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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

28 JANUARY, 2015

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

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“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

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12 JANUARY, 2015

Some of Today’s Most Prominent Artists on Courage, Creativity, Criticism, Success, and What It Means to Be a Great Artist

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Wisdom from Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, and more.

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you…” And yet, as human beings, we orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping blindly for familiar points of reference, seeking to construct a compass out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world, and out of those we try to construct a framework for what we call success. This is especially true of such nebulous subjects as art, where there is no true North, no universal gold standard of success, so we seek tangibles — like the market — to orient ourselves in the maze of merit. The result can be a great crisis of confidence in artists and a great arrogance in audiences, leaving us still more unsure, as individuals and as a culture, of what makes great art and what it really means to be an artist.

In 33 Artists in 3 Acts (public library) — a belated but wildly worthy addition to the best art books of 2014 — journalist Sarah Thornton sets out to answer these delicate but crucial questions by peering into “the nature of being a professional artist today” and “how artists move through the world and explain themselves” via visits and conversations with such titans of contemporary art as Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Laurie Simmons, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman. Thornton spent four years traveling several hundred miles to interview 130 artists, of whom she chose 33 — those most “open, articulate, and honest,” who fall “at diverse points along the following spectrums: entertainer versus academic, materialist versus idealist, narcissist versus altruist, loner versus collaborator” — hailing from five continents and fourteen countries. She then divided the great sensemaking task of her project into three umbrella themes — politics, which examines the relationship between the artists’ work and their ethics, attitude to power, and sense of civic responsibility, with a special focus on freedom of speech and human rights; kinship, which explores the ecosystem of peers, influences, and patrons of which Art is woven, all the way from the large-scale creative lineage of inspirations to one actual nuclear family: photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, and writer-actor-director Lena Dunham; and craft, a survey of the practicalities of art, from skills to routines to studio spaces.

Thornton writes in the introduction:

Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths… In a sphere where anything can be art, there is no objective measurement of quality, so ambitious artists must establish their own standards of excellence. Generating such standards requires not only immense self-confidence, but the conviction of others. Like competing deities, artists today need to perform in ways that yield a faithful following.

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s wryly wise assertion that “all the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others,” Thornton — who later notes that “everyone’s personal history is a creatively edited story” — adds:

The walk and talk of an artist has to persuade, not just others but the performers themselves. Whether they have colorful, large-scale personas or minimal, low-key selves, believable artists are always protagonists, never secondary characters who inhabit stereotypes. For this reason, I see artists’ studios as private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief.

Nowhere is this interplay between the public and private personae more central to the process and product of art than in performance art itself. For her now-legendary 2010 MoMA show The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović — an artist who sees “immaterial energy” as her medium and believes that “nonverbal interaction is the highest form of communication” — sat in a wooden chair for more than 700 hours as she offered “unconditional love to complete strangers” — some half a million of them, many of whom were moved to tears in the presence of such piercing intensity.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, performance, 2010, duration: 3 months, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

But for the grand dame of performance art herself, the experience required a Buddhist-like quality of presence, a Buddhist-like attitude of welcoming everything that is. She tells Thornton:

Your shoulders drop, your legs swell, your ribs sink down into your organs… When you have so much pain, you think you will lose consciousness. If you say to yourself, ‘So what, lose consciousness,’ the pain goes away.

But Abramović, who indeed heeds the teachings of Tibetan monks, seeks not the showmanship but the higher purpose of such experiences. Her medium is, above all, the human spirit — something she handles with meticulous care and deep respect, with staunch opposition to nihilism, and always with an eye toward the essential sense of purpose that nourishes the human experience. That her art would take on the hues of a secular cult is neither accidental nor surprising. She tells Thornton with conviction “like a hurricane-force wind”:

Many people spend so much time doubting. Before you choose a profession, you have to stand still, close your eyes and think: who am I? … You know you are an artist when you have the urge to create, but this doesn’t make you a great artist. Great artists result from the sacrifices that you make to your personal life.

