Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science studies on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.

The Legacy of a Lifetime

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the July 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

After TREE Fund was organized in 2002 via the merger of the ISA Research Trust (ISART) and the National Arborist Foundation, our very first research awards were made under the Hyland Johns Grant Program, originally established by ISART. This grant program’s namesake was, and remains, one of the great innovators and leaders in scientific utility arboriculture, and he was onsite in 1952 at the very beginning of the legendary “Bramble and Byrnes” research test plots in Pennsylvania, which TREE Fund now administers.

Over the years, TREE Fund has awarded ~$1.5 million in Hyland Johns Grants, and some of our most influential findings and outcomes have emerged from under this program’s auspices. But unlike the majority of our other grant programs, these awards have always been made on a “pay as we go” basis, rather than being secured by a permanent endowment fund that generates revenue annually. As we have often observed, trees are slow-growing, long-lived organisms. Permanent endowments are the best possible ways to ensure that our often equally long-term and slow-moving research programs can continue with confidence that funding will be in place to see them through to fruition.

Two months ago, TREE Fund’s Board of Trustees recognized that our signature program needed such long-term security, and unanimously voted to establish the Hyland Johns Endowment Fund. This new endowment will immediately become an important part of our investment and grant-making portfolio. It will further reduce our dependence on labor-intensive, transactional, retail fundraising to support our scientific mission.

Named endowments and grant programs are often established via memorial gifts, so that their honorees do not actually have the opportunity to see and appreciate the work done in their names. That’s not the case here, as Hyland Johns has been – and remains – an ardent, regular TREE Fund supporter, a great source of wisdom and historical perspective for us, and a mover, shaker, collaborator and networker par excellence within the greater tree care community. It’s always a privilege to let Hyland know what we’re doing in his name, and it’s always a treat when he contacts us to share his thoughts on and reactions to our work.

In addition to being an inspiration and leader on the scientific side of our endeavors, Hyland was also a trend-setter as one of the earliest members of our Heritage Oak Society which honors supporters who have included TREE Fund in their estate plans. There is literally no better way to support endowment funds than by making legacy gifts, which will outlive all of us, continuing the work we care about in perpetuity. The last time Hyland and I spoke, he let me know that he would be honored to direct part of his own legacy gift to the new Hyland Johns Endowment Fund – a perfect, fitting alignment of past, present, and future, a great life’s work now extended and amplified through the generosity of his estate gift.

Endowments and estate gifts are essential to TREE Fund’s long-term success. I hope others may be inspired by the example of Hyland Johns, and join him as members of the Heritage Oak Society.

2019.5

Last December, I noted that I was utterly, mentally fried by the endless onslaught of exhausting, soul-sucking social media agita over the prior year, and that I was dismayed by how it had eaten into more productive/positive writing and reading and living time. I set myself three goals for 2019 accordingly:

  • Read better political coverage, and less often.
  • Write better stuff, about something different.
  • Read more books, and less social media.

I’ve achieved the first goal by un-following any and all social media accounts that have any whiff of the political about them, and by beginning my days by reading a few trusted media outlets over coffee, and then not looking again until the next day. As I noted in December, “America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics.” I feel that was a good and accurate step and assessment. It’s working for me.

I didn’t explicitly say “write more” in my goals for the year, but that has happened: in addition to my regular writing for work, I’ve put up 33 pieces on this website in the first half of 2019, compared to 21 in the first half of 2018. Reader traffic is up by about 20%, which isn’t really a priority for me, since I’m not monetizing or selling anything here, but it is still nice to see. I feel good about my Credidero project, which is on schedule, up to about 22,000 words in aggregate at this point, and is actively leading me to reflect on some personally meaningful concepts in ways that I have not done before. Personal growth gold star there. Dunno if it’s really been of interest to others, but it is pleasing me, and I think there will be a nice 50,000-ish word manuscript there at the end of the year that might be a cornerstone document for some future endeavors or activities.

On the reading front, I’ve already read more books in the first half of 2019 than I did in all of 2018, so that feels very good in terms of filling my head with entertainment and wisdom, rather than hate and noise. Since I usually do a “Best Albums of The Year (First Half)” report here, I figured I’d also share my fave new book reads of the first half of 2019, in case in any of these might rock your worlds as well.

