I recently read Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences” and in it, she highlights Martha Graham’s ability to captivate audiences and tell a good story. Now, for those of you who might not be dance aficionados (which I’m certainly not but I do love dance) Martha Graham created a new type of dance and was a pioneer of what we today call “modern dance.”
Graham became a dancer against the odds. She grew up in an environment where dance was frowned upon as a career. When she finally began to study dance with the idea of making it her profession, she was considered too old, too short, too heavy, and too homely to be taken seriously. “They thought I was good enough to be a teacher, but not a dancer,” she recalled. But she knew what she wanted to do and pursued her goal with the intensity that marked her entire life. Dance was her reason for living. Willing to risk everything, driven by a burning passion, she dedicated herself absolutely to her art. “I did not choose to be a dancer,” she often said. “I was chosen.”Russell Freedman as quoted in Resonate
In her book, Nancy quotes Russell Freedman’s biography of Martha, “Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life” which I then read too. Reading this stirred something deep within me. Just that day I’d asked myself if I was “too late” to become a writer or pursue my dreams of journalism. Every day I’ve been feeling like I MUST pursue this desire that keeps shackling me to it and causing me to return again and again. My love affair with writing, I would say, is much like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance – I am caught in it, yet I want it nonetheless.
Graham devoted herself so wholly, so willingly, so desperately to her art that it left room in her life for little else. Dance became her life force, her raison d’etre so much so that ripping herself from it utterly devastated her (it’s a really good story if you have yet to read it). What Martha Graham taught me about pursuing art and deep-seated creative passion is this:
It’s Never “Too Late” to Start
Wanna know how old Martha was when she began dancing? Twenties. Martha Graham started dancing in her twenties and danced for close to 70 years (she was 96 when she gave her last performance). 70 years! Can we talk about that for a minute? Because people told her dance wasn’t a viable career and the woman went on to change dance forever. Irony? Probably. I just imagine how many people were probably kicking themselves at learning they’d almost extinguished the light of a legend.
It’ll Take Everything You Got (But What You Got Is Enough)
Reading about the struggles Martha had at the end of her career, her challenges with letting young dancers replace her, really touched me. It’s the kind of love so many of us long for, a deep-seated commitment that creates a gaping hole in one’s life if that is ever to be taken away. That was Martha’s love for dance, for the pure artistry and creativity that came with performing. As artists, writers are sometimes too quick to put away the pencils or stuff the notebook back onto the shelf. Yet, writing, like any craft requires giving ourselves entirely to the art. Rejections, scathing reviews, loss of friends and loved ones – it all comes with the territory. But if we love writing, truly love it, then not writing can make us feel empty and wondering “what reason do I have to live?” So yeah, it’s going to take everything you got, but what you got is enough.
You’re Only as Good as You Want to Be
Martha was always re-inventing herself and her dances. It’s a mark of great geniuses, they’re always looking for ways to improve and make themselves, their art, or their products better. Just look at Steve Jobs and his constant reinvention of Apple products. For writers that means that it’s not just enough to write and write well. To be a great writer (if that’s what you strive for) means to think of new ways to push your writing and to tell better stories.
Much like I’ve pulled inspiration from other creatives, Martha did too. One of her performances was inspired, for example, Emily Dickinson, “a solitary figure who sacrifices a personal life, embraces her destiny as a poet, and devotes herself totally to her art.” (Freedman, 1998, p. 91)
Do I think every writer needs to be as gunho and self-sacrificing as Dickinson or Graham? No, nor do I think every writer is capable of being so. But I do think that as writers we need to think about what our art and our craft really require of us and what we’re truly willing to give to our art, what we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.
For me, that’s been long binges on Netflix and bouts of procrastination (which in the grand scheme of things is probably not so bad). What Martha Graham has taught me about writing though, about any art, is that there needs to be a love that compels us to dabble in our craft because to not do so could mean the very end of us.