I hosted one of my art salons last week, and our topic centered around the famous Martha Graham quote in which she talks about an artist’s work and says, “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through your 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. . . ” She urges us all to “keep the channel open.”
It’s a longer quote, and a great one, because each time I read it, I pick up on different pieces. Lately, what strikes me about Graham’s message is how artists of all kinds are really co-creators. Our work is of us and not of us. It doesn’t come from us, it flows through us. There’s a mystery to its creation that we never do figure out, but we feel it when we’re in the “flow” or in the “zone.”
When I was a teenager, many people told me I had a gift for writing and should be a writer when I grew up. The implication, of course, was that the “gift” was bestowed on me by some outside source. Call that God, or the universe, or destiny, or whatever you like. So, early in my career, I gave up much of the control for my own journey. I worked hard, of course, to learn my craft, but all the while I was thinking, “If I’m meant to be a writer, it’ll happen. If not, it won’t.”
Later, I went in the opposite direction. I came to believe, “if it is meant to be, it’s up to me.” I doubled down on my efforts. I thought if I could just be disciplined enough to sit in my chair at a certain time, I could will the ideas to come. That’s what a real writer would do. That didn’t work either.
Over time, I started to understand what Graham meant. It’s a partnership, this art thing. It’s not about opening the channel, though, it’s about opening your channel, as my friend pointed out. Once you accept that everything you create is a co-creation, and that the “vitality” or “life force” or “energy” that Graham talks about flows through you and into the world in a way that is uniquely and authentically yours, you begin to appreciate and thrill in the collaboration.
I’ve come to realize over these many years that the single best thing about being an artist is that we get to be in awe of our own work! I’m sure that’s also true of people in many professions who are co-creating with the unknown. And the funny thing is, there’s nothing egotistical about that. Think about all the interviews you’ve heard with writers in which the interviewer reads a passage from their book or poem, and the author says, “I wrote that? I did? That’s pretty good.” How can we say our brilliance is all ours if we don’t even remember writing something?
Or the nights when everything is going wrong and the outside energy is all off, yet the actor surrenders to the chaos, opens a channel, digs deep into themselves, and winds up moving the audience to tears. In that moment, even the gods must smile.
I’m in awe of the projects I’ve helped bring into the world in this lifetime. I’m in awe of the joy and opportunities they brought to me and others. I’m in awe of how the ideas for my projects might come to me in a dream, or from a chance encounter with just the right person, or simply seem to drop into my head from out of nowhere. And I’m in awe of how those ideas then spark a passion in me that translates into action to bring them into existence in a way that is authentically me.
Keep your channel open and, with a heart filled with gratitude, give yourself permission to be in awe of your own work.
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