Brain Pickings

Page 4

The Creative Urge: John Coltrane on Perseverance Against Rejection, the Innovator’s Mindset, and How Hardship Fuels Art

“Innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields… Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance.”

The Creative Urge: John Coltrane on Perseverance Against Rejection, the Innovator’s Mindset, and How Hardship Fuels Art

To create anything of beauty, daring, and substance that makes the world see itself afresh — be it a revolutionary law of planetary motion or the Starry Night — is the work of lonely persistence against the tides of convention and conformity, often at the cost of the visionary’s aching ostracism from the status quo they are challenging with their vision. Rilke recognized this when he observed that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” and Baldwin recognized it in his classic investigation of the creative process, in which he argued that the primary distinction of the artist is the willingness to maintain the state everyone else most zealously avoids: aloneness — not the romantic solitude of the hermit by the silver stream, but the raw existential and creative loneliness Baldwin likened to “the aloneness of birth or death” or “the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”

This love-like force — the creative force — is what fuels the perseverance necessary to usher in a new way of seeing or a new way of being. It is the life-force by which visionaries survive the aloneness of their countercultural lives.

That is what jazz legend John Coltrane (September 23, 1926–July 17, 1967) addressed in an extraordinary letter penned in the late spring of 1962, posthumously included in Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s excellent 1975 biography Coltrane (public library).

John Coltrane (Courtesy of

One June morning two years after the release of his epoch-making Giant Steps and five years before his untimely death of cancer, Coltrane opened his mailbox to discover a package from the editor of Downbeat magazine, the premier journal of jazz, containing a gift: a copy of Music and Imagination — a book of the six lectures the great composer and creativity-contemplator Aaron Copland had delivered at Harvard a decade earlier.

Coltrane’s letter of thanks for the gift unspools into one of those rare miracles when something small and seemingly peripheral prompts a sweeping yet succinct formulation of a visionary’s personal philosophy and creative credo — Coltrane’s most direct meditation on what it means to be an artist.

Millennia after Pythagoras’s revolutionary yet limited mathematics of music forked the sonic path of the modern world by laying the structural foundation of the Western canon but failing to account for the intricate unstructured musical styles of the African diaspora and my own native Balkans — a cultural irony, given Pythagoras developed his theory on the island of Samos, a thriving cross-pollinator of the Ancient Greek world perched midway between Africa and the Balkans — Coltrane observes that Copland’s lectures, while erudite and philosophically insightful, speak more to musicians in the Western tradition than they do to jazz musicians. Against Copland’s concern about how difficult it can be for artists to find “a positive philosophy or justification” for their art, Coltrane holds up jazz as living counterpoint — a musical tradition that began as an affirmation of life amid unimaginable hardship, provided a lifeline for those who conceived it and partook of it, and has thrived on the wings of this inherent buoyancy.

Art from The First Book of Jazz by Langston Hughes, 1954

He writes:

It is really easy for us [jazz musicians] to create. We are born with this feeling that just comes out no matter what conditions exist. Otherwise, how could our founding fathers have produced this music in the first place when they surely found themselves (as many of us do today) existing in hostile communities when there was everything to fear and damn few to trust. Any music which could grow and propagate itself as our music has, must have a hell of an affirmative belief inherent in it.

Since we read (and write) about other lives to make sense of our own, he reflects on a biography he has been reading of Van Gogh — an artist who spent his short, revolutionary, tragic life negotiating between his private suffering and the irrepressible affirmative belief that forever changed art. With an eye to Van Gogh, Coltrane writes:

Truth is indestructible… History shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of his departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept.

Vincent van Gogh: The Mulberry Tree, 1889.

In a sentiment evocative of artist Egon Schiele’s observation that visionaries tend to come from the minority and echoing the seventh of Bertrand Russell’s ten commandments of critical thinking“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Coltrane adds:

Innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, wherever it is needed. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance. Often they are people who endure great personal tragedy in their lives. Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant — the creative urge.

This might be the most succinct summation of my creative choice of historical figures to celebrate in Figuring. It is also what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote of the “shock-receiving capacity” necessary for being an artist, and what Patti Smith meant when, with an eye to Coltrane, she considered the shamanistic channeling at the heart of the creative impulse.

Complement with Coltrane’s contemporary and fellow jazz legend Bill Evans on the creative process, then revisit Walt Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.


Perfect Flowers: Adventures in Nature’s Nonbinary Botany, with a Side of Emily Dickinson

Rewilding the landscape of possibility for the poetry of being.

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, epochs before we had our ever-expanding twenty-first-century vocabulary of identities, as she celebrated the “androgynous mind” as the mind most “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Given Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid her blooming garden, she might have been pleased to know that the botanical term for the blossoms of androgenous plants, also known as bisexual plants — plants that contain both the male pollen-producing stamen and the female ovule-producing pistils, and can therefore self-pollinate — is perfect flowers.

Lily from Flora von Deutschland, 1903. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Among the most common perfect flowers are lilies, roses, irises, snapdragons, flax flowers, morning glories, petunias, and the flowers of the coffee plant, the apple tree, and the tomato (which was once known as love apple).

