Authentic Creativity

The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Bell Pepper
Creative Commons License photo credit: shawnzrossi

I did an interview recently, focused on my compositional work and approach (I’ll post a link when it goes live) and, as often happens in these things, once we’d wrapped it up and signed off I found my brain spinning with other ideas. You know, things we didn’t touch on but could have, things I wish I’d said or wish I’d said better. So it goes. I guess I just need to do more interviews…

However, one of these ‘afterthoughts’ has stuck with me, and I’d like to try to expand on it a bit here. It has to do with authenticity. Now, this is a subject I’ve touched on here before, and of course it’s also something of a buzz word in the interwebs generally and the blogosphere more specifically. We need to be more authentic, we’re told; people like authenticity, it’s generally considered to be a Good Thing.

But, ummm, what is it? What does it mean? I suppose standard answer would probably be something like “being true to yourself” – but let’s face it, that’s basically a meaningless cliché and doesn’t tell us much of anything at all. It’s an unexamined platitude.

(Quick aside: I’m generally allergic to unexamined platitudes – ideas or terms that are bantered around without anyone ever seeming to take the time to really question and define them, or find out if in fact there’s any substance to them at all. Or perhaps allergic is not the right word; I’m actually kind of attracted to these linguistic or logical black holes. I’m driven to try to figure out what, if anything, they mean – or at least, what they mean to me.)

Give The People What They Want…

A slightly better / more complete answer, then, for me – and the one I’ve been using for a while now, in various contexts – is this: Always try to be the best, most honest version of yourself, rather than being what you think people want you to be (or saying what they want to hear, and so on). It’s still pretty vague, but at least it’s something. The key here is that in fact we can’t ever know, really, what people want us to be, so it’s best not to spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer it.

However, I still think there’s room for improvement. And while I don’t claim to be any kind of ultimate authority on the subject, I do seem to have stumbled on something that is serving me reasonably well – for the moment at least – as a kind of guideline to help me move towards some kind of authenticity in my own life and work.

And it has to do with stew. Or goulash, gumbo, whatever, take your pick…

To hear, one must be silent…

We’ll get to the food metaphors in a moment, but first we need to talk about listening. During this interview, unsurprisingly I suppose, the question came up of ‘what kind of music do I listen to?’ And I had to answer honestly, if somewhat sheepishly, that I generally don’t listen to much music at all at this point in my journey. It’s not a conscious decision I’ve made, or anything I’ve ever really thought about, I just kind of noticed one day that I rarely ever seem to put music on anymore.

This is very strange.

See, I used to have music on all the time. I would have it on from morning to night, in the background while I was doing pretty much anything else at all – cooking, eating, washing dishes, folding laundry, reading, whatever. If possible, I would try to put in an hour or so of serious, ‘focused listening’ most days. About the only time I wasn’t listening to someone else’s music was when I was making some of my own. Or, occasionally, sleeping.

Somewhere along the line it became less urgent to me. It just kind of happened organically, without me really noticing. I still love listening to music if someone else puts some on – and I’m frequently amazed by how much brilliant innovative new stuff is still ‘out there’ (alongside an equally amazing amount of outright drivel) – but I never seem to have the impulse to do so myself. It’s been a bit of a mystery to me for the last couple of years.

The Ecstasy of Influence

I think I may have figured it out during my interview the other day, however, and it has to do with influence. See, I’m of the opinion that we make ourselves, our identities generally and our individual creative voices more specifically, out of the amazing, unique collection of influences we’ve each had throughout our lives. That’s the raw material we use when we start to create something new. I don’t really believe in ‘divine inspiration’; I believe in creative recycling.

So it figures that in the early stages of our development, we need tons of input. As much as we can get, really, and I’m certainly far from alone in having been hungry for anything I could get my ears on for a long time. My tastes were (and remain) pretty eclectic, probably, by most standards, but lots of musicians talk about listening voraciously in their younger lives. I gather it’s similar in other disciplines; it’s basically an essential part of creative growth.

I think there’s a very real dichotomy here – we need lots of input to build our unique voices out of, but the quality and power of those influences tend to make it difficult to differentiate and separate ourselves from them. How do we assimilate the extraordinary work that has gone before us, do justice to it, and yet somehow be authentically ourselves at the same time? I’ve heard this dilemma described as ‘the agony of influence’.

Food Metaphors ‘R’ Us

Gumbo... à la vaudoise / Gumbo... with a vaudois twist
Creative Commons License photo credit: balise42

However, I think the trick may well be in simply not worrying about this too much. I’ve taken to thinking of it like cooking – and here’s where the stew/goulash/gumbo stuff comes in. We need some raw ingredients to make a good meal – starting with some basics, vegetables and maybe some meat or seafood if your tastes run that way. We need some spices, some strong flavours to mix and mingle together. There’s only so much you can do with a potato and a knife, so let’s say that up to a point, the more good and interesting stuff you can put together, the better.

But only up to a point. Too many ingredients and you’re just going to get confused. Too many different spices and you won’t taste anything at all. It’s probably better to have a few really good, fresh ingredients and a few choice spices – and maybe best of all, a novel or innovative combination of them, to put together into something no-one’s ever tasted before. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a famous or world-class chef, but it’s a start.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I seem to have arrived at a point where I have a decent stew going for now, and I’m managing to make some tasty dishes with it. I’m sure that at some point (at least I hope so), I’ll have exhausted what I can do with what I’ve got, and it will be time to add some new ingredients, some different flavours, to the brew.

For the moment, though, I think the best path to ‘authenticity’ is to work with what I’ve got for a while. Maybe there’s a kind of natural cyclical flow to all this, a time of expansion when we’re more receptive, more outwardly focuses, followed by a time of synthesis and integration when we need to shut off the inputs for a while and let things percolate.

Input vs. Output

Earlier in this post I used a quote from Ursula K. Leguin’s classic fantasy novel ‘A Wizard of Earthsea‘ as a section header: “To hear, one must be silent“. I’ve always thought these were very wise words, but I’m realizing that the inverse is also true – for me to stop being silent, and move into the creative and productive phase I seem to be in now, I had to stop listening. I had to turn the input-output valve around.

And in the process, I discovered that authenticity, for me, seems to depend on these ‘limited-input’ phases where I shut out the noise of the rest of the world for a while. I need to forego, for a while at least, the pleasure of digging into and absorbing the amazing work of others, in order to process what I’ve already got and let the flavours mingle.

And that’s basically how I am going about trying to ‘be the best and most honest version of myself’ these days.

Your turn: what’s your definition of authenticity? Do you think it’s better to make best stew you can out of your particular unique set of ingredients and influences, or try to reject them outright and strive for absolute originality? Does such a thing even exist?