Brain Pickings

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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Physician Allison Ballantine’s Short, Stirring Commencement Address on Living with Presence

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How the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us.

In culling the greatest commencement addresses of all time, I wondered whether the convocation speech genre might be the modern secular sermon of our time. But imparting life-advice that touches on the spiritual without veering off into the contrived and the aphoristic is a rare feat.

Several years ago, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatric physician Allison Ballantine addressed the class of graduating medical students at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught. Ballantine sent a transcript of her commencement speech to the wonderful Tara Brach, who read an excerpt from it on an episode of her indispensable mindfulness podcast.

Coming from anyone, Ballantine’s words are a simple yet powerful reminder that unless we live with presence, we aren’t living at all. Coming from someone whose daily task is to protect the sanctity of life against the demands of death, they are nothing short of an awakening:

We become so accustomed to life on the hamster wheel of achievement and approval that we just forget. We scamper on and on, chasing the ephemeral promises of “someday…” or “if only I…”

Growing up, I learned a hard lesson about how that hamster wheel could cheat us.

My father was a pediatric surgeon, with tremendous enthusiasm and drive to succeed that encompassed his work, his family, and his friendships. He was a huge influence in my life — he taught me the value of hard work and the satisfaction of a job done right. But on a winter day when he was driving home from the hospital where he worked, his car slid on a patch of black ice, hitting a telephone pole on the driver’s side, killing him instantly.

He was forty-eight and I was eighteen.

[...]

This … serves as a reminder that I cannot live my life on the hamster wheel, waiting for “someday…” or “if only I…”

[...]

What you have is in the present moment, and it is unfathomably precious.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Complement with Annie Dillard on presence over productivity, Debbie Millman on not wasting time, and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

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Swami Vivekananda on the Secret of Work: Intelligent Consolation for the Pressures of Productivity from 1896

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“Every work that we do… every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff…”

In December of 1895, the renowned Indian Hindu monk and philosopher Swami Vivekananda, then in his early thirties, traveled to New York, rented a couple of rooms at 228 West 39th Street, where he spent a month holding a series of public lectures on the notion of karma — translated as work — and various other aspects of mental discipline. They attracted a number of famous followers, including groundbreaking inventor Nikola Tesla and pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, and were eventually transcribed and published as Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action (public library) in 1896. Among the most timeless of them is one titled “The Secret of Work,” in which Vivekananda examines with ever-timely poignancy the ways in which we mistake the doing for the being and worship the perspirations of our productivity over the aspirations of our soul.

Vivekananda begins by noting that a great deal of our existential confusion about work has to do with our chronic judgment — and, most cripplingly, self-judgment — regarding “good” and “bad.” (Those of us with Type A tendencies know all too painfully how easy it is to feel “bad” for not being productive at all times.) He writes:

Good and bad are both bondages of the soul… If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul… This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it.

In a sentiment that Western psychology godfather William James would come to echo two years later in his influential treatise on habit — quite possibly influenced by the Indian monk’s lectures, which James attended — Vivekananda observes how our choices and actions shape who we become:

Every work that we do, every movement of the body, every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff, and even when such impressions are not obvious on the surface, they are sufficiently strong to work beneath the surface, subconsciously. What we are every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions on the mind… This is really what is meant by character; each man’s character is determined by the sum total of these impressions.

(Cue in Joan Didion on character.)

Writing shortly before Gandhi popularized this idea, Vivekananda returns to the notions of “good” and “bad” as they relate to the architecture of our character through these “impressions on the mind-stuff”:

If good impressions prevail, the character becomes good; if bad, it becomes bad. If a man continuously hears bad words, thinks bad thoughts, does bad actions, his mind will be full of bad impressions; and they will influence his thought and work without his being conscious of the fact. In fact, these bad impressions are always working, and their resultant must be evil, and that man will be a bad man; he cannot help it. The sum total of these impressions in him will create the strong motive power for doing bad actions. He will be like a machine in the hands of his impressions, and they will force him to do evil. Similarly, if a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they, in a similar manner, will force him to do good even in spite of himself. When a man has done so much good work and thought so many good thoughts that there is an irresistible tendency in him to do good in spite of himself and even if he wishes to do evil, his mind, as the sum total of his tendencies, will not allow him to do so; the tendencies will turn him back; he is completely under the influence of the good tendencies. When such is the case, a man’s good character is said to be established.

As the tortoise tucks its feet and head inside the shell, and you may kill it and break it in pieces, and yet it will not come out, even so the character of that man who has control over his motives and organs is unchangeably established. He controls his own inner forces, and nothing can draw them out against his will. By this continuous reflex of good thoughts, good impressions moving over the surface of the mind, the tendency for doing good becomes strong, and as the result we feel able to control … the sense-organs, the nerve-centers. Thus alone will character be established, then alone a man gets to truth. Such a man is safe for ever; he cannot do any evil.

And yet, Vivekananda notes, there is an even more important requirement for character than the acquisition of “good tendencies” — the desire for liberation from attachment, freedom from clinging to the very notions of good and bad, in work and in life. He writes:

Liberation means entire freedom — freedom from the bondage of good, as well as from the bondage of evil. A golden chain is as much a chain as an iron one. There is a thorn in my finger, and I use another to take the first one out; and when I have taken it out, I throw both of them aside; I have no necessity for keeping the second thorn, because both are thorns after all. So the bad tendencies are to be counteracted by the good ones, and the bad impressions on the mind should be removed by the fresh waves of good ones, until all that is evil almost disappears, or is subdued and held in control in a corner of the mind; but after that, the good tendencies have also to be conquered. Thus the “attached” becomes the “unattached”. Work, but let not the action or the thought produce a deep impression on the mind. Let the ripples come and go, let huge actions proceed from the muscles and the brain, but let them not make any deep impression on the soul.

It’s worth pausing here to note how challenging it is for a Western, individualistic mind to not mistake Vivekananda’s central point for advocacy of laziness or resignation. Quite the contrary, he suggests — subtly, unselfrighteously — that our best work comes when we stop being so preoccupied with the end result and instead surrender ourselves to the experience itself, nonjudgmentally. Vivekananda puts it beautifully, bridging the poetic with the practical:

Be “unattached”; let things work; let brain centers work; work incessantly, but let not a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible.

But what keeps us from relating to work in this way is a kind of self-enslavement — something all the more pertinent today, more than a hundred years later, as we’ve plunged into the era of productivity and operate largely out of a sense of obligation, even if self-elected, rather than a sense of true purpose and passion. (A century before Karma Yoga, the French author and historian Chateaubriand wrote that “a master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure.”) Vivekananda considers the role of inner freedom in work:

Do you not see how everybody works? Nobody can be altogether at rest; ninety-nine per cent of mankind work like slaves, and the result is misery; it is all selfish work. Work through freedom! Work through love! The word “love” is very difficult to understand; love never comes until there is freedom… If you buy a slave and tie him down in chains and make him work for you, he will work like a drudge, but there will be no love in him. So when we ourselves work for the things of the world as slaves, there can be no love in us, and our work is not true work.

He offers a litmus test for whether you’re working out of love or out of self-enslavement:

Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction. Real existence, real knowledge, and real love are eternally connected with one another, the three in one: where one of them is, the others also must be; they are the three aspects of the One without a second — the Existence — Knowledge — Bliss. When that existence becomes relative, we see it as the world; that knowledge becomes in its turn modified into the knowledge of the things of the world; and that bliss forms the foundation of all true love known to the heart of man. Therefore true love can never react so as to cause pain either to the lover or to the beloved… With love there is no painful reaction; love only brings a reaction of bliss; if it does not, it is not love; it is mistaking something else for love.

Noting that attaining this non-attachment is “almost a life’s work,” Vivekananda argues that it’s nonetheless the only true gateway to freedom. He offers a poignant analogy to better illuminate this freedom from preoccupation with results and returns:

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children — expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.

Ultimately, he argues, our compulsion for productivity and our attachment to specific results are an act of selfishness. Doing meaningful work, on the other hand, is an act of mercy:

If working like slaves results in selfishness and attachment, working as master of our own mind gives rise to the bliss of non-attachment. We often talk of right and justice, but we find that in the world right and justice are mere baby’s talk. There are two things which guide the conduct of men: might and mercy. The exercise of might is invariably the exercise of selfishness. All men and women try to make the most of whatever power or advantage they have. Mercy is heaven itself; to be good, we have all to be merciful. Even justice and right should stand on mercy. All thought of obtaining return for the work we do hinders our spiritual progress; nay, in the end it brings misery.

Swami Vivekananda concludes with sentiment that embodies the prevalent Western ideal of finding your purpose and doing what you love, quoting an old Indian sage’s wisdom on the secret of work:

Let the end and the means be joined into one.

Karma Yoga is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Buddhist Economics and Jack Kerouac’s Eastern-influenced meditation on selflessness and “the Golden Eternity,” then revisit some Western ideas on finding fulfilling work and working with love.

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