On the cusp of last year and this, I had mentioned in December that my next read was Richard Powers’ 2018 The Overstory, and it was indeed the masterwork I expected it to be, as I reported here. I also read one other great 2018 book after I did my year-end report last year: Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. If you only know the story of USS Indianapolis from Quint’s soliloquy in Jaws, you owe it to yourself to read the full account.

And then, on to 2019, first half, the best of what I’ve read so far, the ten things I’d most recommend to you . . .

NONFICTION:

FICTION:

The best of the best so far this year . . . glorious and heart-breaking . . .

Home from Greece

After a loooong travel day yesterday, Marcia and I tumbled into our (best) bed (ever) in Des Moines to try to get our body clocks readjusted for regular life again. Our 30th Anniversary Trip was truly amazing, with great stops in Santorini, Mykonos and Athens. Some quick thoughts and observations from a still-travel-addled brain:

  • Santorini was sublime, unique, and captivating, though with the caveat that it has become one of the main cruise ship stops in the region, so its hip destinations (most especially sunset at Oia) can be annoyingly swamped and commercialized, their magic tamped out by hyper-tourism. (We are not fans of cruise ships, as they tend to blight their ports of call, alas). We stayed on the quieter Eastern shore of the island, in Kamari, and I would recommend you do that as well if you visit. The sunrises on that side of the island are spectacular too, and you can get over to the crowded/sunset side of the island fairly easily if/when you want to. I would also most heartily recommend taking a sailboat cruise around the archipelago, with a stop at the volcano at the shattered island’s heart. And also eat lots of the local Santorini Fava, om nom nom!
  • Mykonos was probably our least favorite (barely) of the three destinations, as it really favors the sort of tacky money/party/beach/rave scene in ways that aren’t quite aligned with our lives at this point, and that tend to attract a bit more drunk/criminal element than is optimal. That said, we stayed at an isolated resort called Kirini My Mykonos Retreat that may well have been the most spectacular destination we have ever over-nighted, and the boat trip to Ancient Delos was well worth the stop at Mykonos in its own right. I guess I would have raved about Mykonos if we just went there and nowhere else . . . but seeing another Aegean Isle and spending time in the Capital just made this stop seem a little bit crass, comparatively speaking. Plus, we had the experience of getting into a cab one afternoon, only to have our vehicle pulled over by armed police officers a few blocks later, one of the gendarmes using a power drill to remove its license plates while we sat inside, caught in the middle of a local power/shakedown play. That put us off our feed a bit.
  • I loved Athens. Which, honestly, was a little bit of a surprise because so many people have complained (crowded, noisy, smelly, hot, etc.) or said “one day was enough” to me about their own visits there. It’s a big city, sure, but I guess having lived in one of those for most of the past five years, my tolerance for the urban experience may be a bit higher than that of a casual suburban tourist type. We had great food, great walks, a great hotel, our visit to the Acropolis was no more harried or frenzied than what one experiences in any major global destination, and I found the parts of the city we explored to be lovely and engaging. I hope to return with more time at some point, and will gently chide anybody who makes sniffy noises to me about it in the future. Philistines.
  • We booked this trip using the independent travel option with our long-time favorite U.S. Travel Agency, Gate1 Travel, and I have to say they absolutely hit it out of the park in terms of the quality of the package, and the support available in-country from their local teams. Just superb. You could book it yourselves here. When you get to the lodging options, I’d recommend you upgrade to the premium level . . . it was totally worth it, every penny, in terms of the quality of the experience.

Okay, that’s about as much as the brain can handle this morning, so let’s send you to the photos, if you care to see more. Click the image of Marcia and I doing our best jobs to find the selfie lens below, and see what it looked like for us while were there:

30 Years

This photo was taken June 24, 1989, at The Church of the Incarnation, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Marcia and I had just said “I do” and “I do,” been pronounced man and wife, I’d gotten to kiss the bride — and then we stepped off down the aisle together, arm in arm, for whatever life was going to throw our way, with smiles on our faces.

