The Legendary Artist Who Said Never Stop Creating

One of my all-time favorite quotes about creativity speaks to the idea that your personal creative expression is essential to put out into the world, and that it’s not your job to judge it or withhold it.

It often seems lately as if every story has been told. You come up with an idea, and immediately find that thing or something like it on Netflix or in development. We’ve seen it all. We’re content-weary even as we celebrate this “golden age of TV.”

As a civilization, as humans, we’ve never had information and story delivered to us as rapidly and overwhelmingly as we do at this very moment.

And it’ll increase tomorrow. And the next day.

So what is the point?

Why make anything, when it’s all been made already?

In response, I offer the words of Martha Graham, legendary dancer and artist:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

On a personal note, I have a strange connection with, and soft spot for, Martha Graham. My very first job out of NYU Film School was as Production Assistant on a documentary about her for PBS. I’d never even heard of her before, had no interest in dance and quite frankly thought of “the lively arts” as pretentious and boring. But it was a job, and I needed one of those to eat.

A tough job it was. Never let it be said that Hollywood is a particularly generous place, especially when you’re a PA on a low-budget documentary for PBS. I was paid $250 a week and worked 12–15 hours a day. I came to be relied upon by the director and producer, a married couple in a strained and dysfunctional relationship, to a deeply uncomfortable level. The director was 8 months pregnant when we started the project, and on the day she gave birth, she called me up and asked me to bring her piles of interview transcripts to review in the hospital as she nursed her newborn. I was also often tasked with babysitting their other child, as their sprawling Manhattan apartment was often used for interviews. Every awful thing that needed to be done, I was asked to do. Near the end of the project, I was told to have several prints of Graham framed and was yelled at when I asked what they were for. As it turned out, after doing the work of having them framed and being scolded for the effort, one of the framed pictures was given back to me as a thank you from the production for my services.

I tried to quit at one point, but they upped my salary to a generous $350 a week. Even at that princely sum, I was so short on cash that for lunch, I’d buy a single $1 can of soup every day and tracked in a notebook how much I saved by not getting a sandwich and chips. By the end of the project, I weighed 150 pounds. I’m 6 feet tall, for the record. I was skeletal.

But because I was also good, I was soon promoted to Assistant Editor, which meant that I had to watch and catalog every piece of film and audio ever captured of her. As a somewhat niche artist in the mid-century, you’d think there wouldn’t be much footage of Martha Graham, but in that regard you’d be wrong.

There were hundreds of hours of filmed dances and interviews. Much of it tucked away in a storage space owned by the Martha Graham Dance Company. Nobody had ever actually cataloged it all, boxes and boxes of film, photos, tapes, arcane formats that had to be sent to distant labs to be transferred, and so on. All dating back to the 1920s or earlier.

It was my job to do that. Organize the randomly scattered reels of film and tapes, document and tag the photos, and input it all into an early Mac database. It was a monumental task that took weeks in a rented editorial space at the legendary Sound One in the Bill Building. (While I was there, incidentally, I crossed paths almost daily with the Coen Brothers, who were editing The Hudsucker Proxy.)

As I scrubbed through all of this Martha Graham footage on an old Steenbeck, watching hours and hours of her interviews on various talk shows over the years, that one quote above always stood out to me above anything else she ever said. Most of the time, she spoke eloquently but specifically about dance, her life, other dancers, her oft-broken heart, and her career. She often repeated herself nearly verbatim to the point that I could recite her mini-speeches along with her.

But she had this incredible artistic view: that expression in and of itself, no matter how it’s received or how many people see it, is an absolute good and an absolute must. It’s a timeless truth that should never be forgotten in a world filled with so much and at the same time so little.

Her words spoke to me then, and still speak to me now, 30 years later.

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