Ten Things David Bowie Taught Us About Creating Art

One of the last photos taken of David Bowie

One of the last photos taken of David Bowie

On Monday morning the news of David Bowie’s death took us by surprise. Two days after his 69th birthday and the triumphant release of his latest, and last, album – Blackstar – the man who inspired a generation to new heights of curiosity, creativity, and self-expression was gone.

Though I loved all of Bowie’s music, including all the classic songs that were released before I was quite old enough to appreciate them, the first Bowie record I owned (and played to death) was Tonight. I think I may still have a battered cassette copy of that album somewhere. Two years later, in 1986, I – like millions of other teenage girls – fell in love with Bowie as the evil but oh-so-alluring Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s movie, Labyrinth.

I have spent more time than I’d like to admit over these past couple of days reminiscing about Bowie – reading tributes and articles, watching video interviews, and – of course – listening to his music. It’s funny, a couple months ago on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I bought two Bowie albums from iTunes. I rarely buy digital music, but I couldn’t get the song Tumble and Twirl out of my head, so I downloaded my beloved Tonight album and then picked up the Best of Bowie because – man! – I loved every song on the playlist.

I wish I felt up to offering a fitting tribute to Bowie, but I’m not yet able to articulate my feelings fully. So, instead, I humbly offer this list of ten things David Bowie taught us about creating art. I still have much to learn about the man, his life, and his art; but these ideals are ones he embodied boldly, through his creations, actions, and words.

#10 – Be original, but also don’t be afraid to steal. Bowie is renowned for being a one-of-a-kind geek/freak who never shied away from embracing the weird, eclectic, or fringe elements of his identity or his audience. He is credited with inspiring many, many other artists from the 80s, 90s, and today. On the other hand, he readily cites the heavy influence of other artists on his own work – Little Richard, for instance, John Coltrane, Shirley Bassey, and John Lennon. Bowie had a way of processing all these influences, making them part of his own art. As they say, nothing is original. You can only take what’s been done and do it your own way.

#9 – Look at things from different perspectives. Bowie was able to create such fresh and unique music because he had such a huge talent for looking at the world and his art from different perspectives. In a 1999 commencement speech at the Berklee College of Music, Bowie talked about how he liked to play the game of “What if?” – what if you combined this thing with that thing? By mixing wildly different elements in unlikely combinations, he was able to create something new. In another interview, he walks through the “cut up” method he sometimes used to write his lyrics. (Don’t pay attention to the lines of coke on the table.)

Bowie also famously created characters that he inhabited on stage and sometimes off – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Major Tom. He looked at the world through the eyes of these characters, and he told their stories – and ours – with their voices.

Finally, David was an avid reader. In 1998, Vanity Fair magazine published Bowie’s responses to the famous Proust Questionnaire. His answer to the first question – “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” – was “Reading.” Bowie was curious about life, you might even say he was voracious. Of the Bowie quotes making the rounds on the Internet, one of my favorites is, “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”

#8 – Don’t be afraid to confront what scares you. Much of Bowie’s work has a decidedly dark bent. His lyrics dive deeply into themes of loneliness, exclusion, fear, death, loss, and grief. He was never afraid to write the hard stuff, and his courage made us brave. He faced many demons and he did so with an air of rebellion. Robin Williams made us laugh about the scary stuff, Fred Rogers comforted us, David Bowie invited us to explore it – to get inside and see what made it work, to take it apart so it couldn’t scare us anymore.

#7 – Create what YOU want to create. Bowie was never subtle about the strength of his artistic integrity. He is quoted as saying, “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” Bowie didn’t write to please anyone but himself. I imagine he didn’t think of his work as a product, but as an exploration or an experiment. He may have enthralled millions of fans over the years, but he truly only played for one person – himself.

#6 – Keep a sense of wonder. Like most great artists, Bowie doesn’t seem to have ever felt he was “done” or knew everything. He was a constant seeker and student, and he knew the value of keeping an open mind and being willing to be surprised. “Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive,” he said, “you’re pretty much on the way out…”

#5 – Collaborate. Many of Bowie’s greatest hits were collaborations with other artists. The list of musicians Bowie worked with is long and illustrious: Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, even Bing Crosby, and so many more. Bowie knew the power of collaboration to inspire great ideas and stellar performances.

