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Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

In praise of the mundane, unquantifiable, impractical activities that feed creative work and fill life with meaning.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

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

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”


Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled.”

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness (public library).

Oliver Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)

In his impressive handwritten notes on creativity and the brain, which became the basis of the essay, Sacks had enthused about — in two colors, underlined — the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of the mind engaged in creative work. But, contrary to the archetypal myth of the lone genius struck with a sudden Eureka! moment, this chaos doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it coalesces from a particulate cloud of influences and inspirations without which creativity — that is, birthing of something meaningful that hadn’t exist before — cannot come about.

With the illustrative example of Susan Sontag — herself a writer of abiding wisdom on the art of storytelling — Sacks traces the inevitable trajectory of creative development from imitation to originality:

Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled,

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.


I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.

Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation. He writes:

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

A page from Dr. Sacks’s wild and wondrous handwritten notes on creativity and the brain.

Curiously, Sacks points out, many creators don’t make the leap from mastery to such “major creativity” — something Schopenhauer considered in his incisive distinction between talent and genius. Often, creators — be they artists or scientists — content themselves with reaching a level of mastery, then remaining at that plateau for the rest of their careers, comfortably creating more of what they already know well how to create. Sacks examines what set those who soar apart from those who plateau:

Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind?

It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.

Much of the gamble, Sacks argues, is a kind of patient gestation at the unconscious level — something Einstein touched upon in explaining how his mind worked. Echoing T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the necessity of “a long incubation” in creative work, Sacks adds:

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.

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

He illustrates the detrimental absence of such a gestational period with an example from his own experience:

Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed.

I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).

In a testament to his uncommon empathic might and his endearing generosity of interpretation in regarding others, Sacks reflects on the deeper phenomena at play:

I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.

The unfortunate playwright seems to have embodied the lamentation which poet Mary Oliver so beautifully articulated in her meditation on the creative life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Sacks points to three essential elements in a creative breakthrough, be it a great play or a deep mathematical insights: time, “forgetting,” and incubation. More than a century after Mark Twain declared that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Sacks — who had previously written at length about our unconscious borrowings — adds:

All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Complement this fathom of The River of Consciousness, thoroughly resplendent in its totality, with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bill Hayes’s loving remembrance of Oliver Sacks and Sacks himself on what the poet Thom Gunn taught him about creativity.


The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”

The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Life exhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is one of a handful of women portrayed, among them pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)

“Twas the Night Before Monday” by young Sylvia Plath, (Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Collage (Includes images of Eisenhower, Nixon, bomber, etc.) by Sylvia Plath, 1960
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, who teamed up with Plath scholar and Smith Rare Book Room curator Karen Kukil, was particularly interested in Plath’s curious power over the popular imagination — how she has remained so relevant even to people who know little about her, why so much of the mythology that surrounds her stems from a place of misunderstanding, what it is about the combination of her poetry and her personhood that so enchants. Moss tells me of her fascination with Plath’s visual art:

Her impulse to draw and sketch was as strong as her instinct to write.

In the context of a museum of art history and biography, Moss set out to explore the poet’s visual imagination and the way Plath performed her identity — how she made sense of herself in her art, how she deliberately revealed herself only in fragments. Half a century before Instagram and Facebook’s hyperconscious art direction of the self, Plath carefully curated her own image, sculpting before the camera a persona she felt represented her ideal self and destroying many of the photographs she didn’t like.

Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, 1954
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia “Marilyn” Shot by Gordon Ames Lameyer, June 1954
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England. Photograph by Harry Ogden, 1956.
(Courtesy Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts)
Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas, Court Green. Photograph by Siv Arb, April 1962.
(Courtesy Writer Pictures Ltd., © Writer Pictures Ltd.)

In her selections for the show, Moss sought to honor the full dimension of Plath’s person beyond the archetypal persona of the tragic genius into which popular culture has flattened her — to celebrate not only the undeniable darkness of her poetry, but also her sense of humor, her witty and whimsical sides. “To have the intensity that she achieved in her writing, she needed to experience a range of emotions,” Moss tells me — a sentiment Plath herself articulated in a poignant and precocious letter to her mother penned at the age of seventeen:

Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna, gelatin silver print, 1959
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation)

In consonance with this effort to illuminate Plath’s multitudes, the show highlights two of the poems she penned in the final days before taking her own life, both animated by an exuberant vitality and a benevolence toward life, and posthumously published in her Collected Poems (public library):


Kindness glides about my house.
Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke
In the windows, the mirrors
Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?
A rabbit’s cry may be wilder
But it has no soul.
Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.
O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.


Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish —
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,
Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

When I asked Moss what most surprised her in bringing the show to life, it was this creative tension between fatality and vitality that she pointed to — “how much wonder and light is in [Plath’s] work throughout her life, even in her last days.”

Accompanying the exhibition is an arresting sound and light sculpture by Wellesley composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, titled Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) — a haunting homage to Plath, both physical and ethereal, in which visitors tap on glass jars to activate the sound of Wellesley college students singing Plath’s verses. The title of the piece is inspired by the parenthetical last verse of Plath’s first tragic poem:

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

One Life: Sylvia Plath is on view until May 20, 2018. Complement it with Plath on what makes us who we are, her little-known children’s book written for her own kids and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and a rare BBC recording of her haunting reading of the poem “Spinster,” then revisit her ink sketches collected by her daughter.

All images courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery


In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.

The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”).

Here is my essay, as it appears in the book.

by Maria Popova

My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert , library science.

An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted. 

One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.

Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz. 

That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.

Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming.

My great-grandfather — my father’s maternal grandfather — was an astronomer and mathematician born at the dawn of the twentieth century, into Bulgaria’s nascent monarchy that followed five hundred years of Ottoman slavery. He lived through two World Wars, then watched his homeland, battered by centuries of oppression and brutalized by decades of war, crumble into communism when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1940s. The pernicious anti-intellectualism of the communist regime took great pains to silence any cultural signal from the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the radio — then the dominant form of mass media — Western broadcasts in translation were banned and their frequencies muffled. But because so few Bulgarians spoke non-Slavic languages, the government didn’t bother to muffle foreign broadcasts in the original — those were just buried on hard-to-find frequencies.

Witnessing the timorous promise of freedom succumb to dictatorship must have been unbearable for my great-grandfather. Somehow, he hacked his transistor radio into the frequency of the BBC World Service and, well into his fifties by that point, set about teaching himself English. He acquired an English dictionary and a few literary classics through some underground channel — from Jane Austen to first-edition Hemingways, which survive to this day in my grandmother’s library — and began underlining words, filling the margins with translations, and code-cracking English grammar. It was a small act of rebellion, but a monumental one. By the 1960s, he had become fluent in English, with the BBC as his sole conduit to the other side — a lifeline of intellectual liberty.

When his nine grandchildren were entrusted in his daytime care, he decided to weave this surreptitious insurgency into his legacy by teaching them English. He would take them to the park and when the time came for their afternoon snack, he wouldn’t feed them until they were able to ask for their sandwiches in proper Queen’s English.

The BBC World Service was always on in the kitchen and in the late summer of 1966, just before my father’s sixth birthday, “Yellow Submarine” was on heavy rotation — it had been released on August 5. One morning, my great-grandfather decided to use the song as an opportunity for another English lesson with the kids. Perhaps because this was in Varna — Bulgaria’s naval capital, where the city’s celebrated Naval Museum is still housed in a giant decommissioned submarine — and perhaps simply because he was a little boy and little boys have such obsessions, my father was enamored of submarines and instantly took the bait. He fell in love with the song, learned its melody, and memorized the lyrics.

He grew up, fluent in English and German (my great-grandfather had also hacked his way into the Deutsche Welle), and although his obsession with the engineering of military vehicles and vessels never left him, the yellow submarine became a distant childhood memory. But it left a vestige, invisible and dormant until it was fertilized by the unlikeliest — or is it the likeliest? — of catalysts: love. The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings. In a marvelous yet hardly surprising parallel, the very origin of “Yellow Submarine” intimates such boyhood vestiges.

Paul McCartney wrote the song as a nonsense children’s rhyme to which the Beatles added an irreverent edge.

