The gift of failure is a riddle: it will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. The Rise—part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit—makes the case that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure.
Written over the course of four years, this exquisite biography of an idea is about the improbable foundations of a creative human endeavor. Each chapter focuses on the inestimable value of often ignored ideas—the power of surrender, how play is essential for innovation, the “near win” can help propel you on the road to mastery, the importance of grit and creative practice. The Rise shares narratives about figures past and present that range from choreographers, writers, painters, inventors, and entrepreneurs; Frederick Douglass, Samuel F.B. Morse, Diane Arbus, and J.K. Rowling, for example, feature alongside choreographer Paul Taylor, Nobel Prize–winning physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, and Arctic explorer Ben Saunders.
With valuable lessons for pedagogy and parenting, for innovation and discovery, and for self-direction and creativity, The Rise “gives the old chestnut ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’ a jolt of adrenaline” (Elle).
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The Rise ARCHER’S PARADOX
The women of the Columbia University archery team stepped out of their van on a cold spring afternoon with a relaxed focus; one held a half-eaten ice cream cone in her right hand and a fistful of arrows with yellow fletching in her left; another sported a mesh guard over her shirt, on top of her breast as protection from the tension line of the bow. Baker Athletics Complex, the university’s sporting fields at the northern tip of Manhattan, seemed to have a set of carefree warriors on its grounds.
A man who maintains the property never thought they would arrive. Maybe he was new, because I asked where the archery team would practice and he looked at me quizzically. He didn’t believe that archery was a real Columbia team sport. It was understandable. I had arrived early and the targets were not yet up. Releasing arrows at up to 150 miles per hour aimed at targets seventy-five yards away means safety issues for all around, so the archery team doesn’t practice next to any other. Mastery of this high-precision sport stays largely out of sight.
Coach Derek Davis drove up with the archers and greeted me with his elbow leaning against the gray van’s driver’s side window. His silvery-white dreadlocks hung past his shoulders, covered under a blue patterned bandana that matched his Columbia University archery sweatshirt. He struck me as a composite fit to match this clan: gregarious and at ease, yet focused. On the phone a few days earlier, he had told me that he first picked up the sport as a casual hobby at his wife’s insistence in the late 1980s (“It was safer than pool and didn’t involve alcohol”). He has led the varsity and intramural club teams since 2005 as one-part biomechanical expert, one-part yogi—a university sage fit for ancient warfare turned sport.
The young women smiled and sized me up a little, then passed as I stood beside the chain-link fence entrance to their designated turf. One threw away her melting cone and joined the others who were unpacking the gear from the van’s trunk. They spoke not with words, but by exchanging numbers, their ideal scores or degrees to position themselves to hit their targets.
The women were preparing for an upcoming Nationals competition.1 (There are no men on this varsity team, only at the intramural level of play.) I watched as they carefully set down their compound and recurve bows—like those used at the Olympics, with tips that bend away from the archer—then drew and let loose arrows that curved and fell out of sight as they hit the round target face. Davis didn’t hover, but stood a good distance behind them, perhaps assessing who might need support. Spread out, farther off at the edge of the turf, were toolkits filled with spools, pliers, wrenches, hammers, and nails.
Two archers lined up to shoot. Only one wanted to know her score. Davis was looking with his binoculars downrange, the length of nearly two tennis courts from their location, as one archer let her first arrow fly. I could just hear the sound of a whip cracking the air.
“Seven at six o’clock.”
“Nine at two o’clock.”
Her shots weren’t grouping yet.
“Ten, way high.”
After the next arrow sailed, there was no sound.
“No. Don’t look at that one!” she said, shifting her feet, dropping her bow. “I don’t even think it hit the target.”
“Yeah,” Davis confirmed, “I don’t even see it.”
As I stood behind her, trying to place myself in her position, I couldn’t imagine how even one had hit the target. Every archer calculates the arc of a rise (the drop and horizontal shifts of an arrow’s path), a trajectory only they can predict. Before even accounting for wind speeds, there is always some degree of displacement that happens when the arrow leaves the bow at a skew angle from the target so that the fletching doesn’t hit the string upon release. This is how the arrow is crafted. If you are right-handed in archery, you’ll aim slightly to the left to hit the bull’s-eye. This skill means focusing on your mark, the likely shape of an arrow’s arched flight, and the many variables that can knock it off all at once. The most precise archers call this process of dual focus split vision.
It also requires constant reinvention—seeing yourself as the person who can hit a ten when you just hit a nine, as an archer who just hit a seven, but can also hit an eight. Archery is one of the sports that gives instantaneous, precise feedback. It puts athletes into rank order of how they measure up against their seconds-younger selves. Archers constantly deal with the “near win”: not quite hitting the mark, but seconds later, proving that they can.
If an archer’s aim is off by less than half a degree, she won’t hit her target. “Just moving your hand by one millimeter changes everything, especially when you’re at the further distances,” said Sarah Chai, a recent Columbia graduate and former cocaptain of the varsity archery team.2 From the standard seventy-five-yard distance from the target, the ten-ring, the bull’s-eye, looks as small as a matchstick tip held out at arm’s length. Hitting the eight-ring means piercing a circle the size of the hole in a bagel from 225 feet away. And that’s while holding fifty pounds of draw weight for each shot.
