Discouragement is an integral part of the creative life in any economy, let alone one in which the likelihood is diminishing that our talents and passions will be able to support us. I'll talk about why we should embrace discouragement in my next post. But today, let's bolster ourselves up.
The inspiration I'd like to share comes from dance, the art form that gave birth to my creative spirit. When I need encouragement, I visit the words of modern dance visionary Martha Graham (1894-1991). I'll let Martha tell you why in this series of pulled quotes:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and 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, not how it compares with other expression. 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 any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.
People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose, I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life. When any young student asks me, "Do you think I should be a dancer?" I always say, "If you have to ask, then the answer is no." Only if there is one way to make life vivid for yourself and for others should you embark upon such a career...
I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It's permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.
Many of these quotes are from Martha's autobiography, Blood Memory, published in the year of her death. What powerful words from an amazing woman. Could I hear an amen?
Martha was the daughter of Puritan-bred Presbyterians who were none too thrilled to have a daughter at the cutting edge of American modern dance. Martha was both admired and reviled for her work. Her success was never guaranteed—there wasn't even yet an audience for the type of work she did. She created her genre, seeking out top-notch collaborators.
Martha continued to perform until she was 76 years old. But even Martha, whose words have re-energized me time and again, fell prey to discouragement. When she stopped dancing, she wrote:
I had lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.Yet her spirit proved indomitable. She rallied. She continued choreographing until the age of 96 from a chair; by then arthritis had crippled her hands to the point that she wore gloves to hide the disfigurement.
I never met Martha Graham, although I saw her ushered onto the stage to take a bow at the end of her company's performances. I too loved modern dance. My maiden name is even Graham.
But these aren't the reasons my connection to her feels so personal. Her own words tell us why: she was inside my head, knowing what I needed to hear. All artists, famous or not, share a vulnerability that allows them to do what they do. Deep inside, Martha Graham and Kathryn Graham Williams Craft aren't so very different (okay, she was wiser not to take all of her husbands' names).
If she could resurrect after drinking herself into a coma, I can forgive myself the occasional lapse of confidence. I draw strength from her story time and again, hoping to by-pass the coma by listening deeply to words that even she struggled to live up to.
From what sources do you draw your encouragement?