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea

McCartney’s grandfather, Joseph, grew up near the Liverpool docks and played the E-flat bass, a giant tuba-like brass instrument. Lennon’s grandfather, George, was a lifelong mariner who was aboard one of the first three-masted ships to sail around the world. After he met his wife at the bustling old Roman seaport of Chester, he retired into domesticity by taking a shoreside job recovering wreckage from sunk submarines. McCartney later recounted that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” by making up a melody in his head and letting it carry the story of “an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he’d lived.” Could this “man who sailed the sea” be an amalgam of these two boyhood vestiges?

It is, of course, a perennial mystery how the innumerable fragments of experience we amass in the course of living come into contact with one another, how they are fused together in the combinatorial process of creativity and transformed into something new. Impatient with mystery, we tend to seek to fill the unknown with easy explanations. When “Yellow Submarine” was released — on the other side of “Eleanor Rigby,” on the same day as Revolver – people rushed to presumptions about the obvious agent of transmutation: This, after all, was the middle of the 1960s and the Beatles had just begun experimenting with psychedelics. But while John and George were busting open the doors of perception with acid, Paul was largely uninterested in such synthetic aids — bursting with creative energy, his spiritual electricity was self-synthesized. Although he insisted over and over on the innocuous origin of the song, throngs of critics both professional and self-appointed continued to interpret the song as an ode to psychedelics.

If psychedelics played a role at all, it was indirect — at most as a cross-pollinating agent of adjacent imaginations. Since the Beatles shared so much of their lives, Paul was inevitably immersed in his bandmates’ newfound wonderland of psychedelia and absorbed its rousing visual language. According to a Beatles intimate quoted in Bob Spitz’s excellent biography of the Fab Four, one of those early acid experiences produced “marvelous visions” of “rainbow-colored submarines” — an image so wild and whimsical that John and George, in their wide-eyed exhilaration, likely enthused about it to the rest. Paul might have folded that image into his mental catalogue of fragments — in fact, his first draft of the lyrics included multiple submarines of various colors before they were distilled into the sole yellow submarine. (Donovan added the line “Sky of blue and sea of green” — a welcome reinjection of color into the final yellow monochrome.)

McCartney had written the song for Ringo Starr, who was “very good with kids,” deliberately keeping it “not too rangey in the vocal range” for Ringo to perform. It was a perfect fit — the song became by far the most successful Beatles track with Ringo as a vocalist. But there was something else, something singularly magical, that lent it timeless luster and increasingly timely allure today. Its recording was a jubilant celebration of phenomena that have since gone just about extinct — the communal element of making art and the messy, hands-on craftsmanship of sound.

On May 26, 1966, the Beatles packed into Studio Two along with a motley cast of Abbey Road regulars and irregulars, spearheaded by legendary producer George Martin.

And our friends are all on board

The gang proceeded to fetch an arsenal of noisemaking tools from the utility closet — chains, whistles, buckets, glasses, wind-makers, thunderstorm machines, wartime hand bells, hooters, ship’s bells — which quickly cluttered the studio’s spacious wooden floor as the cacophonous crew set out to create the song’s weird and wonderful aural atmosphere. The cash register that would later ring up Pink Floyd’s “Money” appeared from somewhere. An old-fashioned metal bath was dragged in and filled; the Beatles’ chauffeur, Alf Bicknell, was assigned a chain to whirl through the water.

And the band begins to play

At the end, the band’s road manager, Mal Evans, grabbed a bass drum and led a conga line around this makeshift wonderland of music-making to the collective incantation:

We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

There’s a wonderful symmetry here, between the childlike playfulness that filled the studio and the sensibility of the song itself. More than that, the recording session stands as a testament to the song’s true intent — an ode to pure fun, nothing more and nothing less. But while fun — the exultant joy of creation — has always been a major animating force of art, it has never been a sufficient raison d’être for art criticism. In one of his beautiful 1930s essays on music, Aldous Huxley — perhaps the patron saint of psychedelics and a prominent paste-up presence in the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — remarked on the “absurd multiplicity of attributed ‘meanings’” that music can invoke. “Yellow Submarine,” due to its nonsensical lyrics and its particular placement in the chronology of the Beatles as odd bedfellow to “Eleanor Rigby” and creative counterpoint to Revolver, lent itself to particularly extravagant interpretations, from the sociocultural to the political. One folk magazine took it to be an anti-Vietnam War anthem. The great African American poet, dramatist, and essayist Amiri Baraka saw it as a pathetic paean to white privilege. The English music critic Peter Doggett remarked, “Culturally empty, ‘Yellow Submarine’ became a kind of Rorschach test for radical minds.” (We can put aside for a moment the notion that childlike wonder and sensorial delight amount to cultural emptiness — a lamentable bias that warrants a separate essay.)

