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Art and Aliveness: Willa Cather on Attention and the Life of the Senses as the Key to Creativity

“Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.”

Art and Aliveness: Willa Cather on Attention and the Life of the Senses as the Key to Creativity

“Her voice is deep, rich, and full of color; she speaks with her whole body, like a singer… Whatever she does is done with every fibre,” a Nebraskan journalist observed on the pages of the Lincoln Star after meeting the brilliant and reclusive Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) while she was working on the novel that would soon win her the Pulitzer Prize, having already written the one that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to despair that The Great Gatsby is a failure by comparison.

Perhaps because they conversed while walking in the autumn sunshine — something Cather, who found her greatest happiness in nature, had requested — and perhaps because the interviewer was also a woman in an era when so few women’s words and thoughts and experiences appeared on the printed page, the conversation that unfurled, later published in Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (public library), remains the most candid and revealing glimpse of Cather’s creative credo, process, and philosophy of art — which is at bottom, always, a philosophy of life.

Willa Cather

The two meandered beneath the fiery autumnal canopy near the home Cather shared with the love of her life, the conversation meandering accordingly in that natural synchrony between the foot and the mind, leaving the interlocutor to marvel:

The longer Miss Cather talks, the more one is filled with the conviction that life is a fascinating business and one’s own experience more fascinating than one had ever suspected it of being. Some persons have this gift of infusing their own abundant vitality into the speaker.

Cather had honed her own love of life — that essential wellspring of creative vitality — in childhood, roaming the wilderness on foot, on horseback, and in her parents’ farm wagon. As a young writer — not privileged, not straight, not resigned to the era’s conventional domestic destiny for a woman — she often worked until the small hours, ate no breakfast to save time and money, and learned to inhabit the world with the full-body presence that would soon give her novels their uncommonly transportive sensorial enchantment.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Contemplating the subject of creativity, Cather laments that nothing is more “fatal to the spirit of art” than the rise of what she aptly terms “superficial culture” — the commodification of art not as an instrument of aliveness but as a status symbol, pursued by rich ladies who “run about from one culture club to another studying Italian art out of a textbook and an encyclopedia and believing that they are learning something about it by memorizing a string of facts.” To her, the young black boy on the porch improvising a Verdi opera on his fiddle by ear — with no formal knowledge of what he is playing and no theoretical rationale for why it is so stirring his soul — “has more real understanding of Italian art than these esthetic creatures with a head and a larynx, and no organs that they get any use of, who reel you off the life of Leonardo da Vinci.”

The creative experience, Cather insists, is a matter of tuning into the inner feeling-tone strummed not by our cerebrations but by our creaturely relishment of the world.

Blue bindweed by Étienne Denisse, 1840s. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

Decades before poet and science historian Diane Ackerman rooted our creaturely and creative vitality in the delights of the senses, Cather echoes her contemporary Egon Schiele’s exhortation to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world” and observes:

Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.

A generation before the star teacher of Black Mountain College made her exquisite case for creativity as a way of being, arguing that art is made “with food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch,” Cather adds:

Esthetic appreciation begins with the enjoyment of the morning bath. It should include all the activities of life… The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs. Often you find such a woman with all the appreciation of the beautiful bodies of her children, of the order and harmony of her kitchen, of the real creative joy of all her activities, which marks the great artist.

Lest we forget, there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

In consonance with Rilke’s beautiful reflections on the reservoir of experiences required for creativity, Cather adds:

Many people seem to think that art is a luxury to be imported and tacked on to life. Art springs out of the very stuff that life is made of. Most of our young authors start to write a story and make a few observations from nature to add local color. The results are invariably false and hollow. Art must spring out of the fullness and the richness of life.

Complement with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, then revisit Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer and her moving letter to her brother about making art through times of inner turmoil.

BP

Pleasure and Spaciousness: Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Advice on Writing, Discipline, and the Two Driving Forces of Creativity

“Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.”

Pleasure and Spaciousness: Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Advice on Writing, Discipline, and the Two Driving Forces of Creativity

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron as he contemplated the interplay of discipline and creativity. A century later, James Baldwin echoed the sentiment in his advice on writing, observing: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

But for those of us who show up to do what we do day after day, inner rain or shine, as the days unspool into years — Brain Pickings turns 15 this year — there is something more than white-knuckle discipline making the steadfast labor not only bearable, not only sustainable, but vitalizing, inspiriting, joyful. What fuels the engine of endurance is a passionate enchantment — something of which Baldwin’s “love” reflects a glimmer but does not fully capture.

