My new book, Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art, will be released by the British publisher, Canongate, in a few weeks. It had its genesis in my unlikely meeting with Robert Plant several years ago, and grew out of my belief that there comes a time when you have to share what it is you have learned on life’s journey.
Wolf nor Dog will have a special promotion of this book when it becomes available. In the interim, I thought you might like a preview of what this book has to offer. It is meant especially for people just beginning the fascinating and difficult journey of a life in the arts, but is also a worthy read for anyone who has ever felt the the stirrings of an artistic awareness in their heart.
Go to wolfnordog to get on their mailing list if you have not already done so. Information on pre-ordering will be coming soon.
Excerpt from Dancing with the Gods.
DREAMS AND FEARS: Choosing the artist’s life
Recently I received a note from a young woman named Jennifer who was questioning her decision to pursue a life in the arts. She had a dream, she felt a calling, but she was feeling alone and misunderstood.
“Is it worth it?” she asked. “Is it possible? What advice can you give me?”
Her letter touched me. It mirrored the doubts and yearnings of my own youth. Though I couldn’t tell her what to do, I wanted to respond.
This is what I wrote her:
Thank you for your kind letter. You honor me by thinking that I might have some advice to offer on your questions about devoting your life to the arts. It takes great courage to reach out to a person you don’t know because something in their work touches a chord in you and resonates with that private, unspoken place of your dreams. I know, because I did the same when I was younger. In my case, it was to Norman Mailer.
Why I chose Norman Mailer, I don’t know. I certainly didn’t find his emotional sensibilities attuned to mine. His work, though powerful, was not consonant with my own literary spirit. I think it was because there was a muscularity in his intellectual manner that I felt was lacking in my own life.
I had just begun a graduate program at Stanford University, and the combination of the intellectual demands of the academic life and the shock of a new living and learning environment – graduate school, at least at that time, was a far different animal than undergraduate school – made me feel ever further from the living streets and ordinary people where I felt most vibrant and alive. Mr. Mailer’s work probably gave me hope that there was a way to be intelligent without being an intellectual, and that a life on the streets did not negate a life of the mind.
Whatever it was, I wrote him, and though I do not have a copy of the letter, I can guess what I said. It was likely very much like your letter – confessional, almost pleading, a lifeline thrown to a person whose life and accomplishments seemed to resonate with what I wanted for myself and what I felt that so few others understood. I suppose I wanted a helping hand, or maybe an occupational road map, or maybe just the simple acknowledgement that my plight and dreams were real and worthy.
I do remember that I asked if I could come to New York and work with him — a request that makes me blush even now when I think of it. But Mr. Mailer, gruff though he might have seemed in his public persona, wrote back with gentle compassion. I have the note still today, written on a manual typewriter and signed with a fountain pen. I’ll share it with you in its entirety, because it speaks to the generosity of the man:
Dear Kent Nerburn:
Your letter was fine but I’m not going to respond to it. I work alone and I think very little can be learned about writing being in the neighborhood of another writer unless one uses a scribe and that hardly seems a role for you. The heart of becoming a writer is to come into focus on oneself. To know — and usually it’s best not to know until after you’ve done it — what has finally become important to write about and what you can say that no one else particularly can say. And that can take years and all sorts of occupations. But there’s no quick road to a focus like working. It’s part of the hurdle. In fact, it keeps most talented people from becoming real writers. Anyway, you wrote your letter so long ago that you’re doubtless in a different mood.
Hope this finds you well. If you’re in doubt, work. Write more than you have been writing.
I don’t remember my immediate reaction. But I held onto that note like a drowning man holds on to a piece of passing wreckage. I was acknowledged; I was real; I was worthy of a response from a man whose life was inconceivably greater and more resolved than mine. Perhaps I was not going to drown.
I hope that by writing to you I can give you some of the same solace, because you are real, you are worthy; your dreams are worth pursuing. And you are not going to drown.
I know, because I have walked the same time honored path. All artists have. We have shared your doubts. We have wrestled the same demons and held the same dreams. And all of us would tell you the same thing: though it is not an easy journey, it is a journey worth taking.
You will live in a world of uncertainty, never knowing if your creations are good enough, always fearing financial cataclysm, unsure if your dreams are more than self-delusion, and vulnerable to feelings of persecution and self-doubt. You will see others with less talent accomplishing more, and feel the sting of unwarranted criticism. You will feel angry, lonely, unappreciated, and misunderstood.
