Creative Arts Day Speaker
Rawlins Gilliland is a 7th generation Texan born and raised in Dallas by “sophisticated activist artists.” His life has paralleled presidential tenures: grade school, Eisenhower; high school, Kennedy; college, Johnson; hitchhiking around the world, Nixon; the “lost years,” Ford, National Endowment for the Arts Master Poet in Residence, Carter; Neiman Marcus Wardrobe Consultant Dallas TV series, Reagan; NM retail management, G.H. Bush, National Sales Director Neiman Marcus, Clinton: NPR commentator, G.W. Bush. Obama years; “A work in progress.” He threatens to write a book described as a Nobody’s memoirs’ chronicling an infinite litany of “alternative realities.”
For a sample of Rawlins Gilliland’s NPR commentaries, visit kera.org and then type in “Gilliand” in the advanced byline search.
When I was asked to write about “creativity,” my first thought was, That’s like writing about breathing because I see being creative and being actively alive as one. Of course there is little that’s “creative” when navigating routine responsibilities in daily life. But in a more general approach to the thought of living, there is always the capacity to find creative survival in any human ritual.
Having been thirty-eight years old from the day I was born, I was fortunate to be raised in a home where creativity was environmental. In addition to having her degree in English (from Texas Women’s in Denton) and being a Dallas Morning News book columnist, my mother was a Julliard graduate classical pianist who eloped with my father, a very successful big band bassist, the morning after she saw him on Dallas’ Adolphus Hotel bandstand in 1936.
Throughout the early childhood 1950s, our East Dallas home was a nightly salon of artistic types of all stripes. It was not uncommon to see Mother on the piano and Dad on string bass while Peggy Lee, in town for an event, sang. All this as Tennessee Williams, visiting Dallas to premier his new plays at the Margo Jones Theater, held a male SMU college student’s hand in the corner. Watching adults and listening to their conversions fascinated me. Their nostalgic insight permeated my childhood psyche and made becoming a grown-up seemingly its own reward.
Despite this fascinating exposure to cosmopolitan sophistication, I also suffered a troubled childhood in ways that so many of us do; sexual identify issues with its isolating no-man’s land limbo. Which, topical today, lead to many instances of bullying and, however briefly, self-destructive thoughts around 11. But fortunately, becoming a fearless clever thinker…a byproduct of creative thought processes and stimulating practices, ...made me the ultimate victor of any personal wars.
I realized at an early age that one’s wits are a far more astute weapon than mindless victimization. Evidenced first when taking our final exams; I waited until the last question to turn to the boy seated next to me, someone who had made my life miserable throughout my teenage years, and screamed, “Stop asking me the answers.” Actually he had said nothing, but he was promptly removed and flatly flunked. It was his lesson learned that no cobra could rival a creative-minded mongoose.
I also learned after college (where I was an erratic student at best) when I began stowing away on planes to far-flung world destinations of choice, that the way one used language to communicate beyond routine dialog trumps how one might physically appear. This became clear when I convinced the Pan American travel agents that I was the son of their company’s CEO, despite my being in torn jeans & a ripped tee shirt traveling with an army surplus store duffle bag. They not only put me on the plane without a ticket, they upgraded me to first class. Creative use of invented truth in order to get to Istanbul from San Francisco in 1973 was as valuable as it had been articulating bedrock truth in court as the sole prosecution witness at a capital offense murder trial when I turned 20 in 1964.
In 1976, I won one of the early artists in residence grants from the then fledgling National Endowment for the Arts. According to the NEA guidelines, a state art council must match their funds. So I became the Master Poet of Alabama, a state about which I knew nothing. Never was being creative more critical as I began visiting public schools to conduct poetry workshops at all grade levels. Having neither experience as a teacher nor any credible credentials as a poet, I winged it to great success.
Creating a romantic aura in classroom visits, I drew on sensuous jazz for audio flavor while emphasizing the sound of the language over any word’s certified “meaning.” Getting children of all ages to write poetry struck me as easier than a chorus line of sirens seducing drunken sailors on shore leave. Music as the emotional soundtrack, words used for their color, making adult life seem absorbing; all this parlayed my childhood influences into a cultural dialect’s native tongue. It was my idyllic paradise found to foment mental adventures in the minds of many young thinkers during those two unlikely years in Auburn-Opelika.
Inevitably, mature life intrudes on any vagabond iconoclast trajectories. So at one point in my interplanetary pursuits I spun into corporate orbit around luxury retailer Neiman Marcus. Throughout that nearly two-decade stint, I privately suffered, hoping to find creative satisfaction in a $3000 suit no less enlightening than living in the nude Northern California commune tree house I’d called home a decade earlier.
But ultimately one can only creatively apply inventive thinking to something so long when the canvas being painted remains foreign matter. Being viewed and rewarded as “successful” certainly validates any visible enterprise, but it does nothing to fool one’s inner sanctum soul where private regrets reside.
And so, as the 21rst century approached, I made my exit for worlds unknown. Where money is always the issue but never the driving force. A new century where adversity sometimes has loomed larger than any childhood bully and yet, then as now, through shear will of creative force I found happiness and vindication telling stories and sharing thoughts intimately to millions on National Public Radio.
So how did this unlikely course become charted? Via new age cyber creativity, of course. Infiltrating the internal NPR email system in in 1999. Contacting the appalled NPR’s executive producer Ellen Weiss, who at first shunned me but later emailed a quasi apologia, she clipped brusquely that “It (my submission) better be good, it better be brief and it better say something I haven’t heard before.”
To which I replied in wild-eyed panicked euphoria: “I am currently in mainland China helping a friend adopt an orphan Chinese girl. When I return in three weeks to the United States, I will swiftly sift my portfolio and select the piece I feel best suits your criteria.”
In fact I was home and had written nothing for 20 years. So the invented story I told Ms. Weiss bought me time to write a piece that NPR did indeed record and air on All Things Considered.
I’d like to think it also made my feminist activist mother …and probably her suffragette mother before her…smile from their graves to see their still-thirty-eight year old progeny’s creative tale to a female editor spotlight, however peripherally, the plight of Chinese girls.