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Martha Graham on the Life-Force of Creativity and the Divine Dissatisfaction of Being an Artist

“No artist is pleased… There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in her ten rules of writing. But how does one befriend this perennial dissatisfaction while continuing to unlock, to borrow Julia Cameron’s potent phrase, the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow?

To this abiding question of the creative life, legendary choreographer Martha Graham (May 11, 1894–April 1, 1991) offers an answer at once remarkably grounding and remarkably elevating in a conversation found in the 1991 biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (public library) by dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille.

Martha Graham
Martha Graham (Photograph: Barbara Morgan)

In 1943, De Mille was hired to choreograph the musical Oklahoma!, which became an overnight sensation and ran for a record-setting 2,212 performances. Feeling that critics and the public had long ignored work into which she had poured her heart and soul, De Mille found herself dispirited by the sense that something she considered “only fairly good” was suddenly hailed as a “flamboyant success.” Shortly after the premiere, she met Graham “in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda” for a conversation that put into perspective her gnawing grievance and offered what De Mille considered the greatest thing ever said to her. She recounts the exchange:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. 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 yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Complement this particular passage from the wholly stimulating Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham with Elizabeth Gilbert on how to unleash the magic of creative vitality, jazz legend Bill Evans on spontaneity and the creative process, and Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own light, then revisit Graham’s touching encounter with Helen Keller.

Thanks, Sarah

Published October 2, 2015




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