Elizabeth Gilbert may have just saved my creative life

Those who know me well, and those with whom I speak candidly about my musical life, know that I have suffered, quite literally, from some serious ambivalence about being a performer. It’s not stage fright, per se. I’ve acted, performed in orchestras, taught children and teens and adults, and given presentations in front of groups of strangers forever, and I only have a normal amount of nervousness beforehand with any of those things that usually evaporates once I’m actually doing it.  

What plagues me is pretty specifically a guitar-playing performance anxiety. I’m kinesthetically challenged in general.  My kindergarten report card shows an “Unsatisfactory” under “Gross motor skills,” and it’s not gotten any better with time. I’m slow to learn physical things, whether it was learning how to do “Miss Mary Mack” on the school bus in grade school, aerobics routines in the ‘80s, kickboxing combinations in the early 2000s, or my ongoing effort to play guitar.  

I’m moderately capable on the guitar on my best days; capable enough that I no longer feel like a poser when I say that I play guitar. But a case of (entirely natural) nerves has the ability to render my playing ability entirely unreliable at the oddest moments, causing me to fuck up unexpectedly, with eyes on me, and this is probably one of the things I hate most in life. I’m good at a fair number of things, but fucking up with grace and acknowledgement of my own humanity has never been one of them; but I’m aces at stewing and beating myself up about it after the fact! I’ve often secretly admired acquaintances who can get on stage, mess up spectacularly, and then step off the stage exclaiming how much fun they just had. I’ve never been that person. I wish I had more of whatever that is.  I know it would serve me well in so many ways.

I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve matured, but I really, REALLY don’t like to screw up. Especially when I’ve got an audience who has a reasonable expectation of competence, and who, if they heard me practicing alone in my office, would get it, but somehow, nervousness results in cotton mouth, cold and clumsy hands, and temporary amnesia for me, and these are all really bad things if you want to be a singing, guitar-playing performing musician. And my self-consciousness about this possibility wrecking all my carefully rehearsed effort no doubt contributes to a vicious cycle; the more you worry about screwing up, the more likely it is to happen.

The difficulty level of live performance is a known challenge, for anyone who attempts it. It’s easy enough for me to write, to sit in front of the computer and arrange and rearrange words until they suit me, taking as long as I want, and finally click “publish,” and not worry about it after that. If anyone reading this on the other end doesn’t like it, I’m unlikely to know it anyway, and as long as I’ve pleased myself, I’m happy. Live performance is a terrifying Zen high-wire act.  You have no choice but to be in the moment. There’s no delete button, no rewind. If something goes wrong, there’s nowhere to go. You have to fix it in the moment the best you can.  Maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.  But there’s no net, and that’s why it’s scary. Because half your brain is saying “OMGOMGOMG that’s not right!  You’re doing it wrong!  WTF did you just do?” and the other half of your brain is trying to do a course correction and mitigate the damage while the first half is still screaming in the back seat.  It gets very loud in your head while you try to keep smiling, keep playing, and hope that charm has bought you some audience good will.

Not that it isn’t survivable. It is. I’ve survived it many times, but each time it happens, it takes a little bite out of the confidence I need to get back on the stage. Which is why I basically retired from performing last year, playing just 2 shows in October.  I decided if I hadn’t managed to crack this, or rewire myself, after 11 years, I probably wasn’t going to, ever. There was a fair amount of freedom and relief in that decision, but there was also regret that it had come to that.

I had a friend offer to play guitar for me for my porch fest, and there was a part of me that really, really wanted to take him up on it. It would be so much easier. It would take so much pressure off me.  But another part of me was stubborn, and loud.  And that part said it would be a surrender. A defeat. And I shouldn’t give up yet (even though I thought I already had.) So I worked really, really hard and played my porch fest the first weekend in October.

Aaaaaaand it was more of the same. Some really great moments that I could be proud of. Several moments that weren’t so great, mistakes that made me think, “Why did you think you should try this again?” Intellectually, I understood that after a year off, a few mistakes were understandable, and perhaps inevitable, and that if I was really no worse off than I was a year ago, after a year of not playing out, that was actually some kind of good news. But it didn’t feel good. And as I hunkered down in serious preparation for a porch fest I’m playing next weekend, one I committed to before I’d played my own, that feeling has reasserted itself in all kinds of self-doubt and frustration.  