She sees the role of the artist as E.B. White saw the role of the writer, and as William Faulkner did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, extolling the writer’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Abramović tells Thornton:

The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center… Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, Day 1 (Photograph: Marco Anelli courtesy of MoMA)

Perhaps because these deeper desires for meaning are so quintessential and universal, Abramović echoes young Virginia Woolf’s belief that all art merely imitates nature and negates the notion of creative influence between artists:

I have never been influenced by another artist… I like to go to the source, to all the places in nature that have a certain energy that you can absorb and translate into your own creativity as an artist.

And yet, as an artist who wholeheartedly embraces her contradictions — Abramović is a vegetarian, doesn’t drink, fasts regularly, yet freely admits to loving fashion — she acknowledges the arrogant myth of originality:

We can’t invent anything in this world which is not there already. It’s about seeing in a different way. Anything that is revolutionary is in front of your nose and it is never complicated. But you don’t see it until you have a safe mind. Performance can help people to get into a state of mind to perceive the simplicity.

Even so, Abramović is a relentless proponent and practitioner of self-reinvention and risk-taking as the ultimate duty of the artist:

When you repeat, you really lose respect for yourself… For me, the studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution. Nothing new happens. You don’t surprise yourself. Artists are here to risk, to find new territory. Risk, especially when you are a known artist, includes failing. It is an essential part of process. Failure is healthy for your ego.

Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,' 1995

Chinese artist, authority-provocateur, and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has made risk-taking his medium, having dedicated his life to challenging his country’s long history of muffling free speech under a blanket of government propaganda and outright, often militant suppression — a mission that has landed him under arrest, led the Chinese authorities to completely wipe his writing from the country’s patch of the internet, and on one occasion resulted in undercover police pulling a black hood over his head, throwing him into a van, and driving him to a hotel two hours away, where he was kept for two weeks before being transferred into a high-security military compound to endure more than fifty interrogations while handcuffed to a chair. He tells Thornton via translator:

Criticism and finding trouble is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.

But it was precisely this trouble-finding creativity that his father, Ai Qing — who was among the intellectuals exiled during the anti-rightist campaign preceding China’s Cultural Revolution — tried to discourage in young Ai, adamantly demanding that his son be anything but an artist. Ai Weiwei tells Thornton:

He always said forget about literature or art. Be an honest worker. [But] I became an artist because, under such pressure, my father still had somewhere nobody could touch. Even when the whole world was dark, there was something warm in his heart.

And yet under threats from the Red Guards to punish his family, Ai Qing gave up poetry and ended up cleaning the public toilets in a village in a remote Chinese province. Ai Weiwei recalls:

Only in the movies or in the Nazi time could you see things like that. It was very frustrating because this man was not a criminal. But people threw stones at him; the children used sticks to beat him; they poured ink on his head — all kinds of strange things in the name of justice and reeducation. The village people didn’t even know what he had done wrong. They just knew he was the enemy.

This early and deep sense of injustice became the raw material for Ai’s art and the lens through which he views the role of art in society, and yet he describes himself as an “eternal optimist” and tells Thornton:

Art is a mental activity, an attitude, a lifestyle.

With an eye to the endangered art of being alone, he considers the relationship between art and activism, the fusion of which defines his own work:

If you have never felt lonely, you should become an activist. Loneliness is a valuable feeling. Artists need to know how to walk alone.

His views on fame both parallel Einstein’s and better honor the complexity of the subject as he tells Thornton:

It comes too quick, too much. It is kind of ridiculous but I have good intentions. Fame needs to have content. If you use it for a purpose, it becomes different. So I am very happy that I have this chance to always speak my mind.

Although he recognizes the great hunger for commercial success in art today, Ai’s opinion of such aspirations is unambivalent. Thornton writes:

In his opinion, to be a “business artist” requires two qualities: “emptiness and shamelessness”… Emptiness and shamelessness are not uncommon in Western art, I say. Some of the most successful artists appear to be nihilists who don’t believe in much other than themselves and the luxury goods market. Ai nods. “For them, art has become pure play, lacking any essential truth,” he says.

This unflinching dedication to truth shows in Ai’s definition of authenticity, which he offers Thornton after a moment of reflection:

[Authenticity] is a habit. It is a road we are comfortable with.

[…]

Being somebody is being yourself. An artist’s success is part of the downside. You can lose yourself. Being yourself is a very difficult game.

Painter Carroll Dunham offers a complementary perspective on this delicate relationship between sense of self and artistic success:

A long career in the art world is hard on the ego.

