Brain Pickings

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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A Breathtaking Animated Adaptation of Bukowski’s “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes”

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A visual interpretation at the intersection of the touching and the haunting.

Charles Bukowski was a creature of perplexity and paradox, oscillating between romantic pessimism and luminous wisdom on the meaning of life, propelled by an outrageous daily routine. His expressive poems explored everything from the myths of creativity to his “friendly advice” to young men.

In 1999, British animator Jonathan Hodgson and illustrator Jonny Hannah teamed up on a breathtaking animated adaptation of Bukowski’s 1992 poem “the man with the beautiful eyes” from his final and arguably best poetry collection, The Last Night of the Earth Poems (public library).

when we were kids
there was a strange house
all the shades were
always
drawn
and we never heard voices
in there
and the yard was full of
bamboo
and we liked to play in
the bamboo
pretend we were
Tarzan
(although there was no
Jane).
and there was a
fish pond
a large one
full of the
fattest goldfish
you ever saw
and they were
tame.
they came to the
surface of the water
and took pieces of
bread
from our hands.

our parents had
told us:
“never go near that
house.”
so, of course,
we went.
we wondered if anybody
lived there.
weeks went by and we
never saw
anybody.

then one day
we heard
a voice
from the house
“YOU GOD DAMNED
WHORE!”

it was a man’s
voice.

then the screen
door
of the house was
flung open
and the man
walked
out.

he was holding a
fifth of whiskey
in his right
hand.
he was about
30.
he had a cigar
in his
mouth,
needed a shave.
his hair was
wild and
and uncombed
and he was
barefoot
in undershirt
and pants.
but his eyes
were
bright.
they blazed
with
brightness
and he said,
“hey, little
gentlemen,
having a good
time, I
hope?”

then he gave a
little laugh
and walked
back into the
house.

we left,
went back to my
parents’ yard
and thought
about it.

our parents,
we decided,
had wanted us
to stay away
from there
because they
never wanted us
to see a man
like
that,
a strong natural
man
with
beautiful
eyes.

our parents
were ashamed
that they were
not
like that
man,
that’s why they
wanted us
to stay
away.

but
we went back
to that house
and the bamboo
and the tame
goldfish.
we went back
many times
for many weeks
but we never
saw
or heard
the man
again.

the shades were
down
as always
and it was
quiet.

then one day
as we came back from
school
we saw the
house.

it had burned
down,
there was nothing
left,
just a smoldering
twisted black
foundation
and we went to
the fish pond
and there was
no water
in it
and the fat
orange goldfish
were dead
there,
drying out.

we went back to
my parents’ yard
and talked about
it
and decided that
our parents had
burned their
house down,
had killed
them
had killed the
goldfish
because it was
all too
beautiful,
even the bamboo
forest had
burned.

they had been
afraid of
the man with the
beautiful
eyes.

and
we were afraid
then
that
all throughout our lives
things like that
would
happen,
that nobody
wanted
anybody
to be
strong and
beautiful
like that,
that
others would never
allow it,
and that
many people
would have to
die.

Complement with an equally beautiful animated adaptation of Bukowski’s “Bluebird” and his poetry illustrated by the great R. Crumb.

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How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Unblock the “Spiritual Electricity” of Creative Flow

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“No matter what your age or your life path … it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity.”

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard wrote in 1908. But the question of what that way is, where exactly it leads, and how to best follow it is something artists have been grappling with since the dawn of recorded time and psychologists have spent decades trying to decode, outlining the stages of creativity, its essential conditions, and the best technique for producing ideas.

In 1978, a few months after she stopped drinking, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist Julia Cameron began teaching artists — by the broadest possible definition — how to overcome creative block and get back on their feet after a “creative injury.” What began as one-on-one lessons with a handful of artists became a larger workshop, then a course, which Cameron was invited to teach around the world, and eventually The Artist’s Way (public library) — a seminal, much-beloved handbook on the creative life, exploring its gateways, its obstacles, and how we can get out of our own way. It’s at once a practical set of techniques and a timeless philosophical meditation on the quintessential human impulse to create.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

Writing in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, Cameron adds to the most beautiful definitions of art:

Art is a spiritual transaction. Artists are visionaries. We routinely practice a form of faith, seeing clearly and moving toward a creative goal that shimmers in the distance — often visible to us, but invisible to those around us. Difficult as it is to remember, it is our work that creates the market, not the market that creates our work. Art is an act of faith, and we practice practicing it.

Indeed, while there is a strong spiritual overtone to the book that can feel off-putting to those of us skeptical of organized religion, Cameron takes care to invite the broadest possible definition of spirituality, echoing Flannery O’Connor and pointing out that it need not be one aligned with religion at all. She writes:

Think of it as an exercise in open-mindedness. . . . Remind yourself that to succeed in this course, no god concept is necessary. In fact, many of our commonly held god concepts get in the way. Do not allow semantics to become one more block for you. When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. What we are talking about is a creative energy. . . . There seems to be no need to name it unless that name is a useful shorthand for what you experience.

