Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons From Paul Simon and Emily Dickinson

Music is back in my life. And oh, how I've missed it. Music and I are not always the kinds of friends that pick up where we left off. Upon reuniting, I definitely want to connect like we used to, but it takes a little bit of work and a lot of putting myself out there and being vulnerable. Today I watched a documentary I'd heard about and have been wanting to see for a long time. I've searched for it multiple times on Netflix and today was the first time they actually had it! It's simply called "Paul Simon: Graceland". The documentary goes through the story of Paul Simon putting this album together and it is mainly focused on how the music itself came together. He didn't write anything before he hopped on a plane to South Africa in 1985. He went to jam, collaborate and collect. He did most of the "song creation" back in the USA by moving around clips he had recorded and turning them from jam sessions into songs. The process is astounding, as are some of the quotes from the film regarding the process of writing music. Here are some of my favorites:

At first I thought, "I've got a problem." Soon after that I began to think, "No, now I have an adventure." And instead of resisting what's going on, I'll go with it and I'll be carried along. I'll find out where we're going instead of assuming that I'm captain of the ship. I'm not, I'm just a passenger. -Paul Simon

Good art isn't there to instruct but to evoke. -Linda Ronstadt

What if they laugh? What if it doesn't work? We had put all of this [work] into it. You have to have the confidence in the work to carry it right through to the end, even though in point of fact you don't really know. I think that was particularly true for Graceland. In retrospect it seemed like, as they say, it was an instant classic, what was the big deal; what was to worry about? But we didn't know that and I don't think Paul knew that. -? (I forgot who said this)

So here is my question- how to artists have the guts to put years of work into a project, with absolutely no guarantee of the outcome? How does one handle the emotional risks of a venture like that? Hearing the people who were involved with creating this album talk about how risky it was and how the record company thought they were insane just leaves me wondering- how did they do that?

A few days ago I also went to the home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, MA. In the process of the tour of her home, the tour guide mentioned a poet Dickinson had sent some of her work to, asking for feedback. Because he was a traditionalist and her poetry was not as rigid in its rhythm or rhyme as traditional poetry, he basically told her that her poetry wasn't much good. Although she didn't make any effort to get her poems published in life, surely for reasons other than the one bad review, she continued writing it and putting her heart and soul into it. She didn't let it hold her back.

Other jobs have their challenges. But being an artist has got to be one of the scariest. There are lots of careers or callings in life that can be inherently labeled as worthwhile. When I worked with kids with autism, I never felt any doubt that what I was doing was meaningful and worthwhile. I questioned whether I did it well, or whether I was doing my best. But even in the moments when I wasn't at my best in that job, I still felt that at least I was doing good in the world. With art, for some strange reason, I don't feel that same assurance. It's like I have to be doing something extraordinary or I'm not doing anything at all. Why is there that pressure? Is it just me who feels this way?

I want to create something beautiful and meaningful. I want to create something that I can look at with confidence and say "I'm doing something good. I am taking my talents and making something important with them." I want to have confidence in myself and in my talents and I want to develop the ability to skillfully ignore nay sayers and place full confidence in what I'm doing to the point that it will create success in my life's work. Obviously, success requires more than confidence; it requires skill. But no matter how much skill you have you're bound to fail if you have no confidence. My work is cut out for me.