[…]

The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young and when you are old… Getting through the weird middle period with a sense that you’ve kept growing is a challenge.

Laurie Simmons, 'Love Doll: Day 27/ Day 1 (New in Box),' 2010

Photographer Laurie Simmons — Dunham’s wife and the other half of their self-described “classic extrovert-introvert couple” — considers the trajectory of one’s relationship with criticism over this long game of an artist’s career:

When you’re younger and get a bad review, you think they hate you. It’s the recovery time that changes. You have to know how to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back to work. That’s the key to maturity. It’s what divides the artists that do what they do from those who are not up to it.

[…]

When you are younger, you think about eradicating self-doubt. But, as you age, you understand that it is part of the rhythm of being an artist. As I get older, I have developed my ability to examine self-doubt in private, to play around with it, rather than push it away.

Echoing Sherwin Nuland’s undying wisdom on what everybody needs, Dunham considers the heart of what makes criticism burn:

Negative commentary makes you feel misunderstood. So I often say to myself, “Apparently, I haven’t been clear enough with you people!”

[…]

Interesting artworks are always hypotheses about what an artwork could be… Why would anyone think that new art should resemble what art already looks like?

Echoing Jeanette Winterson’s spectacular meditation on art and the arrogance of the audience, Dunham adds:

The general public doesn’t understand art so they think that a con has been perpetrated on them.

And yet artists, he suggests, do perpetrate cons when they take market over mystery and deploy cheap tricks like surface shock value in lieu of deeper inquiries into the human experience, which is itself shocking in a much more profound way:

Shock is just another move in the entertainment complex. It’s bullshit. Who are you supposed to shock? Rich hedge fund managers? Do you find the fact that you’re going to die shocking? I do. Art can bracket those human conditions. It can cause you to have a moment of insight.

In those moments, Dunham argues, the viewer is rolfed by creative communion with the artist:

You know the difference between a soothing back rub and truly deep bodywork. The latter is not pleasant while it’s happening but afterward you feel quite changed from it. Shock, awe, whatever. I’m not looking for a back rub from art. I’m looking for something that feels like it matters.

Simmons adds a piercing articulation of the great, disquieting fact of creative work, embracing which sets great creators apart:

Any work that is really great hovers between terrific and terrible.

Calling to mind Amanda Palmer’s exquisite definition of what makes one a “real” artist, Dunham later adds:

There is this reverb. You have to make art to be an artist, but you have to be an artist to make art. It’s about getting your self-representation and your actual activities into alignment. I’ve gone through moments where I thought ‘I hate this, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ but I always come back to the fact there isn’t anything else that would better suit my sense of who I am.

It’s hard to imagine that such strong opinions and unflinching dedication to the integrity of art wouldn’t be passed on to Dunham and Simmons’s daughter, Lena Dunham — herself one of the most courageous creative mavericks of our time. In a testament to the notion that parental presence rather than praise fosters a healthy relationship with achievement, Dunham — who defines creativity as “an ineffable bug that takes you over but also something that you can learn” — reflects on the creative conditions and conditioning of her childhood:

I was given the tools, the space, and the support to do whatever I wanted. New approaches to old problems were encouraged… My parents taught me that you can have a creative approach to thinking that is almost scientific. You don’t have to be at the mercy of the muse. You need your own internalized thinking process that you can perform again and again.

She considers the rewards of the creative life:

As an artist, you get the opportunity to write the world — or create the world — that exists in your fantasies. It’s a really beautiful thing to do.

But beautiful as the overall sense of purpose might be, the fantasy-world of this inward gaze often requires being intensely present with one’s darker demons:

The kind of shame I deal with in my work is about returning to the scene of the crime with all my senses operating. I agree with Woody Allen’s theory that tragedy plus distance equals comedy.

(It should be noted that Dunham’s conversation with Thornton took place before Woody Allen rendered himself existentially disagreeable“nauseating,” even — to Dunham and to many of us.)

Legendary Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni — whose inclusion in Thornton’s survey springs from her belief that “curators are vital cocreators of the myths” — offers a complementary take on this notion of art as a conduit to self-knowledge, folding into it a necessary dissent with our culture’s dominant definitions of what makes an artist:

Our media understanding of an artist as a successful professional who makes entertaining objects that sell for a lot of money is very restrictive. Artists are people who do things with images in order to understand the world. They have a fierce desire to know themselves.

