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How to Find Your Artistic Voice: Ben Folds on Empathy, Creativity, and the Courage to Know Yourself

“What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself.”

How to Find Your Artistic Voice: Ben Folds on Empathy, Creativity, and the Courage to Know Yourself

“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.

All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.

Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:

It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.

[…]

At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:

As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.

We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.

Art from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:

My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.

But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:

She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.

Ben, age 6, at his turntable, with his brother.

His childhood brought other lessons from everyday life that would later ferment into the essence of his artistic ethos. Peppering the politeness-culture of the South were some bigots of especially deplorable caliber, whom Folds could barely stomach encountering. But those encounters became testing ground for the greatest mark of the artist — empathy. (Lest we forget, the word “empathy” only entered the modern lexicon a century ago, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art.) A generation after Carl Sagan considered what it takes to move beyond us vs. them and bridge conviction with compassion, Folds writes:

By dignifying even the most despicable character as a human being, by offering them what empathy we can manage, we also hold them accountable for their choices. You can’t really convincingly condemn a monster for being a monster. He’s just being the best monster he can be. Sure, it’s easier to make a caricature of someone you don’t want to relate to, but the more lines you can step over, the closer you can get to a subject, the better off you’ll be — and the more complex and effective your songwriting will be. From the filthy rich to the filthy minded, I learned to meet people one at a time.

Folds reflects on this lesson, which later shaped his songwriting:

Stand in as many pairs of shoes as you can manage, even ones you consider reprehensible or repulsive — even if it’s just for a moment. If you’re going to be a tourist, be a respectful one. Observe, report, imagine, invent, have fun with, but never write “down” to a character or their point of view, because everyone is the most important person in the world — at least to that one person… Position yourself upon a bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge, so that your writing comes from your own unique perspective. Know where you stand and what your flaws are. Know thyself. Then you can spin all kinds of shit and all the tall tales you like. It’s art.

Finally, empathy and perspective are everything, and neither should be taken for granted. After all, there’s always someone out there who thinks you’re the monster. Remember that the ground beneath your feet can always shift and that it should always be questioned.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1927.

This question of how to anchor oneself firmly to the “bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge” is fundamental to the quest for finding one’s creative purpose and direction, or what Folds calls “artistic voice.” He writes:

By artistic voice, I’m referring to one’s artistic thumbprint — the idiosyncratic stuff that makes an artist unique. It’s not a precise science, and finding it is always a painful process. I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.

In consonance with the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insight into the crucial role of imitation in the development of originality, Folds writes:

Sometimes it’s just growing out of the imitation phase. Most artists have a period where they sound like their favorite musician, and once they’ve learned from that they can shed that effort. Sometimes the subtraction is about casting off a misconception about how music is actually performed, or how art is made. No matter what your particular subtraction is, the artistic voice you will discover will ideally be something you haven’t seen or heard before.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Folds adds:

That impossible search for the voice is, in the end, about being yourself. It’s self-honesty. And in those moments that the artistic voice shows its face, it’s hard to imagine what was so difficult about finding it. But it is difficult getting there. Added to the challenge of looking for something for which you have no prior example, once you find it, you’re the only one who will never truly see what’s special about it. What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself. It’s not terribly profound or abstract to say that the way we hear our speaking voice, reverberating in our own skull, is not the way we sound to others. We never get a chance to meet ourselves the way others have. It’s the same with the artistic voice. It’s something you feel in the dark.

A Dream About Lightning Bugs is a delightful read in its entirety, drawing on elements of Folds’s life — the unbidden generosity of a piano elder who spotted rare talent in a teenage rascal, the innumerable stupidies of young love, the perspective-calibrating birth of his children, near-death experiences involving an airplane, a mugging, and a dental catastrophe — to glean rich, unpontifically offered lessons on the life of art and the art of life. (The audiobook is especially delightful, narrated by Folds himself, adorned with some perfectly placed sound effects and music samples, and featuring a charming surprise cameo by Amanda Palmer.)

For a necessary counterpoint, see poet Robert Penn Warren’s admonition against the problematic notion of “finding yourself,” then revisit Hermann Hesse on how to find your destiny, Beethoven’s advice on being an artist, penned in a letter to a little girl who had sent him fan mail, and Amanda Palmer on how to keep on making art when life unmakes you.

BP

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare.”

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

Nietzsche saw dreams as an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in one. Mendeleev invented his periodic table in another. Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a philosophical parable of identity. We are born dreaming. As we go through life, dream-sleep plays plays a major role in regulating our negative emotions.

