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Poet Sarah Kay on How We Measure Creative Success, Being a Working Artist in Today’s World, and the Only Antidote to Our Endemic Fear of Missing Out

…and a wonderful fable about the three different ways of relating to one’s work, each essential for the whole of art.

Poet Sarah Kay on How We Measure Creative Success, Being a Working Artist in Today’s World, and the Only Antidote to Our Endemic Fear of Missing Out

Some years ago, at a small community event far out on Manhattan’s West Side, I saw a poet named Sarah Kay perform and speak about her inspiring work with Project VOICE — the nonprofit she co-founded, which uses the power of spoken-word poetry to foster literacy, enlarge empathy, and empower young people from difficult backgrounds.

I had three thoughts: She’s so young. She’s so kind. She’s so brilliant.

About a year later, the fine folks at TED must have had at least the third thought, too, for they invited her to perform and speak about her work at TED. Her talk remains one of the most powerful I’ve seen and exploded the audience into one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve ever witnessed.

To celebrate the release of Sarah’s most recent illustrated book-length poem, The Type (public library), I sat down with her for a wide-ranging and enlivening conversation about poetry, what it means to be a working artist in the world today, how we measure creative success as individuals and as a culture, and the only real antidote to the endemic fear of missing out that is robbing our lives of livingness. Please enjoy.

MP: How did it all begin, your life and living as a poet, and how did this most recent book come about?

SK: This book started with B, the illustrated poem with which I opened the TED talk. The reason that became a book is that after I gave the TED talk, Seth Godin sent me an email through my website. It said, “Hi. I need to publish the poem you did in your TED talk. Let me know how that can happen.” I had no idea who he was — just a stranger emailing me through my website. So I wrote back, saying, “Oh, thank you, that’s very sweet…” I was also kind of snobby… “You know, that poem was really written for performance and it’s not really meant to be on paper and I’m not really interested at this time, but thank you very much.”

He wrote back, saying. “No, you don’t understand. I need to publish this poem. Meet me on Friday at this restaurant at 5pm.” I was like, “Who is this guy?!”

I looked him up and thought, okay, I guess I’ll take the meeting. So I met with him and he was his very charming, effusive self, and he convinced me — and the way he convinced me was by saying that it’s all well and good if I wanted to be in performance, but there is something different between sending somebody a link to a video and handing somebody an object, and this is the kind of poem people will want to give as a gift.

It was a pretty convincing argument, but I said that if I did it, I didn’t want it to be just the words — I wanted the object to be special in and of itself. I wanted for my oldest friend in the world, Sophia Janowitz, to illustrate it.

The story of our friendship is that when we were three months old, our mothers had us both in strollers and they were in the park and they walked past each other and said, “You’ve got a baby. I’ve got a baby. We should be friends.” And we’ve been friends ever since. When we were kids, our whole dynamic was I would make up stories and she would make visual art to them. That’s always been our thing, so I agreed to let Seth do this book, but only if Sophia could illustrate it. He said I could do whatever the heck I wanted, gave me a deadline, and said he’d publish whatever I gave him by then.

He published it, then Hachette liked it and asked to republish it as the first in a series of three. The Type became the second.

MP: You see, it’s tempting in our culture — which has a growing incapacity for nuance — to interpret this as a fairy godmother (or, in this case, fairy godfather) moment. Unmerited grace that falls into your lap and transforms your life. But I’m inclined to believe that the reason fairy godfather Seth Godin showed up was because you had already been doing whatever the heck you wanted to be doing creatively, standing by it, and offering it up as a gift to the world. He just came to put a pretty bow on it and help it travel better. (Which is, of course, an enormously important part of the creative ecosystem, too.) How do you see the interplay between these two forces, choice and chance?

SK: Well, it’s both. I graduated from college in 2010 and gave the TED talk in 2011, not even a year later. So I hadn’t even started a life yet — I had really just decided that I would graduate and spend a year trying to perform and teach poetry, and see how it works, and maybe I could do it for a little while until I figure out what the real world brings. And, in that year, I got asked to give this TED talk.

