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Annotated captions of Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity in English

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I am a writer.

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Writing books is my profession but it's more than that, of course.

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It is also my great lifelong love and fascination.

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And I don't expect that that's ever going to change.

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But, that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently

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in my life and in my career,

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which has caused me to have to recalibrate my whole relationship with this work.

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And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book,

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this memoir called "Eat, Pray, Love"

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which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books,

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went out in the world for some reason, and became this big,

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mega-sensation, international bestseller thing.

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The result of which is that everywhere I go now,

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people treat me like I'm doomed.

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Seriously -- doomed, doomed!

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Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say,

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"Aren't you afraid -- aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that?

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Aren't you afraid you're going to keep writing for your whole life

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and you're never again going to create a book

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that anybody in the world cares about at all,

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ever again?"

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So that's reassuring, you know.

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But it would be worse, except for that I happen to remember

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that over 20 years ago, when I first started telling people -- when I was a teenager --

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that I wanted to be a writer,

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I was met with this same kind of, sort of fear-based reaction.

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And people would say, "Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success?

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Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you?

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Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft

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and nothing's ever going to come of it

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and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams

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with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?"

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(Laughter)

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Like that, you know.

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The answer -- the short answer to all those questions is, "Yes."

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Yes, I'm afraid of all those things.

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And I always have been.

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And I'm afraid of many, many more things besides

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that people can't even guess at.

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Like seaweed, and other things that are scary.

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But, when it comes to writing,

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the thing that I've been sort of thinking about lately, and wondering about lately, is why?

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You know, is it rational?

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Is it logical that anybody should be expected

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to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do.

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You know, and what is it specifically about creative ventures

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that seems to make us really nervous about each other's mental health

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in a way that other careers kind of don't do, you know?

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Like my dad, for example, was a chemical engineer

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and I don't recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering

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anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know?

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It didn't -- that chemical engineering block John, how's it going?

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It just didn't come up like that, you know?

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But to be fair, chemical engineers as a group

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haven't really earned a reputation over the centuries

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for being alcoholic manic-depressives.

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(Laughter)

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We writers, we kind of do have that reputation,

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and not just writers, but creative people across all genres,

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it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable.

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And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count

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in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds

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who died young and often at their own hands, you know?

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And even the ones who didn't literally commit suicide

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seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know.

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Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said

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"Every one of my books has killed me a little more."

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An extraordinary statement to make about your life's work, you know.

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But we don't even blink when we hear somebody say this

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because we've heard that kind of stuff for so long

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and somehow we've completely internalized and accepted collectively

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this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked

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and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

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And the question that I want to ask everybody here today

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is are you guys all cool with that idea?

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Are you comfortable with that --

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because you look at it even from an inch away and, you know --

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I'm not at all comfortable with that assumption.

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I think it's odious.

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And I also think it's dangerous,

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and I don't want to see it perpetuated into the next century.

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I think it's better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.

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And I definitely know that, in my case -- in my situation --

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it would be very dangerous for me to start sort of leaking down that dark path

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of assumption, particularly given the circumstance

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that I'm in right now in my career.

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Which is -- you know, like check it out,

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I'm pretty young, I'm only about 40 years old.

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I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me.

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And it's exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward

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is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after

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the freakish success of my last book, right?

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I should just put it bluntly, because we're all sort of friends here now --

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it's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.

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Oh, so Jesus, what a thought!

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You know that's the kind of thought that could lead a person

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to start drinking gin at nine o'clock in the morning,

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and I don't want to go there.

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(Laughter)

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I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.

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And so, the question becomes, how?

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And so, it seems to me, upon a lot of reflection,

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that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing,

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is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right?

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I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance

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between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety

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about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on.

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And, as I've been looking over the last year for models for how to do that

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I've been sort of looking across time,

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and I've been trying to find other societies

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to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have

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about how to help creative people, sort of manage

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the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

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And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

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So stay with me, because it does circle around and back.

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But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome --

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people did not happen to believe that creativity

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came from human beings back then, O.K.?

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People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit

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that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,

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for distant and unknowable reasons.

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The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons."

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Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon

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who spoke wisdom to him from afar.

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The Romans had the same idea,

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but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius.

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Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think

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that a genius was a particularly clever individual.

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They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity,

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who was believed to literally live in the walls

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of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf,

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and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work

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and would shape the outcome of that work.

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So brilliant -- there it is, right there, that distance that I'm talking about --

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that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.

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And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right?

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So the ancient artist was protected from certain things,

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like, for example, too much narcissism, right?

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If your work was brilliant you couldn't take all the credit for it,

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everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you.

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If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?

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Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.

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And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

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And then the Renaissance came and everything changed,

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and we had this big idea, and the big idea was

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let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe

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above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room

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for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine.

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And it's the beginning of rational humanism,

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and people started to believe that creativity

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came completely from the self of the individual.

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And for the first time in history,

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you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius

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rather than having a genius.

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And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error.

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You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person

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to believe that he or she is like, the vessel,

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you know, like the font and the essence and the source

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of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery

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is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche.

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It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun.

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It just completely warps and distorts egos,

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and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.

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And I think the pressure of that

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has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

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And, if this is true,

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and I think it is true,

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the question becomes, what now?

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Can we do this differently?

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Maybe go back to some more ancient understanding

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about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery.

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Maybe not.

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Maybe we can't just erase 500 years of rational humanistic thought

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in one 18 minute speech.

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And there's probably people in this audience

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who would raise really legitimate scientific suspicions

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about the notion of, basically fairies

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who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects and stuff.

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I'm not, probably, going to bring you all along with me on this.

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But the question that I kind of want to pose is --

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you know, why not?

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Why not think about it this way?

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Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard

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in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness

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of the creative process.

