If I Don’t Say It

“If I don’t say it, it appears not to be said.”]–jazz musician Nicholas Payton

I discovered Peyton during my plunge into “anything New Orleans” music. Payton is from America’s first city of music, and references it in his recordings. He played a version of himself in the HBO mini series Treme. He also makes smart, frequently thrilling music.

The quote above came at the beginning of a blog post he wrote on Adele winning the Grammy award for best album instead of Beyonce. You can read the context there.

I don’t watch award shows and try not to think of them. Yes, they do bring attention to the people who win, but, if you examine some of the winners and losers (this would include the larger group of worthy achievers who weren’t nominated), you’ll find an uneven series of decisions. Those that please you tend to reinforce your opinions–“this person is so good at what she does AND she won an award!” Those decisions that don’t please you, or require more explanation and qualification, may alienate you. “THAT person won? For what?!”

I once did a lecture series on the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. In researching the series, I learned that both prizes were created by peculiar men. Nobel was a brilliant, self-educated inventor and industrialist motivated by guilt after an obituary writer blamed a death on the invention of dynamite. Pulitzer was a driven, moody Hungarian immigrant who ran sleazy newspapers (“yellow” journalism was born at the New York World, referring, not to sensational stories, but to the appearance of a popular comic strip, The Yellow Kid) that crusaded against big business interests. He later became so sensitive to sound that he could not live or work in New York. He retired to a sound-proofed chamber on a private yacht and may have died insane

These men have endowed the most important of the world’s many, many prizes. Winning one changes your life, even if granting the award ends up embarrassing the people who gave it to you, as in the case of numerous Nobel Peace Prize awards to people whose solutions to such problems as the Arab-Israeli conflict prove ineffectual. As many critics have noticed, most Nobel literature prizes go to writers (Bob Dylan?!) whose great work is behind them. Many awards in the sciences are given long after the discoveries have been made.

The Pulitzer casts its light on work published within a year. Prestigious publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have full-time staffers who do nothing but fill out applications for these and other awards. When an article I wrote in Philadelphia Magazine that slammed the Educational Testing Service’s biased and hypocritical standardized college admission tests, I didn’t know that there was a National Association of Secondary School Principals. Not only did the association exist, but a staffer at Philadelphia Magazine made sure they saw my article and they association gave me an award!

It was then that I learned that awards have something to do with supporting the values of the organization that gives the award. Test scores are among many ways high school principals are evaluated. So it was in their self-interest to send a plaque to the writer who showed that some of these tests are more about the ability to take a test than the talent a principal may have for furthering achievement.

Winning that, and other awards did not bring the life-changing calamity. It gave me the chance for publishers to call me an “award-winning author.”

Those fond of Jacques Derrida’s ideas about language can ask where, exactly, is the excellence that is being cited? Is it in the work? Is it in what the work does to people who experience it? What about work, like that of the Impressionists, that was damned in its day but is now recognized as of the highest value? Could awards be one more “binary”–an abstract ideal in which extremes of good and bad, high and low, in and out create an imaginary hierarchy of scale which we use to define ourselves?

Payton’s comments about Beyonce and Adele are more about the importance, influence and prevalence of black music. To me, his opener–“If I don’t say it, it appears not to be said” is most interesting because of what it says about the necessary audacity of artistic achievement.

We all have moments when we want to respond to what happens–we want to say something, do something, play something, make something.

And then we ask ourselves, why should we respond? Who cares about what we say or do? Who will pay attention? What if what we play sounds awful? What if what we make is deficient in some way, and a snarky critic points that out?

I ask these questions of myself, and of my work. The work doesn’t happen until I’ve asked these questions, and discovered that, like most “big” questions, they can’t be answered with any certainty, and that attempts to answer them are, at best, hesitations.

Sooner or later, you must say it, do it, play it, make it, write it. And then, you look back and realize that asking those questions was part of the creative act. That little bit of doubt, of fear, of trembling at the edge of the diving board, inevitably leads you to wonder what would happen if you didn’t do this. Would things be the same?


And off the diving board you go.




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