Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

07 JULY, 2014

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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03 JULY, 2014

Isaac Asimov on Optimism vs. Cynicism about the Human Spirit

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Why cynicism is, above all, a disservice to our own happiness.

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman,” E.B. White wrote in a letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” A beautiful and soul-expanding counterpart to the power of optimism in the human spirit that White advocates comes from science-fiction icon Isaac Asimov, found in his posthumously published It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a rich selection of the author’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, which also gave us Asimov’s wisdom on humanism and science vs. spirituality.

The book itself is titled after some of Asimov’s last words to his wife, but the most magnificent embodiment of his faith in life’s goodness comes from a letter to one of his friends. Asimov writes:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable about enjoying the good things.

Asimov later echoed this sentiment in his spectacular conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, in discussing the ideas of heaven, hell, and all the artificial ways in which religion tries to keep human goodness in check:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

It’s Been a Good Life, featuring selections from Asimov’s first three autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov’s wonderful 1983 Muppet magazine interview on curiosity, risk-taking, and the value of space exploration.

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01 JULY, 2014

Maya Angelou’s Beautiful Letter to Her Younger Self

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“Be courageous, but not foolhardy.”

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” the late and great Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their extraordinary 1973 conversation.

The theme of home and belonging is central to Angelou’s work — to her spirit — and is also at the heart of her beautiful contribution to Ellyn Spragins’s 2006 anthology What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library), which also gave us Naomi Wolf’s spectacular no-bullshit letter to her younger self.

Angelou writes:

Dear Marguerite,

You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you — you’ve been raised.

You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.

Remember, you can always come home.

You will go home again when the world knocks you down — or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again — one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,

Maya

Two years later, in 2008, Angelou would revisit the theme of home and belonging in her breathtaking letters to the daughter she never had.

What I Know Now features more contributions by such extraordinary women as Madeleine Albright, Roz Chast, and Ingrid Newkirk. Complement this particular gem with Maya Angelou on identity and the meaning of life

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23 JUNE, 2014

Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means: Comedian Bill Hicks’s Brilliant Letter to a Priest

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“‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.”

In early June of 1993, several months before cancer took his life at the age of thirty-two, beloved comedian Bill Hicks received a letter from a priest, bemoaning the “blasphemous” content in Hicks’s live television special Revelations and reprimanding British broadcaster Channel 4 for having put it on the air. Writing a mere eight days before his fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis — a young man still oblivious to his imminent tragic fate — Hicks decided to respond to the missive personally, in what became one of the most lucid and beautiful defenses of the freedom of speech ever articulated, on par with Voltaire’s piercing admonition about censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless words on the subject.

From Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library | IndieBound) — the same wonderful compendium by Shaun Usher that gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Eudora Welty’s impossibly charming lesson in how to apply to your dream job — comes Hicks’s brilliant, thoughtful, and immeasurably important response.

Hicks writes:

Dear Sir,

After reading your letter expressing your concerns regarding my special “Revelations,” I felt duty-bound to respond to you myself in hopes of clarifying my position on the points you brought up, and perhaps enlighten you as to who I really am. Where I come from — America — there exists this wacky concept called “freedom of speech,” which many people feel is one of the paramount achievements in mankind’s mental development. I myself am a strong supporter of the “Right of freedom of speech,” as I’m sure most people would be if they truly understood the concept. “Freedom of speech” means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with. (Otherwise, you don’t believe in “freedom of speech,” but rather only those ideas which you believe to be acceptably stated.) Seeing as how there are so many different beliefs in the world, and as it would be virtually impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, you may begin to realize just how important an idea like “freedom of speech” really is. The idea basically states “while I don’t agree or care for what you are saying, I do support your right to say it, for herein lies true freedom.”

It’s worth pausing here to note that in the DNA of the Christian Church, as an institution, is a compulsion to do precisely the opposite — to suppress the views that contradict its dogmas. One need only look to Galileo’s trails to appreciate how far back and how deeply these foundations of power-maintenance through censorship run. (But, of course, there’s always Flannery O’Connor to clarify the difference between dogmatic religion and faith.)

With his characteristic blend of snark and keen cultural insight, Hicks continues:

While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.

Hicks moves on to the part of the letter that disturbed him the most:

In support of your position of outrage, you posit the hypothetical scenario regarding the possibly ‘angry’ reaction of Muslims to material they might find similarly offensive. Here is my question to you: Are you tacitly condoning the violent terrorism of a handful of thugs to whom the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and tolerance is perhaps as foreign as Christ’s message itself? If you are somehow implying that their intolerance to contrary beliefs is justifiable, admirable, or perhaps even preferable to one of acceptance and forgiveness, then I wonder what your true beliefs really are.

If you had watched my entire show, you would have noticed in my summation of my beliefs the fervent plea to the governments of the world to spend less money on the machinery of war, and more on feeding, clothing, and educating the poor and needy of the world … A not-so-unchristian sentiment at that!

Ultimately, the message in my material is a call for understanding rather than ignorance, peace rather than war, forgiveness rather than condemnation, and love rather than fear. While this message may have understandably been lost on your ears (due to my presentation), I assure you the thousands of people I played to in my tours of the United Kingdom got it.

Whether or not the priest himself got it, even after the letter, is another story open for speculation.

Letters of Note is a spectacular collection in its entirety, featuring opinionated, vulnerable, beautiful, blunt, and deeply human contributions from such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. Sample three of my favorites here, here, and here. Usher continues to dig up even more gems and to share them on Letters of Note, one of the most wonderful corners of the internet.

You can watch Hicks’s Revelations below. It, along with the rest of his legacy, can be found on this essential collection of his work.

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