Originally, Kelly Stoetzel, TED’s content director, asked me just to do one of those short performance pieces they often have artists do — not an 18-minute talk-talk, where artists discuss their work, but just a performance or presentation of the work. Their theme that year was The Rediscovery of Wonder, and I said that it sounded to me just like my job description — at the time, I was working a lot with high school students who had spent a long time being told what they could and could not be, and were very hardened to the world, understandably. A big part of what I was doing was trying to remind them that they were allowed to be vulnerable and they were allowed to experience the world and then create art, create wonder from that. I was very passionate about this work and could’ve blabbered on, but Kelly stopped me and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I want you to give a full talk.” And I said, “But what about the poem? I feel much more prepared to do that!” But I agreed.

MP: You have, in fact, a beautiful older poem from No Matter the Wreckage about this very question of preparedness — about how the best things in life often come unbidden. We can’t prepare for them — in fact, they might even require us to meet them unprepared. Would you be so kind as to read that poem?

SK: Sure!

MP: It’s an interesting thing, listening to poetry being read today, bringing us in a strange full circle to how poetry originally existed. And yet so much has changed in the past few centuries, especially with the rise of capitalism in the twentieth century. There’s an interesting statistic I picked up from the poet Donald Hall, from his wonderful prose book Essays After Eighty, in which he writes:

“In 2013 there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, many on a Thursday. For anyone born in 1928 who pays attention to poetry, the numerousness is astonishing. In April of 1948, there were 15 readings in the United States, 12 by Robert Frost.”

So, in a way, it seems much more hopeful to be a working poet today than it did in the middle of the twentieth century. Hall also writes:

“Back then, other famous poets read aloud only two or three times a year. If they were alive now, probably they could make a better living saying their poems than they did as an editor at Faber and Faber, or an obstetrician, or an insurance company executive, or a Brooklyn librarian.”

And this brings us back to Seth Godin, who said in an interview that same spring of 2013: “Other than Sarah Kay, no one is making a living from poetry today.”

I don’t know if that’s actually, factually true — but part of Seth’s genius is that he uses hyperbole to deliver his points, points of significance beyond the statistical specifics. He said this in the context of a larger conversation about the fear and resistance creative people often have to becoming “artists” — the people who have their day-jobs to pay rent and aren’t making art full-time because, the rationale goes, they wouldn’t be able to pay rent and so they don’t think of themselves as artists until they can make a living from their art. Seth’s point was that for the vast majority of history, one made a living and then one had a creative life — the two didn’t have to be the same. Only recently did we come to believe that what legitimizes one as an “artist” is making art full-time and having that art also make one a living. The insidious implication of that belief is that the art made by people with day-jobs is somehow less valid, less legitimate. Which, of course, isn’t the case. It is indeed a rare thing for a creative life and a living to be one and the same. So how does one get to that point — how did you get to that point?

SK: It’s tricky, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s certainly an immense privilege to be able to take the kind of risks involved in order to be a full-time artist — there are plenty of people who have families to provide for, who come from a background where they can’t take a financial risk, where this very well might not work. I’m lucky in that I started doing this when I was young, when I didn’t have a mortgage to pay and a family to provide for yet. I also have parents who were artists themselves, to a certain degree — they’re not professional artists, but they were willing to say, “If this fails, that’s okay — you’ll figure something else out.”

At the same time, it’s nuanced — it’s complex. I did come from a family that values higher education, that was able to afford higher education, and I was able to be around people where the possibility of being an artist was an option that was modeled. (Although, being a professional poet — not modeled.) But I also actively work very, very hard to get to do what I do and to get to do it full-time.

Still, I also know poets who are immensely talented artists, who are immensely brave artists — it’s not a matter of fear that they work a 9-to-5, but they just have to in order to do what they need to do, and it doesn’t make their art less valid or less important, which I think is what Seth was touching on. It doesn’t have to be the thing that brings your income in order to be a legitimate artist.