This morning, though, I came across this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, and decided to watch it. I’d read her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, too, awhile back and got a lot of out of it, but this video seemed to distill the point of that book in a way that I haven’t been able to shake all day.  And that’s a good thing.

If you don’t watch it (though I highly recommend you do), the sum of it is that once upon a time, creativity was considered a divine gift that came from unknowable source. It was an entity that contributed to our artistic endeavors. During the Enlightenment, that changed to the individual being the source of creativity, which put a huge and heavy burden on creative people that used to not be there. And being responsible for that has created the tortured, fragile, and too often dead, artist archetype we all know (and sometimes are), because that level of responsibility, not to mention the whole “it’s not art if it doesn’t destroy you” mythos that goes along with that, is too much to take. We still call it a “gift” when people create and touch us, regardless of our spiritual beliefs. Because no one really knows whence it comes. I know I’m a creative person, but I cannot point to where it comes from inside me. It’s just there. I have read old pieces I’ve written, and am impressed, and wonder how I managed it, because it’s rather more articulate and well-crafted than I would give myself credit for. I don’t know where the music comes from. I just write it down and then work at it some more. I know that dance, as an art form, doesn’t speak to me or come through me, and I don’t know why that is, either. It just doesn’t. The whole thing is rather mysterious. But regardless, it might be practical, for our own well-being as we create, that we consider the concept of a genius to be something we have, rather than something we are.  And maybe we’re off the hook for creating brilliance all the time; maybe it’s enough that we show up and create at all.

It’s worth watching, if you’re a creative type. By which I mean a human being; we’re all creative. Some of us are actively engaged in that right now. Some of us haven’t found our “art” yet and are still searching. Some of us are totally engaged in creativity every day, but have yet to acknowledge it because our creativity doesn’t involve art supplies or musical instruments. Humans are innately creative.  You only have to look around and see that’s true; otherwise, we’d all be naked, sleeping rough under trees and in caves, instead of dozing in comfy beds, wearing fuzzy socks and pajamas with Minions on them.

But whatever your art, whatever calls to you, it also requires something of you. It matters to you, and as soon as something matters to you, you’re vulnerable. Music matters to me a lot, and it’s not just my own ego (though I’m sure that plays into it all somewhere, too); it’s that music is a big deal to me, and I want to do right by it, and by the people who gift me with their time and attention when I’m making it. I don’t want to fuck it up for them by committing crimes against music. And it’s easy to be intimidated by the whole proposition, or by the potential for failing, possibly publicly, at something that matters to you, and just back away from it, but you end up living in limbo, caught between doing the thing that makes your soul happy, and not doing it because you’re worried that you won’t do it well enough, which makes your soul unhappy. Which, according to my interpretation of what Gilbert has to say in this TED talk, is not the point:

“What I have to sort of keep telling myself, when I get really psyched out about that, is don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some kind of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow, and olé to you nonetheless. I believe this, and I feel like we must teach it:  olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

So I think I need to try to just keep showing up for music, and let the rest be as it may.  I’m going to work on that.  Thanks, Liz.

Serendipity, and Unexpected Inspiration

My guitar teacher and his wife host quarterly house concerts, and the second one, by artist Owen Plant, was in early August. (You should check Owen out.  As a singer, he’s the lovechild of James Taylor’s son, Ben–also a singer–and Art Garfunkel…if that child grew up in Jamaica.  Fine guitarist, too.)  Scott and I went, and met my friend Pam there, and I thought it was a good show.  But Pam was very moved by Owen’s music and she became an instant fan, and decided that she wanted to give Owen one of Beth’s guitars (not one Beth made…there’s only one of those left, and Pam’s keeping it).  She thought it would be nice to keep Beth’s music going forward by sharing her instruments with people who would love them and play them.  Those of us lucky enough to have instruments she made cherish them.

The next day I got a text from Pam, wondering if I was free Sunday afternoon, and I told her that as I was working several nights in the coming week (I had a brief encounter with seasonal employment in August doing school instrument rental events for the music store where I take guitar lessons), we were looking forward to having the day together, as we weren’t going to see much of each other the following week, but if she needed help with something, I could make the time to pop over.  And she wrote back saying there was no rush, but she wanted to give me first pick of the remaining instruments before Owen got there.  And I was touched, and delighted by her very kind offer.  So we worked it out that I would come by Monday morning instead.

