…for me – writing is less a business than a vocation, a calling. Not so much something you choose as Something that chooses you, not so unlike a drug, really, in that it’s hard to imagine quitting. Whether you’ll actually make money is almost beside the point. Viewing writing as a vocation doesn’t make you special, just different.
Richard Russo in his essay “Getting Good” from his book The Destiny Thief.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast. How’s it goin. Howy’re yis all doing out there? Hope yis are all doing well.
This is Episode 8 of my series of episodes on creativity and Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I talked about Lexical Prisons. Today I want to talk about other Walls, black sheep and difference and how they moves us away from creativity and Imagination.
When you walk out of Plato’s cave (your home, your country, your job, your social group) you become a black sheep. You leave the orthodox, conventional way of living. You’re no longer respectable because you’ve left the standardization of the workplace, education and culture you grew up in be by wasting “valuable” time by “playing”. Grow up, the world says. Who do you think you are leaving?
“A retreat? You’re going on a holiday, to work?”
“There are no shops? What are you going to do there all day? It’s so isolated.”
These are common reactions parents, lovers, spouses, friends, work colleagues have when they find out someone is going to La Muse to create. Why? Because everyone who goes there is a black sheep. When I say how wonderful it is that their family supports their getting away, they nearly all look back at me and laugh, or grow serious. Why? Because villains don’t think a holiday is a holiday when you’re choosing to work, unless you’re getting paid to do your creative work.
When I ask them why they think this is, they nearly all respond the same way.
“They’re jealous because they’re not getting away.”
“Me going away to create makes them think about the things they want to create. They don’t like that at all.”
“They don’t have the courage to create themselves. Otherwise, why would they criticize my needing to do it?”
When was the last time you came across a creator you admire who was conventional, orthodox, “respectable”? This is why the phrase black sheep exists. It’s what the parable of the lost sheep really means in the “Bible”. The shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to find the one that’s “lost”. The parable’s not just about redemption, about bringing a “sinner” back into the fold. It’s about the shepherd, God as Jesus, leaving the ninety-nine behind to search for the sheep who is like Him, free, outside the norm.
Jesus was a black sheep. That’s why He rejoices when He finds the black sheep. The black sheep was lost when she was with the other ninety-nine. The black sheep’s only “found” when she returns, a new creative being. She repents conformity, sameness, group-think, unlike the other, quote, “ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” The black sheep is different. When you’re the black sheep, you’re not white, literally. You’re the sheep that gets away, doesn’t do what your family and friends want you to do, jumps out of the the enclosure.
In Ireland, so many of our writers had to jump the fence and leave. They were too different. Joyce left for Trieste. He called Ireland “the old sow that eats her farrow.” He had to publish “Ulysses” in Paris. Wilde left for England. Beckett left for Paris, was in the French Résistance and wrote “Waiting for Godot” in French first, not Irish or English. It was first performed in France not Ireland. Shaw left. O’Casey was basically run out of the country by Yeats. He ended up in England. And John McGahern, after publishing his second novel “The Dark”, was banned from teaching as a primary school teacher. He had to leave for England, France and the United States.
Then there are creators like Da Vinci. He was gay, left-handed, illegitimate, vegetarian, distracted most of the time by many different things, mainly his creations, but he jumped out of the enclosure, and now the “Mona Lisa” is considered one of the greatest creations of all time.
Being ostracized by your own generation can often mean being an inspiration to the following ones. It’s okay to be a black sheep, to be weird, to be different. A lot of the time people can’t stand difference. It makes them feel uncomfortable, but when you break out of the pen, joy appears.
Why does someone go out into a garage all day rebuilding a car when they could be inside watching TV with the family? Why does someone go up to their office to write a book about organic farming when they should be sleeping after a day on the farm bringing in the corn harvest? Because they need to create.
If we were all freely doing what we want to do, creating, we wouldn’t need terms like bohémiens or black sheep. And there are many other words like them, depending on what culture or country you’re living in. In France, as I said in a previous episode, they have an expression for the black sheep: “Il fait la poète.” Basically, it means, he’s crazy, “He’s doing the poet.” Or in Ireland, “Oh, he’s an artist. You know, he draws the dole” -unemployment benefit.
There was a New Yorker at La Muse once for two retreats, re-writing a musical. She asked me to read a draft.
“I can’t read it,” I said. “Oh, you’re too busy?” “No, it’s just I can’t stand musicals.” “Oh,” she said, taken aback. “I could read it, but I won’t like it, no matter how well written it is. I’m your worst reader.”
A lot of people are just not going to like your stuff. Does everyone love “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, “King Lear”? How many people have actually read them, much less watched them performed?
People like different things. We’re all black sheep. We’re all different. Some people hate tragedies, others thrillers, others comedies or musicals. If you write a wonderful musical with all the best actors, a wonderful director, the best locations, I won’t watch it. Never. I can’t stand them. They drive me crazy. It’s nothing personal, just me. Other people love them. It’s their favorite thing to watch. Am I supposed to see people who love musicals as black sheep in a negative way or do I simply accept that we’re all different with different tastes? It’s like saying you have to fall in love with people from a specific part of a specific country with specific skin color. No. We’re all different. We all like different things.
The ice-cream Ben & Jerry’s was created out of difference. Their unusual types of ice-cream were created taking into consideration Ben’s anosmia, his lack of smell and near lack of taste. Ben kept wanting bigger and bigger chunks in the ice cream to fulfill his need for feel, consistency in food. And now we all get to enjoy ice-creams with a completely different taste sensation.
Most people will never read my three hundred and fifty page novel, irrespective of how good or bad it is. Some people just don’t read novels, even less “literary” novels, and even less, if they’re over two hundred pages. Do I take that personally, or do I just keep writing? I keep writing. The reader, the person who will love my three hundred and fifty page novel, will eventually find the book.
It’s the same with Amazon reviews. I had an American novelist at La Muse who just didn’t get difference. She was pissed that people were one-starring her novel, bringing down her star rating. I tried to explain to her that they’re not her readers, and that they bought the book by mistake. She didn’t want to hear it.
William Blake was basically a pauper when he died, forgotten, save by a few creative friends. He was considered insane by his contemporaries, a real black sheep. It was only with the immense effort of one young biographer called Gilchrist that we even have access to Blake’s beautiful work. Blake found a reader, one, who loved his stuff so much that he pulled him out of obscurity.
It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to get outside your comfort zone. Actually, it’s a tremendous help when you’re trying to create something different, whether it’s an ice-cream or a poem. Think about how boring life is when you’re not pushed to grow, to become a black sheep. How can you create if you’re in a small container? You can only grow to the size of your container. You have to make your container bigger. Then you create larger, more expansive creations. Then you grow as your creations grow.
So, get up on the fence. Then, jump down to the other side, and go off into your wilderness, like Jesus, a Buddha, an Emily Dickinson, a Socrates, a creator.
So thanks for listening. I started with a proverb and I’ll end with again, to remind you, that it’s OK to be a black sheep. As the proverb says,
There tends to be a black sheep even in the whitest flock.
Bíonn caora dhubh ar an tréad is gile.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.