A Composer's Adventures

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice Enters the Rabbit Hole

A window display from Fortnum and Mason in London depicts Alice and the rabbit.

I just had a lively discussion with someone I disagreed with — myself! Deep down, I have always felt that artists come into this world with their work and creative paths already mapped out for them. I have followed my own path without hesitation, and so have many artists I know or admire. Our work becomes our identity.

Perhaps the act of creating something — be it music, poetry or painting — is so seductive that it can take over all other aspects of a person’s identity. It doesn’t mean that the writer or painter cannot also be a great chess player or tango dancer, but their overriding identity comes from the creative work they do.

So why am I arguing with myself? Well, after more thinking about such complete immersion into art, what happens to the basic self you were before you ever did a lick of work?  That unique identity that separates you from everyone and every thing else on the planet?

My better self won the argument: keep “doing” separate from “being,” or you might lose sight of what you are as a human being.  I recall the Hungarian poet George Faludy saying: “If all you know in life is electrical engineering, you are a moron.” Well, that was strongly said, but he never minced his words. If you identify yourself solely by your work, you could run into serious obstacles if for some reason you have to stop being an actor or scientist, if that was your basic identity.

I think artists have always struggled with the question of either handing their entire identity over to their work or dedicating their time to other jobs, wanted or not. The reluctance may come from the huge investment artists make through many years of solitary work and self-testing.

Poet ee cummings put it this way in his second Norton nonlecture at Harvard: “Poetry is being, not doing, If you wish to follow, even at a distance, a poet’s calling…you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being…and remember one thing only: that it’s you — nobody else — who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it — and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about other people’s business; and do (or undo) till you drop.”

That’s an exhilarating description of diving into the rabbit’s hole to a creative life. For those of us who did dive in, I recommend having more than one avenue to create an identity.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Adam—I agree, but wonder if there is a danger in identifying yourself that way in life. That would be a pure blending of activity and identity—that you are what you do. Beyond that, there is the you that you were born with and that seems the most basic self. Anything you create with yourself thereafter is an activity you are carrying out. Doing and being. If we define them separately we can revive the basic self that existed before it ever did anything. And isn’t that our most fascinating self? And in fact our true identity?

    • I was thinking the opposite, not that you are what you do, but that you do what you are. That wouldn’t negate the essential self…what we do would instead be a manifestation of it.

  2. Adam—I like that, doing what you are, which pretty well describes my life. And I don’t think I’ve negated myself in the process. My thoughts are a reaction to Gregory Bateson’s essential elements for ecology of self and Robert Dilt’s resulting NLP neurological alignment exercise, in which activity and identity need to be aligned to create the balanced individual. Defining our identity by what we do can be misleading to an accurate view of our lives, since identity could be easily misplaced or even lost by discontinuing the activity related to it.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. A most worthy post! I loved both the quotes you refer to Michael. Here are my musings …… The bit that interests me is the being-doing continuum. It’s a fine line, but for me it’s also the ego-Self/Soul continuum. I’m sure most serious meditators would cringe at the term continuum, for ego and Self, but the way I see it, we don’t exist in our bodies very effectively without an ego to direct us around, and I think it is through our doing that we get led to our being. It’s the extent of the ‘domain’ that we allow the ego that is really important. In other words, we need to be asking ourselves constantly, do we live cultivating our consciousness, or our desires. I think that artists struggle with this to a much greater extent than most other ‘doings’, and so I feel their path can be sublime but excruciating too. What I’m clumsily trying to say, is that I would think ee-Cummings to be (yes I know he is passed), somewhat of an enlightened being ……

  4. oh dear – just read the exchange between Adam and yourself Michael ….. seems I should have done that before!! :) …. Anyhow, it’s good to ‘do our thinking in writing and find a path to the soul’. Have a good week. :)

  5. Ha ha – My dad and two brothers were all electrical engineers. That explains why I became a jazz musician. But seriously folks…

    This has been a central question for me and I think should be for everyone. What am I? – the vichara of Ramana Maharshi and a popular Zen koan. The cult of ‘person’ is very seductive and we are trained into it by our (in my case, of course, ‘moronic’) parents. If we can’t fit in then there is no place for us in society. I remember my dad saying: “Every pot needs a handle”. OK, but once we accept the handle we are relegated to ‘pot-dom’ if we take the assigned handle to the point of self-definition.

    I look on life as a play. If we play our part the play is enjoyable but if we start thinking we are the part that is doled out to us then it is a tragedy no matter what the script. Ours is to enjoy the trip, not be the sidecar.

    Folks who have had enlightenment experiences report the absence of identity or an experience of vastness or borderlessness. I find this very attractive. Now, where is my LSD?

    I am very aware of doing what musicians do and buying into their scripts and foibles in an attempt to become part of something larger. Ah yes, part! But the attempt to become all of something is also a mental trap. Surely this must be the simplest thing – to not make ourselves into something we are not. The problem is that we are flying in the face of society as a whole – a writhing morass of mindless consumerism and lemmingness.

    One of my favorite wise guys Nisargadatta Maharaj said: “Fight with all your might against the suggestion that you are namable or describable, you are not.”

    I like what Cummings said. Yep – if we are going to be defined it’s better that we do it ourselves. I think that, in a way, he paraphrased a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “One should endeavor to do ones own work, the work of another will bring us into great spiritual danger”. – and our work is to know ourSelf.

  6. Bruce—First, let me say I had mixed feelings about including Faludy’s remark about electrical engineers, because I thought it was insulting. To me, electrical engineering is something someone does, not something someone is. In my thinking, whatever a person does is not what that person is, with one exception: the person of true artistic temperament can at times become so deeply entrenched in her or his work that s/he becomes it. This is a desirable state sought by artists, or those or creative temperament, and is in a way evidence of an achievement, a state of being that has been earned through long periods of deep creative work. In this way, a life of true creativity life can be perilous. Note Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandella, true creators in their life’s work. They didn’t just do, they became what they do so that you could say they are what they do, in the same way that van Gogh and Mozart became what they did. The one could say “I’m a painter,” instead of “I paint” and the other I’m a “composer,” instead of “I compose.” An electrical engineer can never become what he does, he just does it. His true identity then is the basic self he was born with, his individual personality and feelings, absolutely and uniquely his. So in my mind to have a good life it’s important for that kind of worker to become aware of the difference between what he does and what he actually is, since what he is is limitless, unlike what he does. If he doesn’t make that distinction he’s not a moron, he’s just incomplete, unfinished.

    • Thank you Michael. I love your way with these ideas.

      By the way I thought Faludy’s remark was funny and I take no offense. Because of the context I took his statement to mean that ‘if you think that electrical engineering defines you then you are missing the boat’

      This brings up an interesting thing about humor. I tend to not be so interested in whether a joke is politically correct but I find it funny or attractive if the ‘surprise’ in the remark is very creative. This can get me into trouble sometimes. Perhaps it is part of the ‘bohemian way’ to not obey the conventional borders of taste.

      I imagine you will have a comment on this.

  7. Allison—Well said. Defining the ego-Self/ Soul continuum as you have, I would say that, re therapy, artists and those of artistic temperament would need a special brand of counseling when they lose their way. I imagine you’d be very good at that.

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