30 years later to the day, we still walk arm and arm, with smiles on our faces. We’ve moved around the country numerous times over the past three decades, bought and sold several houses, earned a couple of degrees, lost many of the dear people who were with us on our wedding day, raised an incredibly interesting and accomplished young woman to independent adulthood, worked really hard in multiple jobs, celebrated victories and joys, and endured struggles and hardships, together.

We still go to bed every night holding hands and saying “I love you,” and we mean it.

The ancient Greeks had different words for different types of love: eros, philia, ludus, agape, philautia, storge, and pragma. The last one of the seven is described thusly:

The everlasting love between a married couple which develops over a long period of time. Pragma is the highest form of love; the true commitment that comes from understanding, compromise and tolerance. It is pragmatic, which is why it is referred to as “standing in love” rather than “falling in love,” because it grows over time and requires profound understanding between lovers who have been together for many years.

I could not have understood that concept as a 20-something young Naval Officer in 1989, but today, that concept resonates with me to my core, and I can’t really imagine aspiring to many things more desirable than living in that state, every day. Which I do, and which blows my mind each and every time I pause to think about it. I am so very fortunate to have walked a life path with Marcia on the road to pragma (among other loves), and I am so very excited by the prospect of doing so for the next 30 years and beyond.

It seems fitting, as I think about these ancient and profound Greek concepts of love, that Marcia and I are actually in Greece this week to celebrate our 30th Anniverary, with visits to Athens, Santorini and Mykonos on the itinerary. Lots of history, lots of walks, lots of culture, lots of time together, just the way we like it. Happy Anniversary to We!

I know that there are new changes coming in the next few years in how we live our lives, and what we do with them, and where we do it — and those changes are exciting and scary in equal measure, as I consider them. But whatever may come to pass, I know that Marcia and I will be doing it together, arm in arm, with smiles on our faces, and love in our hearts. What an incredible gift it is to spend a life-time with my best friend, and to still wake every morning excited about what the day may bring, because I know she will be a part of it.

 

Credidero #6: Creativity

When I was in First Grade, our class was introduced to haiku, the classic Japanese form of short poetry structured in three lines, of five, seven and five syllables each. After our teacher explained the concept, read us some examples, and showed how to count syllables (do they still do the thing where you put your hand under your chin while enunciating words?), we were told to take out a sheet of paper (this stuff, remember?) and pen our first haiku. I thought for a few minutes, dutifully jotted one down, counted to make sure the syllables worked out, and handed in my work.

Some time later that day, I was summoned to speak with our teacher, and there were a couple of other grownups behind her desk, though I did not know who they were. Uh oh! Trouble! The teacher asked me where I got the poem I had submitted. I told her I wrote it. She nodded and asked if I wrote it by copying it out of a library book. I said no, I just thought it up and wrote it down. She kept pressing me on other possible sources for the little poem, and I kept telling her that I made it up, following her instructions. She then asked me to define a specific word within the poem, and to explain a specific phrase. I answered her as best I could.

I do not recall or have that entire poem intact anymore, alas, but I do remember that the issues that led my teacher to call in the guidance police and interrogate me on whether I had actually written it or not were my use of the word “ere,” the elegance of my alliterative phrase “gray-green grass,” and the fact that I inadvertently did exactly what a haiku was really supposed to do — juxtaposing images around a seasonal reference — while most of my classmates were writing straight literal odes to their cats or toys or mothers. Clearly, no little country cracker from South Cackalacky should have been able to do that, right?

The thing that finally convinced the teacher and the school-yard Stasi agents that I had not somehow plagiarized the poem was the fact that when I was asked to read it aloud, I pronounced the word “ere” as “err-eh,” (I had only seen it in my favorite poetry book, but had never heard it spoken), so my middle syllable count was actually off by one.  So apparently, I really hadn’t been carrying around a little Bashō masterpiece in my Speed Racer lunchbox just waiting to spring it on someone for my own gain at an opportune moment. I was dismissed and off to recess I went, a bit concerned and confused.