It’s a taxing pursuit. Well into a three-hour practice, two of the women were lying down, their backs on the turf behind the shooting line, staring up at the sky. Three hours per day of meditative focus, trying to find what T. S. Eliot would call “the still point of the turning world,” requires a unique, sustained intensity.3 Living on a landscape where an infinitesimal difference in degree leads to a massive difference in outcome is what makes an archer an archer. It means learning to have the kind of precision that we find in the natural world—like that of a bee’s honeycomb or the perfect hexagonal shape of the rock formations on Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. When archers start getting good, with scores consistently above 1350 (out of 1440), they taper down, shoot less, and attend to their concentration, breathing techniques, meditation, and visualization. One teammate, overwhelmed with exams, still made it up to Baker’s fields because the focus she gets from archery calms her about everything. “When I was studying abroad, I was going crazy without having it,” she said. Without the regimen, she felt irritated all the time.
I stayed at the archery practice for three hours. Someone watching me might have wondered why. For all the thrill of discovering a new sport, it was, admittedly, interminable. I hadn’t brought binoculars, and it is hard to concentrate for three hours on what is right in front of you but not easily seen. It was also a cold day, but I stayed to witness what I was starting to feel I might never glimpse: “gold fever,” or “target panic,” as it’s called—what happens when an archer gets good, even too good, compared to her expectations, and starts wanting the gold without thinking about process. In extreme cases, it means that one day she is hitting the bull’s-eye, the next day her arrows could end up in the parking lot. No one is clear about whether it’s choking, a kind of performance anxiety, or some form of dystonia.4 But what we do know is that the only way to recover fully from it is to start anew, to relearn the motions and to focus on the essentials—breathing, stance, position, release, and posture. None of the archers I saw seemed to have target panic. Few are willing to admit it even if they do.
Yet something else about archery gripped me enough to keep me there. The reason occurred to me as I left practice, walking down Broadway. I stumbled upon a national historic landmark, a restored eighteenth-century Dutch colonial farmhouse owned by the Dyckman family. It once stood on acreage that spanned the width of Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River, but is currently nestled on the busy avenue behind shrubs and foliage, raised and hidden nearly out of sight. The incongruity of the farmhouse on Broadway intrigued me and I went in for a tour. It was, in fact, my second such visit of the day. Watching an archery team in this modern age had been like seeing a similarly ancient relic, a vestige of a past way of work that we rarely spot in action—not a contest, where there is a victor, but the pursuit of mastery.
The mastery I witnessed on the archery field was not glamorous. There was nobility in it all, but no promise of adulation. There is little that is vocational about American culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude, what it takes to align your body for three hours to accurately account for wind speeds and hit a target—to pursue excellence in obscurity. It was an unending day in and day out attempt to hit the gold that few will ever behold. Perhaps I noticed it more than I would with the practice required for a more familiar, popular sport such as basketball or football, one with more chance of glory or fame. To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.
There was another reason. As each arrow left for its target, the archers were caught between success (hitting the ten) and mastery (knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again). If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that this tension between the two, the momentary nature of success and the unending process required for mastery, is part of what creates target panic or gold fever in the first place.
Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate—perfectionism—an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success—an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.
From a certain height, we can see it: Many of our most iconic endeavors—from recent Nobel Prize–winning discoveries to entrepreneurial invention, classic works of literature, dance, and visual arts—were in fact not achievements, but conversions, corrections after an arrow’s past flight. I have long had a magpie curiosity about how we become. As an only child who lived in my imagination, I would delve into the life stories of my elders; my contemporaries; historic innovators, creators, and inventors; and those working at the peak of their powers today—people whose lives are like mine, but at the same time vastly different from my own. I couldn’t escape one observation: Many of the things most would avoid, these individuals had turned into an irreplaceable advantage. I still remember the shudder when I sensed a knowing as sure as fact—that I might only truly become my fullest self if I explored and stayed open to moving through daunting terrain.
I had been thinking of this for much of my life, though it only occurred to me when I was midway through writing this book. It happened when I went to Cambridge and walked into a down-sloped room on Harvard’s campus as Bill Fitzsimmons, the longstanding Dean of Admissions, told us, an audience of alumni, that he had been expelled from high school for truancy. He had fallen in with the wrong crowd and started skipping school. He had to work to apply to another high school in the neighboring town. It gave him a sort of resilience, he said, and something he thinks is critical for life itself. “I remember your application,” the dean said to me when I went to greet him after the panel. He said it again as if he were sure, as he looked at my nametag with my Harvard college alumni year. He grinned, and pursed his lips as if suppressing a thought.
Perhaps he didn’t want to disclose what he had recalled and I had forgotten, a memory long-suppressed: I had written my college application essay about the importance and the advantage of failures—my own—as I perceived them at age eighteen, and in general as a matter of course. I stood there and remembered how I had hidden the essay from my parents and even my college advisor, knowing full well that it was classified as “high risk.” I revealed it at the last minute so that if there were any objections, the lack of any substitute essay would force their hand and let me send it in. I wanted to explore in writing what I was beginning to sense about life—that discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground.
In hindsight, I realize that I was focused on improbable rises because I was beginning to live with the gift of what it means to be underestimated. What happens when the world often assumes, before you’ve even uttered a word, that you could be a failure—based on not fitting a given expectation of the human package in which some expect to find excellence—and how have people turned that into an advantage to meet their aspirations, their dreams?
