“You’re always searching for notes and pieces of musical information that don’t exist.” David Bowie
David Bowie went through many incarnations in his career, some tongue-in-cheek, some furiously awkward, some giving hints of his early demise. When asked who he really was, he said “I have no idea. I’m searching like everyone else. I just do it more publically.”
For Bowie, writing music was like finding God. You didn’t do it following the usual path. Those paths were full of pilgrims. They rendered themselves to the prophets of old, hanging on a word, a phrase, a rule. Bowie felt it was far more personal than that. It had to be you and Him. Salvation is no different than original sin. You can’t be a saint or a sinner without risking something.
I think it was Kinky Friedman who said “When you get to the Pearly Gates, be prepared for a full examination of what you’ve done.” For Bowie, that examination was serious. He wanted to make a good account. He wanted to show proof he wasn’t sitting on this earth expecting someone else’s miracles.
In a sense he had a workingman’s ethic. Don’t expect things to happen on their own — not important things, anyway. To create any real impact, you had to turn the world on its ear, create what doesn’t exist. In some respects — for Bowie, anyway — he was following in God’s footsteps saying, “Okay, you created Earth, I created Ziggy Stardust. Now let’s palaver.”
Put in context, Bowie wasn’t just changing hair colour or melding musical styles, he was turning molten rock into livable habitat through music.
As far flung as this may sound, it’s essentially the duty of anyone writing or painting or composing to do the same. Words, notes or paint strokes come with a certain responsibility to explore. If someone says “What you’ve written reminds me of…” all you’ve done is what’s already been accomplished. You haven’t exceeded beyond anything.
You’ve stayed in the public cocoon.
On The Big Bang Theory, Leonard complains to Sheldon that they admire Star Trek, yet their own personal step into the unknown consists of inventing “Anything Can Happen Thursdays.” Creating a day where “anything can happen” is supposed to be liberating, yet it only results in them going to the comic book store on Thursday instead of Wednesday.
This fear of the unknown is palpable. When they dress up as caped crusaders and see a gang breaking into a car, they turn and walk away. In the real world, putting on a cape doesn’t mean you won’t get your butt kicked (if my schoolyard days are any indication, it usually meant having the cape stuffed down the back of my pants and mud stuffed down the front).
Maybe that’s what keeps us from creating anything new. The fear and ridicule we knew growing up keeps us on the pilgrim’s path, staying in the safety zone. Sameness flows from there. We repeat like the pilgrims repeat Biblical text. To create what doesn’t exist is heresy, yet without a little heresy we can only admire heroes from afar instead of being heroes ourselves.
Virginia Woolf once said “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” We’re all guilty of this. Putting something on paper only makes it more daunting. It’s so much easier — and emotionally safer — to stay out of harm’s way.
We don’t want to offend, but we admire writers who do. We don’t want to stick our necks out, yet we quote writers who do. We’re back to Sheldon and Leonard again. They want to be super heroes without the commitment or the danger involved. Bowie wanted the opposite. “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be superhuman.’”
In some respects, we have to want the opposite, too — not so much to be superhuman, but at least to know what it feels like. Sure, everyone may hate you, you may not get a bunch of “likes.” If likeability is all that matters, stick to health and beauty tips.
Writing isn’t saying as much as seeing. You have to see things differently to write what doesn’t exist. You have to turn the world around. “I’m not funny,” Lucille Ball once said. “What I am is brave.” It was her bravery that created a series that ran to 181 episodes (1951–1957), topped the Nielsen ratings for four out of six seasons and picked up a handful of Emmys.
Even her choice of co-star, Desi Arnaz, was brave, given that CBS didn’t think audiences would accept her being married to a foreigner.
The task of writing isn’t to start off bravely (although it doesn’t hurt). The real job is deciding if if you’re brave enough to publish. Some people think they’re brave enough, especially those writing about their own lives. That’s not bravery so much as wanting exposure and acceptance.
Social media has been called “the great conversion from introvert to extrovert.” Maybe that’s a good thing. Bravery is, afterall, what you make of it, or what it makes of you. That still requires knowing if you’re brave or not. It can’t be superficial or here one day and gone the next.
You have to ask yourself, Can I put on the cape and go after a few carjackers, or dye my hair orange, or choose a foreigner as my co-star? That’s the start of doing what doesn’t exist.
The rest just takes guts.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.