3 Life Lessons from David Bowie Artists and Writers can use to Keep Creating
All art is self-inquiry
In this chaotic climate, the internet either screams or weeps. The zeitgeist is throttling creativity, with many artists and writers struggling to find the words to articulate what is, let alone conjure up alternatives.
Humility, compassion, and genuine effort to lift up others are rare. On the word front, there appears to be no discernible market for anything that isn’t doom and gloom on tap. As a result, apocalyptic content reinforces our collective disquiet, trapping us in a paralyzing feedback loop of despair, despondency, and depression.
How to keep the human heart aloft until it can soar again?
To artists and writers, this is as much a duty as a mission, an ethos no one embodied better than singular British artist David Bowie. His work endures as a testament to the power of curiosity, imagination, and vision.
The power of “What if?”
Ours is an internet of clickbait, second or thirdhand knowledge when it isn’t pure bunk, and formulaic content that offers little to no intellectual value. Greed powers platforms while creativity struggles to survive and sells out when desperation becomes too acute.
And yet, the human capacity for reinvention is endless, as David Bowie showed by donning disguises and creating characters to better explore our shared humanness.
To Bowie, personas and pretense were vehicles for discovery, storytelling designed to expand our perception and understanding of what it means to be a human in the world.
By harnessing the power of his imagination, Bowie built a career capturing everyone else’s.
The trigger? Curiosity, as he unpacks in a 1999 commencement address to the Berklee College of Music.
“In fact, what I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of “what if?” What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard? Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of the ideas did work out very well.”
“Never play to the gallery”
Creativity implies integrating experimentation in your work. The opposite is churning out cookie cutter marketing content that barely sounds like human language but keeps algorithms happy. While it scales up to a point, it doesn’t turn you into a ‘writing machine’, only a competitive typist and eyeball gobbler.
As an entire planet struggles to come to grips with an invisible enemy chewing through our livelihoods, the financial situation of many artists and writers is more dire than ever. Sure, the market for validating fear, anger, and greed is vast but it is also saturated. So why even consider it? Embrace curiosity instead.
Everything shifts the minute you do thrilling work that makes you second-guess yourself.
Without a modicum of excitement, creativity flatlines, as Bowie explained in 1997.
“[…] if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
Beware of other people’s expectations
Do you keep writing the same thing because you feel it is what people expect of you? For example, confessional writing can be a double-edged sword. If your livelihood is based on endlessly regurgitating past pain in show-stopping performances that offer up every shred of intimacy to the highest bidder, your mental health is unlikely to improve.
Those who turn human distress into entertainment aren’t just hurting themselves but everyone who reads them. Pity doesn’t bond people. When pathos is spectacle, we simply become a little more inured to human suffering. Servicing schadenfreude by humiliating ourselves is one of the reasons fellow feeling is dying while we decry our increasing disconnectedness.
Creativity, meanwhile, is the force that delivers what you never thought you could make. Sometimes, it’s what we never knew we wanted. Occasionally, it’s also what we never knew we needed.
There is no greater motivator than curiosity and an unfettered desire to claim one’s place in the world while remaining in awe of it.
“Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society…. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.”
A writer’s relationship with language is convoluted, tentative, and frequently adversarial, especially in an era of simplistic quips and raging anti-intellectualism.
Regardless of the price to pay for daring to defy dumb, writers are always willing to go to bat for meaning. Anyone can:
- ask questions
- refuse to pander
- think for yourself
In a culture that calls everything in print writing with little to no consideration for the art form of the same name, nuances do get lost as noise routinely silences signal.
The only way forward is to go straight back to the source all writers will recognize as their own, as did David Bowie:
“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”
Today, his words still offer encouragement and hope to anyone struggling to keep creating amid uncertainty and precariousness.
Perhaps the poetry of the dictionary can help us too?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.