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The courage of stepping into 'I don't know'


A couple of weeks ago I was in Spain where I met new friends, some who are wonderful artists, poets, visual artists, and performance artists/educators. While there I was reading a blog post in The Marginalian (formerly Brainpickings) by Maria Popova.


The piece that arrived in my inbox was David Bowie on Creativity and His Advice to Artists. Since I was in a space that was full of artists and their creative ways, I followed threads and links that Popova offers in the piece. I have such great respect for people who commit themselves to this creative process. I have a deep sense that our world desperately needs the ways of knowing, being, and acting, that artists, makers, and creators possess.


I began reading a David Bowie quote that is a reminder to artists,

Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is 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 coexist with the rest of society.

In Bowie's short quote I found pieces that grabbed me, pulling my attention and desire to want to explore.

...something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way

A practice of going inside of oneself, to explore an unarticulated "something", with a commitment to return and "manifest", express, or reflect what is found. This seems so contrary to the common ways of the world. So often we are surrounded by thoughts and expressions that skim the surface, conveying bits and bytes without a fullness of meaning; or we drop explosive bombs of certainty, that divide us in fear of judgement, and even violence, silencing us, leading us to abort the invitation to curiously spend time with that as yet unknown "something" inside of us.


I continued reading, following the links in Popova's blog piece and came across Polish poet and Nobel Laureate, Wisława Szymborski.

Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’

In Symborska's quote, I found the link to Bowie's "something inside yourself". The "I don't know" invitation to curiosity, that draws us into entering the blank space of not knowing, with a hearts desire to know more. Stepping into "I don't know" can be playful, interesting, exciting, or terrifying. One does not know what awaits beyond the invitation.


Going into that space, where there is "something inside yourself" does not make an artist. I have traveled to these inner spaces, following "something inside" myself often. I have fumbled around, wrestled with it, fell asleep, and come out empty handed. Artists go into these spaces and with a need to make something that reflects, or manifests the discovery.


My friend Tom Kohler has told me what his friend, photographer, Jack Leigh said about artists

An artist is anyone who has to express what they have inside

This process is continual. Artists 'have to' express what they have inside through some creation, over and over again. Even though the creations may reflect breathtaking beauty, or truths that can stop us in our tracks, the journey in and out of that inner space can be torturous. The Marginalian blog post that began these reflections contained a link to a post about John Lennon's reflections on creativity,

I’m always complaining about how hard it is to write or how much I suffer when I’m writing — that almost every song I’ve ever written has been absolute torture… I always think there’s nothing there, it’s shit, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage… and even if it does come out, I think, “What the hell is it anyway?”… And then I realize that I’ve been saying that all these years about every session and every song, you know, except for the ten or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.

John Lennon, one of the world's most renowned composer/artists, leaving us with songs that touched the hearts and souls of millions, over generations around the globe, stepped in and out of this experience he describes, over and over again.


The Marginalian Bowie blog post linked to another post featuring writer and poet, e.e. cummings who references the work of an artist

The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.

Not often will it be a blissed out high experience. More likely it is a self centered journey, frought with dismantling and discomfort, that may touch a universal thread of human experience that can resonate and even heal.

It is this repeated practice of artists that is so badly needed by those of us who do not see ourselves as artists. We may cherish the artifacts created by them reflecting the beauty, wisdom, and truth of their discoveries, but it is their practices that we need to learn and incorporate.

We live in a world that demands re-creation, we need to engage like those who create and re-create as a lived practice. We need the courage to listen and act on the wisdom that David Bowie reflects,

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and 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.

We can't just do what is comfortable. It is not sustainable.

In the original quote by David Bowie that inspired me to sit down again and write there was another fragment that resonated,

...understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society

"Coexistence" seems like a quaint fantasy in our fragmented world. A deep disconnection experience rooted in widespread ownership of false narratives of ourselves passed on to us from some version of on high. Few of us dare to step into unknowing in search of understanding who we are, and therefore how we can relate and coexist with others.


Artists have much to teach us about the courage to practice stepping into "I don't know", and making, in search of understanding ourselves and how we can coexist, and even thrive together.


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