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A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something --

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which is to say basically everyone here ---

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knows does not always behave rationally.

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And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.

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I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone,

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who's now in her 90s, but she's been a poet her entire life

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and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia,

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she would be out working in the fields,

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and she said she would feel and hear a poem

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coming at her from over the landscape.

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And she said it was like a thunderous train of air.

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And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.

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And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet.

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She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point,

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and that was to, in her words, "run like hell."

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And she would run like hell to the house

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and she would be getting chased by this poem,

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and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil

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fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it

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and grab it on the page.

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And other times she wouldn't be fast enough,

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so she'd be running and running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house

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and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it

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and she said it would continue on across the landscape,

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looking, as she put it "for another poet."

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And then there were these times --

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this is the piece I never forgot --

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she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right?

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So, she's running to the house and she's looking for the paper

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and the poem passes through her,

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and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her,

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and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand

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and she would catch it.

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She would catch the poem by its tail,

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and she would pull it backwards into her body

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as she was transcribing on the page.

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And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact

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but backwards, from the last word to the first.

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(Laughter)

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So when I heard that I was like -- that's uncanny,

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that's exactly what my creative process is like.

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(Laughter)

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That's not at all what my creative process is -- I'm not the pipeline!

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I'm a mule, and the way that I have to work

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is that I have to get up at the same time every day,

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and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.

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But even I, in my mulishness,

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even I have brushed up against that thing, at times.

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And I would imagine that a lot of you have too.

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You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source

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that I honestly cannot identify.

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And what is that thing?

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And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds,

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but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?

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And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that

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is the musician Tom Waits,

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who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment.

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And we were talking about this,

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and you know, Tom, for most of his life he was pretty much the embodiment

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of the tormented contemporary modern artist,

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trying to control and manage and dominate

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these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses

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that were totally internalized.

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But then he got older, he got calmer,

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and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles he told me,

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and this is when it all changed for him.

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And he's speeding along, and all of a sudden

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he hears this little fragment of melody,

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that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing,

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and he wants it, you know, it's gorgeous,

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and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it.

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He doesn't have a piece of paper, he doesn't have a pencil,

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he doesn't have a tape recorder.

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So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him

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like, "I'm going to lose this thing,

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and then I'm going to be haunted by this song forever.

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I'm not good enough, and I can't do it."

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And instead of panicking, he just stopped.

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He just stopped that whole mental process

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and he did something completely novel.

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He just looked up at the sky, and he said,

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"Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?"

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(Laughter)

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"Do I look like I can write down a song right now?

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If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment

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when I can take care of you.

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Otherwise, go bother somebody else today.

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Go bother Leonard Cohen."

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And his whole work process changed after that.

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Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever.

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But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it

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was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him

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where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it kind of back where it came from,

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and realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing.

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It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration

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kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing

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that was not quite Tom.

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So when I heard that story it started to shift a little bit

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the way that I worked too, and it already saved me once.

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This idea, it saved me when I was in the middle of writing "Eat, Pray, Love,"

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and I fell into one of those, sort of pits of despair

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that we all fall into when we're working on something and it's not coming

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and you start to think this is going to be a disaster,

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this is going to be the worst book ever written.

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Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.

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And I started to think I should just dump this project.

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But then I remembered Tom talking to the open air

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and I tried it.

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So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript

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and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room.

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And I said aloud, "Listen you, thing,

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you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant

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that is not entirely my fault, right?

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Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this,

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I don't have any more than this.

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So if you want it to be better, then you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.

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O.K. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it.

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I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job.

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And I would please like the record to reflect today

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that I showed up for my part of the job."

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(Laughter)

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Because --

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(Applause)

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in the end it's like this, O.K. --

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centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa,

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people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music

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that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn.

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And they were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals

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and they were terrific, right?

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But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen,

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and one of these performers would actually become transcendent.

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And I know you know what I'm talking about,

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because I know you've all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this.

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It was like time would stop,

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and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal

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and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before,

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but everything would align.

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And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human.

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He would be lit from within, and lit from below

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and all lit up on fire with divinity.

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And when this happened, back then,

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people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name.

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They would put their hands together and they would start to chant,

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"Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God."

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That's God, you know.

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Curious historical footnote --

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when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them

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and the pronunciation changed over the centuries

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from "Allah, Allah, Allah," to "Ole, ole, ole,"

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which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances.

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In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic,

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"Allah, ole, ole, Allah, magnificent, bravo,"

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incomprehensible, there it is -- a glimpse of God.

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Which is great, because we need that.

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But, the tricky bit comes the next morning,

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for the dancer himself, when he wakes up

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and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he's no longer a glimpse of God.

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He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees,

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and maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again.

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And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins,

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and what is he then to do with the rest of his life?

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This is hard.

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This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make

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in a creative life.

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But maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish

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if you never happened to believe, in the first place,

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that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you.

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But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you

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from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life

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to be passed along when you're finished, with somebody else.

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And, you know, if we think about it this way it starts to change everything.

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This is how I've started to think,

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and this is certainly how I've been thinking in the last few months

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as I've been working on the book that will soon be published,

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as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow up

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to my freakish success.

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And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself

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when I get really psyched out about that,

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is, don't be afraid.

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Don't be daunted.

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Just do your job.

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Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.

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If your job is to dance, do your dance.

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If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case

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decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment

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through your efforts, then "Ole!"

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And if not, do your dance anyhow.

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And "Ole!" to you, nonetheless.

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I believe this and I feel that we must teach it.

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"Ole!" to you, nonetheless,

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just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness

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to keep showing up.

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Thank you.

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(Applause)

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Thank you.

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(Applause)

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19:01

June Cohen: Ole!

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(Applause)