Tomato, or Love-Apple, from A Curious Herbal — the illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young Elizabeth Blackwell published in 1737 to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Plants that contain only one set of gametes — among them begonias, squash, asparagus, and cottonwood — are termed imperfect. Curiously, there are sets of seemingly similar species that fall into opposite categories: the almond tree blooms a perfect flower (which inspired literature’s lushest metaphor for strength of character), while the walnut and the hazelnut do not; soy is perfect, while corn is not.

Coffee plant by Étienne Denisse from Flore d’Amérique, 1843. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In one sense, perfect flowers are less evolutionarily helpless, not having to rely solely on pollinators to deliver the essential fertilizing material from another plant’s gene pool. But they are also more vulnerable — a single disease can vanquish a species with a self-contained gene pool, while a cross-pollinated plant is more likely to contain genes susceptible to the disease as well as genes resistant to it. Lest we forget, diversity is the wellspring of resilience — in the evolution of nature, as in the ever-evolving conservatory of human nature we call society.

Art by Ping Zhu from The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography. Long before he developed his theory of evolution, his grandfather — the physician, poet, slave-trade abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coining-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin — composed a book-length poem titled The Botanic Garden, using scientifically accurate poetry to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Published in 1791, the wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read.

Iris from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Half a century after The Botanic Garden, the young Emily Dickinson, who was a gardener before she was a poet, approached this dual reverence of the botanical and the poetic from a different angle in her herbarium — a meticulously composed collection of 424 New England wildflowers, including hundreds of perfect flowers, arranged with a stunning sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across the pages of the large album, with slim paper labels punctuating the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants, sometimes the common and sometimes the Linnaean.

Page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium

The herbarium was Emily Dickinson’s first formal work of composition, each flower a stanza in the poetry of landscape and life, deliberately placed to radiate a particular feeling-tone. Her poems were never published in book form in her lifetime, but this book of flowers remained with her and now survives her.

On the cover of the first edition of her posthumously published poetry is a painting of one of her favorite wildflowers — the perfect flower Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Indian Pipe for its shape when in bloom, or Ghost Flower for its lack of chlorophyll, which she considered “the preferred flower of life.” Once pollinated, the translucent white plant turns dark and dries up before releasing its resilient seeds into the living world.

Cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, 1890, featuring a painting of Indian Pipes by Mabel Loomis Todd.

When Emily Dickinson died at fifty-five, without a single white in her dark auburn hair, Susan — the great love of her life — wrapped her in a white robe and rested alongside her in the small white casket a single pink lady’s slipper — a rare orchid associated with Venus, beautiful and savage, a living Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Into the neck of the white shroud she tucked a small posy of violets — the flower Emily cherished above all others for its “unsuspected” splendor, to which she had dedicated the most dramatic page of her herbarium. “Still in her Eye / The Violets lie,” she had written in one of her earliest and most intense poems dedicated to Sue, which ends with the declamation “Sue — forevermore!”

Violets from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium

Living when she lived and loving whom she loved, in an imperfect world too small for her genius or her love, Emily Dickinson dreamt of lusher landscapes of possibility, leaping beyond her biology and the limiting binaries of her culture with her bold, subversive verses:

Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!

She never lived to see the human world live up to nature’s nonbinary botany of desire.

But she had her love and all the perfect flowers.


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.


How Memory Makes Us and Breaks Truth: The Rashomon Effect and the Science of How Memories Form and Falter in the Brain

“We are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.”

It is already disorienting enough to accept that our attention only absorbs a fraction of the events and phenomena unfolding within and around us at any given moment. Now consider that our memory only retains a fraction of what we have attended to in moments past. In the act of recollection, we take these fragments of fragments and try to reconstruct from them a totality of a remembered reality, playing out in the theater of the mind — a stage on which, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has observed in his landmark work on consciousness, we often “use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.”

We do this on the personal level — out of such selective memory and by such exquisite exclusion, we compose the narrative that is the psychological pillar of our identity. We do it on the cultural level — what we call history is a collective selective memory that excludes far more of the past’s realities than it includes. Borges captured this with his characteristic poetic-philosophical precision when he observed that “we are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.” To be aware of memory’s chimera is to recognize the slippery, shape-shifting nature of even those truths we think we are grasping most firmly.

Art by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished that what we call truth is “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms… a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910–September 6, 1998) created an exquisite cinematic metaphor for the slippery memory-mediated nature of truth in his 1950 film Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” — a psychological-philosophical thriller about the murder of a samurai and its four witnesses, who each recount a radically different reality, each equally believable, thus undermining our most elemental trust in truth.

As researchers in the second half of the twentieth century came to shed light on the foibles of memory, Kurosawa’s masterpiece lent its name to the amply documented unreliability of eyewitness accounts. The Rashomon effect, detailed in this wonderful animated primer from TED-Ed, casts a haunting broader nimbus of doubt over our basic grasp of reality — we only exist, after all, as eyewitnesses of our own lives.

All of these psychological perplexities arise from the basic neurophysiological infrastructure of how memories form and falter in the brain — something the great neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his classic medical poetics of memory disorders, and something South African biomedical scientist Catharine Young explores in another TED-Ed episode, animated by the prolific Patrick Smith:

Complement with Neurocomic — a graphic novel about how the mind works — and the animated science of how playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, then revisit Virginia Woolf on how memory seams our lives, Sally Mann on how photographs can unseam memory, and neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how medicine’s most famous amnesiac illuminates the wonders of consciousness.


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