But you will also live in a world of joy, with its magical moments when the act of creation lifts you and propels you with a power that seems to come from beyond yourself. You will remain constantly vibrant and young at heart because your urge to create will keep your spirit alive and interested in the world around you long after others in other professions have become weary and soul-deadened in the monotonous sameness of their everyday lives. And you will own your own time, and know the miraculous experience of having intimate conversations with people long dead and far away through your personal dialogue with their art. You will know what it is to work with love.
Few people on the outside will understand the precarious nature of this life. They will see only the accolades and accomplishments, the apparent freedom, and the finished products of your efforts.
They will not understand that the person who creates something whole cloth and places it before others as a gift of the creative spirit stands on the precipice of failure and rejection – or worse yet, mediocrity — at every moment. That by creating a work of art — a performance, a painting, a piece of writing, or anything else — you have, metaphorically speaking, brought a child into the world, and the rejection of a child of your creation hurts you with the pain of a parent watching a child be ignored, demeaned, and seen as unworthy.
These are things that you will come to know if you devote yourself to a life in the arts. It is not a life for everyone. But if you have the courage to choose it, you will have embarked upon one of life’s great adventures. You will have joined the tribe of the dreamers, the keepers of the stories, the shapers of visions and caretakers of the imagination. You will have chosen to set your sights on the stars.
I hope you will choose to become one of us. We come from many different backgrounds, with many different talents, and many different dreams. But there is one truth we all share. If we had it to do again, we would choose the very same path.
This is a life truly worth living.
All my best,
When I had finished my response I sat back and read what I had written. It seemed good, and it felt good. With luck, my letter would touch Jennifer as Norman Mailer’s letter had touched me, and would help her chart a course in life that was worthy of her dreams.
I sealed it up and sent it off.
But I continued to be haunted by the earnest hunger and yearning of her words. That she had reached out to me, sharing her deepest fears and dreams, was both humbling and daunting.
I kept thinking back to a time several years before when I had been asked to participate in a sweat lodge with some Lakota friends deep in the hills of the Pine Ridge reservation in western South Dakota. They were honoring me for my 30 years of working as an ally of the Native people. By sheer coincidence, the sweat took place on the day of my 60th birthday. It gave an already profound experience an even greater meaning.
A sweat lodge is not something to be taken lightly. It is a ceremony of deep significance – a religious practice, actually – meant to cleanse and clarify those who attend. It should be undertaken only with an open heart.
In the course of the ceremony in the darkened, almost unbearable heat of the lodge, everyone is asked to speak what is in their heart. When my turn came, I said, almost without thinking, “I want to learn how to be an elder.” I meant it in the most profound sense of the term.
Over the years, I had become close to the Native people and immersed in their way of understanding. For them, life is not a straight line from birth to death, with the time of central importance being the years in the middle; but a circle, like the seasons, where each age has its gifts and responsibilities. The elders, as the only ones who have experienced all the seasons of life, have the responsibility of sharing the wisdom they have gained on their life’s journey.
Jennifer’s letter had brought that experience back to me. As I reflected on her letter and the others like it I had received over the years, I realized that the time had come for me to take on that responsibility that I had prayed about in that sweat lodge. It was time for me to speak, as an elder and a teacher, about what it means to live a life in the arts.
I had spent thirty years living the life of the writer, and twenty before that as a practicing sculptor. I knew the heart of the artistic life – its dreams and fears, its unspoken challenges and its unexpected rewards. It was time to share my thoughts about what it meant to live the life of the artist, so that not only Jennifer, but all the Jennifers of the world — and all those who had once been like Jennifer but had been forced to put their artistic dreams on hold, or those who had come late to the artistic journey — could learn from my experience and have a glimpse into the magic that a life in the arts offers.
And so this book was born.
In it I try to share, with as much honesty as I can, some of what I have learned on my artistic journey. It offer it to all of you who have fallen under the spell of the arts and dream of giving voice to the creative spirit that lives inside of you. But, most of all, I offer it as a gift to you younger artists of the world who are just beginning on your life’s journey and feel the arts pulling on you, like the moon pulls on the tides, and want to know something of what your journey will be like.
To all of you, and any others who wish to have a glimpse into this life that so many admire and so few understand, I offer these words with an open heart.
May they give you insight, inspiration, and courage.
I hope you find them worthy of your time.