Are You Ready For a Creative Life?
People in America’s Deep South tell a story about a musician named Robert Johnson. They say one night when the crickets were quiet and clouds curtained the moon, Johnson stole out of his bed at Will Dockery’s plantation cradling his guitar. He followed the Sunflower River by the light of the stars until it brought him to a crossroads in the dust bowl where a tall, dark figure stood waiting. The figure took Johnson’s guitar with hands strange and large, tuned it, then played it so the strings wailed and wept with mortal emotion, making a music no man had heard before. When he finished playing, the stranger revealed his identity: he was the Devil. The Devil offered Johnson a trade: the sound of the guitar for Johnson’s soul. Johnson took the deal and became the greatest guitarist who ever lived, playing the Devil’s music, which was called “the blues,” all along the Mississippi Delta until he became legend. After six years, the Devil called in his due and took Robert Johnson’s soul. Johnson was twenty-seven.
The story is neither completely true nor completely false. There was a man named Robert Johnson. He did play the blues along the Mississippi Delta for six years. He was one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. His legacy includes blues, rock, and metal. He died at twenty-seven. He did not make a deal with the Devil, but he did come to a crossroads where he had to make a deal with himself. Johnson married at nineteen and, despite his talent as a musician, planned a stable life as a farmer and father. It was only when his wife, Virginia, died in childbirth that he resolved to do what others described as “sell his soul to the Devil” and fully commit to playing the blues.
The story that arose around Robert Johnson’s life and talent is partly due to his early death; partly due to his song “Cross Road Blues,” which tells a tale about failing to hitch a ride, not a deal with the Devil; and mostly a mixture of ancient German legend and African American myth.
The German legend is the story of Faust, which dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century. It comes in many flavors but has one common theme. Faust is a learned man, typically a doctor, who yearns for knowledge and magical power. He calls upon the Devil and strikes a bargain. Faust gets knowledge and magic, and the Devil gets Faust’s soul. Faust enjoys his powers until the Devil returns and takes him to Hell.
According to hoodoo, the folk mythology of African slaves, you can acquire special skills if you meet a dark stranger at a crossroads in the dead of night. The voodoo traditions of Haiti and Louisiana also reserve a special role for the crossroads: they connect the spiritual world to the material world and are guarded by a gatekeeper called Papa Legba. Unlike the legend of Faust, this stranger at the crossroads demands no price.
Robert Johnson’s story blends these two mythic archetypes to illuminate a deeper truth:
there comes a point in every creative life, no matter what the discipline, when success depends upon committing completely.
The commitment has a high price: we must devote ourselves almost entirely to our creative goal. We must say no to distraction when we want to say yes. We must work when we do not know what to do. We must return to our creation every day without excuse. We must continue when we fail.
If any devil is involved, he is not the one demanding commitment. Whatever your higher power, whether God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, or the greater good of humanity, this is whom you serve when you commit to a life of creation. What is diabolical is squandering your talents. We sell our soul when we waste our time. We drive neither ourselves nor our world forward if we choose idling over inventing.
When Robert Johnson came to the crossroads at midnight, it was temptation that said, Do not practice, do not play, do not write, do not stretch your hands across the frets until they ache, do not press your fingers into the strings until they bleed, do not play to empty chairs and chattering drunks who boo, do not perfect your music, do not train your voice, do not lie awake with your lyrics until every word sounds right, do not study the skill of every great player you hear, do not invest your every breathing, waking minute pursuing your God-given mission to create. Take it easy, mourn your wife and child, get some rest, have a drink, play some cards, hang with your friends — they do not spend all day and night messing with guitars and music.
And Robert Johnson looked at temptation and said no.
Then he took his guitar to the Mississippi Delta and for six years played music so great it changed the world, music so great it inspired every guitarist that followed, music so great we are discussing him now not because our topic is guitars or even music but because his story breathes life into the true meaning of creative commitment.
If you are fully immersed in your creative life and the crossroads has long left your rearview mirror, be affirmed. The friends, mothers, fathers, therapists, colleagues, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, and ex-wives who said you were crazy and you work too hard and you will never make it and you need more balance were wrong, as are the ones who still do.
If you have not yet reached the crossroads, look around. It is here now. That stranger over there is waiting for the chance to offer you an endless supply of reasons why you should not create a thing.
All he wants in return is your soul.
Excerpted from How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton, available here.