Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

15 JULY, 2014

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

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“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[...]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[...]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.

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11 JULY, 2014

Chinua Achebe on the Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society

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The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.

“A writer,” E.B. White asserted in a fantastic 1969 interview, “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” A quarter century later, another literary titan articulated the same sentiment even more beautifully, a remarkable feat in my book, where dear old Elwyn Brooks reigns supreme.

In a 1994 conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, found in the altogether excellent More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library), the great Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) echoes White’s wisdom with his own bend of poetic conviction — conviction all the more urgent in our age of increasingly despairing clickbait “journalism.”

Chinua Achebe (photograph by Mike Cohea courtesy of Brown University)

When Wachtel asks how the prominent South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer’s description of Achebe as “a moralist and an idealist” has fared after years of political and personal struggle, he answers:

[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.

Achebe builds on this thought in his response to Wachtel’s inquiry about how he convinces people of “the redemptive power of fiction”:

Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I’ve never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky…

I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of the meaning of life. That’s really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.

Illustration from 'Beneath the Rainbow,' a collection of mystical children's stories featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by contemporary writers and artists. Click image for more.

One of Achebe’s novels, Anthills of the Savannah, features a poignant fable that illustrates his point about the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, which he relays to Wachtel:

The leopard had been looking for the tortoise and hadn’t found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, “Aha! At last, I’ve caught you. Now get ready to die.” Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, “Okay, but can I ask you a favor?” and Leopard said, “Well, why not?” Tortoise said, “Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?” Leopard thought about it — he wasn’t very bright — and he said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time.” And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Tortoise said: “I’m doing this because when I’m dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, ‘Two people struggled here. A man met his match here.

Wachtel’s More Writers & Company, a sequel to her first compendium of interviews, is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring remarkably wide-ranging and dimensional conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

For more meditations on the meaning of life, see these timeless reflections by Maya Angelou, David Foster Wallace, Milton Glaser, Viktor Frankl, Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Anaïs Nin, Richard Feynman, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck.

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03 JULY, 2014

How to Write Fat Books: Walter Benjamin’s Principles of the Weighty Tome

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A seven-point blueprint to the dark arts of filling pages.

“The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper,” 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer admonished in contemplating the ethics of authorship. A century and a half later, Susan Sontag opined that true literature “is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form.” This is perhaps even more true today, when publishers churn out a barrage of books that could’ve been, should’ve been, or once were magazine articles — listicles, even — artificially fattened into book heft like a foie gras duck and no more pleasurable to the reader than the feeding is to the duck.

Thirty-four-year-old Walter Benjamin presaged and parodied this phenomenon in a short list under the heading “Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books” in his 1928 treatise One-Way Street — a collage of fragmentary observations of everyday life and records of his dreams — in a section titled “Teaching Aid.” Found in his indispensable Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) — which also gave us his 13 commandments of writing — the fragment reads like irreverent meta-commentary on the fact that One-Way Street was far from a “weighty tome,” but also stands as a tragicomic blueprint to producing that prototypical artificially fattened article-turned-book, not to mention the padded, paginated, filler-content articles that plague the modern web.

  1. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.
  2. Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the whole book.
  3. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes.
  4. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should be given; if, for example, machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of machines should be enumerated.
  5. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.
  6. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be expounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.
  7. A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.

The typical work of modern scholarship is intended to be read like a catalogue. But when shall we actually write books like catalogues? If the deficient content were thus to determine the outward form, an excellent piece of writing would result, in which the value of opinions would be marked without their being thereby put on sale.

Benjamin’s Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings is a delight in its entirety. For some timeless wisdom on how to write books of substance rather than filler, see this evolving collection of advice from beloved authors, including Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing, Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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