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from Mark Twain's 'Advice to Little Girls.' Click image for more.

That creative energy, Cameron argues, is part of our core nature. Rather than learning it, we simply need to unlearn all the techniques we’ve acquired for blocking it in the course of living our Serious Adult Lives. She writes:

No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity. . . . I have come to believe that creativity is our true nature, that blocks are an unnatural thwarting of a process at once as normal and as miraculous as the blossoming of a flower at the end of a slender green stem.

Like T.S. Eliot, who extolled the mystical quality of creativity, Cameron recounts her own journey of learning to unblock that natural creative flow — the life-force Dylan Thomas memorably called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” — and considers the nonjudgmental mind necessary for true creative work:

I learned to turn my creativity over to the only god I could believe in, the god of creativity, I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me… I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard. Writing became more like eavesdropping and less like inventing a nuclear bomb. It wasn’t so tricky, and it didn’t blow up on me anymore. I didn’t have to be in the mood. I didn’t have to take my emotional temperature to see if inspiration was pending. I simply wrote. No negotiations. Good, bad? None of my business. I wasn’t doing it. By resigning as the self-conscious author, I wrote freely.

This concept of surrender seems closer to Eastern philosophical teachings about the unity of the universe than it is to the Western notion of divinity in the religious sense. Cameron writes:

If you think of the universe as a vast electrical sea in which you are immersed and from which you are formed, opening to your creativity changes you from something bobbing in that sea to a more fully functioning, more conscious, more cooperative part of that ecosystem.

Art by Lisa Congdon from 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One.' Click image for more.

And yet, with a hint of Wattsian distinction between belief and faith, Cameron makes a case for the “spiritual electricity” implicit to the creative process and writes:

The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity. . . . Creativity is an experience — to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity. In fact, I do not make a distinction between the two. In the face of such experience, the whole question of belief is rendered obsolete. As Carl Jung answered the question of belief late in his life, “I don’t believe; I know.”

This circular relationship between creativity and spirituality, Cameron argues, is paralleled by the techniques and practices of her “unblocking method.” In a wonderfully reassuring passage, she writes of the “spiral path” toward creative recovery:

You will circle through some of the issues over and over, each time at a different level. There is no such thing as being done with an artistic life. Frustrations and rewards exist at all levels on the path. Our aim here is to find the trail, establish our footing, and begin the climb.

But despite the spiral nature of the path, Cameron draws on her extensive experience of working with artists to outline several stages of the creative recovery process — stages strikingly similar to those of grief, perhaps because the process itself necessitates that we let go of the attachments and psychoemotional habits that stand in the way of our contact with creative energy. Cameron writes:

While there is no quick fix for instant, pain-free creativity, creative recovery (or discovery) is a teachable, trackable spiritual process. Each of us is complex and highly individual, yet there are common recognizable denominators to the creative recovery process.

Working with this process, I see a certain amount of defiance and giddiness in the first few weeks. This entry stage is followed closely by explosive anger in the course’s midsection. The anger is followed by grief, then alternating waves of resistance and hope. This peaks-and-valleys phase of growth becomes a series of expansions and contractions, a birthing process in which students experience intense elation and defensive skepticism.

This choppy growth phase is followed by a strong urge to abandon the process and return to life as we know it. In other words, a bargaining period. People are often tempted to abandon the course at this point. I call this a creative U-turn. Re-commitment to the process next triggers the free-fall of a major ego surrender. Following this, the final phase of the course is characterized by a new sense of self marked by increased autonomy, resilience, expectancy, and excitement—as well as by the capacity to make and execute concrete creative plans.

If this sounds like a lot of emotional tumult, it is. When we engage in a creativity recovery, we enter into a withdrawal process from life as we know it. Withdrawal is another way of saying detachment or nonattachment, which is emblematic of consistent work with any meditation practice.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But Cameron’s most salient and empowering point is about the direction of the withdrawal:

We ourselves are the substance we withdraw to, not from, as we pull our overextended and misplaced creative energy back into our own core.

What stands between us and that return to our core is the chronic perfectionism against which Anne Lamott so eloquently admonished. Cameron writes:

We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. . . . Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice. By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor.

In the remainder of The Artist’s Way, Cameron becomes the trusted sherpa on “an intensive, guided encounter with your own creativity — your private villains, champions, wishes, fears, dreams, hopes, and triumphs” — the kind of experience that will “make you excited, depressed, angry, afraid, joyous, hopeful, and, ultimately, more free.” Complement it with Lamott’s indispensable Bird by Bird, Neil Gaiman on making great art, and Anna Deavere Smith on what creative confidence really means.

Donating = Loving

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