Creativity Atop the Pyramid

A handful of creative works — paintings, musical works, writings, etc. — survive long after the creative has passed. Will your work fall in to that camp?

To be quite blunt, I have not produced any creative work of that magnitude. But it’s been on my mind since I heard the great composer and film producer T. Bone Burnett describe a creative pyramid at a conference last fall.

The Pyramid Arena in Memphis, Tennessee. It's already been forgotten by the Memphis Grizzlies, who haven't played there since 2004. (Taken on my cross-country road trip.)

Burnett has won 10 Grammy awards, produced Crazy Heart, and is the musical genius behind O Brother Where Art Thou? Great creative works, he said, reside “at the tip of the pyramid.”

Most creative works, he said, no matter how inspiring to a contemporary audience, are swept down the greatness pyramid by gusts of time. Eventually they meet their end buried in sand.

“I think all day, every day, about how I can make something to put on top of the pyramid,” he said. “That’s all I think about.”

I may not be cut out for pyramid-scaling. I think about a lot of other things, like lovemaking and bacon.

His analogy resonated with me, but it also begged a question. How does one create a work that can rest at the apex? On that point he confessed he did not have the answer.

He did say creatives need to find a way to stand out, and they can do that by following their heart. That was the message of many of the creatives I interviewed on my cross-country road trip.

“Be imaginative,” Burnett said. “If you are an artist, be an artist.”

It is only recently that I took public ownership of the term “artist.” I’m in artist learning mode now, trying to soak up much-needed wisdom from many sources. From the artists I interviewed on the road. From creative peers. From books. From local classes. And soon, from an MFA program.

I aspire to place a work atop the pyramid. It’s hard to proclaim something so audacious, but now I have done so. Yet it’s clear to me that my odds of reaching the apex will improve as I grow creatively.

Are you a pyramid-climber?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

13 Responses to “Creativity Atop the Pyramid”

  1. To be honest, Patrick, I was a pyramid-climber and it killed any joy I found in the creative process. I’m still more focused on lovemaking and bacon!
    I don’t believe Emily Dickinson was thinking about fame when she wrote her poetry. Embracing one’s creativity is letting go of the pyramid -at least for me- and just asking to be all that I can be (which in your case may be asking for the top of the pyramid. And that’s ok when it is released as a desire and then let go of). As the words start flowing from a deeper part of us we may then have a shot at printed (or ‘e’) immortality.

    • If you judge your work based on whether it can balance atop the apex, then yes, I think that would suck the joy out of creating. Relieving the pressure on oneself and choosing to be all you can be seems a sane path to creative achievement.

      I would, however, posit a distinction between fame and the apex. Many “creatives” can enjoy fame that will quickly slide down the pyramid, while others may find a perch near the top without receiving immediate attention for their feat.

      • Indeed, so the key if knowing your true desire and release it to the Universe. From then you can relax and embrace your creativity for the highest good [and pleasure] of all concerned.
        As for me, I don’t care about the top of the pyramid anymore. I aspire to be me and to help others do the same.🙂

  2. Sorry! I typed too fast: “The key is to know…and to release it…”

  3. I’m sort of in wifsie’s camp here, although I do appreciate the distinction you made between aspiring to create something wonderful and distinct, and seeking fame as an end or a measure.

    Still… I think maybe the Matrix bit of pseudo-philosophy works here (or does for me): I have a better chance of creating something worthy of the apex if I remember that the pyramid, like the spoon, is not real. Which is to say that the arbitrary judge that is history and opinion is there, for sure, but I’m better off if I ignore it.

    • That’s pretty deep, but insightful. It’s true that everyone will perceive the pyramid differently.

      One way to look at it is that you have your own pyramid. You want to produce the best you can do, and not worry about how others perceive it.

  4. Good point- look at Shakespeare- and then at “Scream Part Three”😉 I mean that’s an obvious example- but its interesting to think about how enduring ones work in that way, thanks for the food for thought.

    • You don’t think the Scream series will sit atop the pyramid?🙂

      I joke, but the way I define the pyramid, “The Blues Brothers” and “The Big Lebowski” reside there. That’s my pyramid, so ha!

  5. “I may not be cut out for pyramid-scaling. I think about a lot of other things, like lovemaking and bacon.” – *GASP*, snicker snort!! LOL!!! I had to stop reading and just say this took me by surprise. Love it!

    I must say that in the beginning, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get to the top of the pyramid. My own personal top, where the work was without any doubt the very very very best it could possibly be at that time. A good place to aspire to be, I’d say. Yet at the time, I didn’t allow for anything else. Little, if any play. Every piece had to be my current moment’s masterpiece. No pressure there, right?

    I still have that commitment – be the absolute best I can be. Produce work that will last for generations, if the gods so deem it. But, I’m sneaking in some fun, play, and much more experimentation in there now. I think that although that means more work that isn’t even close to the apex, the work that IS closest to the top will be even closer than before. Why? Because I have experimented, played, allowed myself to try new things … which can only enhance and improve my future work. (And, it is a lot more fun and relaxing!)

    I think that answers your question?

    • Yes, like I said to Michael, your own personal top, exactly. And you recognize a lot of how it might fit on the societal pyramid is out of your control (in your case “the gods”). Agree with that philosophy completely. Also with having fun, play and experimentation, which is essential to creative growth.

  6. To all above,

    What a fantastic and stimulating conversation! Thanks!

  7. Interesting topic. Yesterday I posted a link to a video that discussed uncreative ways to complete creative projects. As a creative type with a healthy dose of ADD, it’s too easy and tempting to hop from the excitement of one new project to another. After a time, I’m left with a pile of half-done nothings that leave me feeling pretty unproductive. I’m learning that the top of the pyramid for me is completion. Yes, I want to be true to my artistic vision and to create something with deep and true meaning, but none of that will happen without some serious discipline. Some creatives bridle against discipline; it feels stifling, but without it, there’s no way to see a project through to the end. Completion itself is a reward. If it takes us to the top of the pyramid, that’s an added bonus.

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