Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

07 JULY, 2014

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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04 JULY, 2014

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.

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26 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Songwriter Carole King on Inspiration vs. Perspiration and How to Overcome Creative Block

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“Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes.”

To call Carole King one of the most successful female songwriters of all time, while correct, would be a disservice to the fact that she is one of the most successful, innovative, creatively courageous any songwriters of all time — something her four Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can only begin to reflect. As a songwriter, she has written cultural classics like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, and the contagiously catchy “The Loco-Motion.” As a singer-songwriter, she has recorded 25 solo albums over the course of her fifty-year career, including the 1971 masterpiece Tapestry, one of the bestselling records of all time, which outsold The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and included the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend.” Together with her onetime husband and longtime collaborator Gerry Goffin, King revolutionized, then defined, the sound and sensibility of popular music.

In 2013, King became the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — and yet the sweeping popularity of her songs has been not a goal but a byproduct of her singular creative vision. As Paul Zollo writes in his fantastic interview collection Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality and Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind“Carole has never been the type of songwriter who pays attention to trends, knowing after all these years that a great song transcends them all.”

Zollo’s wonderfully wide-ranging 1989 conversation with King reveals not only her extraordinary genius as a songwriter and a creative visionary, but also her luminous humility as a human being. Her thoughts on creative block and the interplay between inspiration and work ethic, while rooted in songwriting, apply just as powerfully to writing, art, and nearly any creative endeavor.

Reflecting on how her beloved song “You’ve Got a Friend” came to be, King counters the popular contemporary mythology that “inspiration” is nothing but the steady application of perspiration and echoes T.S. Eliot’s notion of the mystical quality of creativity, telling Zollo:

That song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself through me… It happens from time to time in part. That song is one of the examples of that process where it was almost completely written by inspiration and very little if any perspiration.

The reference, of course, is to Thomas Edison’s oft-cited aphorism, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

And yet King makes a parallel case for the value of work ethic in overcoming creative block — a lucid reminder, amidst a culture increasingly incapable of nuance, that “inspiration” and “perspiration” are osmotic counterparts:

Songwriters, both lyricists and melody writers, are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are, writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever.

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

Reflecting on her own process, she makes a case for the “slow churn” of creativity and for trusting that the incubation stage of the creative process will do its part:

I almost never have worried about it. Because when it seemed to be a problem, when I seemed to be … I don’t even want to say “blocked” because it seems like too strong a word. But when the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again. Whether it was an hour later, which is often the case, or a day later or a week later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it.

Paralleling Mary Gordon’s cure for writer’s block by manually writing out passages from beloved literature, King suggests a similar strategy for songwriting, in addition to just waiting it out:

Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unblocks a channel.

King returns to the inspiration-perspiration relationship and integrates the two — the intuitive and the methodical, the muse and the mastery — beautifully:

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes. I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of [in a high, fairy-like voice] you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you. Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do it.

Devour some of King’s timelessly enchanting music below:

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality, featuring conversations with such legendary musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with more thoughts on process and creativity from the world of writing, including meditations by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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