Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums, is about a guy trying to practice minimalist living in a quest to find truth, freedom and enlightenment in a materialistic society.
Sofia Coppola’s film, Somewhere, is about the disconnect that “celebrity” brings to actors’ real lives.
John Mellencamp’s song is a little ditty about Jack and Diane.
Every creative work is about something. Yet certain creative works seem to transcend what they’re about, while most seem mired in mediocrity. Or at the very least, they are consumed and forgotten.
Why is this? And what is it that lifts a creative work to that transcendent level?
I have no clue why. But I have a theory about what distinguishes one work over another.
Everything is about something. But not everything stands on its own, apart from what it’s about.
Every book is about an experience. But a few books are the experience.
Every painting is about a subject. But a few paintings become the subject.
Every song is about emotion. But a few songs embody the emotion.
I call this the tension of “being vs. being about”.
I have no hope whatsoever that this little essay will transcend anything. It is what it is—an essay about a tension that exists in art. I expect you to consume, then discard it.
But there are essays (and poems and books) that I am crafting in which I’m trying to enable them to lift off and, hopefully, fly. I want each to be an experience, rather than merely be about experiences.
Each time I read Kerouac’s novel, it is an experience.
Each time I watch Somewhere, I enter the story with Johnny Marco and completely lose myself in the film.
I don’t like the song Jack & Diane, so it doesn’t move me (except to turn it off).
For you, it’s probably the opposite. I’m betting you would hate Kerouac and Coppola and that you crank up the sound when Mellencamp’s ditty starts to play.
Transcendent experiences aren’t universal. They are very personal.
So I offer this: Each time you begin a new creative project, work hard to make the subject so compelling, it transcends what it’s about and becomes its own experience.
If only for yourself.
From May 2012 to July 2013, I wrote a weekly series of intimate essays for writers and artists seeking a deeper connection with their identity and place as modern creatives. I called this series Root Notes. This was an essay in that series. It was originally published on October 26, 2012.