A year ago I received a letter from a distraught man. He had every reason to be: his wife (“she really loves your music…”) was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was writing to me to ask if there was any chance I might send her a note of encouragement since she’d soon be undergoing treatment and would be too weak to attend my upcoming concert. Maybe it was a way of protecting myself, but my initial reaction to the letter was to ignore it and justify my doing so by adopting some mistaken belief that the bonds between an artist and his audience aren’t real, that there can’t possibly be an authentic connection.
But I read on. His letter was so raw and so emotional that I soon found myself in the very state of mind I go to when I do my best work. It’s a place we all know. For many of us it’s a rare but familiar place; a time of heightened receptivity, a suspension of our normal consciousness where we can sense the paradox of our insignificance and our enormity; our humility and our breathtaking fearlessness. For others of us, it became a place in our minds we lost touch with as we matured. Picasso once said: “When I was a child I painted like a master and all my adult life I’ve tried to paint as if I were a child.
As I continued to read, I felt this man’s attachment to his wife and his tremendous torment. I was moved and I reached out.
A year has passed and a couple weeks ago I met the two of them backstage before a performance in the Midwest. The woman was strikingly beautiful and at first she just stared in silence, but just as when I meet someone whose work I truly admire, I understood she wasn’t interested in –me. She didn’t care what I eat for breakfast or what kind of dog I own. What interested her was being near what she perceived as a conduit, or a bridge that allows human beings to channel creative energies from their source (however one defines that) and back into the world.
This bridge is a place of negation. It’s a point at which the ‘I’ of us must always give way to the ‘we’ of us. On this bridge, our left-brained, hard-wired conceptions of ourselves are suspended, creative ideas are given space to form, and then mysteriously, they’re broadcast to our conscious minds. This happens most often when we encounter something so emotionally riveting that we become able -if only for a short while- to stand outside of ourselves. It’s a state of consciousness where the sharp-featured identities we’ve manufactured for ourselves briefly step aside and permit our biases to melt away. It’s in this frame of mind that our preconceptions fade and our harsh judgments cease. This is the place where creativity flourishes best.
Back in the dressing room, I improvised a funny little song for the woman to break the silence between the three of us and she began crying. It was hard not to get emotional and despite my attempt at keeping the mood upbeat, it was impossible for any of us not to recognize the gravity of the situation.
Getting outside ourselves is the key to nurturing our creative souls. Being open to the stories and struggles of others helps us get the distance we need to embrace a perspective large enough to swallow our own.