How to Find Your Artistic Voice: Ben Folds on Empathy, Creativity, and the Courage to Know Yourself
By Maria Popova
“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.
All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.
Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.
In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:
It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.
At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.
Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.
We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.
Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:
My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.
But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:
She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.
His childhood brought other lessons from everyday life that would later ferment into the essence of his artistic ethos. Peppering the politeness-culture of the South were some bigots of especially deplorable caliber, whom Folds could barely stomach encountering. But those encounters became testing ground for the greatest mark of the artist — empathy. (Lest we forget, the word “empathy” only entered the modern lexicon a century ago, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art.) A generation after Carl Sagan considered what it takes to move beyond us vs. them and bridge conviction with compassion, Folds writes:
By dignifying even the most despicable character as a human being, by offering them what empathy we can manage, we also hold them accountable for their choices. You can’t really convincingly condemn a monster for being a monster. He’s just being the best monster he can be. Sure, it’s easier to make a caricature of someone you don’t want to relate to, but the more lines you can step over, the closer you can get to a subject, the better off you’ll be — and the more complex and effective your songwriting will be. From the filthy rich to the filthy minded, I learned to meet people one at a time.
Folds reflects on this lesson, which later shaped his songwriting:
Stand in as many pairs of shoes as you can manage, even ones you consider reprehensible or repulsive — even if it’s just for a moment. If you’re going to be a tourist, be a respectful one. Observe, report, imagine, invent, have fun with, but never write “down” to a character or their point of view, because everyone is the most important person in the world — at least to that one person… Position yourself upon a bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge, so that your writing comes from your own unique perspective. Know where you stand and what your flaws are. Know thyself. Then you can spin all kinds of shit and all the tall tales you like. It’s art.
Finally, empathy and perspective are everything, and neither should be taken for granted. After all, there’s always someone out there who thinks you’re the monster. Remember that the ground beneath your feet can always shift and that it should always be questioned.
This question of how to anchor oneself firmly to the “bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge” is fundamental to the quest for finding one’s creative purpose and direction, or what Folds calls “artistic voice.” He writes:
By artistic voice, I’m referring to one’s artistic thumbprint — the idiosyncratic stuff that makes an artist unique. It’s not a precise science, and finding it is always a painful process. I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.
In consonance with the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insight into the crucial role of imitation in the development of originality, Folds writes:
Sometimes it’s just growing out of the imitation phase. Most artists have a period where they sound like their favorite musician, and once they’ve learned from that they can shed that effort. Sometimes the subtraction is about casting off a misconception about how music is actually performed, or how art is made. No matter what your particular subtraction is, the artistic voice you will discover will ideally be something you haven’t seen or heard before.
Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Folds adds:
That impossible search for the voice is, in the end, about being yourself. It’s self-honesty. And in those moments that the artistic voice shows its face, it’s hard to imagine what was so difficult about finding it. But it is difficult getting there. Added to the challenge of looking for something for which you have no prior example, once you find it, you’re the only one who will never truly see what’s special about it. What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself. It’s not terribly profound or abstract to say that the way we hear our speaking voice, reverberating in our own skull, is not the way we sound to others. We never get a chance to meet ourselves the way others have. It’s the same with the artistic voice. It’s something you feel in the dark.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is a delightful read in its entirety, drawing on elements of Folds’s life — the unbidden generosity of a piano elder who spotted rare talent in a teenage rascal, the innumerable stupidies of young love, the perspective-calibrating birth of his children, near-death experiences involving an airplane, a mugging, and a dental catastrophe — to glean rich, unpontifically offered lessons on the life of art and the art of life. (The audiobook is especially delightful, narrated by Folds himself, adorned with some perfectly placed sound effects and music samples, and featuring a charming surprise cameo by Amanda Palmer.)
For a necessary counterpoint, see poet Robert Penn Warren’s admonition against the problematic notion of “finding yourself,” then revisit Hermann Hesse on how to find your destiny, Beethoven’s advice on being an artist, penned in a letter to a little girl who had sent him fan mail, and Amanda Palmer on how to keep on making art when life unmakes you.
Published August 22, 2019