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Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson): “I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.
One of the first TED talks made available online in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” remains the most-watched talk on the TED.com website. In addition to the speaker’s excellent rhetorical techniques (which, indeed, have helped set the tone for many future TED and TEDx events), the subject matter, if anything, rings even truer now than it did a decade ago.
Robinson builds his speech on the themes that, in his opinion, the whole conference shares:
- The extraordinary range and variety of human creativity
- The impossibility of knowing what the world will be like even five years into the future
- The innate capacities children have for innovation and creativity
All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.
After telling two humorous anecdotes about the fearlessness of children to be wrong, Robinson concludes:
You’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
While many other TED talks have discussed the variety observed within educational environments around the world, Robinson focuses on the hierarchy of subjects that he finds universal within them: that mathematics and languages (the subjects that supposedly make a person employable) are at the top of the hierarchy, and the arts on the bottom. Even within the arts, he notes, drama and dance rank below art and music.
Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.
Robinson tells the thought-provoking story of Gillian Lynne, who, as a child, performed poorly academically until a doctor suggested taking her to a dance school, where she met other people like herself, “who had to move to think.” The story concludes:
She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.
All in all, we would have to agree that the 20-minute talk does deserve its place of prominence among the TED collection. Robinson explores his topic in further detail in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything [library]. He has also given several more TED talks, which we will eventually feature here.
Lines Lost among Trees
These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.
They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic
I devised to hold them in place-
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house
with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.
So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,
and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.
This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem-
not out into the world of strangers’ eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,
home to lost epics,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,
which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.
“We’re desperate for great storytellers, great painters, great dancers, great cooks, because art does something nothing else does.
“Art slips past our brains straight into our bellies. It weaves itself into our thoughts and feelings and the open spaces in our souls, and it allows us to live more and say more and feel more. Great art says the things that we wished someone would say out loud, the things we wish we could say out loud . . .
“Art matters, art does, so deeply. It’s one of the noblest things, because it can make us better, and one of the scariest things, because it comes from such a deep place inside of us. There’s nothing scarier than that moment you sing the song for the very first time, for your roommate or your wife, or when you let someone see the painting, and there are a few very long silent moments when they haven’t yet said what they think of it, and in those few moments, time stops and you quit painting, you quit singing forever, in your head, because it’s so fearful and vulnerable, and then someone says, essentially, thank you and keep going, and your breath releases, and you take back everything you said in your head about never painting again, about never singing again, and at least for that moment, you feel like you did what you came to do, in a cosmic, very big sense.
“I know that life is busy and hard, and that there’s crushing pressure to just settle down and get a real job and khaki pants and a haircut. But don’t. Please don’t. Please keep believing that life can be better, brighter, broader, because of the art that you make. Please keep demonstrating the courage that it takes to swim upstream in a world that prefers putting away for retirement to putting pen to paper, that chooses practicality over poetry, that values you more for going to the gym than going to the deepest places in your soul. Please keep making art for people like me, people who need the magic and imagination and honesty of great art to make the day-to-day world a little more bearable.
“And if, for whatever reason, you’ve stopped—stopped believing in your voice, stopped fighting to find the time—start today. I bought a mug for my friend, from the Paper Source in Chicago (which is, by the way, a fabulous playground for creative people), and the mug says, ‘Do something creative every day.’ Do that. Do something creative every day, even if you work in a cubicle, even if you have a newborn, even if someone told you a long time ago that you’re not an artist, or you can’t sing, or you have nothing to say. Those people are bad people, and liars, and we hope they develop adult-onset acne really bad. Everyone has something to say. Everyone. Because everyone, every person was made by God, in the image of God. If he is a creator, and in fact he is, then we are creators, and no one, not even a bad seventh-grade English teacher or a harsh critic or jealous competitor, can take that away from you . . .
“‘Thank you for writing, for taking the time and spirit and soul to write, because I love to read, and I’m so thankful to writers like you, for writing things for me to read. And keep going. Even when people make you feel like it’s not that important. It might be the most important thing you do. Keep going.’
“So to all the secret writers, late-night painters, would-be singers, lapsed and scared artists of every stripe, dig out your paintbrush, or your flute, or your dancing shoes. Pull out your camera or your computer or your pottery wheel. Today, tonight, after the kids are in bed or when your homework is done, or instead of one more video game or magazine, create something, anything.
“Pick up a needle and thread, and stitch together something particular and honest and beautiful, because we need it. I need it.
“Thank you, and keep going.”
Wow. Lovely. Concise. Visual–or rather, graphic, in the good sense. Some common-sense tried-and-truisms, for sure, but he’s tried them.
It’s funny, I have The Happiness Project blog in my reader, and I want to delete it every time I look at it, because Gretchen Rubin is so painfully, Sensorially literal, and I find her exasperating. She dissects and over-explains as if she were teaching 3rd-graders long division, rather than Internet-dwelling adults to be happy. And her tests of these huge conceptual hypotheses are often lame anecdotes about herself and her husband. AND the fact that she is shamelessly selling the Gretchen brand wherever she can–thought her book is selling well, so some of y’all must like it–just grates. Happiness is both vast and minute, as well as mysterious, but this blog is mostly just pragmatism (and privilege, seeing’s how she’s rich and well-connected). Anyway. Gretchen DOES have good connections to other writers, artists, and cultural resources, so I keep her blog around.
This is what she had to say about the above-linked essay:
* I was very interesting [sic] in this post by Austin Kleon, How to steal like an artist (and 9 other things nobody told me). I don’t agree with every item, but many of them rang true, and it’s a very thought-provoking piece.
And perhaps that is the most effective endorsement of all. Just go read it!