In Keep Going, I have a chapter called, “Forget the noun, do the verb,” and after seeing it on the poster, a reader asked if it was inspired by Stephen Fry. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I did a little googling.
In 2010, Fry was interviewed by “14-year-old Eden Parris in an interview for a Radio Times feature that enabled young readers to meet their TV heroes.” During the course of the interview, he “warned Parris that language could shape and limit people’s ambitions”:
Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.
Of course, this would’ve been perfect for the book, but that is one of the universal laws of writing books: once you finish them, you find all the stuff you should’ve included but left out based on your ignorance.
The quote I did put in is from R. Buckminster Fuller’s classic, I Seem To Be A Verb:
Back in 2013, The New Statesman ran a piece called “What Atheists Can Learn from Believers,” in which the writer Karen Armstrong emphasized religion as a verb. “Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work.” She pointed out that in the modern west, there’s this idea that you have to believe first, and then do. But no, “we have turned faith into a head-trip,” when, originally, the English word “belief” meant something like, “commitment.”
“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
It’s remarkable to me how much you could apply what Armstrong is saying to creativity or making art. “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it,” Armstrong says. Religion is something we do, a “practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart.”
“It’s a practice,” Mary Karr says of her own faith. “It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions.” I remember once, when asked to make a case for religion, she replied, “Why don’t you just pray for 30 days and see if your life gets better?
So many people think you have to first call yourself an artist, know who you are and what you’re about, and then you can start making art. No, no, no. You do the stuff first, then you can worry about what it is, who you are. The important thing is the practice. The doing. The verb.
We aren’t nouns, we are verbs. Forget the nouns, do the verbs.