#4 – Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of recognition. In addition to creating only what he wanted to create, Bowie also seems to have had very specific opinions about accepting accolades for his work. He is one of only a handful of people who declined knighthood, reportedly saying, “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

#3 – Be a force for bringing beauty into the world. Though the sometimes outrageous personas and fashions he adopted over the span of his career aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying that Bowie brought color and style to the world. He embraced the importance of beauty – in all its forms – fully and passionately. He never held back. In fact, he pushed at the edges of traditional definitions and helped us see beauty everywhere.

#2 – Don’t take yourself too seriously. “I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.” – David Bowie

I love that quote.

On Monday, I posted the following Facebook status update, “For all his mystique and musical genius, what I always liked best about David Bowie was his sense of humor and his full-bodied, roguish smile. Gods, that smile. It was like he knew a delightfully wicked and beautiful secret – a cosmic joke that we’d all get to hear someday; and he couldn’t wait to share the punch line. There is a little less magic in the world today, but thank the gods we had him while we did. He made us feel less alone. He made us dance. He made us laugh and think and dream. The stars look very different today. May they guide you home, wherever that may be.”

The post included a link to the first in a series of three video clip compilations of Bowie being funny.

#1 – Never stop creating. The media reports that Bowie died after an eighteen-month battle with cancer, but – clearly – his personal health crisis did not keep him from creating his art. If anything, it seems to have fueled his drive to finish Blackstar, an album that his friends and family agree was a parting gift from the artist to his fans. I came across a Jack London quote earlier today that seemed fitting, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” That seems to be exactly what Bowie was doing – using his time. And, oh, how grateful I am that he did. How grateful I am that he lived.

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We have lost a great artist and an inspiration. If – like me – you’re feeling down about it, maybe this tweet of questionable but irrelevant lineage from @jesuisdean will make you smile:  If you’re sad today,  just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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42 thoughts on “Ten Things David Bowie Taught Us About Creating Art

  1. Thank you – moving and fitting tribute to someone who has meant such a lot to me. Like you, I have struggled to find a way back to everyday life after the sad news and spent a lot of time reading about him, looking at the books I have, the CDs I have etc. I felt the power of that mischievous smile too.

    • Thank you, Marina. I hesitated to write anything about him on the blog because it felt like maybe it was too soon, but I have taken such comfort from reading the words of others who are also sad and remembering that I decided to just go with what my heart felt. He really was so inspiring in so many ways. I miss having him in the world.

      • It was great – I just read bits of what you wrote out to my hubbie. Love that last bit about the world being 4 billion years old and yet we managed to share a passage of time with Bowie!

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  3. You’ve just penned my favorite Bowie tribute yet. Thank you especially for distilling the wonderful lessons he leaves behind …

  4. Thank you for this tribute. I am very glad that you decided to write it. The ideas on creative are inspiring. I particularly liked Create What YOU Want to Create and the line “I imagine he didn’t think of his work as a product, but as an exploration or an experiment.” I would like to look at my writing in that way. You also gave me a great idea. I have this alter ego, a background singer, that speaks through my journal. You have inspired me to write poems from her persona in a Ziggy Stardust sort of way. This was a very enjoyable read and I have bookmarked it.

    • Thanks, LuAnne. I’m glad you liked it, and I love that you’re going to write poems as your background singer character persona. That’s so cool! Thanks for sharing that & good luck with the experiment.
      🙂

  5. Great list! I’m counter-current here, as he wasn’t one of my favourites, but I can relate to the feelings of sadness when you lose an artist that touches your emotions. I do acknowledge the great influence he had in many fields, and like all your “countdown ten points” which are excellent recipes for creativity in all fields.

    • Thanks. It is amazing how music – any art really – can touch us, even when we never meet or even see the artist in real life. Art is the ultimate connector of souls.

    • The more I learn about him, the more impressed I am. He was, especially as he matured, a very intelligent, kind, and well-read person; but he was able to balance being such a “good guy” with a driven and passionate creative life. That’s pretty amazing all by itself.
      Thanks for coming by.