It was a belief that had crystalized when I would visit my maternal grandparents, who lived in rural Virginia, in a wooden house that was just about ready to sink into the earth. All that was holding it together, it seemed, was their will and a handyman’s attempt. Life for my late grandfather, Shadrach, and grandmother, Blanche, when I was at their house centered around three rooms—the kitchen, filled with all sorts of food I prayed they didn’t eat; the dining room; and the living room, where we did all the things you’re supposed to do in the dining room. Uniting them all was a pass-through chamber where my grandfather would paint his multihued world of characters, both human and divine. He was a janitor by night, a jazz musician always, and a sign painter on the weekends. But at that dining-room table, he would show what he had conjured. The dining room was a place for showing dreams, and his dreams were shaped by hardship. The reality of what he didn’t want helped him more clearly conjure what he did, and it aided who he would become. Above all, I would not have written this book without his example.
As I stood there in that room in Cambridge, I realized that, fifteen years later, I was still thinking about the unheralded yet vital ways that we re-create our future selves.
We have heard the stories: Duke Ellington would say, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”5 Tennessee Williams felt that “apparent failure” motivated him. He said it “sends me back to my typewriter that very night, before the reviews are out. I am more compelled to get back to work than if I had a success.” Many have heard that Thomas Edison told his assistant, incredulous at the inventor’s perseverance through jillions of aborted attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”6 “Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks . . .” read part of the rejection letter that Gertrude Stein received from a publisher in 1912.7 Sorting through dross, artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators have learned to transform askew strivings. The telegraph, the device that underlies the communications revolution, was invented by a painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, who turned the stretcher bars from what he felt was a failed picture into the first telegraph device. The 1930s RKO screen-test response “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little” was in reference to Fred Astaire. We hear more stories from commencement speakers—from J. K. Rowling to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey—who move past bromides to tell the audience of the uncommon means through which they came to live to the heights of their capacity. Yet the anecdotes of advantages gleaned from moments of potential failure are often considered cliché or insights applicable to some, not lived out by all.
This book is about the advantages that come from the improbable ground of creative endeavor. Brilliant inventions and human feats that have come from labor—an endeavor that offers the world a gift from the maker’s soul—involve a path aided by the possibility of setbacks and the inestimable gains that experience can provide. Some could say that what we call “work” often does not. “Work is what we do by the hour,” author Lewis Hyde argues, but labor “sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. . . . Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labors.”8
A division line often positions creativity, innovation, and discoveries as a separate, even elite, category of human endeavor: chosen, lived out by a few. Yet our stories challenge this separation. If we each have the capacity to convert the excruciating into an advantage, it is because this creative process is crucial for pathmaking of all kinds.
What we gain by looking at mastery, invention, and achievement is the value of otherwise ignored ideas—the power of surrender, the propulsion of the “near win,” the critical role of play in achieving innovation, and the importance of grit and creative practice.
This book rarely uses the word failure, though it is at the heart of its subject. The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else—a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention—no longer the static concept of failure. (The word was, after all, not designed for us, but to assess creditworthiness in the nineteenth century, a term for bankruptcy, a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth.)9 Perhaps a nineteenth-century synonym comes closer—blankness—a poetic term for the wiping clean that this experience can provide. It hints, too, at the limitlessness that often comes next.10 Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal, measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect—one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth.11 No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept. As it is with an archer’s target panic—an experience widely felt, but not often glimpsed—the phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist—resilience, reinvention, and grit—but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.
These chapters form the biography of an idea that exists without a current definition. When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances—flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups—yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible. As legendary playwright Christopher Fry reminds us:
From ourselves, can see any difference between
Our victories and our defeats? 12
It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.
On that cold day in May, I watched the Columbia archers and saw why errorless learning does not lead to certain wins. Some archers spend months practicing rhythmic breathing to release the arrow at the rest between their heartbeats, miming the motions, training their bodies to have impeccable bone alignment and scapula motion. They start by using just their hand and an elastic band at very close range on a target with an extremely large face. Their aim has to be nearly flawless before they can move the target farther and farther back. Yet triumph means dealing with the archer’s paradox, handling what lies out of our control: wind, weather, and the inevitably unpredictable movements in life. Hitting gold means learning to account for the curve embedded in our aim.
This book is not an Ariadne’s thread, not a string that prescribes how to wind our way through difficult circumstance. It is an exploration, an atlas of stories about our human capacity, a narrative-driven investigation of facts we sensed long before science confirmed them. The many who appear on these pages gave me their trust to present their journeys and offered me a critical reminder, one that created the unintended thesis of this book. It is the creative process—what drives invention, discovery, and culture—that reminds us of how to nimbly convert so-called failure into an irreplaceable advantage. It is an idea once known, lived out, taken for granted, and now, I hope, no longer forgotten.
