+++++++ Whether you create (and you do) or are a fan of art (and you are), may this post offer you comfort, inspiration, or something in between.
To the Creators.
I’ve been giving variations on the same talk for a long time now, and it was beginning to make me feel like Peggy Fleming skating to a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. Perhaps this is what Fleming’s audience would want to see - left to our devices, we often want what is smooth and familiar and instantly warm.
– Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies)
As the reader, I of course rooted for Lamott to give a brand-spankin’ new talk. One delivered from a place of fresh truth, freedom and expansion, happily assured that her audience would rise to meet her with thunderous applause and the adoration of a thousand fiery suns.
Turns out, when Lamott DID change up her talk, it was an unmitigated disaster. Sonorous silence, but for the lone cricket chirping away, looking for his mate. (It’s possible that I made that detail up being one of my own grade A biggie speaking fears. Yours too?)
As a fan of people taking big risks, swinging out and saying the truth, it’s really important, (and feels like it’s my civic duty) to point to a couple of contributing factors to the public speaking nightmare that unraveled on that stage.
1) The first is that she didn’t prepare. And the talk, in her words, bombed. We know this: if you’re a speaker, you must prepare and practice and train like it’s your job…’cause from the stage, that IS your job. Fin.
2) The second fact is that the crowd was disappointed that they weren’t getting exactly what they were thirsting for. Which is what she’d been delivering time and time again and they were used to it. They knew what to expect. Kinda like when you go to sip your wine and realize all too soon that you’ve sipped your kid’s milk. Kinda like that, but more cerebral-like.
And frankly, that’ll happen any time we deviate from the script that is “smooth and familiar and instantly warm”.
Which is why so few deviate from the script.
Which is ALSO why there is so little new, fresh and evolved. And that there are so many creative one-hit wonders (who succumbed to the Impostor Complex.)
Remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous TED talk on creativity and genius? It’s 19 wise and entertaining minutes that speak in part to her process facing the question: ‘How do I pull off “Eat, Pray, Love” again?’
In short, two words:
Or, in her words:
And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book…it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. Oh, so Jesus, what a thought! You know that’s the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o’clock in the morning, and I don’t want to go there. I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.
The fear of a success and the subsequent “how do I top that?” is a bona fide fear that is revealed to me in hushed tones time in time again by my brilliant coaching clients:
“I’m terrified that this (project, book, launch, business, endeavour, talk etc) will be such a screaming success and I won’t be able to top it, or deliver again”.
While Elizabeth Gilberts’ follow-up “Committed” wasn’t a flop the way Lamott’s talk was, it wasn’t the screaming success that “Eat, Pray, Love” was either.
Neither Lamott nor Gilbert allowed that to stop them. Which is why you know who they are to this day.They are brilliant women, prolific artists and communicators who kept doing the work and DIDN’T become one-hit wonders.
If you’re an artist and you experience success, you will undoubtedly ask yourself:
‘How do I pull off my own personal version of “Eat, Pray, Love” again?’
You’ll create anew. That is, if you heed the Big Point of Gilbert’s talk:
Maybe [artistry] doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished … it starts to change everything.
It’s not about you, Dear Artist. It’s bigger than you.
To the Fans.
A confession. If I ever went to see Peggy Fleming, I bet I’d want to see her skate to a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. If I ever saw Anne Lamott talk, I suspect I’d want to hear share some of the stories that I know and love of hers. And if I ever saw Lauryn Hill in concert, I’m fairly certain I’d want to hear her perform “Doo Wop (That Thing)” from her brilliant 1998 album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill".
Because I like what I like and sometimes I like that which is "smooth and familiar and instantly warm".
I don’t love the new and experimental. There. That’s my confession. And it’s a big one.
Which is why this piece by Talib Kweli Greene about the backlash against Lauryn Hill struck me so.damned.hard.
Where have I been treating artists like products?
“The artist is a human being, not a product. Sure, the artist makes products that are for sale, but the artist is not forever in your debt because you may have purchased a product from them at some point.”
Where have I expected to be pandered to?
“Artists make art for themselves. Art is an honest expression. Artists who pander to their fans by trying to make music “for” their fans make empty, transparent art. The true fan does not want you to make music for them, they want you to make music for you, because that’s the whole reason they fell in love with you in the first place.”
It’s not about you, Dear Fan. It’s bigger than you.
Where have I felt like an artist owed me something?
“However fans are not your boss, and listening to them when it comes to creative decisions is a slippery slope. I am not obligated to make the same album over and over again just because fans demand it. I am allowed to try new things, succeed at them or fail at them.”
Yes. Yes. Yes yes yes yes.
With every fibre of my being, I know this to be true:
You are allowed to try new things, Talib Kweli Greene. You will fail and you will succeed.
You are allowed to try new things, Anne Lamott. You will fail and you will succeed.
You are allowed to try new things, Elizabeth Gilbert. You will fail and you will succeed.
You are allowed to try new things, Tanya Geisler. You will fail and you will succeed.
You are allowed to try new things, dear reader. You will fail and you will succeed.
(Understanding what success and failure means is up to us, individually.)
Do what comes next. Write the next book, take the next stage, launch the next THING, create the next project, paint the next canvas.
It may well become an unmitigated disaster. And it may not be.
If you’re a creator (and you are), your responsibility rests in finding your own edges. In staying open to the gifts that you will receive from an unimaginable source. In giving yourself wings – big flappy wing of expansion, and plenty of room. Taking off requires that.
If you’re a fan (and you are), your responsibility rests in celebrating what you have appreciated about the artist’s work and to allow them their own space to evolve. It’s true, they may pass us over and fly off to new lands we don’t care to visit. It’s a risk we all must take together. It’s called progress. (And? It wouldn’t kill any of us to challenge our palate, she said pointedly to herself.)