Some time soon thereafter, I was promoted directly from First Grade to Third Grade,  branded smart beyond my limited years, at least in part because of that little poem. I learned three key things from this confluence of events:

  1. Being creative can cause trouble
  2. Being creative can open doors to opportunity
  3. People correlate artistic creativity with full spectrum intelligence

I also picked the Beloved Royals to win the 1978 World Series. Wrong again.

I have never stopped writing since then, for pleasure and for pay. My first real job was as the “Teen Editor” of the Mitchel News when I was 13 years old, per the photo at left. I was supposed to be a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids and documenting the things in which the young people on the military base where I lived were presumed to be interested. But after a column or two like that, I got bored, and I started doing record reviews of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan albums instead, or handicapping sports seasons (Remember the NASL? I went out on a limb and predicted that my beloved Washington Diplomats would win the 1978 title. I was wrong), or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far.

I was fired from the job after about a year, because my creative voice was not the creative voice that the newspaper’s publisher desired me to have, or at least to create, for his readers. So I learned a lesson there, too: creative writing and “technical writing” (for lack of a better term) were not the same thing in the eyes of publishers and readers, and there was a difference in the things that I wrote for myself and the things that I wrote for others. (Well, I also learned, much to my chagrin, that my cushy desk job writing stuff was a whole lot easier than cutting grass, delivering newspapers, clearing brush, or washing dishes, all of which I had to do at one time or another to earn my scratch after I was chucked out at the press room, alas.)

That distinction between creative and “technical” writing is true to this day, of course, although then and now, there’s always been one thing that sort of sticks in my craw when I actively ponder it, and it’s the fact that I do not perceive either form of writing as requiring any more of less creativity than the other, though only gets called “creative.” One type might require research, one type might not. One type might require the creation of characters, one type might require creatively describing real characters. One type might require me to write in dialog or dialect, creating a voice for other people to speak, one type might require me to speak in a voice other than my own to appeal to the whims and tastes of the people or organizations who pay me for my efforts. But they all require creativity.

I enjoy both types of writing, in different ways, and in different times. When I sit down with a blank page or a blank screen before me, and I get up some time later leaving a big blob of words behind, I feel that I have created something. It may be a newsletter column, it may be a poem, it may be a story, or it may be a Credidero article. All equal in my mind in terms of their worth (though I know from experience that in the eyes of those who pay for my blank paper and computer screen, my “technical” writing is of far greater value), all requiring the same basic sets of linguistic skills, all involving creativity. I have to start with an idea, I have to formulate structures around the idea, I have to put the idea into a meaningful context, I have to deploy resources to ensure the idea is valid, I have to find the right words to share the idea with others. When that’s done, I have made something, from nothing. Voila, creation!

Interestingly enough, this concept that humans can be creative and practice creativity is actually a shockingly modern one in Western Culture. In Plato’s Republic, the wise old Greek philosopher is asked “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” and he replies “Certainly not, he merely imitates.” For centuries, the widely-held philosophical belief was that only God could create something from nothing — creatio ex nihilo — while we mere mortals were stuck with imitating, or discovering, or making, or producing, oftentimes guided by inhuman forces, like Muses, or Daemons, but certainly not creators in our own right. Poetry was one of the first arts to be granted license to be seen as an act of creation, with other written texts, and other arts genres following in the 19th Century. It was only in the early 20th Century when Western people begin to speak of “creativity” in the natural sciences and technical fields. So whether they realize it or not, the creative folks today who (somewhat pretentiously, to these ears) call themselves “makers” instead “artists” are actually invoking a 2,000-year old paradigm that (again, to these ears) devalues the fruits of their labors, rather than (as likely intended) anchoring them as somehow more “real” or pragmatic that the stuff that the arsty-fartsy types produce.

I find the long and wide-spread cultural reluctance to embrace and value creativity as a deeply personal, deeply human, deeply individual endeavor or trait to be fascinatingly awry with own beliefs and experiences on this front. When I interview for jobs or freelance assignments, or even in just regular conversations (because I’m like that) and I am asked what I consider to be my greatest skill, I always default to “communications” — I am a story-teller, at bottom line, and I can make people believe in my organizations’ work and mission, by talking to people, and by writing to people. If you hire me, I’ll do the same for your organization!