Table of Contents
Archer's Paradox 3
The Unfinished Masterpiece 15
The Near Win
Private Domains: Studios and Inner Worlds
Letting Them In: On Critique and Pressure
Arctic Summer: Surrender 61
Beauty, Error, and Justice 89
The Blind Spot 107
The Iconoclast 119
The Deliberate Amateur 141
Friday Night Experiments
The Grit of the Arts 167
Samuel F. B. Morse: Art and Science
Epilogue: The Stars 195
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Sarah Lewis
When we speak about human creativity in all of its permutations, we use terms like success and failure, challenge, setback and triumph. But as art curator and critic Sarah Lewis explores in her protean book The Rise, these words often don't adequately capture the way persistence, doubt, surrender and the play of imagination all take their places in the generation of new ideas and inventions. Taking in human endeavor from archery to polar exploration, from laboratory science to filmmaking, Lewis sets out to chart "the improbable ground of creative endeavor" on a dazzling narrative journey that evokes the work of Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and Matthew B. Crawford.
The Rise takes the form of a tour through the minds, work and words of men and women, across the whole spectrum of human endeavor, from Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, to the groundbreaking choreographer Paul Taylor, to a high-endurance explorer and a pair of Nobel-winning physicists. Introducing readers to "target panic" and the Zen mastery of competition archers, the "mind-pictures" of Frederick Douglass and the strange crucible of the "crit" through which working artists refine their visions, Lewis upends familiar notions of where our stories begin, and what it means to follow one's vision.
I spoke with Sarah Lewis in Manhattan, on a recent bright winter morning, about The Rise and how she came to follow her own vision of its shape. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: Can we begin with the genesis of The Rise, how and why you started this project?
Sarah Lewis: I could not have started this project without being in the arts. Working as a curator at MoMA prior to that working at the Tate Modern, and teaching at the Yale School of Art put me in a position where I was constantly in artists' studios, and would often see, if they're a painter, a back-turned painting in their studio that they wouldn't want to show me, but I had a sense that they weren't going to burn it either. That sense that something that was kind of not quite right, potentially failed, was still critical for what they did want to show me got me thinking about the true genesis of innovation, and what we don't often honor, which is as integral as the success that might have come from it or the discovery that might have come from it. I started to wonder: if we believe that improbable advantages, and irreplaceable ones, come from failure on the journey to creativity and mastery and innovation, is it true in those sorts of fields alone, or whether it was true more broadly.
BNR: Did you begin with the idea that this would be a project about artists and how they work and then it expanded from there? Or from the beginning did you think, "I really want to go well outside painting and sculpture and those sorts of things"?
SL: From the very earliest stage, I always knew that I wanted to be very broad. But I felt that the entry point needed to be about the artistic process, again, because it's where we see most instinctively this idea playing out. The question for me became: Could I show the true arc of innovation as it relates to, say, scientific discoveries, or the genesis of architectural feats, or other things, with the same sort of granular focus. That's what I hope that the book achieved.
BNR: I think it does by looping around in such a resolute way, away from success, and back to questions of failure, the kind of obstacles that are part of every artist's and every inventor's or scientist's experience.
BNR: I wonder at what point did you say to yourself, "This is going to be a book about failure as much as it is about success"?
SL: You know, in some ways, I've been writing this book since I was around 17 years old with that in mind. I wrote my Harvard College application essay about failure and my own ambitions...as I saw them back as a teenager. [LAUGHS] So that's just to say, I've never seen them as separate. So it wasn't a matter of saying, "Oh, let's look at that other distant category that's separate from mastery or success/failure." I've always seen them as connected. It was Martin Luther King Day a few days ago...
BNR: And you have some interesting thoughts about him, and how failure and resilience played out in his career.
SL: That's right. But what I don't mention in the book, though, is the moment where I knew that I was going to write the book, really (one of many), and that was when I went to look at his papers on display at Sotheby's before they were being auctioned off. His report card was shown among these papers. I remember glancing at it and thinking, "Let me just look away," trying to quell this sort of prurient interest here... But I noticed that there were two C's. The fact that there were these two C's (and I think that was the lowest grade) made me wonder what they were in and those C's were Oratory class.
So that was the moment where I thought, "We're not telling the full arc of people's lives here."
BNR: In talking about him, you do relate the story of his stutter, which perhaps interfered with his graded performance in an oratory class in the 1950s. You can imagine someone getting marked down for not getting past their speech impediment completely. But what's very moving in the story that you relate is when he left behind that impediment. I forget who it was that asked him about this.
SL: Harry Belafonte.
BNR: Yes: Harry Belafonte asked him about this, and why he was able to leave it behind. He said, "Once I accepted death, I stopped being bedeviled by these things, and I am not afraid of these things any more."
BNR: You really do feel like suddenly you're in very deep water in a moment like that.
SL: That's right. That moment is really about what surrender means, and he embodies it best... That chapter looks at the way in which surrender is not a moment of giving up, but giving over to something much larger. In this case, for King, it is the fact of death. Ultimately, conquering that can obliterate fear of anything else. Because that's the ultimate fear. In the book, I look at surrender as a way of gaining fortitude in circumstances that seem to present challenges so overwhelming that nothing can be done about them, such that resisting them takes away the energy that you need to figure out what to do about them.
BNR: You talk about surrender in a number of contexts, one of which in the context of combat and martial art, and you talk about Aikido, which brings a marvelous perspective on force and resistance and surrender. Surrender becomes something that's required in order to take in and transmit the energy that you need to overcome, so pushing back at your opponent just winds up depleting you of the resources that you need to move on.