Monday morning came around, and I went over, and there were 3 guitars and 2 ukes available.  I tried the first guitar, a Santa Cruz, and was lovely, but it just didn’t call my name like a guitar does when it’s the right one for you.  The second one, a Lakewood, had caught my eye almost immediately I walked in the room, and when I played it, the sound was very warm and thick and rang for ages, and it was definitely in the lead.  The third, a Takamine, didn’t speak to me either.  I gave the ukes a cursory strum, but they were no better, and no different, than my own, which Beth and I had actually made together, so I was unlikely to play another uke unless it had standard tuning instead of the reentrant tuning I (and most ukes) have.  So the Lakewood came home with me, and she is beautiful and well-loved.  I’ve named her Serendipity, for reasons that are about to become clear.

Serendipity.jpg

When I pulled it out of the cabinet to try it, I gave it a strum and realized it wasn’t in standard tuning; it was in an open tuning (open G, to be precise).  And as I’m not knowledgeable about playing in non-standard tunings, I did what I always do in that situation:  I played chord shapes I know to see if any of them sounded good.  And what do you know, but an A minor-shape sounded great along with the open G, so I fiddled back and forth with those two chords by way of a test drive.

So I took it out to the kitchen and was picking my chords and talking to Beth’s mom while Pam was out in the garage rummaging to find its case.  I’m not sure how the conversation got there, but I was talking about how long I’d been playing, and mentioned it was 12 years in August, and then even as I was saying it, I realized that THAT VERY DAY was my guitar anniversary.  12 years earlier, that was the day that Antiguo suggested I put nylon strings on my cheapie Walmart guitar so that it would be easier on my fingers as I tried to learn, and changed everything–my guitar progress; my life.  So we were all a bit misty-eyed about how Beth and Pam had given me a guitar on my guitar anniversary.  Pam said, “That’s why you couldn’t come over yesterday…it was supposed to be today.” And I agreed 100%.

Before I even left Pam’s, I’d decided that my first order of musical business would be to write a new song on my new-to-me guitar in the open G tuning that Beth had obviously tuned it to, and left, ultimately (though she didn’t know it) for me to find.  It seemed like a fitting tribute, and thank you, to sort of pick up where she left off with that guitar.

I did write that song, and another, and another yet.  It kickstarted my songwriting, which had stalled so long ago, I honestly can’t remember when I last wrote a new song, but I’m afraid it’s probably measured in years.  Not decades yet, but still, too long.  That being the case, though, while I had a vague notion that it would be nice to finish that song by the anniversary of Beth’s passing (which is today), I didn’t have much faith in my ability to achieve that.  And even if I did manage to write it, getting it recorded in sharable form was a whole other hurdle.  So I decided to just plug away at it, and see what happened, as creative deadlines kind of give me hives.

But on this Monday morning, with Beth on my mind, I decided to take a stab at a quick live recording, using the recorder that she gave me, no less, and share this song that is pretty much the culmination, in so many ways, of her, and her lovely wife Pam’s, support of my musical life ever since I met Beth at guitar camp 11 years ago.

Those chords I stumbled onto when I first tried this guitar set a certain mood, something I feel as a wistful, sweet melancholy.  I hear it in musicI see it in the slant of the light now and again; I have all my life.  I like this feeling, or at least I have an affinity for it…happy to be just a little sad, or sadly happy.  I don’t know how to describe it, really; I just know it when I feel it.  And in remembering Beth on this cloudy September afternoon, that is the appropriate feeling.  We shared so many smiles, so much laughter, and I miss that.  I miss her.

In writing this song, I endeavored to shut off the wordy part of my brain that likes to cram way more syllables into every line of a song than were ever meant to fit.  Which was tough for me, I confess.  But this is what I came up with.  I finished your song, Beth, on your guitar.  I hope you like it.  

Meditation, by K. Cunningham

Disengage
Leave the cage
Your soul knows
What’s been imposed

There’s no “me”
Just mystery
Just for now
Escape somehow

Forget who you are
Retire from the war
Drift away so far

Clock stops
Mask drops
Time yields
Fate’s unsealed

Forget who you are
Retire from the war
Drift away so far

Let go
Feel, don’t know
Take it slow
Every moment’s not a battle
Every moment’s not a battle

Jettison
Old tales spun
See right through
Become anew

Never doubt, you
Can break out
You are free
By your own decree

Forget who you are
Retire from the war
Drift away so far