreign to them, you will have to relentlessly explain. Explain all those things that are so obvious to you, and so unobvious to them. Most of the explanations won't work, because they don't speak to them. And soon, you may find yourself trying to expose your most intimate thought processes. There can be a pornographic aspect to exposing yourself that way. Sale is hard—unless you've created something the value of which is already obvious to others (although, in the case of Jacques Brel, this involved indecently exposing his own foibles as part of the songs created themselves).

And at the same time, you may find that most of the explanations may try at first are not necessary, but counter-productive. Indeed, you will be tempted to explain how you came up with your ideas, to describe this process that brings you so much pain and joy. But people don't care a damn about your creative process—at least not until after they see already greatness in your work. Instead, you will have to go the other way around, and understand enough of those other people to figure out the appreciative process by which they will see value in your work. You will have to understand how they think. How that may be in ways identical to yours, or how that may be in ways very different from you. And if you have any creative talent, some of your ways will have to have been different. You will have to examine not just your own psyche, but theirs, the discrepancies and commonalities, and incorporate that into your joint effort to create and to sell. You will have to examine and expose not just your own intimacy, but also theirs. And you will have to bridge the two. And that's uncomfortable, too.

Most people picture “genius” as some innate ability to explore ideas further than other people can, in the same known directions that everyone tries. I would call any such raw ability intelligence, and certainly, intelligence matters. I've met creative geniuses with much more intelligence than most humans, including much more than me. But maybe as important as intelligence is perspective, that makes you explore in directions that other people don't try to explore. Alan Kay often says that “Perspective is worth 80% IQ points”. Indeed they may not explore because there's nothing there worth exploring within their reach. And maybe you're better positioned to go that direction; maybe you don't need go far, just look at the same things differently; maybe you have guiding principles that allow you to sift through the mud and find gold. Often, you will have to confront some taboos: maybe you found something original by going in forbidden places; maybe everyone goes to those forbidden places, but few dare bring anything back; maybe they go places and bring back things, but the taboo forces them to speed along and not go through the long process of ensuring what they bring back is valuable; maybe the taboo prevented many from realizing the value of what they and you brought back. In any case, your creation will be original because in some way, you did something different, that others wouldn't, couldn't or shouldn't do.

And so there you are. You have found your creative niche, from which you know how to extract these nuggets, that you have learned to refine into something with value that others understand. Inas much as you weren't successful yet, you have to keep trying, harder and better. Inasmuch as you were successful, copycats hurry to extract all there is from the same vein, while you get bored selling the same thing over and over and over. Unless you struck it big and your ambition is smaller than your success, you're back to trying harder and better, looking for another domain where you may or may not also find success, until either your talent and inspiration dry out, or you die without having been able to fulfill your potential.

A creative career is full of sorrow, failures, regrets, missed opportunities, pain and hardship. But it can also be full of joy, success, enlightenment, serendipity, pleasure and sometimes even comfort. You should cherish the family, close friends and colleagues with whom you can genuinely share your adventure. But above all, you must believe in yourself, be confident in the process of learning and creating, find your joy in this mostly lonely process itself, and not settle for mediocrity.”

  • Current Music
    Jacques Brel — Quand on a que l'amour
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