SL: Absolutely. That is one of my favorite passages in the book. It was the most cathartic to write. I processed my own compound grief through it, in having lost so many friends when I was relatively young, in my own twenties. It helped me understand, in talking to Wendy Palmer, an American Aikido-ist, why this technique of surrender is so vital. Because when you do stop resisting something, you stop giving it power, even the kind of death-lock that grief can have over you. Wendy Palmer gave me this beautiful analogy which I write about in the book. She invites you to grasp two glasses, one that contains water and one that's empty. If you hold them without any tension, you can sense their relative difference in weight. As soon as you start to tense, you really can't any more. When we allow tension or resistance, we lose access to our internal resources. That's what surrender is about. It's not a giving-up, but a giving-over, a giving over to all these different circumstances, such that we can keep enough of our capacity to be able to confront them.
BNR: There are things that we see only as forces working against us, and then we can re-experience them as something that can take us someplace new. You open that chapter with the last line of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon...
SL: That's right.
BNR: It's a very powerful ending to a powerful novel, in which there is this fusion of the magical and the everyday, and Milkman takes the leap, whether literally or symbolically: "If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it."
SL: Morrison's quote succinctly describes the aikido move of life, the power of surrender that we derive undaunted power when we give over to a force far beyond us. I am also glad that my subconscious threw up the memory of her particularly powerful line because including it in The Rise had a second layer of meaning for me as an author. I wanted to make sure to have black figures included in my book à tout court, as one friend put it. In other words, I wanted to make sure that black voices were seen as bearers of a universal message. It is still sociological challenge, to get people to see black voices as ones able to speak about the universal experience.
I also chose the quote because Morrison said that Song of Solomon let her make "a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one." I derived inspiration from her in my challenge to write about Ben Saunders' attempts to re-father himself, in a sense through Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Yet, when I was writing the chapter about Ben Saunders, my mind went to Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. I must have been overwhelmed by the odds that Saunders faced, because what I recalled and thought I knew by heart: "If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it," was in fact misremembered. (It should be "air" not "wind").
BNR: Saunders really is an extraordinary figure.
SL: He is, yeah. So the chapter begins and ends with his journey to the North Pole. He is the third person in the world to go unsupported, on foot. He's currently in Antarctica, trying to replicate Captain Scott's failed journey there, and he might just do that. He experiences what is so magical and mysterious as well, which is to exist on a continent the size of the United States, but which is not just one ice sheet; it's multiple sheets of ice that are constantly moving. To be able to trudge for 12 hours in sub-50- degree-Celsius temperatures, with hundreds of pounds on your back, and to you realize that you've drifted backwards the entire time, in the opposite direction of which you wanted to go, was psychologically so difficult for me to comprehend that it just felt like an alien experience. To then sleep, because you need to refuel, and then realize that, in so doing, you've erased your gains from the previous day. It's enough to just to make you wonder how he's still sane!
So that line from Song of Solomon came to me because he has found a beauty in the experience that he's gone through, in surrendering to the fact that you can't control the way the ice is going to flow on the ocean, and it would be futile to try. So what can you do? Well, you can enjoy the fact, as he says, that it's always going to look unique every time you're walking forward, and it's always going to be unique to you, your journey. You can learn to appreciate that fact and all the beauty that comes with these unexpected moments.
BNR: It's in your description of Saunders and his explorations where you zero in on the implicit question: "What's this for?" We know we can track ice with satellites. We can take aircraft to the South Pole. We don't need these sorts of solo human endeavors for the scientific reasons that partially made them exciting in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
SL: For Ben, it's really about an exploration of human limits and our internal capacity. As he says, in the nineteenth century, we knew more about the moon than we did about those frigid planetary climates, the North and South Pole. Now we know all that we probably can with our technology. We don't need one man trudging to help us discover more. We no longer are in a position where nations are racing each other to plant flags on each pole, which was a focus of national tension in Edwardian Golden Age exploration.
He looks at the term "explorer" as one of colonial chest thumping. He sees himself more as a craftsman or an artist. I think that is because it's about a soulful pursuit. Of course, there's a huge physical element. But this is more about reaching an inner frontier that you thought existed, and going beyond it.
Now, he is doing this, of course, for that personal reason. But what I believe is so fascinating about his life is how it inspires others to discover their own frontiers as well.
BNR: The biographer Richard Holmes has written a marvelous book called The Age of Wonder I don't know if you're familiar with it...
SL: I am familiar with it, yes.
BNR: In that book, Holmes brings together the threads of the literature of that era, specifically the poetry, with the scientific endeavors and scientific investigations into chemistry and electricity and many aspects of the natural world, and the Romantic drive to exploration. Writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth saw these things as important because they were investigations of what they saw as the human soul essentially.
SL: Exactly. You can choose many things to help you confront a certain frontier. But failure is built into in the process of this arduous pursuit, both spiritually and psychologically and physically. Failing to come close to a goal can offer a forward thrust of moment. In fact, all of his feats were the results of really a near-win, because he wanted to cross the North Pole actually and go beyond it, but he ended up not making it, so he reached the North Pole. But when he achieved this feat, there was this framed report card on his desk that his teacher had written...she essentially said, "Ben will neer do anything that will amounts to anything... Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile..."