MP: So if the option of being a professional poet wasn’t modeled, how did it come into your scope of possibilities?

SK: When people say, “Oh, this must be a dream come true for you,” that doesn’t seem valid to me because it was no dream of mine. But what I did know was that I loved poetry, that I always wrote poetry, that I would continue to write poetry, that I loved sharing it, that it was always going to be a part of me, having nothing to do with a career — it was just part of the fabric that made me up.

But the real question before I came out of college was what I was going to do with my time “professionally.” And when I was in college, I was volunteering to teach spoken-word poetry after-school classes at a nearby public high school. Meanwhile, all of my friends when I was a senior were getting ready to go to medical school, business school, or become consultants — and none of that seemed appealing to me or very reasonable.

I came out of that spoken-word poetry class one day and realized this was the happiest I’d been all week. When I’m in the classroom with those kids and they’re getting excited about poetry and they’re exploring themselves and the world around them and they’re wrestling with identity and they’re wrestling with what adults are throwing at them — all of that makes me the most charged up, and I wondered how I could possibly find a way to do that more often and to spend more of my time in that space, in that challenge. So my real choice when I was graduating college wasn’t between becoming a consultant or giving being a professional poet a shot — it was about giving, basically, being an arts educator a shot.

MP: It sounds to me like it was above all about being a steward of poetry and its potency to enlarge the human spirit, and that stewardship aspect is very powerful.

SK: Yes. My father is a wonderful, brilliant photographer. He is also not an educated man — he barely graduated from high school, he’s extremely dyslexic, almost to the point of having trouble with literacy. He somehow managed to be a very successful businessman for all his life, but he’s not well-read. And when I first started writing poetry, something that was immensely important to me was that I not write poetry that alienated my father. I did not want to write poetry that made my dad feel stupid — I wanted to write poetry that made him laugh or made him cry or that he was otherwise able to engage with. And that desire — to make poetry that had an access point for someone who was not necessarily in the same education space that I was — was really important to me.

That led me to always want to open more doors for people to enter into poetry — I think that for too long, poetry has been thought of as an elite art form and you needed to be invited in by the elite or academia or the Ivory Tower. This does the art form such a disservice because it keeps out the diversity of voices that belong there and can enrich the art form.

MP: Muriel Rukeyser has written beautifully about the root of our resistance to poetry, and she summarized the cultural bias at the heart of the resistance as the misconception that poetry is “intellectual and obscure and confused and sexually suspect.” This, she argued, was the product of “the corruption of consciousness.” I find this to be such a visceral and perfect way to capture what you’re describing with young people being told who they can and cannot be, because that’s the ultimate “corruption of consciousness.”

SK: Yes, especially since my introduction to poetry wasn’t really in the classroom — or at least my falling in love with poetry wasn’t. It was in a dive bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the derelicts of New York would show up to share their work. It was not a high-strung, academic scenario — it was all types of people dragging themselves into this bar after their 9-to-5 and finding a space in which they could connect with other people. It was much more an act of community than it was about the removal of access.

MP: And this brings us back to the legitimacy question — if making a living isn’t the metric of success in creative work, if academic credentials aren’t it, then what is? What is your internal barometer for your own legitimacy?

SK: Oof, that’s a big question.

I think my work, from a broad perspective — by this I mean my work as a writer, teacher, organizer, human — is about trying to invite people in and create spaces where people feel welcome and comfortable with poetry, but are still creatively challenged. When that’s happening, that feels like success to me.

In terms of assessing the work itself — individual poems — that’s a lot harder. There’s a fable I like to tell, which I think is originally with a boy but I tell it with a girl. A girl walks up to a construction site and asks the first man she sees, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m laying bricks?” She then walks up to the second man she sees, who is doing the exact same thing the first one was doing, and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a wall?” And then she reaches the third man, who is doing the same thing as the previous two, and she says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a temple?”