In a related sentiment, Turkish filmmaker and contemporary artist Kutlug Ataman elegantly captures the essential tension between culture and commerce with which all artists must tussle:

Art that goes forward can take a long time to be understood, whereas art that moves sideways — that is just elaborating — can be very commercial… As an artist, you have to decide which way you want to go.

That choice is often mired in the question of originality — something that recurs across Thornton’s interviews, and a subject of ambivalent skepticism for artists long before Mark Twain’s famous proclamation that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Visual artist and composer Christian Marclay offers an insightful perspective on this role of the borrowed and the begotten in creative work:

Am I being original this morning? You sense the wonder of discovery when you’re doing something that feels new… But, who knows, maybe someone has been there before. Every image that I use is from someone else. But you can be original in what you steal and how you display your bounty.

33 Artists in 3 Acts is a superb read in its hefty totality. Thornton herself embodies what one of her subjects, the great Italian curator Francesco Bonami, observed of his profession — that curation is “about taking care of the artist” — as her own immeasurable insight on the creative experience illuminates and elevates the artists who entrust their ideas in her care.

Complement this treasure trove of wisdom with Teresita Fernández’s spectacular commencement address on what it means and what it takes to be an artist and Dani Shapiro on the ultimate task of the artist.

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07 JANUARY, 2015

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

By:

“Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

In her sublime memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro wrote: “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” But the sharpening-and-honing itself rarely feels like a joy when you are mid-leap into the unknown, with no guarantee of whether your daily act of showing up — of practice and perseverance — will ever amount to the development of greatness. After all, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that “only mediocrities develop.” And yet here we are a century later, heeding psychologists’ growing body of evidence that “grit” is far more important than “talent” and that practice with a feedback loop is the surest road to success. Even so, the cult of inborn talent endures — after all, it is hard-baked into our cultural mythology of genius — and continues to oppress aspiring artists. “In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor,” writes Glenn Kurtz in Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (public library) — his spectacular memoir of creative homecoming, brimming with vital and poetically articulated wisdom on the artist’s life, deeply resonant for every field of creative endeavor.

Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.”

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Kurtz writes:

Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.

That anguishing personal emptiness was only compounded by New York’s merciless collective cult of self-actualization, which left Kurtz even more crestfallen about the trajectory of his life:

There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.

[…]

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.

[…]

Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.

Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar:

Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Kurtz captures beautifully the enchanting absorption and tactile immediacy of this creative flow:

I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.

[…]

I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Virginia Woolf’s memorable meditation on the bodily ecstasy of music, he adds:

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.

[…]

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself.

Practicing in such a way, Kurtz points out, is an embodied experience rather than one that takes place in the mind’s maze of abstraction — it makes the “whole body alive with aspiration.” Indeed, these two modalities are often in conflict — in one of his many insightful asides, Kurtz issues an admonition that, like the book itself, applies with equal precision to all creative endeavors:

It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.

And in the playing — as in the writing, or the painting, or the knitting — is where we find the gateway to mastery:

Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.

The daily showing up and reaching out is, indeed, where the crucial difference between success and mastery lies, as does Lewis Hyde’s essential dichotomy between work and creative labor. Kurtz captures this elegantly:

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

[…]

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Illustration from 'The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau,' the heartening story of how the iconic painter attained creative success in his later years, after a lifetime of hard work and rejection. Click image for more.

Quoting harpsichordist Wanda Landowska — “If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!” — Kurtz writes:

Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.

[…]

From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

Indeed, this fundamental story of practicing is what lies beneath our culture’s fascination with daily routines, which always harbor the question of what propels the impulse to show up day after day after day in the service of one’s private creative enterprise. Kurtz offers a compelling answer:

Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.

[…]

Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.

[…]

When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.

Unflinching belief in that master-story is also what allows us to transcend the daily rebellions of our bodies and minds, and to go on practicing:

Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.

And therein lies Kurtz’s most assuring wisdom:

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

[…]

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.

Practicing is an infinitely rewarding and ennobling read in its totality. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Debbie Millman on the courage to choose the uncertain what-if.

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