I think it's important to make sure we're clear here. We're not talking about achievement, really, are we? Because achievement doesn't necessarily come with risk or the potential for failure.
BNR: Some things can be achieved with very little of those kinds of experiences behind them.
SL: He feels as if being able to push past it allows him to understand his own capacity... I think it's a beautiful way of living.
BNR: It is. You just closed the book, and so we got another look at the cover, and it reminds me that we haven't yet talked about the title. You make a remark in the book that "success" is sort of an insufficient word for what you want to investigate in The Rise. You're very happy to talk about, among other things, failure and setback but "success" is not the opposite that you're looking for because it's too static.
BNR: Whereas the title of your book is The Rise, which suggests a dynamic. At what point did that title come to you and how did you settle on that term?
SL: That's a great question. It came to me in a number of ways. I'm laughing, because the true moment was actually listening to... I don't listen to a lot of sports, or watch a lot of football games, but I had a football game on and I was thinking about this book, and trying to figure out a word for what I was describing. A team quarterback was answering the question, "Well, what are you going to do?" They were just defeated; I can't remember what team it was. He said, "Well, we just have to rise up!"
I remember thinking that's the word for what I'm describing. "The Rise" with the definite article in front of it. It's no longer an exhortation to really...
BNR: Get up off the ground.
SL: Exactly. "The Rise" I believe speaks to what's timeless in our human journey. We do build on these improbable, seemingly failed foundations I mean, in terms of just the way the planet is constructed. Virginia Woolf's kind of "crumbling and renewing" that I quote is a way to describe how this earth was created.
BNR: Certainly how the ground that we walk on, which is constantly being...literally plates of the earth's surface, one is diving underneath the other while mountains are being raised up elsewhere.
SL: Every metal in our earth is from a dead star. Everything is a function of this dynamic of creation, decline, and renewal. So that was part of it.
But I wanted to also make sure, in every chapter that I wrote, that the animating force was honoring the capacity of the human spirit. For me, the term "rise" suggests what our natural instinct always is to be buoyant in some way.
Then finally, watching these archers at Columbia's Baker Field here in New York made me think about the arc of how it is we hit a target.
BNR: Let's talk a little about the archers. They are the opening of the book, and it's both a fascinating scene and an instantly resonant one, because archery has played such a role in philosophy and poetry and art in many cultures. Both Western and Eastern cultures have looked to archery for metaphors and understanding. How did you come to the idea to go out with the archery team and see what they were doing?
SL: I approached this book clearly as a literary enterprise, but I did bring a curatorial eye to it. As a curator, I'm always looking for what we're failing to see. That's the question I'm always asking myself, such that it will be worth someone's time to come to the museum or to look at it. In this case, I felt that we were not looking enough at a story like Ben's, and certainly not looking at what is behind this timeless pursuit of hitting a target as an archer. What are we doing with the bow-and-arrow still in 2014? Why is this of interest to people?
There was a New York Times article about target panic, about this team, the Columbia varsity team which happens to be all women, in fact, for no other reason than women are the ones who are the best in that arena at Columbia right now, for whatever reason: It's open to men as well. I was struck by this idea of target panic, the idea being that you can train for so long, such that you might forget to focus on process how it is that you need to stand, what you need to do to align your scapula to really master the pose, so that you one day might be hitting gold, and the next day your arrow is going to end up in the parking lot or somewhere really distant from the target, because you're just not thinking about process.
No one can quite figure out what it is this is what I found out by doing a lot of research from the Mayo Clinic and other places. They don't know if it's some form of choking, or dystonia, or another kind of hiccup. But people, when they get it, it's hard to get over. You have to go back to basics, and you have to mime the motions from the very beginning kind of relearn it.
BNR: Pitchers in baseball talk about this as well the mystery of pitching, and the ineffable quality of doing it well, versus suddenly, one day, not having your stuff anymore.
SL: Absolutely. That's what brought me up to watch them that day. But what I realized as I watched them that my entire interest had to do with what they were displaying, which was a kind of mastery. It was at that moment when I realized that I wasn't speaking about success as much as mastery. If you just freeze- frame on an archer hitting a 10, I realize that moment, that's success. It's event-based. But it's fleeting.
BNR: It doesn't have much to offer us other than the spectacle of a marvelous feat.
SL: Right. Success is also something that the external world confers on you. Mastery is something else. It is, as I describe in the book, this ever-onward-almost, knowing that you just hit a 9 and you really could have hit a 10, or you just hit an 8 that could have been a 9, and so on.
That journey, I believe, is what thriving is about. It's what the animating force behind endearing careers is about. It's frequently hidden. What is required to sustain mastery is oftentimes hidden. It's certainly hidden up at Baker Athletic Complex, so much so, that the person who tended the grounds didn't even know the archers were practicing, and was bewildered that I was there.
We live in a culture that doesn't focus as much on these moments where you're really learning a trade or learning a skill, but it doesn't give you glory immediately.
BNR: We use the word "pursuit" almost unconsciously. But when one steps back to it, it feeds into what you were talking about now and so much in the book, which is the value, as well as the pleasure, and both of those things together, in the act of pursuing. There's an exhilaration and an aliveness that only really kind of happens in that moment.
