Today's inspiring quote comes from legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille by way of Dani Shapiro's equally inspiring book about the writing habit, Still Writing, which will be published in October (I'm lucky to have an advance copy). On the bulletin board above her writing desk, Shapiro has tacked part of the following quote, words of wisdom from dancer-choreographer Martha Graham to de Mille while the two were having lunch and discussing the famous "dream sequence ballet" de Mille designed for the musical Oklahoma!:
The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft's restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open....No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."No artist is pleased. Boy, ain't that the truth! I don't know about the rest of you creative types out there, but I'm filled with that "blessed unrest" every time I sit down at the keyboard or the open notebook, my pen queerly, divinely dissatisfied. Every so often, a sentence of words will come together--syllables locking into place with a sharp snap!--and I'll be happy with the music I hear....but then the next day I'll wake up, read those same words, and think the whole thing is utter shit. I call this voice of dissatisfaction my Grouchy Editor. I picture him as this older, world-weary guy--maybe a little overweight, hair rumpled, food-stained shirt in a constant state of un-tuck--who's always frowning around the cigar he clenches in one corner of his mouth. My GE is never happy with what I write--which is a good thing for me, actually. He prods, provokes and encourages by way of insult. "You call that good writing? My grandmother could do better than that--and she was blind in one eye, only had eight fingers after that accident down at the tool-and-die factory, and dropped out of school in the fifth grade....plus, she's DEAD!" He jabs his cigar-fingers into my chest and drop of his spittle lands on my cheek. I look down at my page and sigh, "You're right." Then I delete, revise, rebuild. I am never pleased, I can only hope to reach a level of lesser displeasure. And so I march forward, the lash of GE's words at my back.
Even now, he's grumbling, "And what the hell are 'cigar-fingers' anyway?"