The Interplay of Inspiration and Work Ethic: Tchaikovsky on Creativity and Productivity
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
By Maria Popova
I recently stumbled upon a recurring theme articulated by both Jack White and Nick Cave, a concept that flies in the face of our cultural mythology about how creativity works: the idea that just showing up and doing the work — the practice that Ira Glass insists separates mere good taste from great work and that Anne Lamott believes is the secret to telling a good story — is just as important as the notion of “inspiration” in the creative process.
All of this reminded me of a beautiful letter the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893) wrote to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, in March of 1878, found in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library | public domain).
The thirty-seven-year-old composer writes:
Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.
A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write to-day will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation, if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.
A century and a half later, Jack White — a musical visionary of our own epoch — echoed Tchaikovsky:
Inspiration and work ethic — they ride right next to each other…. Not every day you’re gonna wake up and the clouds are gonna part and rays from heaven are gonna come down and you’re gonna write a song from it. Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.
Complement with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul.
Published July 24, 2012