I recently listened to Ethan Hawke’s TED Talk on creativity; more specifically, why some people truly struggle to give themselves permission to be creative and why it’s so important that they do.
It was pretty damn good.
During the talk, Hawke waxes poetic about his appreciation for Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. There’s a story about Ginsberg that meant a lot to Hawke and he gives us a quick version of it. Ginsberg was a guest on the television show Firing Line with William F. Buckley, which hosted debates and discussions about political and social goings on. While on the show, Ginsberg sang a Hare Krishna mantra as he played the harmonium. Once he got back to New York, his intelligent friends (he ran with other Beat poets, including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs) berated him for his performance, telling him everyone thought he was an idiot and that the entire country was making fun of him. Ginsberg replied by saying it was his job; that he was a poet and had to play the fool.
What did he mean by “play the fool”? Was he downplaying his profession? Was he trivializing his contributions to the world?
No, just the opposite.
Ginsberg explained that most people get up, deal with a 9-to-5 grind, come home, eat dinner, and then sit in front of the “boob tube” and watch while someone tries to sell them something. However, that night, they saw Ginsberg singing. He got to shake up their monotonous pattern and send them to bed unable to sleep and wondering who the “stupid poet” was.
With his performance — by “playing the fool” — Ginsberg gave people some relief from their less-than-stimulating routine that night and, maybe, even intrigued them enough to find out who the stupid poet was and find some of his work. Maybe they even enjoyed it.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do you think human creativity matters?'”
Art matters. Art helps people get through both happy times and sad times.
Like when you go through life minding your own business and suddenly, out of no where, you fall in love. You fall so deeply in love that you think about the person constantly, you want to be with them day and night, you want to constantly talk about them when they’re not around. You’re so suffocatingly in love that you can’t even find the words to describe how you feel to your friend, your brother, maybe not even the person you’re in love with.
Or, when your day is moving along just like any other day. You wake up, feed your cat, get the children on the school bus, and drive to work. You buy lunch at the food truck outside your building and listen as your co-worker describes her weekend plans. Just when you’re about to text your husband and see if the kids might like pizza for dinner, your sister calls and tells you your parents were just killed by a drunk driver.
Many people go through their days not thinking too much about art. That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy listening to music or reading stories or viewing paintings; it just means they have a whole ‘nother host of things going on in their daily lives, too. They might listen to a Spotify playlist at the gym or read a chapter of a book before bed, but that’s about it…
Until they’re faced with a new life event. Something they’ve never experienced before. Something that shakes them to their core. Something they’re struggling to cope with alone.
That’s when they start searching for the songs and poems and books and paintings and movies and jokes.
That’s when their absence would be sorely felt.
And, according to Hawke, “That’s when art isn’t a luxury; it’s sustenance. We need it.”
“It’s not up to us whether what we do is any good.”
Hawke says he found Ginsberg’s response liberating because he thinks most of us really want to offer the world “something of quality, something that the world will consider good or important” but that line of thinking is the enemy. He points out that it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good and, in any event, “the world is an extremely unreliable critic.”
You can’t get caught up in what others might think, or, if you do, you can’t stay there for very long. You must create, you must put your creation in the world and you must let others determine what it’s going to be worth to them. You must put all those worries and fears aside, dive into yourself and your passions, and create.
Just as Hawke says when he wraps up the talk:
“So, if you wanna help your community, if you wanna help your family, if you wanna help your friends, you have to express yourself, and to express yourself you have to know yourself. It’s actually super easy. You just have to follow your love. Right? There is no path, there’s no path ’til you walk it, and you have to be willing to play the fool. So don’t, you know, read the book you should read. Read the book you wanna read. Don’t listen to the music that you used to like, you know? Take some time to listen to some new music. Take some time to talk to somebody that you don’t normally talk to. I guarantee if you do that, you will feel foolish. That’s the point. Play the fool.”