This question of the song’s meaning reached a crescendo when it was adapted into an animated feature film two years later. What began as a throwaway licensing deal and a mere afterthought for the Beatles became a messy parable of the rift between culture as creative communion and culture as commodity. Before “Yellow Submarine” conquered the airwaves as the highest-grossing single in the UK the year of its release, the Beatles had agreed — or, rather, their manager Brian Epstein had procured their impetuous agreement — to contribute an original soundtrack and lend their endorsement to a cartoon adaptation by King Features, which had already adapted the life and music of the Beatles into five dozen cartoons. Young painters were recruited from local art schools and an impressive crew of animators, inkers, background artists, and sound engineers was hired from all over the world — Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Scotland, Spain, the U.S. and all over the U.K. As the animation crew worked day and night for eleven months, the Beatles, not quite realizing what they had agreed to, began actively resenting the very idea of the project and treated it like a tedious chore they just had to get out of the way. The film was ultimately finished with very little and very begrudging input from the band.

Its premiere at London Pavilion in July of 1968 sparked a heightened state of Beatlemania. Fans loved it, most commentators loved it, and even the Fab Four had to admit its charm. But amid the flurry of enthusiasm, the few shrieks of criticism became emblematic of the cultural unease which “Yellow Submarine” sparked — a discomfort with an uninterpretable open-endedness that resists the categorization by which we navigate and process cultural material. The irritation of this unease was best captured by Daily Mail entertainment columnist Trudi Pacter, who complained that “the Beatles stubbornly continue to experiment” instead of sticking to the formula that had already proven their music wildly successful. It’s a grievance both utterly ridiculous and utterly human: We yearn for art to surprise us, but we also yearn for the control, for certitude, for knowing what to expect from those we’ve come to trust. But what made the Beatles a cultural force was precisely the stubbornness with which they continued to experiment forward into greatness. “Yellow Submarine” was a particularly successful experiment.
Full speed ahead, Ms. Pacter, full speed ahead!

It is precisely this uncomfortable open-endedness of meaning that drove generations of critics to fill the abyss with manufactured meanings. Interpretation, of course, always reveals far more about the interpreter than it does about the interpreted. Just two years before the release of “Yellow Submarine,” in her terrific treatise “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag bemoaned the reactionary “arrogance of interpretation” and called it “the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

And yet the interpretation of art is inescapable, and this might not be such a bad thing after all. “Yellow Submarine,” more so than the average song due to its nonsensical nature, has meant different things to every person who has ever heard it and filled it with subjective sense. It meant different things to my great-grandfather, to my father, and to myself. For the old mathematician, it signified a vitalizing act of intellectual insurgency; for the little boy, a playful and infectious wink at a childhood obsession; for the young man in love, a thread stretching backward and forward in time, connecting him to his childhood self and to the future wife who would beget his own child. And although I, that future child, never got to meet my intellectual insurrectionist great-grandfather, I am linked to him by DNA and by a song from long ago, embedded in my father’s synapses and worn note-bare by my mother’s lips.

“Once a poem is made available to the public,” teenage Sylvia Plath once wrote to her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” It is by this right of interpretation that popular music, popular culture, and perhaps all culture belongs to us at all. It is by this right that art is always appropriated by life, that a catchy song with no particular meaning, eavesdropped on by a little boy with his ear pressed to the Iron Curtain, can be woven into a family myth across time and space. This is what popular art does at its best — it provides a screen onto which vastly different people in vastly different circumstances can project the singular meaning of their lives.

In Their Lives features twenty-seven more essays on beloved Beatles songs, cross-pollinating personal histories with cultural history in a poetic intersection of memoir, music, and the collective legend-making of great storytelling.


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