“Ayad Akhtar on the Expectations of Artists” Literary Hub (March 30, 2023)
(The speech Ayad Akhtar delivered at the Whiting Awards was later published in Literary Hub. We present the published version here.)
I had two very powerful mentors in the theater in my early twenties—Andre Gregory, who you may not know as one of America’s great avant-garde theater directors, but as the character of Andre in the movie My Dinner with Andre—a movie that is, in large part, about my other mentor, Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theater director, widely acknowledged as one of the great artists of the twentieth century. Being around Grotowski was quite an experience.
To witness up close and personal his truly extraordinary combination of intellectual rigor, historic talent, and absolute commitment—well, it set a bar for what was humanly possible for the dreaming, aspiring 23-year-old that I was then. In reflecting on his influence, his example, it was Andre Gregory, my other mentor, who would articulate what he thought was Grotowski’s most exceptional and unusual creative quality. His ability to clear the slate, to go tabula rasa, to forget what he’d done before, to ignore what others had come to admire, and in some cases worship, and to begin again, to step out into the unknown guided only by a sense of his own urgent curiosity.
In short, Andre believed that Grotowski had accomplished what he had by shedding any lingering attachment to those accomplishments, and this, Andre believed, allowed Grotowski to remain connected to the sources of his own creativity in the face of ever-mounting expectation. Even to the point of walking away from the theater all together. He would open a center in the middle of Tuscany and work for years, devoted to research into ancient performing techniques, research he felt was the deepest expression of the interests he’d evinced and pursued his entire career.
For his part, Andre admired this quality he said he’d never fully been able to emulate. “It’s hard,” Andre said, “when you realize that they like you. It’s hard because you don’t want to lose that.”
To be here tonight, to have arrived where you have, means that you have some idea of what you’re up to. You already have a developed sense of your own connection to the sources of your creativity. You may have already had the tensile strength of those bonds tested by expectation, success and failure, but it’s safe to say, even if you have, there will be more challenges, hopefully bigger challenges, ahead. And yes, Andre was right.
Approbation, acceptance, being understood—It’s wonderful to experience that, and terrifying potentially to lose it. Fear of losing access to the atmosphere, to the environment of success, once you’ve been there—that’s a real fear, and it can be damagingly motivating. Damaging, that is, to the joy or pain, to the vulnerability, that feeds the need, that feeds the messy, often unreasonable love at the heart of the creative spark.
In Personism: A Manifesto, the inimitable New York poet Frank O’Hara writes:
“I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife, you run… If you’re going to buy a pair of jeans you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. Measure and other technical apparatus. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. You just go on your nerve.”
Nerve on the one hand, metaphysics on the other. But in writing about Boris Pasternak that same year, O’Hara would connect the two. Sensitivity to life, to the artist’s sense of life, to her desires for it, from it, her nerve through it, her affinities with it, he would call conscience. Not conscience as we generally think of it—a moral conscience say, but conscience as “individual perception of life.” An individuality that stands in opposition to the demands of society. He writes:
“Poetry does not collaborate with society but with life.”
Individual perception, the nerve to write poems tight enough to get the blood moving, a high-mindedness in service of fleeing the knife fight. Conscience does not collaborate with society, but expresses the individuality that defines an artist’s nerve. We may use different words—but know what O’Hara’s talking about, that thing that can’t be quantified, the sense of uniqueness and presence we feel when confronted with a voice, a way of seeing, an individuality, yes, that always feels new when we encounter it, an originality, and which is what all ten of you here tonight possess in abundance.
Preserving the conditions of that individuality, of your artistic conscience, as O’Hara puts it—and I love that way of thinking about it, for it implies something almost autonomous, like the Greek notion of a daimon, or personal genius—; preserving and maintaining your connection to this whatever-we-want-to-call-it, that’s what’s paramount. Allowing it to continue to lead you where it will, often in opposition to the agreed-upon, ever-changing, furies and celebrations you find on your iPhones; in opposition to the expectations of your agent or editor—or of the reading public that has finally welcomed you.
In some cases you will not intend to be in opposition; you will have simply followed your own sense of things, more or less blindly, hoping that, by doing what you want to do, need to do, it will result in something they will want and need, too. Sometimes you’ll be right. Sometimes you won’t.
And while I would be loathe to suggest, in most cases, that there is ever a truly bright line between polarities as interconnected as self and world, or the individual and society, in the case of your own rich, roiling, elusive, dare I say, sacred connection to what feeds you artistically—in this case, I want to say, if there isn’t a line there yet, draw one.
Protect the indefensible interests, the prurient preoccupations, the misapprehensions, your refusals of reality; know that in the matter of making art it is often right to get it wrong, and on careful reconsideration, to get it wrong again; that doubt, not certainty, is a surer route to the kind of knowledge most useful to you as an artist; that it’s often contradiction—and the more irreconcilable the better—that signals proximity to the bedrock of your peculiar magic.
Your contradictions. Innate and acquired. These are the central conundrums, not to be solved, but to be used, mined, rough bounty to be guarded, even when, or especially when, those contradictions perplex others, and make no sense to you. Above all, trust your affinities; guard them even as they are subject to the pitiless interrogation of the times in which you live and write. For the insistent inclination of your affinity is a lamp sometimes too easily dimmed.
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Akhtar is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.). His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk, Disgraced, The Who & The What, and The Invisible Hand. Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwrighting Award, the Nestroy Award, and the Erwin Piscator Award.
Photograph © Vincent Tullo/Little, Brown And Company