I think of that fable a lot, because it’s not so much about what kind of a man you are — it’s about how you look at the work you’re doing. And I don’t think it’s a judgment on any particular way of looking at the world — in fact, I think we all probably contain all three of those, and we shift in and out depending on where we are in our lives, or even in our day.

For me, when I’m creating a poem, it feels like I’m laying bricks — it’s very logistical, a physical movement of words, putting them together, focused on the minutia of the poem. And when I’m in schools, working with young people, I’m focusing on building connections with them and for them — that feels like building a wall, creating something that’s part of something else. The temple part is a much rarer moment of being able to tap into something bigger than yourself. But what’s so wonderful about all of this is that if you focus on one of the three for too long, you lose sight of the other two — so it requires a lot of shifting and balancing in order to get anything done at all.

And in terms of success, although I spend a lot more time on the brick-laying and wall-building — I spend more time writing poems and teaching workshops — and I far less frequently get a chance to witness the visions of temple, when those visions do appear, they’re easier to identify as points of success than in those other two realms.

One vision-of-temple moment for me has come from my work with a community of poets in Katmandu and Nepal, whose work is so important to me and probably the thing I’m proudest of. When I first met them, they were a handful of young kids who were curious about spoken word but hadn’t really done it. I worked with them — I did a lot of workshops and brought them to schools — and when I left, they continued that work. They have since grown this immense spoken-word poetry community and received this huge grant from the government to do a two-year program supporting spoken-word programming in six different areas of rural Nepal, specifically working with marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community, recovering drug addicts, the physically disabled, and young women, who are deeply marginalized in that society right now.

The fact that they are using this art form to make community and allow people who are not listened to and not heard in the larger society have the opportunity to speak for themselves and be witnessed in their stories — that is the temple to me.

MP: That’s remarkable. And yet I think about how inseparable the pieces are — the minutia of art-making and of living, and the grand visions of temple. I think of Thoreau, who has this wonderful verse — “My life has been the poem I would have writ / But I could not both live and utter it.” It speaks to this tradeoff of making art and living the life from which the art will come.

I think about that a lot, not only because we’re steeped in this constant paradox of choice at every level of life, this culture of “FOMO,” the fear of missing out so common that it has been shorthanded, but because my own life in its current form — us sitting here in Brooklyn, English being my primary language of thought, Brain Pickings existing at all — is largely the function of one small, enormous, utterly impulsive decision I made when I was thirteen. So I’ve always been fascinated by and very cognizant of the strange confluence of chance and choice that composes a life. It’s so hard not to be hyperaware of these choices all the time.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has a magnificent short book about this titled Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, in which he argues that all the other possible lives we never got to live — because we couldn’t, because we chose not to, because chance chose for us not to — always walk with us as ghostly companions along the life-paths we did end up following. And perhaps that’s okay — we just learn to befriend the ghosts and march forward together. We have a choice — we can either bemoan the what-ifs and could’ve-beens that stand between our actual lives and the romanticized, idealized lives we never got to have, or we can see it as a kind of vitalizing awareness that so much could have gone a different way and yet here we are and this is it and isn’t that amazing.

You have a wonderful poem — my favorite poem of yours, also from No Matter the Wreckage — that deals with this. Would you read it?

SK: Absolutely. I don’t even need to read this one — I know it by heart.

When I am inside writing,
all I can think about is how I should be outside living.

When I am outside living,
all I can do is notice all there is to write about.

When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.

I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance.

On the mornings when my brother’s tired muscles
held to the pillow, my father used to tell him,

For every moment you aren’t playing basketball,
someone else is on the court practicing.

I spend most of my time wondering
if I should be somewhere else.

So I have learned to shape the words thank you
with my first breath each morning, my last breath every night.

When the last breath comes, at least I will know I was thankful
for all the places I was so sure I was not supposed to be.

All those places I made it to,
all the loves I held, all the words I wrote.

And even if it is just for one moment,
I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.


The Type, Sarah’s illustrated book-poem, is absolutely wonderful, as is her first poetry collection, No Matter the Wreckage.

