• Rise above.
Theater director Tyrone Guthrie advised his actors and crew to do this. The advice means to rise above whatever forces are working against you. All of us have personal problems. No one’s life is perfect. Sometimes, life seems to conspire against us. Rise above all that, and produce the best work you can.
• Astonish me.
Dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev advised his choreographers to do this. The advice means what it says. Do such good work that the person who commissioned the work — and of course the audience — is astonished. (Tyrone Guthrie also used this phrase.)
• Do it now.
As a young man, choreographer George Balanchine nearly died and so he believed in living his life day by day and not holding anything back. He would tell his dancers, “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for — for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” Throughout his career, including before he became world renowned, he worked with what he had, not complaining about wanting a bigger budget or better dancers. One of the pieces of advice Mr. Balanchine gave over and over was this: “Do it now.”
• Go out and get one.
Ruth St. Denis once taught Martha Graham an important lesson when Ms. Graham was just starting to dance. Ms. St. Denis told Ms. Graham, “Show me your dance.” Ms. Graham replied, “I don’t have one,” and Ms. St. Denis advised, “Well, dear, go out and get one.” (Everyone needs an art to practice. Your art need not be dance. Perhaps your art can be writing autobiographical essays. Of course, you may practice more than one art.)
• Assign yourself.
The parents of Marian Wright Edelman were serious about education. Each school night, she and her siblings were expected to sit down and do their homework. Whenever one of the children said that the teacher had not assigned any homework, her father used to say, “Well, assign yourself.” Ms. Edelman once made out a list of “Twenty-Five Lessons for Life,” based on the values she had learned from her parents. Lesson 3 was, “Assign yourself. Don’t wait around to be told what to do.” In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, which attempts to get federal legislation passed to help children.
• Challenge yourself.
Joss Whelon created the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is noted for its clever dialogue. Day after day, people told Joss that they watched the series because of its dialogue, so he decided to challenge himself by writing an episode in which the characters could not talk. The episode, titled “Hush,” is excellent and was nominated for an Emmy.
• Practice an art.
The father of choreographer Bella Lewitzky taught her the importance of having an art to practice. He worked at an ordinary job, but when he came home, he painted. Ms. Lewitzky says, “He taught me that it didn’t make a d*mn bit of difference what you did for a living, as long as you had something that rewarded your life.” He also didn’t feel that it was necessary to have an audience for his art because the act of creation was rewarding in itself. Bella and her sister used to steal their father’s paintings — because if they didn’t, he would paint another work of art on top of the one he had already created.
• Do it yourself.
Early in their career, the Ramones played in London on July 4, 1976. Some cool kids who called themselves The Clash hung around during a sound check before the concert and talked to the members of the band, mentioning that they played music but weren’t good enough to play in public. Johnny Ramone told them, “Are you kidding? I hope you’re coming tonight. We’re lousy. We can’t play. If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old to get up there. We stink, really. But it’s great.” (This is a great example of punk rock’s do-it-yourself attitude. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to play music. Just teach yourself a few chords, get up on stage, and rock. Similarly, if you want to write, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. If you have a computer, great, but all you really need is some paper and a pencil or pen.)
• Be there.
After retiring from her career in dance, Balanchine dancer Barbara Milberg became a very good student — and eventually a Ph.D. (and professor). In dance, she had learned that when the curtain went up, she had better be there, and so she never handed in a paper late.
• Get it right.
A man — who didn’t dance — visited the dance class of Margaret Craske. At the end of her class, he said goodbye and jokingly executed a port de bras. Quickly, Ms. Craske reached out and corrected the position of the visitor’s hand. As you would expect, in her dance classes, she tells her students over and over, “Get it right!”
• Do it ’til you get it right.
Garth Fagan, the choreographer of the theatrical version of The Lion King, learned an important lesson from choreographer Martha Graham: “Do it ’til you get it right!” She requested that he simply walk across the floor. He did 12 times before he realized that she wanted a walk that did not say, “LOOK AT ME! AREN’T I GORGEOUS!” When he did the walk correctly, Ms. Graham told him, “I think you’re going to go places.” As the head of his own dance troupe and as a Broadway choreographer, he did.
• Make the first mark.
Barbara Feldon, who played the role of Agent 99 on TV’s Get Smart, is friends with artist Jan Stussy, whom she calls “the most prolific artist” she knows. She once asked him about his creation of art, “How did you develop the courage?” He replied, “When I was in the 10th grade, I realized that if you simply make the first mark, the rest will just happen. Whether it’s that first mark with a brush on a canvas or pencil to paper, boldly make it and then let yourself free-fall. Art creates art.” Ms. Feldon, author of Living Alone and Loving It, has added writing to her other creative endeavors, and she often tells herself, “Make the first mark.”
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