Courage to create

One of the hazards of blogging for a long time is having to live down the effusions of an excitable and irritating former version of yourself. Back in 2006 I find myself writing that I was “totally stoked” to go to the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, as if I were some dudebro going to Cancun for Spring Break.

I’ll be honest: this year I’m not so stoked.

It’s not that the program doesn’t look great, because it does.* It’s not that I’m not looking forward to seeing old friends, because I am. And I’m not giving a paper this year, so that’s one thing I don’t have to deal with. But I have a certain feeling of mild dread all the same. It’s not the same dread that I wrote about back in 2006, when I was still pretty close to my graduate school days and had fresh memories of feeling like a nobody and having no-one to talk to. A decade on, I’ve done the career stuff I was supposed to do and have amassed a lot of good friends in the biz. So it’s not that.

It has something to do with a feeling I did have when I was a graduate student, and which so far as I can tell is practically universal among scholars regardless of their age and rank. It’s the feeling of being confronted by your own ignorance and the fear that your ignorance will be found out — the famous “impostor’s syndrome.” The reasons why such a feeling is nearly universal are not hard to find: scholars are deep in very particular areas and shallow in most of them (unavoidably, given the true vastness of all there is to know even within a single field), so anyone you talk to will necessarily know a great deal that you don’t. Furthermore, there is no end to the languages and skills that a scholar might wish to learn, and no end to the demands on a scholar’s time — teaching, advising, committees, families, and just trying to grasp the rudiments of whatever it is you’ve set out to research.

But no, it’s not exactly that, either, though it’s related to it. When you are aware of how little time you have to do your own creative work, then every moment you do have feels precious, and you feel the pressure not to waste it. In that fugitive hour between your last class and your next meeting, you have time to do one thing — start a monograph you’ve been meaning to read, catch up on an article someone published in your area, listen to some music you want to know better, work on your Latin grammar, whatever. OK, so how do you know that the thing you have chosen to do is what you should be doing right now? Maybe you shouldn’t be reading or listening to music at all but writing instead. When’s the last time you wrote something that wasn’t an email? Damn, I should write. I’ve got that thing I need to finish. But I have this new idea . . . maybe I should write that one down. But is this idea any good? Is it good enough to put off working on my Latin? Or my unfinished and overdue article? Or reading that book? Or …?

The anxiety of choice poisons the moment of freedom you are given to make that choice. What should be a pleasure — the scholar’s creative work — becomes painful. In that moment of anxiety, Facebook beckons. Next thing you know, you’ve pissed away your hour. Time for that meeting. Shit. You come home, your partner asks how your day was, and you say, it was OK, I guess. I dunno. You have a sense that something fell flat, though you can’t necessarily say what it was. If this happens often enough, it becomes impossible to get any pleasure from the creative act: it’s as if you’re in some crude behavior-modification experiment where you are given a small electric shock every time you try to do some scholarship.

In that moment where you are confronted by (1) your fathomless ignorance, and (2) the numberless ways you could go about relieving yourself of at least a little bit of that ignorance, in that moment where you begin to feel the paralysis of choice begin to squeeze, then, at that moment, consider that anything is better than nothing. And nothing is exactly where this creative paralysis leads. You could do anything, any one of those things I listed, and any one of them would be better than clicking on Facebook in despair of getting anything done. You could use the I Ching to find a random book in your library and start reading it, and that would be better. Any creative act would do. And by “creative” (that poor, soiled, bruised, ill-used word) I mean, anything that adds to the sum total of things you know or have experienced that you can use as fodder for your creative work — “creative work” being, for us, scholarship. And since the horizon of scholarship is (as I have said) immeasurably vaster than the horizon of any one limited individual, the number of things that might productively be used for it is correspondingly vast. As Charles Fort wrote, “if there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” You are free to follow your intuition, you will, your whimsy, your pleasure.

Why is it so hard to live this way, though? I don’t really know, but I had a thought yesterday, when I was talking to my daughter. She’s gotten very serious about playing music lately: for her, the violin is That Thing, as Jonathan put it: “the thing that can consume you,” or as I later wrote, the thing that draws forth your best self. It’s the medium of her creativity. When she practices, she does so with great intensity and concentration; her best days are the ones in which she plays a lot of music. Then why, she asked me, does she put off practicing? What emerged from our conversation is something pretty simple: it takes courage to create. In my daughter’s life, there are many voices — kids at school, people on the internet, and really, in the end, the voice in her own head — telling her that playing the violin is stupid or that classical music is dead and how is she going to make money, etc. And I also believe that when she picks up her violin or when I open my laptop to write another post at Dial M (“why a blog post? shouldn’t you be working on your book? does blogging even count?”), there is an even more powerful voice in our heads: who are you to create?

