Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

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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24 JUNE, 2014

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

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“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” painter Chuck Close memorably scoffed. “Show up, show up, show up,” novelist Isabelle Allende echoed in her advice to aspiring writers, “and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put it similarly in an 1878 letter to his benefactress: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” Indeed, this notion that creativity and fruitful ideas come not from the passive resignation to a muse but from the active application of work ethic — or discipline, something the late and great Massimo Vignelli advocated for as the engine of creative work — is something legions of creative luminaries have articulated over the ages, alongside the parallel inquiry of where ideas come from. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most succinct and elegant articulation comes from one of the greatest artists of all time.

Picasso having lunch at the Brasserie Lipp, chatting with Pierre Matisse, Henri Matisse's son. Photograph by Brassaï.

This was one of the questions the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï posed to Pablo Picasso over the course of their 30-year-long interview series, collected in Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same superb 1964 volume that gave us Picasso on success and why you should never compromise creatively. When Brassaï asks whether the painter’s ideas come to him “by chance or by design,” Picasso slips in some sidewise wisdom on the tyranny of “creative block” and responds:

I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

The chalk portrait of Picasso that Henri Matisse drew blindfolded. Photograph by Brassaï.

To further illustrate this notion that the best creative work happens when the rational, self-editing mind gets out of the way of the intuitive inclination — something Ray Bradbury articulated beautifully in a 1974 interview — Picasso offers an illustrative example. Despite being both a professional admirer and a personal friend of Matisse’s, he cites the painter’s notoriously methodical creative process as a betrayal of this notion that an artist should honor his or her initial creative intuition:

Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.

Making Picasso's point visible: In 2010, MoMA curators used X-ray technology to reveal the many iterations behind Henri Matisse's painting 'Bathers by a River,' on which the painter worked for eight years between 1909 and 1917.

Conversations with Picasso is an enormously rewarding read in its entirety. Complement this particular extract with a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, then revisit David Lynch on where ideas come from and some thoughts on the subject from Neil Gaiman.

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