As I’ve talked about on my blog before, I work as a barista at a local coffee shop. Although I’ve had the job for over a year and sometimes wish for the stability of a 9-5 “grown up” job, one of the things that makes me love my job the most is the fact that I get to pick the brains of some of Springfield’s most interesting and creative people. (This 8 hour barrage of conversations is wonderful except on the days that my inner introvert takes over, but that is another story.) All of this to say that I recently had a conversation with a customer that- to use my current favorite cliche- rocked my socks off.
Darien is an incredibly talented songwriter and has an band which makes her basically a celebrity and therefore my most famous customer. (Please go check out her band’s website and like them on Facebook right this very instant.) After telling me that her band had been together for the past 7 years, she explained how much her style as a songwriter has changed over the years. While she used to write acoustic folk music, her band now describes themselves as “alt-pop,” a self-made genre and a style which some, she said, dislike. She went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it is the role of the artist to create something that people don’t yet know that they want, to boldly create art that does not yet fit into any boxes even though people may at first hate it. Real artists do not follow trends but rather create them.
I couldn’t help but agree with her powerful assertion and instantly thought of everything that my four years of music history classes had taught me. Through each period of music history, from the Renaissance to the Second Viennese School, each composer to usher in a new period did so not intentionally but because he felt completely compelled by the music in his head. Each of these composers that are now so famous-Palestrina, C.P.E. Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg- initially faced sharp criticisms and harsh public receptions for their innovative use of traditional musical forms and tonality but each courageously created the music despite any fears of rejection.
During my conversation with Darien, I made a connection with one of my favorite stories from music history. On May 29, 1913 and inside Paris’ glamorous Theatre des Champs-Elysees, audiences eagerly awaited the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring. A famed composer, Igor Stravinsky had previously written the music for three ballets that critics had hailed a success. However, at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, audiences reacted quite differently. This ballet told the primitive pagan story of a young virgin who was forced to dance to her death in a bizarre ancient ritual. Not only was the story shocking, but the music was dissonant and full of mixed meters and pulsating, repetitive rhythms. As the curtain rose and the ballet began, the atmosphere quickly descended into mass chaos. Confused whispers quickly became angry shouts, and many people were trampled and hospitalized after the audience deteriorated into rioting.
I wonder what Stravinsky may have felt at the conception of this piece. Was he terrified of the harsh and jarring melodies inside his brain? Was he afraid to create the thing for fear of the reception it might receive? I do not know the answers to these questions although they could probably be found in some yellowing letters or tobacco stained journals, however I do know that if he did feel afraid, he did not act on his fear and hold back the music in silence. And although the ballet was met with an outpouring of righteous indignation, Stravinsky continued to create and is now revered for his bold innovation.
After telling Darien the infamous Stravinsky story, I admitted to her that as a writer, I admired her brave creation of a her own genre and told her that I have recently been afraid. After months of writing sugar-coated blogposts on creativity or writing about politics in the least controversial way possible, I have been choking on my own silences. I have been too scared to write what I absolutely must write— things that will make me vulnerable, things that many of my readers may hate. I am learning, however, that I should not feel ashamed of my fear because all of history’s most brilliant minds have harbored fear. Fearlessness is not an attainable goal.
A few weeks ago, in my American literature class, we read “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” an essay that defends the functional value of poetry. This piece was my first introduction to the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde. The essay so moved me that approximately seven minutes after class, I logged into my Amazon account and bought The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde and Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays. I read “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” the essay that my professor had most strongly urged us to read and was instantly transfixed and astounded by how candidly Lorde writes of her own fear. “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an action of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.” I feel this deeply, as I have many unspoken stories, the telling of which will certainly be uncomfortable. Lorde urges her reader to speak no matter the cost rather than remain in silence, for as she writes, “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me Your silence will not protect you.” Oh, but maybe I can just wait until I am no longer afraid to write what I long to write, right? However, if Audre Lorde at nearly fifty writes of her still very present fear without any trace of shame, then certainly I, a lowly English literature student with no credentials whatsoever should expect and even embrace fear. It is imperative that I do so. It is urgent. “What are the words you do no yet have? What do you need to say? What tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” Lorde asks me.
If you are a writer I urge you to to tell the story that your mother told you never to share with anyone, to write the answer to the question that you asked in the 4th grade but were told to never ask again, I urge you to shout the thing that will make you most vulnerable but also most human, the thing that will unite you with others who share a similar struggle in this non-linear and terrifying thing called life.
My friend Darien was afraid to create her own genre, Stravinsky’s ballet literally caused a riot, and Audre Lorde writes of her always present fear, but all assure me that speaking is more rewarding than silence. I close with this quote from Sister Outsider and I hope it gives you courage. “One thing has always kept me going— and it’s not really courage or bravery, unless that’s what courage or bravery is made of— is a sense that there are so many ways in which I’m vulnerable by putting weapons of silence in my enemies’ hands.”