I create narratives on the job, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from consolidation of extant texts, but there’s a deep creative element to both of those activities. I also tell stories on my own time, fictional ones, poetic ones, accounts of events yet to come, documentation of events gone by. A concert review is a story. A fundraising appeal is a story. A speech is a story. An explanation of a research finding is a story. I am a story-teller. And I would not be a story-teller if I did not possess a finely tuned sense of creativity, and a desire and skill to create something that did not exist until I turned my mind to it. I can’t imagine my mind, in fact, if it was not anchored in that desire to create stories. I have done lots of creative things in various creative fields over the years (a bit more on that later), but my stories and my writing are as intrinsically me, myself and I as anything else I do.

I generally think of this a good thing, though research may indicate otherwise. A study involving more than one millions subjects by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reported by the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012, found that, as a group, those in the creative professions were “no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism.” Phew! But wait . . . within that surveyed cohort of creative types, the researchers did find that writers (!) had a “higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves” (!!) and that dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.

Well, uhhh . . . yeah. That. Kettle, pot. Pot, kettle. We writers are apparently the most damaged creatives, the Vincent van Goghs and Roky Ericksons and Francisco Goyas and Nick Drakes of the world notwithstanding. For the record, if I look back at the my family tree just for a couple of generations, and across a couple of close cousin branches, every single one of those disorders appears, often multiple times. So is the creative drive that I think of as a gift or a blessing actually just a side symptom of a spectrum of mental illnesses passed on to me as part of my innate genetic code?

Maybe. The suffering artist stereotype probably didn’t emerge without evidence, after all, and when I think about the periods in my life when I was most floridly, obsessively creative (not just in writing), they probably do correlate closely with the periods when I felt the most vulnerable or damaged. Being driven can be a good thing. And being driven can be a bad thing. Beautiful stories can emerge from dark spaces, and dark narratives can emerge from a happy place. Keeping busy and being productive can be cheap forms of self-administered therapy, or they can be positive manifestations of a mind well, truly, and happily engaged.

This way madness lies.

I think of big part of managing my own creativity is being self-aware enough, through long experience, to know which of these conditions are in play at any given time, and to create accordingly. In the 1990s, to cite but one time-place-topic example, I wrote a novel, called Eponymous. It was about a dissolute musician-writer named Collie Hay, beset with a variety of substance abuse issues and mental health problems, written in the first person, explaining why and how the writer wrote, and knitting a narrative about how creation and destruction often go hand in hand. The epigraph of the book, the very first words you read when you open it, say “For the Demons . . . Fly away! Be free!” The very last page of the book, in the author’s bio, says “J. Eric Smith is not Collie Hay. Honest.” But, uhhh, y’know. Of course, I’d say that. I’m a writer, and not to be trusted.

One review by a trusted colleague who was also a damaged writer type noted “Eponymous is a hall of mirrors. J. Eric Smith, the author, who’s been an upstate New York rock critic, has written a book about an upstate New York rock critic who is himself writing a book. The book-within-a-book device is hard to pull off, but when it works (see Tristram Shandy and Adaptation) — and it works well here — it’s lots of fun.” And it starkly lays bare the correlations, at least in my case and in my mind, between written creativity and dysfunction, without even really bothering to explain them, since they just seem(ed) to me to go hand in hand, as a given. It also felt good to write, and some demons did, in fact, flitter off as result of having written it. Poof! Therapy!

(Side Note #1: If you want to read Eponymous — and 20+ years on from creating it, I’m not sure I’d really recommend it to you — find a cheap, used print version of it, not the Kindle version. It was adapted as an e-book without my permission or supervision, and a lot of the internal formatting [there’s poems, lyrics, other stuff of that ilk] got messed up and is very difficult to read on an e-book reader. I don’t make a penny from it either way, so it’s your call if you want to score it, but I just don’t want you to have to struggle with a nasty mess of on-screen gobbledygook if you do wade into the thing).

