Great Literary Minds: Music and Connecting
Last week, I walked on a downtown Nashville sidewalk alongside Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. Well, me and about 487 other people, mostly women. We were walking to Hume Fogg High School, and we all wanted to hear what Ms. Gilbert had to say about creativity. Indeed, she’s a self-proclaimed expert: she is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 3 years, and now she has written a book about creativity called Big Magic.
She’s a tremendously intelligent and humorous woman, and I laughed through her feel-good, conversational book talk. After all, I attended the program only because I wanted to hear her thoughts on creativity: where it comes from, what inspires it, what to do with it, and so on.
So at the end of the program, when she told the audience that she wouldn’t be able to meet and greet after her talk—I didn’t think twice about it. I’d had my fill, and I’d learned quite a lot. But she then told the audience that “music is the greatest connector” and she’d like to have a sing-along. So with her arms around the shoulders of her awkward-looking literary compatriots Jane Hamilton and Ann Pachett, she led a darkly alto version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.”
The audience obeyed (she had asked everyone to look at the lyrics on their devices, so many folks were hiding behind their screens), and we all stood up and humored Elizabeth. Some folks got into it. Some folks just mumbled, embarrassed.
Was Gilbert trying to manufacture a “moment” with us? And was she doing it for herself (because she felt that we’d hate her for not doing a meet-and-greet)? Was she doing it for us? And…why did I even care?
Well, the moment struck a chord with me. It took me back, some twenty years, to an Allen Ginsberg performance I’d attended as a Birkenstock & bell-bottom clad, wide-eyed university student in Ann Arbor. I was a music and literature major, and along with my hippie, folkie, rootsy, band-mates (who were also literature majors), I would never have passed up the opportunity to see the great Beat poet.
The anticipation was magical; after all, I was part of a generation that worshipped the previous generation of literary and artistic greats. They’d broken down barriers with their anti-establishment views, and helped to bring Eastern consciousness to the West, and seemed to personify the ideals of what Woodstock symbolized. And so much more.
So when Ginsberg got on stage, and put on a musical…errr…concert of his poetry; well, let’s just say it was disappointing. Of course my respect for his literary accomplishments was not diminished, but my confusion about this choice of expression went something like this:
1) Wow. This guy really cannot sing and play in tune or in time. This is painful to listen to. And it’s so distracting that I’m not paying attention to his literary work, which is what I came to hear. My connection with his art is lost.
2) Ginsberg wants to connect with us. Perhaps he thinks that reading his works of poetry will be too limited and stagnant, or maybe that we won’t assimilate the works if they are read.
3) Ginsberg wants to have fun with this. He’s a genius and he can do whatever he wants. Music is fun, and the emotions it conveys are universal.
As I watched other audiences members (and especially my own bandmates) squirm uncomfortably in their seats while Ginsberg sang his poetry, my teenage mind came to some important realizations that evening. I was struggling with my own artistic direction and expression at the time. I was considering pursuing a career in creative writing, and was entering fiction contests. I was in a gigging band, majoring in music, and writing songs. I spent my summers at the School of Art studying life drawing and oil painting (and briefly considered switching my major to Fine Arts). I wanted to express myself, obviously, but you can’t jump from every window at once, right? You have to pick one.
That evening was a fine illustration of the power of music. Creators want to connect emotions and ideas with others. Here was a master of words and ideas; yet Ginsberg chose music to convey those powerful ideas. But why couldn’t his work speak for itself?
Both Gilbert and Ginsberg developed high-level, original creative ideas over time. I was willing to pay to sit there to listen to and assimilate their ideas, because they had value to me. Therefore it was confounding, and almost a bit condescending, that they presumably assumed that their audience came for a dog and pony show and thus they decided to water down their ideas with music that wasn’t up to the standards of their mastered art form.
So, bringing it back to Gilbert’s sing-along. Did we need that? Not at all—I think we’d have all been happy campers without the sing-along. Gilbert has a great mind: her novel Signature of All Things should have won the Pulitzer last year. Did Gilbert feel that she needed the music to make her presentation more connective, more potent, more like a “moment?” Or, maybe she just thought it would be fun.
As Gilbert says about the great paradox of creativity—it is so important that it means everything. And it is also so unnecessary that it means nothing at all.