Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

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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27 JUNE, 2014

The Art of Looking: How to Live with Presence, Break the Tyranny of Productivity, and Learn to See Our Everyday Wonderland

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“When you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

For my book club collaboration with The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s online oasis of intelligence and idealism, I had the pleasure of sitting down with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz to discuss her immeasurably wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — one of the best books of 2013 and among the most interesting I’ve ever read, a provocative exploration of how powerfully our experience of “reality” is framed by the limitations of our attention and sensory awareness.

Our conversation ranges from Alice in Wonderland to John Cage to Susan Sontag, by way of dog cognition and productivity, in the service of understanding how different minds expose the many everyday wonderlands hidden before our eyes. Highlights below — please enjoy.

On the idea that everything is interesting if you look closer:

When you look closely at anything familiar, it kind of transmogrifies into something unfamiliar — the sort of cognitive version of saying your name again and again and again, or a word again and again and again, and getting a different sound of it after you’ve repeated it forty times.

On the notion that “a writer is a professional observer”:

I am, professionally, an observer of animals — by which I mean nonhuman animals. I actually have been less interested in looking at people… But of course, as it turns out, the human animal is also infinitely more complex than I give us credit for. And I appreciated — a lot — the fact that, at the end of this book, I could take a walk with anybody — it didn’t have to be an expert… — and I became more appreciative of anyone’s perspective. If you can just get somebody to talk about what they see when they’re walking down the street, they will almost inevitably be seeing something different than you. Because they are a different person, and there’s a whole background there. And, actually, I think that is a kind of writerly trick — it’s sitting in the restaurant and making up stories about the people who sit around you… being interested in [them] and being able to imagine, backwards, their stories.

On the parallels between Horowitz’s book and mindfulness meditation, and the urgency of her overarching message in a culture that often, to our detriment, prioritizes productivity over presence as a form of toxic modern self-hypnosis:

I am not encouraging productivity — and I don’t mind that that’s the case. I value the moments in my life that are productive, certainly, but only the ones that are productive and also present. Writing the book was “productive,” literally — it was a product; it was also an enjoyable engagement in the present. So it doesn’t have to be either-or.

But [I have also] spent time in a job where you then wonder, a year later, what happened to that year. And if I had bothered to sit on the subway, commuting to my office, looking — looking — I think that those moments would have been memorialized, and I would know what happened to that year…

I don’t mean to be testifying against productivity per se, but I do see that it’s certainly mindless, the way that we approach there being only one route to living one’s life. And it is within us, this capacity to alter that — at any moment, even within that framework — to change your state.

Horowitz turns the table on the productivity question:

MP: What’s interesting about the productivity dogma is that we live in a culture where we worship work ethic — by a very narrow definition — as some sort of this grand virtue. And we define it as showing up, day after day after day. But I often think that that’s the surest way to lull ourselves into a kind of trance of passivity, where we show up but we’re absent from our own lives. And I think one of the most beautiful things you do is you show how we can be present in our own lives, through these eleven different people and their perspectives.

AH: Thank you. You know, you are thought of as being, probably, an excessively productive person — again, in that literal sense. You have such a fertile mind — would you say you are not productive? Or, how do you achieve your productivity?

MP: I think productivity, as we define it, is flawed to begin with, because it equates a process with a product. So, our purpose is to produce — as opposed to, our purpose is to understand and have the byproduct of that understanding be the “product.” For me, I read, and I hunger to know… I record, around that, my experience of understanding the world and understanding what it means to live a good life, to live a full life. Anything that I write is a byproduct of that — but that’s not the objective. So, even if it may have the appearance of “producing” something on a regular basis, it’s really about taking in, and what I put out is just … the byproduct.

AH: Right. When I went on these walks, I didn’t know what I would get. That was important, also.

MP: It’s kind of like going down the rabbit hole but digging it in the process, too.

On Looking is an absolutely magnificent, mind-expanding, spiritually enriching read — sample it here and here. You can follow the Dish book club here and join me in supporting The Dish which, like Brain Pickings, is ad-free and supported by readers.

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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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