When we dream, we are our most essential and sovereign selves — our shadows the starkest, our creativity the wildest, and all of it, crucially, ours alone. We build and unravel entire worlds, answering to no one but ourselves — and even that, only hazily. Graham Greene celebrated this sovereignty when he observed in his dream diary that “it can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

We still don’t know exactly why the human animal needs to sleep, much less to dream. But we do know that the mechanism churning our nocturnal fancies is closely related to the faculty we call creativity. Dreams may be the most populist art there is and the wellspring of our most visionary masterpieces.

That is what the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) explores in a few meditative passages from Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library) — the 1986 treasure that gave us Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

Adnan writes:

I always thought that dreaming was the honor of the human species. The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… and it perceives reality beyond our fuzzy interpretations. In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.

[…]

Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, the hobos, and all those who speak to themselves, aloud, in the big cities.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Adnan considers the parallels between dreaming and creative work:

Sometimes, while painting, something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs… but with a special kind of violence: a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside.

We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.

Couple with Adnan on the self and the universe, then revisit Mark Strand’s stunning poem about dreams and Billy Hayes on the science of sleep and sleeplessness.

BP

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.”

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.

Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.

In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:

The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.

William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestial source stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.

His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.

[…]

He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.

Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:

William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.

[…]

To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.

The plate Blake himself drew, lettered, and printed in the original edition of Songs of Innocence

In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library:

Complement with Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces and the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting, then revisit Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Blake’s existential poem “The Fly” and the brilliant, underappreciated Alfred Kazin on Blake and the tragic genius of outsiderdom.

BP

Incubation, Ideation, and the Art of Editing: Beethoven on Creativity

“I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down.”

Incubation, Ideation, and the Art of Editing: Beethoven on Creativity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote nearly two centuries later in his account of the “flash of illumination” by which creative breakthrough occurs. It is a chaotic strangeness familiar to every creative person, be she poet or physicist or composer, and yet we have expended millennia of thought and divination on trying to locate its source and foment its springing.

Again and again, we have arrived at one elemental aspect of it: the necessary period of unconscious incubation by which any creative achievement is hatched. “We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on,” T.S. Eliot wrote of this incubation period. Oliver Sacks enumerated it among the three essential elements of creativity. E.B. White attributed Charlotte’s Web to it.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

A beautiful articulation of both the conscious preparation and the unconscious incubation of creativity comes from Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), as relayed by Johann Aloys Schlösser — a composer about twenty years Beethoven’s junior, who would go on to write the first biography of him. The slim book, published just after Beethoven’s death, was more a work of celebration and commemoration than one of scholarship. Schlösser himself considered it an offering of “love and esteem” for “the master of immortal sound.” But Schlösser had one insurmountable advantage over later biographers — he intersected with Beethoven in time and space, which granted him singular access and insight into the great composer’s character and creative process. The essence of the latter comes alive in one particularly revealing exchange between the two composers, later cited in Life of Beethoven (public library) by the American librarian and journalist Alexander Wheelock Thayer — the first full, scholarly biography of Beethoven, published at the end of the nineteenth century, which set out to fact-check and clear the many romantic myths about the composer that had been circulating in the decades since his death.

Schlösser recounts bringing “a new, somewhat complicated composition” to Beethoven as a young man and asking the master for constructive feedback. After reading it, Beethoven responded with an insightful remark on the art of editing and the life-cycle of creativity:

You give too much, less would have been better; but that lies in the nature of heaven-scaling youth, which never thinks it possible to do enough. It is a fault maturer years will correct, however, and I still prefer a superfluity to a paucity of ideas.

When Schlösser inquired how Beethoven himself managed this intricate dance of calibrating ideas, the elder composer outlined the process of incubation, ideation, and editing by which a great work of art is birthed:

I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived, even after five years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

And yet Beethoven — who did most of his composing outdoors, jotting down ideas as they occurred to him there, then writing them into scores upon returning to his quarters — acknowledges the essential mystery at the heart of creative work, which no framework or discipline or routine can manufacture. In a sentiment evocative of Charles Bukowski’s ferocious poem “so you want to be a writer,” he writes:

Whence I take my ideas… I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly, or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods which in the poet’s case are transmuted into words, and in mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.

Complement with Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity and Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on inspiration, then revisit Beethoven on the crucial difference between talent and genius, creative vitality and resilience in the face of suffering, and his advice on being an artist in a touching letter to a little girl who sent him fan mail.

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