SL: Yes. Intrinsic value is what we're also talking about. To be able to extract that gains that come from so-called failure (I'll say, because I don't think it's the appropriate word after writing this book), you have to love it from an internal level. If someone is forcing you to extract gains from failure, it's a very different process.
BNR: This leads me into asking about your chapter "Beauty, Error and Justice," because in a way that is the most audacious section of the book, bringing ethical ideas into play and introducing Frederick Douglass to illustrate your understanding of "the rise" in its moral application. Did you know you were going to include Douglass and his work in this book when you started? Or how did you come to that decision?
SL: I wrote this book partly in tandem with the dissertation that is now in manuscript for Harvard University Press. It comes out about a year after this book. That work focuses on Douglass. It just occurred to me as I was writing them in tandem that Douglass needed to enter the frame here. It might be audacious to the reader, but to me, it's seamless. Or it was required. Because the moment in which Frederick Douglass is speaking about the power of aesthetic force and the way in which you can overcome fractures, ethical fractures on a national scale, is when America was in its moment of its greatest failure, during the Civil War. When that occurred to me, I thought, "Well, why not bring him into this?" I speak about another timeless figure. I speak about Samuel Morse. So it made sense, at least in terms of the arc of lives that I was looking at.
I do something probably audacious by any measure, which is that I withhold the fact that I'm speaking about Douglass for a long time in that chapter.
BNR: I had to put it together myself just a little bit, and then I realized that you'd done that intentionally.
SL: I did. I stand by it; I'm sure other writers or editors would have done something different there. But I do feel that our perception of who Douglass is any reader's perception, really would have made understanding what he was arguing for in those speeches, called "Pictures of Progress" or, alternatively, "Life Pictures," something that they might not have grasped. People might have just skipped over because they thought they knew who he was and what he would have said.
BNR: Assuming it would boil down to a passionate speech against the evils of slavery and the importance of emancipation and the ending of the Confederacy.
SL: Right. But Douglass wanted to speak about pictures, and the power of "thought pictures," as he calls them. What he meant by that is the power of aesthetic force can conjure an image in the mind that can create a vision to overcome failures of any kind. That's radical, I think, in its poetic power and its true power. I think it's what we're living out, and have, from environmental movements to the abolition of slavery.
I talk about the way in which the description of a ship, the slave ship Brooks, shows with graphic precision the inhumanity of the slave trade, in a way that no form of argument could have done. The limit of rational argument is something that we've been grappling with since Aristotle. It's an age-old question. What are the limits? Where does the power of the arts come in to help us push past those limits? Douglass is picking up that mantle I wanted to make sure that I showed him as the philosopher that he was as well as the orator and the abolitionist.
BNR: Here's the slightly uncomfortable question that I wanted to pose back to you what about when aesthetic force may not be ethically neutral or always ethically good? The obvious examples might be in the films of Leni Riefenstahl. Aesthetic force does have power. Does it always have a power to take us in directions that are really good?
SL: This is a question that I was asked, actually, when I was presenting this as a work in progress. Now, I think it's important to be clear. Douglass wasn't solely pointing to photography or the power of prints, and saying, "These images are so powerful that they alone can help us pass these ethical failures." He was talking about what actually goes on in the mind when we look at something that's so forceful and powerful that we have a reaction to it, one that in that moment expands our world and gets us to see that we ourselves have failed in our perception of things. So he uses this term "thought pictures."
Now, I could probably write the same chapter using examples of propaganda, for example, that make the opposite point ethically, that would have, say, denigrated different individuals. Because I think that Douglass's point still remains, which is that you could still look at these images and have a thought picture in your mind, because they're so forceful, that I still believe that it ultimately goes in the direction of justice. Martin Luther King saw life in this way; as he said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards of justice. The work of the imagination is part of the reason why.
BNR: He [Douglass] mentions music, too, and you bring in how important the music of Louis Armstrong was to Charles Black, who argued Brown vs. Board of Education.
SL: That's right.
BNR: It's a beautiful passage, the suggestion that, in this way that isn't literal or simple to translate, in experiencing the power of Armstrong's music, Black got launched on a path that took him to where he wound up as a lawyer.
SL: Absolutely. So no, it's certainly not simply the visual arts. That example really could have been the spine of the chapter as well, that moment where Charles Black goes (and he's a high school student) to this dance in Austin, and he's so struck by this trumpeter (he doesn't know it's Louis Armstrong) that he realizes that segregation is wrong. It was 1931. He recognized genius coming out of Louis Armstrong's horn, and he realized that, if this man is a genius, then we have committed an ethical failure in this country.
But it actually speaks to your previous question, because in that moment he was with a friend who listened to the same music and was impacted, but instead... He says an epithet about Louis Armstrong, a racial slur, and shook his head, as if kind of clearing it from the image, and walked away.
BNR: It was just befuddling that someone he could denigrate in his mind so strongly would, at the same time, be producing this music. And you're suggesting that's emblematic of the imaginative failure and the nature of the fact that so many of our cultural failures are failures of the imagination. We can't reimagine the terms that we have become used to, to match up to the reality that's presenting itself to us.
SL: Exactly. I'm actually doing an event about the power of the imagination, based on this Douglass chapter, for one of the book tour events at the Public Theater, which was ever so taken by this idea. That really is it. So it doesn't so much concern me that there is a dark side to the power of pictures, or thought-pictures really, because what I think is happening here is we're looking at the way in which the imagination cannot be defeated, and the thrust that imagination does tend to go to is towards justice overall.