And in that moment, you have to put out a little quantum of courage to assert yourself. A lot of M. C. Richards’s writing is about finding that courage, finding the temerity to live out the truth of your own soul. To create is to give witness and voice to what is truly ours; to create, then, is to value ourselves, and that is something that academics find very hard to do. If there’s one thing on constant display at academic meetings, underneath all the assertions of ego, it’s a monstrous and bottomless self-loathing. To the question, who are you to create? we have been trained and socialized to say, no-one at all, nothing. I count for nothing; it is the Discipline that matters. It’s not even creative work at all — it has nothing to do with me. I am the humble servant of my wissenschaft, a truth beside which which my own truth is irrelevant and trifling. That voice is very loud indeed inside all our skulls.

Which brings me back to what I was saying about that subtle feeling of dread I’ve been feeling, and which, to judge from things I’ve heard over the years from other musicologists, I’m not alone in feeling. In the moment you find yourself in a conversation and someone asks you about your work, observe yourself. Do you feel uncomfortable? Probably. Now you have to start talking about what you’ve been working on. And as the conversation goes on and your interlocutor responds by asking if you’ve read X’s work (and you haven’t) that voice will start up: What if I don’t know what I’m talking about? What if I have no right to talk about it? What if my Thing doesn’t matter? Who am I to create?

I confess that you won’t necessarily be able to answer any of those questions in the moment. But courage isn’t the same thing as knowing the answers. Think of that famous opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, where the soldiers at Omaha Beach are waiting to land and know that many of them — most of them? all of them? — will die in the next few minutes. I doubt anyone in that situation would fail to ask, will I make it? I think about my own grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge in WWI, a nightmare of mud and blood in which half of the Canadians Corps were killed or wounded. My grandfather never talked about his war experiences, but I have to imagine he asked, am I going to make it? And neither he nor anyone else had the answer to that question. But it’s up and over the top, lads, and up and over they went, and what got them there wasn’t knowing the answer. Courage is all you have, the only weapon in your hand, when you embark on something whose outcome cannot be known in advance. Will my work be any good? Will it matter? Do I matter? This very thing I’m doing right now — do I have a right to do this?

In that moment, take heart. What else can you do? It’s not whether you live or die that matters, it’s whether you acted at all.

*In particular, my students Kerry O’Brien and Dan Bishop are delivering papers. If you want to hear some next-level material from rising scholars in the American postwar avant-garde (Kerry) and New Hollywood film (Dan) — and you know you do — here’s your chance.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Courage to create

  1. Jimmy Hendricks says:

    This post is why I have this blog bookmarked. I may not be a PhD student (yet), but I love the process of expanding my knowledge so I can better understand the world around me and my role in it all. I find myself having the same issues from time to time, however. The first post I read from this blog was “Magical Thinking,” or something of the sort. The phrase that spoke to me the most was, “It doesn’t matter whether or not it exists, but does it work?” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but it helped me get my goals into some resemblance of order.

    Thank you for helping me expand the ways in which I think.

  2. philphord says:

    So glad to hear that this writing is useful to you!

  3. As usual, incredibly validating. I made this mistake (/good decision?) this year to attend first two sessions that were a little out of my depth, and as people stood up to mention books I’ve never heard of, names I’m not familiar with, and common knowledge I did not know, that “imposter syndrome” hit hard. The next day I was in a paper session almost exactly on my research and I remembered that one does not need to know all of the things all of the time.

    On the one hand, I’m not sure how I feel knowing that this self-doubt never truly goes away. On the other, there is something incredibly validating in knowing that just because you question your own presence in a field (or at a conference) does not mean you do not belong there.

    Okay, now back to that writing sample from which I’ve been hiding…

  4. philphord says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about it either. The whole self-doubt never ending thing. Increasingly, I wonder if we ever really “conquer our problems.” I remember reading somewhere that the marriages that last are not the ones where people permanently modify the behavior that drives their spouses insane; it’s the marriages whose partners develop a sense of humor about their spouses irritating habits that last. In other words, the problems don’t go away, they just become less problematic when people can laugh at them, or at least talk about them.

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