The Creative’s Conundrum, or Something More?

Over this past weekend I stumbled onto a PBS program, featuring a story about one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko (1903-1970).The highlight of the segment was the fact that one of Rothko’s paintings recently sold for over 24 million US dollars. According to the spokesperson for the prestigious auction house that made the sale, such mind-boggling sums are less about the pleasure derived from the piece of art, and more about the investment with guaranteed re-sale potential. Would Rothko have cared about this? I’d like to think so.

NYC entry, Ellis Island

Like many artists, his drawings started at an early age. Rothko’s parents indulged his “doodles”, but insisted that he go to college to study engineering. Which he dutifully did — until he didn’t. Rothko left university without a degree, spending his last dollars on a train ticket from his uncle’s home in Oregon (his family had emigrated from Europe) to New York City. He joined an artists’ community in the 1920’s. Rothko later wrote that he’d spent years living without enough food, warm clothing or shelter, but he felt driven to paint. More than this, he was driven to find his own style and method of painting which, at first, was unimpressive to New York society.

nusu.co.uk

The Rothko story isn’t unique. Some of us may know, or have heard of, writers, painters, sculptors — as well as other creative-types — who were challenged by the process of living their most cherished dreams. If artists were the only ones suffering from such existential angst, we might think of it as an eccentricity. But a 2018 Quora article presented research showing that a large percentage of recent college graduates had pursued and received degrees in fields that actually held no interest for them. As one professor interviewed said, “How many of us would spend thousands of dollars on a product we knew nothing about, and cared even less about?”

Life regularly presents us with choices and options. We use our brains to analyze the facts and take action of some kind. We’re taught, in Western culture, to listen to our ‘heads’, as opposed to following our ‘hearts’. As adults, we like to believe that our choices are borne our of our own free will. But pressure comes from all directions, urging us, warning us, to tune-out our creative urges, tamp down our dreams, and lower our expectations about what our lives can be like. Recently I caught myself doing just that, as I was day-dreaming a new venture that felt exciting, but out of my Comfort Zone.

Then Mark Rothko’s story came to my rescue. What if this artist hadn’t risked life and limb, and even his own sanity, to create the the strangely-moving paintings that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside him? I can’t imagine a world without Rothko’s art; in the same way that I can’t imagine not being able to read poetry from women (like Sexton & Plath) for whom writing was as arduous as giving birth, and as terrifying as peering into the darkest of nights, in pain and in lonliness. I repeat my current mantra, once again: This courage; this is bravery. “This is Life…the very life of Life” (Deepak Chopra).

Life in Balance

Writing has been an ever-changing experience for me. Early in my career I was an editor, and speechwriter, for a very large county-schools system: 48 separate districts under one superintendent. I wrote articles that were published in the WSJ, that someone else attached their name to:  standard-practice, but so annoying. The speeches I wrote for the CEO? Same thing. Still, I was having my ‘voice’ heard, and I liked it.

prima.co.uk

Other kinds of professional writing – proposals and grants – not so much love there. By the time I entered a doctoral program and faced the challenge of a writing my dissertation, the only real struggle I had was with the ‘structure’ required of an ‘academic’ publication. Why so resistant to (APA) guidelines? Because I felt they interfered with my creative process. Because I felt the ‘guidelines’ were meant to create a kind of template for how scholarly-writing should look. Because someone, somewhere, decided that Readers really do pay attention to things like how References appear on a page. (I remain unconvinced.) Because I’ve always questioned, and frequently disregarded inexplicable Rules. Rules for writing; rules for creating; rules for living.

Over the weekend I had a discussion with a younger adult about this very topic:  how the desire to live an inspired, free and creative (how happiness and fulfillment unfolds for you) life gets tangled-up with largely unwritten Rules. “Say you’re part of a team function,” he said; “you’re expected to participate in group activities outside of ‘the work’:  lunch together, drinks, sharing aspects of your life with strangers. If you don’t, people start calling you weird.”

Is this a chicken-egg thing, I wondered? Which comes first:  our own need to fit-in and be accepted, or the influence of others telegraphing that we might be ostracized by the group if we don’t conform to its norms? What’s the real challenge, in being authentic – in proclaiming who we are, what we enjoy and what we want for ourselves, ultimately? I think the answer to that is, ‘depends on how high the stakes are and what the goal is’. I freely share (only when asked, of course) with (mostly younger) people how I’ve vigorously ‘bucked’ the Rules, but also ‘played by’ the Rules when necessary:  when I’ve wanted something (like a Ph.D.) that just wasn’t going to happen if I acted the maverick (read: true to my nature). If the task at hand is situational and of a certain time limit – with an end in sight – it’s easier.

But a full life of going-along-to-get-along, to me, represents inertia, then coma, then death of spirit. How many people are swept-up in the life-long engagement of trying to please, wanting to conform, needing acceptance from as many people as possible? Sometimes it can feel, especially when we’re writing, painting, sculpting, dancing – or just preferring to brown-bag it in the park, instead of joining The Team for lunch – that we’re struggling against something important, and possibly even  risking “being alone forever”.

Quite a few notable people, as it turns out, have asked, and addressed this struggle…

George Carlin

 “I like it when a flower, or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so   f***in’ heroic.”― George Carlin

John Lennon

 “It’s weird, not to be weird”.  – John Lennon

Hermann Hesse

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my own blood, pulsing within me.” – Hermann Hesse

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