“We can only connect the dots that we collect.”
“How are we so brave to take step after step? Day after day?,” Maira Kalman pondered. “How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?”
In her wonderful keynote at the 2013 Grub Muse literary conference on creativity and the marketplace, Amanda Palmer — she of great wisdom on the art of asking without shame — considers why creativity is the product of connecting dots and addresses the quintessential question of how to put yourself and your work out there, in the Wild West of the internet, fully knowing how messy it can get and yet how wonderful, how open to cold criticism it can leave you and yet how capable of warming others.
Some thoughts, highlights, and dot-connecting below:
Buried in the generally brilliant argument of her opening parable is a specific unfair assumption: What Amanda describes as the supremacy of art’s disposition over that of science applies not to science vs. art but to bad science vs. good art, for “the impulse to connect the dots and share what you’ve connected” is not only what makes a great artist or writer but also, unequivocally, what makes a great scientist.
She recounts reactions to her recent experience of the Boston bombings:
To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of making art.
She notes with equal parts eloquence and poignancy the duality of the internet’s promise and the tsunami of trolls that can come with each wave of attention:
For every bridge you build together with your community of readers, there’s a new set of trolls who sit underneath it.
“Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only,” Henry Miller observed in his timeless reflections on writing, “be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly.” Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likened creativity to a slot machine of subjective lived experience. Amanda eloquently echoes these sentiments in her own creative credo:
We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.
She sums up what it all comes down to on the internet:
In order for it to work, the door must remain unlocked. People might enter without knocking, they might crash your party and drink your wine. Let them in, and let them drink — because you might meet somebody interesting.
Creating art in a time of trauma, she argues, illustrates with greater poignancy than anything what makes the internet beautiful:
People might shout, “This is not the time for metaphor! This is not the time for art! And this is certainly not the time for art about you!” But once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you — once you share it, it’s about everybody. And if your art is found by a single soul, shared with a friend who links it to a friend, and the response is whatever it is, you start to see how art becomes about everybody — just through the act of being shared.
(Cue in David Foster Wallace, who famous wrote, “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”)
But, ultimately, Amanda’s most pressing point is about dismantling the antiquated structures that tell us how to touch people with what we create and building from the ground up this new ecosystem where the only thing that matters is that we touch them:
Self-publishing without authentication and without that wand of legitimacy brushing your shoulder is truly scary. And there’s self-publishing a book, which at least resembles something real, and then there’s posting your shit to the internet. But I’ve found, what resonates resonates — the format doesn’t matter. … I’m not suggesting in the slightest that you forsake your painstakingly edited work and your protected, well-groomed and agonized-over treasures, and post them to the internet tomorrow. … But you can, if you want — if you’re brave — you can yell down into the marketplace and find your friends, and the crowd that would resonate with you, without permission from on high. Because anything you write in any format can change somebody, can change an opinion, can scratch an opening in a scared up heart of a human being — and it doesn’t matter how you do it.
If your writing is good, if it resonates, if it connects the dots for anybody out there, the lovers will come, the haters will come, support will come — sometimes in the form of money, sometimes in the form of something less expected — and it balances.
A resounding secular Amen!