Maya Angelou on Writing and Our Responsibility to Our Creative Gifts
“I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it.”
By Maria Popova
“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains some of the finest advice on writing and life ever committed to words. Our gifts come unbidden — that is what makes them gifts — but with them also comes a certain responsibility, a duty to live up to and live into our creative potential as human beings. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin admonished in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” That durational willingness to work at our gifts, to steward them with disciplined devotion, is our fundamental responsibility to them — our fundamental responsibility to ourselves.
Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) considers what that means and what it takes in a wonderful 1983 interview, included in Black Women Writers at Work (public library).
I try to live what I consider a “poetic existence.” That means I take responsibility for the air I breathe and the space I take up. I try to be immediate, to be totally present for all my work.
My responsibility as a writer is to be as good as I can be at my craft. So I study my craft… Learning the craft, understanding what language can do, gaining control of the language, enables one to make people weep, make them laugh, even make them go to war. You can do this by learning how to harness the power of the word. So studying my craft is one of my responsibilities. The other is to be as good a human being as I possibly can be so that once I have achieved control of the language, I don’t force my weaknesses on a public who might then pick them up and abuse themselves.
With an eye to the abiding mystery of our creative gifts, she adds:
I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it. Electricity makes no judgment. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that. It makes no judgment. I think talent is like that. I believe every person is born with talent.
When asked how she fits her art into her life, Angelou responds:
Writing is a part of my life; cooking is a part of my life. Making love is a part of my life; walking down the street is a part of it. Writing demands more time, but it takes from all of these other activities. They all feed into the writing. I think it’s dangerous to concern oneself too damned much with “being an artist.” It’s more important to get the work done. You don’t have to concern yourself with it, just get it done. The pondering pose — the back of the hand glued against the forehead — is baloney. People spend more time posing than getting the work done. The work is all there is. And when it’s done, then you can laugh, have a pot of beans, stroke some child’s head, or skip down the street.
Complement with Susan Sontag on writing and what it means to be a decent human being and Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech about storytelling and the art of tenderness, then revisit Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil, identity and the meaning of life, and her cosmic clarion call to humanity.
Published January 7, 2023