For a discourse in a similar spirit, see my conversation with Amanda Palmer about art as non-ownable nourishment.


The Power of Aesthetic Force: Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on Beauty as a Tool of Justice and a Catalyst for “Nonselfing”

“The law represents a part of the people’s will but … the people’s will is moved by beauty.”

“Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in her exquisite reflection on beauty. In our visually voracious culture of accelerating “aesthetic consumerism,” is there still room for beauty not as a trifled commodity but as both an elevating force of transcendence and a grounding force of moral solidity?

That’s what Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, author of the excellent The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — one of the best psychology books of 2014 — explores in the final segment of her altogether fantastic New York Public Library conversation with artist, playwright, actor, and MacArthur genius Anna Deavere Smith.

Oe of the most piercing parts of the conversation calls to mind Susan Sontag — “The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty,” Sontag wrote in her characteristically elegant argument against the argument against beauty. “Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.” Smith reads from her 2009 interview with Harvard’s famed English and aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry, contemplating the role of beauty as a moral agent and a tool of justice:

We also know the limits of the law… That in the end the law represents a part of the people’s will but that the people’s will is moved by beauty.


[Scarry] is talking about beauty and she says, “Beauty was for a long time [was] not only eliminated from universities, but even from museums… Lots of different museum directors have told me that for a while it was as if you weren’t supposed to be talking about beauty, which is hard to imagine if you’re teaching literature or if you’re a museum curator, but I mean one thing is just the way in which beauty … does lead people I think to be concerned with justice. Beauty brings about what Iris Murdoch called “a nonselfing.” She said that when you suddenly see something beautiful — her example was suddenly seeing a bird lift off — it brings about a nonselfing. You can see beauty pressing us towards justice. There are certain attributes that beautiful things have. Some people would say symmetry. Any definition of justice always involves at its heart some idea of balance or symmetry. Even if you look back over lots of philosophers who are talking about forms of justice, they always have this idea, say, equal pay for equal work, that’s a symmetry.”

Okay, that’s my favorite part. But this is an important part. “But sometimes people will say to me, well, first of all that they believe that it’s right, that the whole unselfing part is right, but they don’t believe in symmetry, and I really do believe in it because — and I think part of the reason why in this country we don’t like to talk anymore about symmetry in art or in justice is because we’re so asymmetrical, with so much money and so many weapons and, you know … if we had to start saying the heart of beauty is symmetry everybody would have to say, ‘gee, you know, we’ve got a big problem.’”

And she calls beauty a life pact. But that whole idea of the nonselfing — you see, when you talk about that you’re there but you’re not quite there, I think that’s a really creative moment because it is that moment when you, like a bird, take that lift-off. You’re not here and you’re not there. You’re in the rise… It seems to me a kind of a lift.

Lewis, who notes that beauty “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently,” examines the subject in greater depth in one particularly fascinating chapter of her book — a penetrating look at the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for contemporary visual culture and pioneered the power of “aesthetic force.” Lewis writes:

The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The Rise, which I’ve previously admired in greater detail, is a superb read in its entirety. Treat yourself to Lewis and Smith’s full conversation below — a wide-ranging and enormously stimulating dialogue exploring the role of failure in the conquest of greatness, the crucial difference between success and mastery, and what it takes to stay encouraged through rejection and roadblock in creative work — then please consider supporting The New York Public Library in making such ennobling cultural discourse possible and freely available to the public.

Instinct is your highest form of intelligence.” ~ Sarah Lewis

Find more of Smith’s galvanizing genius in her enduring wisdom on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking, what self-esteem really means, how to stop letting others define us.


A 100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor on How Books Save Lives

“There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

A 100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor on How Books Save Lives

It is often said that books save lives. Most of the time, however heartfelt the sentiment, it is figurative. Every once in an improbable while, it approximates the literal. But only on the rarest of occasions, in the most extreme of circumstances, do books become lifelines in the realest sense.