The most marvelous part of it is this: It is an enchantment we cast upon ourselves.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

How to cast that enchantment and how to couple it with the requisite endurance is what Your People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye, composer of the existentially symphonic “Kindness,” explores in a short, splendid prose reflection tucked into the final pages of her altogether soul-broadening collection Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems (public library).

In a sentiment evocative of Bertrand Russell’s lovely notion of “largeness of contemplation” in calibrating the relationship between intuition and the intellect, Nye writes:

Two helpful words to keep in mind at the beginning of any writing adventure are pleasure and spaciousness. If we connect a sense of joy with our writing, we may be inclined to explore further. What’s there to find out? Perhaps too much stock has been placed in big ideas or even small ones — a myth! — but regularity seems like a key. Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.

In consonance with John Steinbeck’s life-tested, Nobel-earning conviction that “in writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration,” she adds:

Small increments of writing time may matter more than we could guess. One thing leads to many — swerving off, linking up, opening of voices and images and memories. Nearby notebooks — or iPads or tablets or laptops — are surely helpful.

With this, Nye turns to the ongoing dialogue between the magic of creation and the mechanics of discipline:

Make a plan, and return to it. It’s a party to which we keep inviting ourselves.

And we have so many realms of material that are very close by:

Families
Neighborhoods
Changes
Memories
Spoken language woven into poems — something someone said to you a long time ago and you still remember it — why, out of all the talk, do you remember that thing?
Pets
Losses
First Times
Last Times
Fears
Friends
Being Sick, Being Well
What we see out our windows
Gifts
History — what used to be in this very place where we are sitting now?

Start anywhere.

Although such constructed starting points might seem mechanistic, they are the lever that unlatches the expanse where the unexpected can begin to unfurl. That incubus where ideas collide with one another into the unconscious combinatorial process we call creativity is also the place where the joy of all creative labor lives.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Returning to the twin consecrating forces of discipline, pleasure and spaciousness, Nye writes:

Spaciousness — any page is wider than it looks. You have no idea where this thing might be going. Write in nuggets — here are my questions, here are some details I saw within the last 24 hours, here are some quotes I heard people say today. Gather material first — then select and connect from it… Each thing gives us something else.

The more any of us writes, the more our words will “come to us.” If we trust in the words and their own mysterious relationship with one another, they will help us find things out… Consider the pleasure we feel when we go to a beach. The broad beach, the bigger air, the endless swish of movement and backdrop of sound. We feel uplifted, exhilarated. Writing regularly can help us feel that way too.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a short poem from the same book, calling to mind poet Ross Gay’s reflection on writing by hand as an instrument of thought, Nye considers the practical tools that carve out this observant spaciousness in which impressions can collide and coalesce into ideas:

ALWAYS BRING A PENCIL
by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will not be a test.
It does not have to be
a Number 2 pencil.

But there will be certain things —
the quiet flush of waves,
ripe scent of fish,
smooth ripple of the wind’s second name —
that prefer to be written about
in pencil.

It gives them more room
to move around.

For more practical and philosophical reflections on the craft from great poets, savor Mary Oliver’s advice on writing, Elizabeth Alexander on language as a vehicle for the poetry of personhood, and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, then revisit Rachel Carson on the sacred loneliness of writing and Walt Whitman on the discipline of creative self-esteem.

BP

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear… People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary in her seventy-seventh year as she looked back on a long and lush life to consider the central role of solitude in creativity.

A generation before her, recognizing that “works of art arise from an infinite aloneness,” Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explored the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity in his stunning correspondence with the nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus — an aspiring poet and cadet at the same military academy that had nearly broken Rilke’s own adolescent soul.

Posthumously published in German, these letters of uncommonly penetrating insight into the essence of art and love — that is, the essence of life — now come alive afresh as Letters to a Young Poet: A New Translation and Commentary (public library) by ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and poet and clinical psychologist Anita Barrows: two women who have lived into the far reaches of life — Macy was ninety-one at the time of the translation and Barrows seventy-three — and who have spent a quarter century thinking deeply about what makes life worth living in translating together the works of a long-ago man who barely survived to fifty and who was still in his twenties when he composed these letters of tender and timeless lucidity.

