This morning I came across this letter from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille, both dancers that left a long trail of amazing choreography, works which are not only still being performed, but which arguably form the backbone of some dance companies’ repertoire.
There is a vitality,
a life force,
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.
And If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine
how good it is
nor how valuable it is
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open…
No artist is pleased…
There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes “us” MORE alive than the others.
( – a letter to Agnes De Mille-)
On one level, Graham’s advice strikes me personally, defining my task as a writer. Stop judging, stop seeing your work through the judgments of others. Keep the channel open and respond to it, because whatever anyone else thinks of the work, including myself in any given mood, the task, if my unique personhood is to be expressed, is only to keep the channel open. It’s the kind of advice that any artist must continually return to, other voices being so anxious to shout down the creative impulse.
On another level, it challenges me to think about both Darwin and Einstein, subjects of my fictional biographies, to think about what they did to keep their channels open. In Darwin’s case, I’m aware that despite excessive approval-orientation, he produced a work that brought down 150 years of controversy by identifying and connecting to his passion and following wherever it took him. As a child, he preferred collecting beetles to memorizing Latin vocabulary. As a young man he incurred the wrath of his father by dropping out of two academic programs–medicine and theology–to go aboard HMS Beagle as the ship’s naturalist, sending back barrels of specimens to be studied by men who were then England’s top naturalists. He didn’t yet see himself in their company, but as his ideas morphed, he dared to follow where they led, understanding that he had immense problems to solve–such as how species crossed oceans and appeared on different continents. He built on the work of his predecessors and communicated with his fellow scientists regularly, swapping ideas, and particularly with Joseph Hooker, the botanist that inherited the directorship of Kew Gardens from his father. And he didn’t allow the fact that he was a less-than-competent writer–Did you ever wonder why you memorize bullet points but don’t read his work in school?–to prevent him pursuing his goal and publishing his work.
What of Einstein? He began writing papers and publishing in the Annalen, Europe’s most prestigious journal of physics, during the frustrating nearly two-year period when he could not find a teaching job. Rejected for one teaching post after another, he used his time to immerse himself in the content and arguments of his era’s current thinkers, particularly Boltzmann, Mach, Ostwald, and Lennard. He kept his mind mulling the problems his contemporaries encountered. He wrote and published, and though this wasn’t ultimately what opened the door to his job at the Patent Office–a friend’s father did that–he didn’t insist on a direct path. All of his concentration culminated in an explosion of productivity–five papers in 1905, just two years after he took his job at the Patent Office. Now granted, Einstein’s brain was different, and we all don’t have that advantage, but there are methods here.
What have I learned?
Identify your passion and follow where it leads.
Pursue the passion despite the nay-sayers.
Don’t allow the immensity of the problem overcome your pursuit.
Build on your predecessors.
Cultivate the company of like minds.
Don’t allow your weaknesses to defeat you.
Immerse yourself in your materials, even when your path is blocked.
Don’t insist on one path to your goal. Walk through open doors, pursuing alternatives.
When you’ve done these things, wait patiently for the pay-off.
And incidentally, Agnes DeMille was not a very good dancer.