One such occasion is immortalized in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — the collection I spent eight years putting together in the hope of showing young people how essential reading is to an inspired and inspiring life. There are original illustrated letters about the transformative and transcendent power of reading from some immensely inspiring humans — scientists like Jane Goodall and Janna Levin, artists like Marina Abramović and Debbie Millman, musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Amanda Palmer, and David Byrne, entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Tim Ferriss, poets like Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Alexander, and Sarah Kay, media pioneers like Kevin Kelly, Jad Abumrad, and Shonda Rhimes, beloved writers of literature for young people like Jacqueline Woodson, Judy Blume, and Neil Gaiman, and a great many celebrated authors of books for so-called grownups. But one of the most powerful letters comes from someone whose name might not, or at least not yet, mean much to many: Helen Fagin.

Art by Ingrid Gordon for Helen Fagin’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Helen was twenty-one when her family was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. She and her sisters managed to escape, but they lost both of their parents in the Holocaust. Helen arrived in America not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and teach literature for more than two decades. She devoted her life to elucidating the moral lessons of humanity’s darkest hour and was instrumental in the creation of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. To this day, she remains a voracious reader of literature and moral philosophy, swimming effortlessly from Whitman to Camus and back again in a single conversation.

Helen Fagin, a week after her 100th birthday, with Ash Gaiman. Photograph by Amanda Palmer.

Helen happens to be my dear friend Neil Gaiman’s cousin. One day over dinner, having just visited her in Florida, a very animated Neil told me the incredible story of how a book — a particular book — became a lifeline for the teenage girls at the secret school Helen had set up in the Warsaw Ghetto as an antidote to the innumerable assaults against dignity to which the Nazis subjected these Jewish youths: the denial of basic education. Her story stopped me up short as the profoundest embodiment of the core ethos of A Velocity of Being, and so I invited her to tell it in a letter.

To celebrate the publication of the book, which Helen sees as an invaluable part of her legacy, I asked her to read her letter for the New York Public Library launch event. She was 97 at the time she wrote her letter and is approaching her 101st birthday as she reads it:

Dear Friend,

Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?

At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.

One day, as if guessing my thoughts, one girl beseeched me: “Could you please tell us a book, please?”

I had spent the previous night reading Gone with the Wind — one of a few smuggled books circulated among trustworthy people via an underground channel, on their word of honor to read only at night, in secret. No one was allowed to keep a book longer than one night — that way, if reported, the book would have already changed hands by the time the searchers came.

I had read Gone with the Wind from dusk until dawn and it still illuminated my own dream-world, so I invited these young dreamers to join me. As I “told” them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.

A knock at the door shattered our shared dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: “Thank you so very much for this journey into another world. Could we please do it again, soon?” I promised we would, although I doubted we’d have many more chances. She put her arms around me and I whispered, “So long, Scarlett.” “I think I’d rather be Melanie,” she answered, “although Scarlett must have been so much more beautiful!”

As events in the ghetto took their course, most of my fellow dreamers fell victim to the Nazis. Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust.

The pale green-eyed girl was one of them.

Many years later, I was finally able to locate her and we met in New York. One of my life’s greatest rewards will remain the memory of our meeting, when she introduced me to her husband as “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.


Helen Fagin

Special thanks to Helen’s children, Gary and Judith Fagin, for filming this video, and most of all to Neil and Amanda for bringing this remarkable person into my world and, through her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, into our shared human world. What an honor.

Complement with a peek inside this massive labor of love eight years in the making, all proceeds from which we are donating to the New York public library system, then sit down with a cup of tea and watch the recording of the NYPL launch celebration — a magical evening of readings by sixteen of our letter writers, original art for the letters, live literature-inspired music, and a roomful of largehearted love of books.


On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, “is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”

“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.

Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).


In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:

The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.

Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.


An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.

Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:

By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.


The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:

All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.

But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.


Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:

The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.

The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.

That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.

Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.

And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:

[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.

It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:

It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.


Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.


Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.


Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:

There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.

Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.

Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:

All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.

Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:

I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”

I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.

Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.

Thanks, Wendy


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