Give It All, Give It Now: A Manifesto of the Creative Life
“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…give it, give it all, give it now.”
Confession: I still doubt myself. A lot. Even though I’ve lived more than half a century, even though I’ve been putting pen to paper on an almost daily basis since I was nine years old, even though I’ve made the arts my profession throughout my entire adult life, as actor/writer/solo performer/producer at various times, I still ask myself why I do these things and what makes them worth doing.
There’s an ebb and flow to this inner questioning—there are periods in which I’m so utterly absorbed by the work itself that the existential dilemmas blessedly recede and I’m carried along by the current of pure doing. Love those times. But when the Muse takes a call on her cell, leaving me with the ditherings of my own mind and the eternal struggle for a more disciplined daily existence, the doubting voices return. The most persistent of these is the one that says Why bother in the face of…fill in the blank: mortality, climate change, humans’ abhorrent treatment of each other, violence, racism, poverty, greed…
A year ago, I added regular teaching to the list of creative endeavors that comprise my professional life. Leading others in the act of writing has been an incredible gift, but it’s also ignited a blazing new round of self-doubt. Who am I to take the lead? Am I capable of holding a room? What do I have to give? And accompanying all of that, the old underlying refrain: why why why why why…
Since this inner Why has been with me for so long, I’ve developed a litany of responses, drawn primarily from the work of other artists: songs, poems, passages from favorite books. So when the questions arise within me, these alternate voices rise up to answer them. Together they form a kind of Manifesto of the Creative Life, a buttress against despair. This is why. And this. And this. I share them with you today, dear Reader, in the hope that they may help you through your own moments of darkness. And if these things don’t resonate with you as they do with me, I hope the examination they sprung from may inspire you to develop a Manifesto of your own.
A first line of defense against the emptiness is this passage from Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:
Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead, or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.
As I see it, that’s what each of us is doing, every moment of every day: making our offerings to the life force. Skillfully or clumsily, we are pouring ourselves, through our thoughts, words, and actions, into the ocean of existence. The ocean is vast, and we’re just drops, but the drops are what the ocean’s made of, and each one matters: each thought, each word, each story, each being changes the composition of the whole.
Another touchstone is the song La Maza (The Mallet), by the great Chilean singer/songwriter Silvio Rodriguez. The first verse translates something like this:
If I didn’t believe in the madness in the throat of a mockingbird,
If I didn’t believe that in the mountains, both its song and its terror lie hidden
If I didn’t believe in balance, in the logic of equilibrium,
If I didn’t believe in delirium
If I didn’t believe in hope
If I didn’t believe in what I bring into being
If I didn’t believe in my path
If I didn’t believe in my sound
If I didn’t believe in my silence
What would I be? A pickaxe without a quarry.
He offers many poetic images of what he would be if he did not believe in these things and many others, which to me add up to say, If I didn’t believe in the inherent value of life itself and the power of each voice and story and struggle, my life would lack meaning and purpose. The unspoken corollary, expressed powerfully through the haunting melody and driving rhythm of the chorus, is, I do believe in these things, and this belief makes me whole.
I believe in them too. And so I make my offering to the life force in the form of these words. And when the philosophy of Ernest Becker and the poetry and music of Silvio Rodriguez are not enough to keep desolation at bay, I touch base with my own heart and its core of joy—and isn’t joy its own excuse for being?—and remind myself of the following:
1. I love words. The sound and feel of them in the mouth, the shape of them on the page, the stories behind their origins, the images they conjure in my mind. The exciting search for the one with just the right weight and texture, the zing of satisfaction when you find it.
2. I love writing (the physical part). The smooth glide of pen on paper, the hot dance of fingers on keys, the way these actions lead the way, guiding the mind to places it never expected to go.
3. I love making things. Always feels like a miracle. There is this object now—this poem, this play, this essay—which wasn’t there before.
4. I love humans. Our foibles and missteps, our awkward, imperfect beauty. Our selfishness and generosity, our resilience in the face of obstacles. Our helpless need for love. The striving and the self-sabotage, the moments of pure grace.
5. I love the world. Max Ehrmann wrote, in the Desiderata, “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” Oh yes. Yes. Every time I step outside my door and the crisp or humid air hits my face, I remember.
6. I love stories. The rise and fall of narrative—and almost everything is narrative—the intention, the effort, the hindrances, the failure or success, the lessons learned, the sorrow or joy or hilarity or confusion encountered along the way.
All this, and more, constitutes the Why of my writing. At the base of it all, I do it for love, and so, as the dancers sing in A Chorus Line, I can’t regret it.
When it comes to the leading of writing workshops and that voice in my head that wants to know What I think I’m doing and Who I think I am to be doing it, I offer this:
I’m creating a time and place for others to write what they need to write and speak what they need to speak. In the space I’m offering, people are making things that matter. They are writing things that are true, and so am I. It’s hard, but we’re doing it together, and through that act of vulnerability, we connect with ourselves, each other, and the world. There’s strength in that. Relief as well.
And yes, I’m leading something. Because I’m old enough, brave enough, foolish enough, or optimistic enough, even in the face of all that I see and all that I know. Because still and all and always, I care enough.
And this: We’re building a community of people who want to say what is true and to hear others say it too. Because hearing your own voice aloud in a room full of people can change your life. Because bearing witness to the experience of others can change your life. Because, like an enormous mushroom, we look like separate beings, each holding our small, soft gray-brown umbrella, but beneath the surface we’re a single being, and the health of one is the health of all. Because we’re different and the same all at once, and when we share our stories, we know we are not alone.
And so, before each class session, I set aside the Why and zero in on the What. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath. I conjure the words of Annie Dillard—Give it, give it all, give it now—and let them take me where I need to go.
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