1902 portrait of Rilke by his brother-in-law, Helmuth Westhoff

Anticipating the illuminations of twentieth-century psychology about why a childhood capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creativity, self-esteem, and healthy relationships later in life, Rilke writes to his young correspondent in the short, dark, lonesome days just before the winter holidays:

What (you might ask yourself) would a solitude be that didn’t have some greatness to it? For there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear. It comes almost all the time when you’d gladly exchange it for any togetherness, however banal and cheap; exchange it for the appearance of however strong a conformity with the ordinary, with the least worthy. But perhaps that is precisely the time when solitude ripens; its ripening can be painful as the growth of a boy and sad like the beginning of spring… What is needed is only this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going within and meeting no one else for hours — that is what one must learn to attain. To be solitary as one was as a child. As the grown-ups were moving about, preoccupied with things that seemed big and important because the grown-ups appeared so busy and because you couldn’t understand what they were doing.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s ever-timely insistence that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems… to be busy” and Emerson’s observation that “our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous” the moment we pause the headlong rush of sociality through which we try to escape from ourselves, Rilke adds:

If one day one grasps that their busyness is pathetic, their occupations frozen and disconnected from life, why then not continue to see like a child, see it as strange, see it out of the depth of one’s own world, the vastness of one’s own solitude, which is, in itself, work and status and vocation?

“Solitude” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

And yet the crucial, exquisite creative tension that Rilke so singularly harmonizes is the essential interplay between solitude and love — each enriching the other, each magnifying the totality of the spirit from which all art springs. In another letter penned the following spring, he writes:

Don’t let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge. Precisely this presence will help your solitude expand. People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive. Everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way and against all opposition, straining from within and at any price to become distinctively itself. It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.

To love is good too, for love is difficult. For one person to care for another, that is perhaps the most difficult thing required of us, the utmost and final test, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. With our whole being, with all the strength we have gathered, we must learn to love. This learning is ever a committed and enduring process.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.

Two decades before Kahlil Gibran offered his abiding poetic wisdom on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in true love, Rilke calls for shedding the ideological shackles of our culture’s conception of love as a melding of entities. “No human experience is so rife with conventions as this,” he observes with an eye to those who have not yet befriended their sovereign solitude and instead “act from mutual helplessness” to “simply surrender to love as an escape from loneliness.” He offers the liberating alternative that still requires as much countercultural courage in our day as it did in his:

To love is not about merging. It is a noble calling for the individual to ripen, to differentiate, to become a world in oneself in response to another. It is a great, immodest call that singles out a person and summons them beyond all boundaries. Only in this sense may we use the love that has been given us. This is humanity’s task, for which we are still barely ready.

[…]

This more human love (endlessly considerate and light and good and clear, consummated by holding close and letting go) will resemble that love that we so arduously prepare — the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In another letter, Rilke adds the complexity of physical intimacy to this realm of transcendent difficulty, formulating his advice on how to best harness eros as a creative force:

Yes, sex is hard. But anything expected of us is hard. Almost everything that matters is hard, and everything matters… Come to your own relationship to sex, free of custom and convention. Then you need not fear to lose yourself and become unworthy of your better nature.

Sexual pleasure is a sensory experience, no different from pure seeing or pure touch, like the taste of a fruit. It is a great, endless experience given to us, a natural part of knowing our world, of the fullness and brilliance of every knowing. And nothing we receive is wrong. What’s wrong is to misuse and spoil this experience and to use it to excite the exhausted aspects of our lives, to dissipate rather than connect.

Long before scientists shed light on how the sexuality of early flora and fauna gave our planet its beauty, Rilke adds:

Seeing the beauty in animals and plants is a form of love and longing; and we can see the animal, as we see the plant, patient and willing to come together and increase — not out of physical lust, not out of suffering, but bowing to necessities that are greater than lust and suffering and more powerful than will and resistance.

Oh that humans might humbly receive and earnestly bear this mystery that fills the earth down to the smallest thing, and feel it as part of life’s travail, instead of taking it lightly. If they could only be respectful of this fertility, which is undivided, whether in spiritual or physical form. For this spiritual creativity stems from the physical, derives from that erotic essence, and is but an airier, more delightful, more eternal iteration of its lush sensuality.

