Review: ‘The Rise’ by Sarah Lewis

Categories: Chicago Tribune

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

March 21, 2014

"The Rise," unlike a lot of inspirational fare meant to help readers love themselves, pursue their dreams and follow their angels, says that failure is a perfectly fine option, even preferable.

Sarah Lewis, an Ivy League-trained art curator who works as a critic at Yale University's photography and painting departments, cites figures from such fields as athletics and dance who refused the trappings of success because to do so would prevent them from attaining mastery.

"At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves," she writes. "Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins," she writes.

This is good news for underdogs and underachievers already bruised by careerist types trampling them on their way to success, be it selling a screenplay, creating a billion-dollar company or winning the presidency. These activities profess to represent a higher calling but ultimately appear beneficial to one person only: themselves.

Yet "The Rise" is consumed with stories of these hyper-ambitious, type-A types who work to win above all else. It seems that Lewis wanted to explore the unexpected possibilities of creativity, but her definition of the word is relegated to a short list of subject areas: mostly politics, the arts and athletics. Shaping public policy for school nutrition programs, finding ways to end impoverishment in rural areas, or discovering new ways to jumpstart economies in destitute urban landscapes also take a high degree of creativity, but those stories are not here.

The stories Lewis presents earliest in the book are its most moving: The persistence of dance choreographer Paul Taylor to remain committed to his minimalist style despite apathy from audiences, and a now-legendary 1957 review that had nothing but blank space under its headline. And the previously reported saga of Ironman athlete Julie Moss who, in her first competition in 1982, sailed into first place until collapsing within feet of the finishing line; she made second place but had to crawl.

Lewis draws from such personal heroism and perseverance the notion that incompleteness is a gift, and great minds and spirits are better off bypassing the gold and winning lesser metal. In fact, Lewis draws from a Cornell University study of the visual and verbal responses of silver and bronze medalists during the 1992 Summer Olympics. No surprise: silver medalists appeared the most frustrated, being a hair away from the gold, while bronze winners were more appreciative because they were happy they didn't come in fourth.

The idea of chasing "the unfinished masterpiece" is salient, and something we see in all areas of achievement. Good Samaritans will never admit to being such, and award winners at a podium will always thank others. But beyond humility is the sense that winning is often a curse, and those who do stand tall above their peers suffer the anxiety that there's little left to conquer.

Lewis is at her best when she delivers these ideas through art theory; she deftly associates the fortitude of jazz musicians with the open-mindedness needed for creative work, a quality that gets more difficult to protect as a person rises to prominence in his field. Entering that space, where pure, nonjudgmental thought lives, creates endless possibility. Jazz players go there to improvise, and through that freedom comes self-assurance that might otherwise seem impossible to achieve.

"They learn to accept all that comes, keep their equilibrium in the midst of it all, and do it in the time signature of swing," she writes.

Creating without judgment is what children do when they play, but the people in this book have learned that the mind can be trained to keep the fire burning as adults. Much of this discussion is about surrendering to an idea, accepting the pain involved, and abandoning any hubris that might be felt upon victory.

None of this is news, especially for readers who may have combed through their worn copy of "The Artist's Way" or any commercialized Tao guide authored by Pooh or Piglet. As she moves forward, Lewis loses her thread. There is a burdensome reliance on quotes lifted from canonic maestros as well as brushes with celebrities and personal anecdotes that serve no purpose other than to give the author cameos.

The three sections anchoring the book — "The Riddle," "The Crucible" and "The Gift" — are nebulous guideposts that Lewis fails to support. They instead aim to convince the book's target audience — those curious about making art or struggling artists who have hit a wall — that there is purpose in this wandering prose.

For a book aiming to shed light on creativity, this is rigid, needlessly analytical and crammed with familiar conclusions. Case in point: The chapter dedicated to "The Iconoclast," a former Harvard classmate of the author's whose underground list of quirky screenplays ended up proving that Hollywood may secretly desire to make adventuresome movies but publicly operates on fear that unfamiliar fare won't sell. What a shock.

Lewis ends the book exploring "grit," a quality that helps artists "stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again." Lewis explores the idea through interviewing "grit pioneers and policymakers."

Warning: Jargon jungle ahead! Hack through the weeds of these pages and you'll arrive at this simple conclusion: Art is a vocation requiring commitment to an open road that doesn't necessarily run in a straight line. That's not "grit"; that's common sense.


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