Sunday, May 15, 2011


(The text of a speech I gave last night, as keynote speaker at the annual fundraising dinner for the 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica. It's a capsule version of my thinking on this topic.)

I wonder if you have noticed, like myself, that it’s not easy being an artist these days? Of course, I’m not an artist, as I suspect a good number of you are. But I am a writer, and being a writer, I promise you, is no easier than being an artist. And when I use the word “artist,” I would wish to include all those who draw on the creative faculty in their life and work. As one of your earlier keynote speakers, Sir Ken Robinson, likes to point out, we have become too restrictive in our understanding of the creative mind. Mathematicians, engineers, teachers, business people, lawyers, doctors—all bring this same resource to bear on the work they do.

No matter what the difficulties of the current moment, though, the gift with which we have been endowed—let’s call it generically the creative spirit—does not allow us to simply withdraw or surrender when we’re faced with what is difficult or challenging. It brings with it a responsibility. I see the artist’s work as an act of generosity, an act of service. Dare I suggest that it’s our job to change the world, one art work at a time?

That’s a big task, I know. But let’s agree that there’s a lot we would want to change about the world we have collectively created, and it’s my belief that—despite all evidence to the contrary—it can be changed, and for the better. I believe, in fact, that it is changing. It must change. Because—if it does not succeed in destroying us—the course we human beings have set will compel us to change the way we treat each other on this planet, and the way we treat the planet itself. I’m not alone in believing that the results of our human greed, arrogance and delusion are edging us inexorably toward a massive shift in consciousness.

And, as I see it, a special responsibility for this change lies on the shoulders of creative people. We have to take responsibility to give generously of the gift we have been given. We must, seriously, get to work.

If we want to find reasons and excuses to duck our responsibility and sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, we can find plenty of them.

There is, first of all, that sense of impotence: what can I do, who have so little power and influence? That’s a fine excuse.

Then, as artists, we can rail at the federal government for its deplorable habit of slashing funds for the arts on every possible occasion. Closer to home, we watch the bills mounting on the kitchen counter and wonder how we’re supposed to get them paid. There’s even that damn cell phone distracting us with its persistent demand on our attention—not to mention, heaven help us, Facebook and Twitter. Woe betide us if we have husbands, wives, children, family to take care of, or if a medical emergency strikes…

Add to that, we work our rear ends off and no one wants to pay us for the work we do; the galleries—and publishers!—are interested only in what they think will boost their bottom line; good jobs are almost impossible to find, especially jobs which allow us time to do our art, or write. And so on.

You know the list as well as I do. I’m sure you have your own.

So there have been many moments in my life—as I suspect in yours—when I ask myself what sane person would choose the creative path. I count myself a reasonably successful writer—and a very fortunate and grateful one—but I still have those moments. I just recently took a booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and found myself milling around with about five thousand other writers, some wildly successful—but huge numbers of others merely hopeful, and maybe a little envious of that success. How many books were represented there? I have no idea. Enough that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to add yet another one to the pile.

And yet… I’m a writer, just as you are artists. It’s who I am. Since the age of twelve, I never aspired to be anything else. It’s not an option for me. If I’m not writing, I risk becoming a disappointed, angry, even bitter person—impossible to live with, even for myself. I do it because, in a favorite phrase of mine, it’s what I’m given to do. It’s that simple—and that hard. I was put here on this earth for no other discernable reason. I have done other things, to keep body and soul together. But I am a writer.

So that’s the starting point. Next question, what do I need? I have to take care of the basic material necessities of life, that goes without saying: if you happen to be a Buddhist monk, these necessities get reduced to food, shelter, medicine and clothing—but most of us, let’s face it, are not Buddhist monks. We aspire to certain comforts as well as the bare necessities.

But this is not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what we need to persist as artists: what are the basic necessities required to avoid walking around feeling, well… wrong about our lives? I’m talking about the artist’s internal survival kit, in a culture where such a kit has become essential.

Here’s the first and indispensible thing I need: a practice. I was fortunate to have been introduced to the Buddhist meditation practice some fifteen years ago. I’m not here to preach Buddhism, but the meditation practice is a wonderful model for how a creative practice can work. First, you show up. You show up without hesitation or question. It’s not easy. There is an ample supply of excuses. But you have made a compact with yourself. Rain or shine. Good mood or bad. Time allowing or not. You show up.

You sit down. In meditation, obviously, this means literally putting your rear end on the cushion or the chair and straightening out the back. But in creative practice, I use this as a metaphor for the ritual needed to get ready to go to work. For me, it involves switching on the computer, finding my place, taking a breath, and turning inward for a moment to create the mind-space in which to pick up the threads of the work. For you, it will involve a different process, a different ritual.

Next step, you focus and concentrate. Focus is about bringing the attention to a specific object—the flame of a candle, perhaps, a mantra… in my case, the breath. Concentration, as I understand it, is the temporal extension of focus, prolonging it through time. In creative work, anyone who has made art knows how this works. It’s about the flow. You get so deeply absorbed in the work that you look up three hours later and wonder where the time has gone.

And finally, you “persist.” (This is where my book gets its title.) I don’t know about your mind, but mine is the proverbial puppy dog. It likes nothing better than to play with its toys, chew up the furniture, chase shadows, piss on the carpet, and in general make a nuisance of itself. In meditation, it’s a matter of training the puppy dog to the leash, bringing it back time and again, patiently but insistently, every time it wanders off.