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

So too with the role of the erotic in creative work:

The art of creating is nothing without the vast ongoing participation and collaboration of the real world, nothing without the thousandfold harmonizing of things and beings; and the creator’s pleasure is thereby inexpressibly rich because it contains memories of the begetting and bearing of millions. In a single creative thought dwell a thousand forgotten nights of love, which infuse it with immensity. And those who come together in the night, locked in thrusting desire, are gathering nectar, generating power and sweetness for some future poetic utterance that will sing the rapture.

For more of and about this ravishing new translation of Letters to a Young Poet — one which embodies the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original,” and the finest such miracle performed on a classic since Ursula K. Le Guin’s feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching — savor this On Being conversation with Macy and Barrows about the wider resonances of Rilke’s work in our world, then revisit Rilke’s contemporary Hermann Hesse on solitude and the courage to find yourself, physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on how to live with our human vulnerabilities, and Rilke himself on what it takes to be an artist.

BP

Keith Haring on Creativity, Empathy, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.”

Keith Haring on Creativity, Empathy, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” artist Egon Schiele wrote in contemplating why visionaries tend to come from the minority. Artists are so often those whom society paints as other by some hue of identity and belonging, and yet they are also the ones who, in seeing how and what most people don’t see, teach us what it takes to be ourselves, what it feels like to be someone other than ourselves, and what it means to be a human being.

Iris Murdoch found in this the ultimate evidence of why art is essential for democracy; in it, James Baldwin recognized the titanic dual task of the artist as society’s essential destabilizing force and its “emotional or spiritual historian,” whose job it is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

We make art with everything we are, the doom and the glory of it. We make art to know ourselves, to locate ourselves in the web of being, to make ourselves more alive. We make art that, at its best, helps other people locate themselves and live.

All artists know this and feel this, consciously or not, but few have contemplated that knowledge more deeply and articulated it more beautifully than Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990), whose largehearted art has touched countless lives and helped generations of humans — this one included — live.

Keith Haring by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Haring explores this question with uncommon thoughtfulness and tenderness throughout his diary, posthumously published as Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the wondrous cathedral of creative vitality rising at the intersection of the intimate and the universal that gave us Haring’s impassioned insistence on the love of life even in the face of death.

In the early autumn of 1978, having just left Pittsburgh to begin his brave new life as an artist in New York City, the twenty-year-old Haring finds himself sitting in Washington Square Park — a microcosm of the city’s vibrant polyphony of life. He takes out his journal and begins composing a long stream-of-consciousness meditation on art and life, at the heart of which is the sentiment that would come to define his creative ethos:

No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically.

[…]

I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.

Haring would devote the remainder of his short life to using art as a celebration of difference and an empathic bridge for coming as close as we can ever come to the way a consciousness other than our own is experiencing reality.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1978, from Keith Haring Journals.

In an entry penned years later, not yet knowing his own consciousness is soon to meet its untimely end, he revisits the question of the ultimate function of art in human life — life inextricable from the larger web of life, the destructive unweaving of which had colored Haring’s childhood as the modern environmental movement was coming awake:

“Art”… is at the very basis of human existence. The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.

Art becomes the way we define our existence as human beings. This has a perverse air to it, I admit. The very idea that we are so different from other beings (animals) and things (rocks, trees, air, water) is, I think, a great misconception, but if understood is not necessarily evil. We know that “humans” determine the future of this planet. We have the power to destroy and create. We, after all is said and done, are the perpetrators of the destruction of the Earth we inhabit. No matter how slowly this destruction is occurring, no matter how “natural” this de-composition is, we are the harborers of this change.

And yet even against this backdrop, Haring defies the easy defeatism of painting our species and our civilization as purely evil, of classing human nature as an antagonist of nature rather than its function and functionary, just as replete with the capacity for destruction as with the capacity for beauty — like nature itself. What dignifies us, what redeems us, what saves us from ourselves, is the animating impulse of art. He writes:

We are human and we “understand” beauty.

Complement with Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist and the childhood encounter in which Pablo Neruda found the ultimate metaphor for why we make art, then revisit Drawing on Walls — poet Matthew Burgess and muralist Josh Cochran’s picture-book biography of Haring, inspired by his altogether ravishing journals.

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