Two weeks ago I wrote a blog titled “How to Get into a College Theater Program & Survive Trying.” I wrote it as a way to reach out to the high school seniors I know. I wrote it with all the empathy I have in my heart for these kids and this thing blew up. It has more views than any of my other blogs have received. And ironically, or maybe not so ironically, I realized these numbers don’t really mean anything. Apparently a lot of people care about what I have to say, but I don’t feel any smarter or more important because of it.
This experience was a real world reminder that views, likes, and comments don’t mean anything. My value as a writer is not dependent on how many people read my work or how many people like my work. My value as a writer is only measured by the standards I have set up for myself.
The type of writer I strive to be:
1. I want to write truthfully and honestly about my experience as an artist
2. I want to write about subjects that feel important to me
3. I want to have the courage to be vulnerable and to find strength in sharing my vulnerability
That’s pretty much it. As long as I’m writing within those guidelines my value as a writer will only continue to grow.
But what do you do after creating something that was loved by your audience? What if the next thing you create doesn’t go over so well? How can you top your last project? What does JK Rowling do after writing the Harry Potter series? What does Lin-Manuel Miranda do after Hamilton? Not to compare myself to these creative geniuses but they’re both just people and I think it’s a very human experience to suddenly find yourself stifled by your own creative success.
After so many people told me how much they loved “How to Get into a College Theater Program & Survive Trying” I started to worry about what I would write next. How could I ensure that my next piece would get the same amount of praise, if not more? I was forced to quietly remember why I started this blog in the first place and what I hope to get out of it. (See my three guidelines above.) And then I remembered that famous conversation between Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham after de Mille’s success with Oklahoma!
Agnes de Mille was a dancer and choreographer. Early in her career she choreographed ballets such as Three Virgins and a Devil and Rodeo, both of which she was quite proud of, but neither piece brought her much commercial success. However, in 1943 de Mille choreographed the Broadway musical Oklahoma! Both the show and de Mille’s choreography became overnight sensations, but de Mille thought that her work on Oklahoma! was mediocre at best. Frustrated in the disparity between how others viewed her work and how she felt about her own work, she looked for guidance in fellow choreographer Martha Graham. Now, some legends say that the following exchange was written down in letters sent between the two women and some say it happened in person over a drink. Either way, the advice rings true for all types of artists.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open…You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” —Martha Graham
When I was a kid and I felt that I gave a so-so performance in my school show my Mom would always remind me that it’s impossible to be in two places at once. “You can’t be both the performer and the audience,” she would reassure me. “Whatever you were feeling isn’t necessarily what the audience was feeling.” I never met Martha Graham, but she must have been a pretty smart lady because she basically gave Agnes de Mille the same advice.
It is not our job as artists to judge our work. It is our job as artists to create our work. The audience can judge our work as much as they want, that’s part of their job. It is also not our job to worry about what the audience thinks of our work because as Martha Graham says “keep the channel open.” And if we start worrying about what the audience thinks of the work we put out there, that channel will sure as hell close right up.
So, thank you dear readers for your kind words in response to my most recent blog post. I am so grateful that many of you found it helpful and encouraging. But even more importantly, thank you for reminding me why I’m here in the first place, for helping me reacquaint myself with what I was put on this earth to do: to create.