The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.
I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]
When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.
Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:
Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.
Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”
The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.
When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:
“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”
Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:
Am I living authentically?
When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades. Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).
Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.
It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”
Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.