  6. I knew nothing about David Bowie except his name & appearance. So now it is amazing to see the outpourings of grief & the accolades he and his work are receiving.
    You have put together a great tribute here, Jamie. But the points you make about Bowie’s legacy are relevant to anyone who cares about what they are doing in their creative life – and it doesn’t even matter if we knew him or not. Thanks for that. 🙂

    • Bowie was such a big part of my teenage musical landscape that it’s equally amazing for me to realize how many people are not familiar with his work. 😉 It’s all about perspective, I guess.

      I’m glad you liked the post, and I agree that you didn’t have to know Bowie or like his music to appreciate the universal elements of creativity that he embodied throughout his career. This is a topic I will revisit, I’m sure. Still trying to sort out exactly why so many of us are feeling this loss as deeply as we are. It’s an interesting commentary on the power of art and artists to touch people’s lives and hearts.

  7. I like him better as an actor (and I don’t mean Labyrinth) than a musician. Have you ever seen Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence? Sublime Bowie acting. And that’s what I like about him as an actor, he is/was one of the few who doesn’t really act (others are Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino and Mcqueen) he becomes the character.

    • I am only just now realizing how many movies Bowie acted in. I have not seen Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but I watched the preview yesterday and was impressed. You are spot on with his ability to “become” the characters he plays. I never doubt him for a moment.

  8. The second to last point is what always struck me about David Bowie and why I never feel pressured to stick to one style. David Bowie was a veritable rainbow of versatility and he was never one thing. So many artists get stuck in the snobbish, “I am x type of musician. I will never be y.” David Bowie didn’t care and he tried almost all of it. It is a lesson to all creators to try and create all different kinds of things and to let the creative beast wild, detractors be damned.

    • Hello, Jonathan.
      I was watching a bunch of interview clips yesterday, and I think it was on a 1999 one he did with a BBC journalist that Bowie explained how he eventually stopped trying to figure out “who/what he was” … he stopped trying to find the right label or category (something the media was always trying to do), and just focused on doing his work without feeling like he had to name it. In the context of the writing & publishing world, I found that so interesting and refreshing. As writers, we’re always worrying about genre and niche and which hybrid label to put on our work, but Bowie didn’t bother with any of that. He just followed his creative curiosity and enthusiasm and kept on creating. Love that.
      Thanks for that addition to the conversation. Appreciate it.

  9. Wow, loved it. It was a great tribute which would make us learn many things, I too think that Bowie was a great man and in his life he not only learnt himself but made others learn. He was a man of many interests and of a big heart. 🙂

    • Me, too. Me, too.
      Why is it, I wonder, that the loss of an artist like Bowie sends us reeling back to our youth and the days when we first fell under his spell? Such an interesting phenomenon. I feel like a kid again in some ways, though I still have the perspective of my age. It’s kind of weird.

      • I so agree. I think music especially has the power to bring us back to that moment when we first heard a certain song. It just ignites the memories of that time. And now I’m replaying all of Bowie’s albums that I have pulled from my box of albums in the garage and remembering why I loved them so much! Thanks.

  10. The biggest difference between Bowie and his imitators is that they failed to follow all of these guidelines.
    I came across this list of books that David Bowie had read:
    David Bowie’s Formative Reading List of 75 Favorite Books

    [EDITOR’s NOTE: You can read Maria Popova’s entire post at Brain Pickings here.]

    • I have seen this list making its way around the Internet & appreciate you sharing it. It’s always fascinating to know the reading habits and appetites of people you admire.

      Because it’s not generally considered acceptable to repost someone else’s blog post in a comment, I have edited your comment to include a link to Maria Popova’s piece on Brain Pickings.

      Thanks for sharing & happy reading!

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  12. I enjoyed reading this. I never knew much about David Bowie other than his flamboyant style and that he married Iman. My mom liked a few of his songs but I never listened to him. Seeing how he inspired so many people, I’m really interested in exploring his music.

  13. Pingback: Be a source of beauty in the world | carolee bennett

  14. Pingback: Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links June 5 | Live to Write – Write to Live

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