BNR: It comes back to the idea of the arrow's bending flight.
SL: That's right. To have that, to pull back enough to see it from that perspective, is what I wanted to try to do in the book.
BNR: I want talk a little bit about the way the book concludes. The book has many excursions into the arts, of all kinds. But you've been a curator of visual arts, so it comes in that second-to-last chapter, your last full-length chapter, "The Grit of the Arts."
BNR: This is a subject that has come up in a number of places over the last few years, the role of grit in our creative lives, the importance of it, how we might have been failing to see it as an important part of development, or had neglected it for a while, and it's something that, in the nineteenth century, was actually talked about more as an important aspect of character. As a curator, as an arts educator, how has that changed the way that you're seeing your field now? Do you look at artists and think, "There's grit? There's someone who needs to find grit?" How is that playing out in your experience?
SL: The process of making, even if you're not an artist, teaches what very few experiences other than that can, which is about... It teaches you discernment. It teaches you agency. It teaches how to fully see. So the value of the arts, I believe, is tied into that. It is a really difficult skill to master, to learn when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
BNR: I'm glad we got to Kenny Rogers in this conversation. I was worried we'd never get there.
SL: Well, that's a quick way to summarize the distinction between grit and dysfunctional persistence.
That's the reason for writing that chapter. Angela Duckworth, who has been doing much of the pioneering work on grit, has found it to be the best predictor in terms of educational settings for achievement, above and beyond IQ or standardized tasks. But the question still is: how do you cultivate grit? She doesn't know, and says as much. No one does. But I believe that the way in which we do cultivate it is through the very opposite of what we think grit is, which is the arts.
People feel the arts are a place where you can go to escape the difficult, dogged pursuit of something else in your academic life, where you can just kind of escape into the arts. I think the opposite is true in part because of what you have to withstand in order to improve your work.
BNR: The grit matches up with the critique what art schools call the crit and you have to take in the crit and not be destroyed by it, somehow be able to internalize it and move on.
SL: Yeah. I'll tell you a story that I didn't write about in the book. But I just came back from doing a talk at Sundance, the film festival there, with Robert Redford, Dave Eggers, Charles Limb, Jill Soloway and Chris Stone. The panel was inspired by the book, and looking at failure and creativity. Robert Redford shared that when he was very young, he was doodling instead of paying attention in a class, and the teacher said, "Bob, what's more important than listening to the lesson right now?" She said, "What are you drawing?" The whole class was laughing at him. He said, "Well, these cowboys, and they've got all these Indians..." To me, it kind of sounded like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the class loved it so much that the teacher granted him 15 minutes every week, I believe, to talk through his art. He said that saved him. But being able to not disintegrate from the critique, from people laughing at his work and the teacher sort of making fun of what he was doing, was key.
Now, artists deal with how to handle critique on a heightened basis, when you're in an MFA program or if you're an artist having a crit of your work by a curator. As Lisa Yuskavage said, it's kind of like the nightmare of standing nude in public, except you add a scale to that to that nightmare. It's very difficult. It's highly performative. You have typically all of your peers around you, largely the full extent of the faculty critiquing your work for 45 minutes to an hour, and for the majority of the time you're not saying much of anything, so your work is speaking for itself.
The goal is to find that bit of feedback that helps you. But in order to extract it, you have to first let people walk around your work as if it's the circumference of a circle, and really look at it from every angle. And how often is that done in any other field of endeavor? To really, really critique something. We're not talking about beta- testing something, putting out two web pages and figuring out which is better. No. This is letting people really state honestly if they think this has any merit, if they think this has any merit, if they think you should pursue this path at all and what they think does have merit. The trick is to know that they are not making your work. Only you know what your true intentions are, and how far away that is from the effect of your work. So then you have to take all that information and find the agency to then use it for your own goal.
That requires maturity. It requires grit. It requires a sense of interconnectedness, to know what your true intention is, and it's not something that I feel can be taught any other way. Because we're looking at the process of making, imagining, inventing. It's what the arts, I think, have to offer that we are lost without ultimately.
BNR: It suggests, too, that one of the enduring myths that we need to call into question is the myth of the "artist." That is, that there is a person whose genius is such that they know how to survive this, that they can weather these things with their vision. Of course, there are these people, and you feature many of them in the book. Paul Taylor being a sterling example someone who has revolutionized dance, but had to do so through this pursuit through almost the most disintegrating criticism of his vision.
SL: Yeah, absolutely.
BNR: We can't deny that these people exist, and we want, in fact, to give them as much possibility and freedom to work as we can. But it sounds like what you're suggesting is that we are in danger of saying only those people who can really self- identify, or that we can identify as belonging to that category, ought to be working in these ways at all, a instead, to really take back artistry as a fundamental facet of our lives.
SL: That's it. That's exactly it. In fact, there was a line that I did take out of the text, because it felt like it's its own book to state this. But at one point, I did mention: If this is so critical, if the arts are so critical, it's not simply because artists are so important for our culture. It's because creativity is how we all create our lives in our fullest way. But to have to defend the idea that creativity is part of everyone's life felt like it was another project.
January 24, 2014
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