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Letter to a Young Creative

What is astounding about reality is that there are so many things to call it, and yet so few. Reality is seen, and unseen. It is heard, and unheard. It is felt, and most certainly not felt. We have all felt times -- both in 2020 and in other years -- where our feelings make the moment, mold it. We have also felt times that are beyond our power of description. We have all felt as if the world were ending, be it over a death, a pandemic, or a breakup. What makes that feeling wrong? What makes it right? When you feel cold, you are actually the same temperature. You feel cold because the air around you is cold, and your body is trying to heat it all up. So is it right to say you feel cold?

I think that good writing, good creativity, and good theater make use of the experience we have of life that science, philosophy, and medicine don’t need to take seriously. While those disciplines have certain scopes of time -- i.e. the experiment, the theory, the diagnosis -- theater and writing can take the moment seriously, a moment as brief as a breath and as large as a lifetime. Because art can handle the moment, it can deal with misunderstanding, with confusion, with the ways that we see things that are not there and feel ways that don’t make sense.

To all the young creatives out there, I want to say, as a young creative, see the fun of it again. The reason you are a creative is your good taste. The reason you find it difficult to create is your good taste. You put out things that you know in your heart Austen or Eliot or Kushner would scorn. You put words down that you yourself scoff at if you heard them (and perhaps, to validate your taste, for good reason). You make a choice that you know as you do it is contrived. To that, I say, loosen the stakes. While artistic moments have changed your life before, not every choice you make needs to be life changing. Failure is another way to take the moment seriously, because it is a way to respect your own art and the art that you know you will make in the future that will, and I promise you, be good.

I’ve heard people paint a broad brush across eras and say that modernity is responsible for self-awareness. Like any generalization, it’s both true and not. While Raskolnikov may be more of a modern than Oedipus, self-awareness tortured both. Self-awareness is what tortures the creative, and especially the young creative. To be painfully aware of one’s own creativity is to stifle it. To be overly aware of the moment is to snuff it. And yet, awareness always breathes on us both a blessing and a curse. Umberto Eco wrote out a postmodernist love confession in which both the man and the woman had to show that they were aware of their confession while they confessed. Without awareness, the love confession is flat. Without confession, the awareness is tired. In my last semester, I heard an MFA student say that if anyone wrote a poem that perfectly rhymed in his seminar, it would not go well. For whatever reason (and Modernism may be at least one reason), awareness and novelty to no end is a virtue. To be sure, awareness, including accountability, wokeness, self-deprecation, including virtues and scrupulosity, seems to be expected. I want to say to the young creative: dare to be misunderstood. Though it may seem that audiences want only one thing from you, what audiences really want is something to feel and understand. Maybe you write something that five years later you disagree with. Maybe you have a performance that one year later you don’t tell people about. That doesn’t mean that the past moment wasn’t important, and that doesn’t mean risking isn’t worth it. It is worth it to take our illusions seriously, to take our failures sympathetically, and to ask, what would it mean to rhyme again?

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