In a word, the creative practice, like the meditation practice—or like yoga, like the martial arts—is a discipline. Which is not something that is taught very much in the schools, still less something that most of us very much like. It sounds too much like a requirement, imposed on us from outside—and our natural instinct is to rebel against requirements. They sound like a restriction on the freedom we demand, to pursue our vision as we please. We are taught, at an early age, to associate creativity with “self-expression”—a kind of fecal elimination that comes much easier in early childhood than when you get on in years! No, there’s a good reason for calling what we do “work.”

The next necessity is food. Again, I use this as a metaphor. We need to take in, in proportion to what we put out. This is something I too easily neglect myself. I get so caught up in my own work that I forget the need to nourish the mind with outside information and inspiration. Food, for me, as a writer, is everything I read, from the New York Times to, say, one of my personal favorites, Michel de Montaigne. It’s the films I watch and the art I look at.

For the artist, I imagine, food would look like everything from cave paintings to the latest sensation—which, like it or not—and often we don’t!—invariably extends the opportunity to learn. It would also, I imagine, involve the mountain hike and the visit to the supermarket, eyes wide open and mind ready to look at everything with particular discrimination.

And, as for the writer, surely, food is whatever your mind lights on to read. The digestive process is the consciousness with which we observe and reflect upon our observations. Too often, I catch myself drifting unawares through the experience of my life. Too often, it’s about what happens to me, rather than what I choose. So, eat what you will. Any- and every-thing is food for the creative mind, so long as it’s absorbed and processed in consciousness.

The next necessity—another one that too easily gets forgotten in a culture that does not make it easy—is the ear to listen or the eye to see. Art, I firmly believe, is love-making, not masturbation. “I do it for myself”—for me at least—is not an option. No. I don’t do my writing for myself, I do it to be heard. I do it in part to find out who I am, but also to share the discovery of my humanity with other human beings. As one who writes frequently about art, I expect no less of artists. I want you to tell me who you are, so that I can discover—in your work—so much more about myself, and expand my way of looking at the world.

Again, it’s not easy finding the ear to listen or the eye to see. This, too, is work. It takes effort—the effort we’d much rather be expending in the studio. But I believe this to be a part of our responsibility, as creative people—and another of our needs: it’s the spirit of generosity. It’s about caring enough about what we do to need to share it. If we’re worth our salt, we make our work in passion and have a passionate need to have it speak to others.

There is reason for good cheer on this front in this day and age, in which the amazing advances in communications technology have made it possible to put our work out into the world without depending on the monolithic, commercial system of galleries and publishers. Who could have envisioned, twenty years ago, in the days of cumbersome transparencies and the US Postal Service—remember, sending out packages of “slides”?—the marvel of the “website”—where an artist can post an entire history of images for the world to see? Who would have predicted the existence of “social networks” where a few moments’ work on the keyboard can draw world-wide attention to your latest entry? (I ran into the artist John Frame just the other day, who has a new exhibition installed at the Huntington Library. He was wondering whether anyone would ever hear about his show—until it was reviewed online at Boing Boing—and attracted, in a single day, some 200,000 hits in 103 different countries.)

As a writer, I fell into the blogosphere a number of years ago, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, into a world of previously unimaginable possibility. I now have three blogs, “The Buddha Diaries,” “Persist: The Blog,” and most recently a political addition, “Vote Obama 2012,” in which I can actively publish something every day of my life, and attract readers from literally throughout the world. What more could a writer wish for?

The blogosphere also offers me the opportunity to satisfy another of those necessities I have been speaking about: feedback, response, the validation of what I have to say by another human being, who has read and listened to my words—even if that person happens to disagree with me.

There are many of us in the creative world who have to deal daily with the frustration of isolation. We sit around at our end of the telephone just waiting for someone to pick up at the other end, but all we hear is the annoying, unanswered ring. We need companionship, support and, yes, frankly, love—the kind of love that only our fellow humans can provide.

So here’s another essential piece that is a part of our work: it’s called building community. And—what could be more perfect?—here we are, gathered at the 18th Street Art Center, honoring the service of an artist who has given much of his time and energies for the benefit of his fellow artists, and still managed to make art. The stated mission of the organization is to “provoke public dialogue”—that is, to communicate—and whose vision is to build a “community which values art-making as an essential component of a vibrant, just and healthy society.”

I may be idealistic—actually, I hope so! I believe that the creative spirit is essentially a benevolent spirit, a power for good. I love the words that Dylan Thomas wrote as an introduction to his collected poems, way back in the 1950s. “These poems,” he wrote, “with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.” I don’t happen to believe in the God he mentions, but I do know what he means. I feel that way about my own work—and hope you feel the same about yours.

As I said earlier, I believe that artists provide an act of service to their fellow humans with the work they do. The wonderful Buddhist practice of metta—sending out goodwill and compassion into the world—begins with the meditator sending those wishes in the first instance to him- or herself. When I find myself questioning the value of my own small contribution to the well-being of the world, I call to mind that the only thing I can really change is myself. If I want to change the world, that’s where I have to start. Art—for me, writing—is about observing, activating and realizing the change within, and putting it out into the world. It may be no more than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, but it can create that proverbial tempest on the other side of the globe.

So it may not be easy being an artist, but it is a privilege. Just think of the collective power assembled in this room—and what that power could do if unleashed upon the world. Let’s all get to it, then. Let’s change the world, one art work at a time.

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