While I’ve focused my personal observations here on writing, I should note that I have been and remain creative in other ways too. I’d claim photography as the visual art form in which I have the greatest interest and skill, and I’ve been a songwriter, singer, musician and lyricist over the years as well, though mainly in my younger days. Until precisely 1993, in fact, I would have cited music as my primary creative skill, and the one which I was most willing, able and likely to achieve success (critical, if not commercial) over the years.

How can I date that end point so accurately? That was the year when we got our first home computer and I got online for the first time. My home recording studio began gathering dust soon thereafter. For a long time after that when people would ask about how my music was going, I’d say “I’m in remission as a musician these days,” so once again, even way back then, I was lightly associating creativity with illness, even if I laughed it off in so doing. But we all know that every joke has a bit of truth behind it.

(Side Note #2: If I could snap my fingers and have any job in the world, hey presto, right now, I would want to be the principal, non-performing lyricist for a commercially and critically successful musical act. The Bernie Taupins, Roberts Hunters, Peter Sinfields, and Keith Reids of the world have got good gigs! I have had the pleasure of having my poems recorded as lyrics by a few musicians, and it’s deeply satisfying, let me tell you. That’s likely to be one of the areas I’m going to focus creative attention on when I retire from my last day job accordingly. Maybe the group or singer that hires me would let me provide the photographs for the album covers and promotional materials too. A fellow can dream, right? Even a broken creative fellow?)

So creativity has touched and shaped my life in a variety of ways that fall under the “artistic” umbrella, but the amount of time I spend on those pursuits pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend at my job. Sure, writing and speaking and story-telling are cornerstones to that, and as noted above, and I feel that those facets of my professional work are every bit as anchored in my core, latent sense of creativity as are my most absurd and fantastic pieces of fiction and poetry. But just as the concept of creativity evolved and was adapted in the early 20th Century to include the sciences and technical endeavors, the latter part of the Century saw the definitions expanding further into organizational, operational, and business dynamics, and the ways that groups use creativity to build and sustain corporate culture.

Look at tech behemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Netflix, just off the cuff. Sure, there were certainly some blindingly creative people within their corporate structures who made the technical products and business services they provide, but they would not be what they are today without other visionaries imagining, designing, and implementing completely new business models and marketing approaches unlike anything seen or experienced before them. The brains behind those new business models were certainly engaged in forms of creativity, making new and valuable things (many of them concepts, not stuff), filling market spaces that nobody knew existed before they dreamed them up and monetized them. If you had told me when I was a teenager that by my 55th birthday I’d be able to listen to any song in the world while watching a movie, doing my banking, typing to a pen pal in Australia, and playing a video game, on my phone, at the beach, all at the same time, I’d have said you were watching way too much Jetsons for your own good. That’s just silly, Astro.

The transformative nature of the tech sector means that much of the recent and current research into and writing about creativity in the workplace focuses on organizations and individuals within the Silicon Valley sphere of companies, because the cause-effect-impact relationships there are easy to identify, evaluate and explain. But the work that many of us do in non-technical sectors can involve just as much creativity, and can have just as transformative an impact within our organizations, or within the smaller external spheres in which we operate. I’m confident that 100 years from now, the types of activities that are granted “creative” status by default will expand to include countless more fields and activities, many of which are unknowable or inconceivable today, even in the creative minds of the most brilliant futurists.

But maybe we shouldn’t wait 100 years to afford “creative” status to certain endeavors that aren’t seen as “earning” it today. We’re all creative, each in our own ways, every time we produce something that wasn’t there before we cast our hands above the waters and say (to ourselves) “Let there be a thing,” whether anybody else knows we did it or not, whether it has any use or value at all to anybody, whether it can be experienced in the world of the senses, or only within the spheres of our minds. We may create alone or with others. We may create to heal ourselves or hurt ourselves, others likewise. It may feel good, or it may feel bad. We may intend to create, or we may create by happy accident. It’s all the same: “Let there be a thing,” and there will be, and sometimes it might even be really, really good.

Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. Maybe by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this sixth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number One: “Community”

Deftly using every single one of my creative skills here in coherently explaining the recorded canon of the great UK band Wire. It made sense at the time . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity