Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

16 JUNE, 2014

Anna Deavere Smith on Discipline and How We Can Learn to Stop Letting Others Define Us

By:

“What you are will show, ultimately. Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.”

“Discipline,” the late and great Massimo Vignelli wrote, “is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong… Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves [and] toward the society in which we live.” It’s a dimensional definition that touches, ever so gently, on the second meaning of discipline — not merely the act of showing up or the quality of “grit” that psychologists tell us is the greatest predictor of success, but the unflinching commitment to ourselves, to our own sense of merit and morality, to our own ideals and integrity. It’s a commitment doubly important yet doubly challenging for those in creative fields, where subjectivity is the norm and external validation the ever-haunting ghoul.

How to master that elusive aspect of discipline is what beloved artist, actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith outlines in one of the missives in Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — the same compendium of immeasurably insightful and useful advice, titled after the famous Rilke tome, that also gave us Smith’s wisdom on confidence and what self-respect really means.

Smith writes:

Discipline — both mental and physical — is crucial.

She recounts an encounter with the son of Melvin van Peebles, a black filmmaker who made a smash-hit independent film in the seventies that earned him a lot of money and cultural status. The son, Mario van Peebles, had made a film about his father’s film, a screening of which Smith hosted. She writes:

He must be in his mid-sixties, and he is in perfect physical shape. He was standing by the bar, and I asked him not about the film but about his physique.

“You look like you work out,” I said.

“Every day,” he said.

People who actually work out every single day have no problem talking about it. He and I agreed that we have to get up and go immediately to the gym, the pool, wherever our workout is, without doing anything before.

“If I get up and think, ‘Let me have a cup of coffee first,’ it ain’t happ’nin’,” he said.

Not even a cup of coffee. I’m the same way. If I go to the computer or take a newspaper before heading to the gym, there’s a chance I won’t get there.

As someone who has been working out every single morning for the past fifteen years, I wholeheartedly, wholebodily agree. I do a great deal of my reading at the gym, too, including this particular book itself — there’s something powerful about the alignment of two disciplines, of body and mind, in the same routine. The two rhythms reinforce one another.

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

For Smith, a dedication to discipline is the defining characteristic of the artist. A number of famous creators would concur, from Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) to Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), from 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.”) to E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) Smith considers what makes one an artist:

The life of an artist is not a state of “being.” It even sounds pretentious, sometimes, to call oneself blanketly “an artist.” It’s not up to you or me to give ourselves that title. A doctor becomes a doctor because he or she is formally given an MD. A scholar in the university is formally given a PhD, a counselor an LLD, a hairstylist a license, and so forth.

We are on the fringe, and we don’t get such licenses. There are prizes and rewards, popularity and good or bad press. But you have to be your own judge. That, in and of itself, takes discipline, and clarity, and objectivity. Given the fact that we are not “credentialed” by any institution that even pretends to be objective, it is harder to make our guild. True, some schools and universities give a degree for a course of study. But that’s a business transaction and ultimately not enough to make you an “artist.”

Perhaps this is why creative people are singularly vulnerable every time they put their art — whatever its nature — into the world. Without the shield of, say, a Ph.D. to point to and say, “But look, I’m real,” it’s all too easy to hang our merit and worth and realness on the opinions of others — opinions often mired in their own insecurities and vulnerabilities, which at the most malignant extreme manifest as people’s tendency to make themselves feel big by making others feel small, make themselves feel real by making others feel unreal. And though it may be true that “if you rise above, you’re going to be inundated with feedback from nobodies,” it seems to me that for many artists it almost doesn’t matter whether the feedback comes from nobodies or somebodies — when one is forced to be one’s own judge, one also tends to be one’s worst critic, and any outside fuel in the engine of self-criticism feels equally potent. Which is precisely why Smith’s point about cultivating discipline and clarity in one’s self-assessment is of tremendous, soul-saving importance. It’s the ability, acquired through practice, of seeing one’s work for what it is — whether proud-making or imperfect or, quite often, both — by one’s own standards, and not to hang the fullness of one’s heart or the stability of one’s soul on those external opinions and definitions.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Slate and Toni Morrison. Click image for details.

Smith captures the paradox of this condition elegantly:

We who work in the arts are at the risk of being in a popularity contest rather than a profession. If that fact causes you despair, you should probably pick another profession. Your desire to communicate must be bigger than your relationship to these chaotic and unfair realities. Ideally, we must be even more “professional” than lawyers, doctors, accountants, hairdressers. We have to create our own standards of discipline.

All of the successful artists I know are very disciplined and very organized. Even if they don’t look organized, they have their own order.

Echoing the famous words often attributed to Mahathma Gandhi, she writes:

What we become — what we are — ultimately consists of what we have been doing — what we eat, what we drink, how we have been moving.

In 1974 I started swimming. I will never forget the first day I went to the pool and had decided to make swimming a part of my everyday regimen. Swimming was the perfect exercise; either you sink or you swim. Soon after, I understood something about acting that I would take with me to rehearsals with my classmates: “Talking about acting is like thinking about swimming.”

That’s perhaps why successful artists and writers are so powerfully anchored to their daily routines and their quirky habits. There’s a kind of readiness for creation that the discipline of a daily rhythm induces. Smith captures it beautifully:

Be more than ready. Be present in your discipline. Remember your gift. Be grateful for your gift and treat it like a gift. Cherish it, take care of it, and pass it on. Use your time to bathe yourself in that gift. Move your hand across the canvas. Go to museums. Make this into an obsession…

What you are will show, ultimately. Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.

Or, as another wise woman memorably put it, “Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise. Start now. Start now, every single day.”

The rest of Letters to a Young Artist, spanning everything from presence to procrastination to trust, is immeasurably wonderful and soul-expanding. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the perils and pleasures of the creative life.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 JUNE, 2014

Hipsters and Squares: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Myth, Identity, “Creative Wholeness” and How We Limit Our Happiness

By:

How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.

[…]

What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

02 JUNE, 2014

Dani Shapiro on Vulnerability, the Creative Impulse, the Writing Life, and How to Live with Presence

By:

“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. To be birthed by it.”

Dani Shapiro is the author of the magnificent memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy and, most recently, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (public library) — one of 2013’s best books on writing and creativity. She is also one of the most enchanting nonfiction writers of our time, capable of revealing through the harrowing honesty of the personal the profound resonance of the universal — those deepest yearnings and fears that unite us in our humanity whenever, in a moment of courage or despair, we plunge beneath the surface illusion of our separateness.

On an altogether fantastic recent episode of Design Matters, Debbie Millman sits down with Shapiro to talk about writing, vulnerability, spirituality, genesis of creative ideation, and how to live with presence. The wonderfully wide-ranging interview concludes with a double delight — Millman’s reading of one of the most beautiful and poignant passages from Still Writing:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that 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. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

The full conversation is simply spectacular — hear it below, with transcribed highlights:

On the singular demands of the memoir genre and autobiographical nonfiction:

When you bring out a memoir, the feeling is of the life being reviewed — not the book being reviewed.

Ultimately, my memoirs are crafted — there’s much that I didn’t write about… To me, memoir and essay and the kind of nonfiction writing that I’ve done … is the act of crafting a story — it’s actually tremendously controlled. It’s the act of exerting my own shape on what is otherwise chaotic… I’ve chosen exactly what to reveal, and how to reveal it, and I’ve recognized the story in my life.

It’s not all interesting … and it’s not, [as] I say to my students, “the kitchen-sink approach to memoir” — just because it happened, does not make it compelling and does not make it a story.

On the lengths to which we go to craft our own stories and control our image in the eyes of others — especially as social media sharing is continuing to “turn up the volume on what it means to live out loud”:

Is there anything less revealing of Self than a selfie?

On the unexpected outpour of humanity in the letters of readers from all walks of life, in response to her spiritual memoir, Devotion:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

On why Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of time as a cathedral was so influential in Shapiro’s journey of writing and living Devotion:

I loved that so much when I came across it — I felt like it was speaking so completely to what that existential crisis was for me, which was, “How do we live in the moment?” How do we actually be right here, right now — not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past — and how difficult it is… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not.

How many times have we had the experience of driving a car down the road and suddenly realizing, “Twenty minutes have gone by and I’ve arrived at my destination, and I have no idea how I got here or what just happened…”

That was so powerful to me, that feeling. I wanted to freeze time — freeze the moment that I was in as I was in it, which is the opposite of being in the moment and sort of just staying there. That felt to me like a real spiritual pursuit — to try to understand that and think about that, and in a meditation practice, how to be aware of when my mind was wandering and simply shepherding it back.

On Shapiro’s belief that “traces that live within us often lead us to our stories,” something Joan Didion called “a shimmer around the edges” — a concept that speaks to the “slow churn” of creativity and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our experience:

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes… it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

The full interview is enormously stimulating and soul-stretching, as are Shapiro’s books. Sample Still Writing here and here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.