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Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.”

Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.

“We have all known the long loneliness,” Dorothy Day wrote, but some — artists, perhaps — know it more intimately than others and few artists have articulated this knowledge with more stunning and stirring lucidity than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). Loneliness permeates A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that abiding source of Woolf’s wisdom on such varied dimensions of existence as the paradoxes of aging, the elasticity of time, the key to lasting relationships, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary. In fact, it is precisely the transmutation of loneliness into connection with the universal human experience that lends Woolf’s writing its timeless penetrative power.

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf (Photograph: George Charles Beresford)

In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlando subverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:

Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness. Loneliness, after all, is an interior chill independent of externalities and often thrives precisely when our circumstances appear most enviable to the outside world — a warping of reality that is itself intensely, almost unbearably real. Woolf writes:

These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.

And yet for Woolf, this lonely silence is inseparable from the creative impulse. Half a century before Adrienne Rich asserted that “the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Woolf illustrates this nuanced feeling with a lived example:

I was walking up Bedford Place is it — the straight street with all the boarding houses this afternoon — and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains — of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort — I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight; and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world… Anything is possible. And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.

A Writer’s Diary remains one of the most psychologically insightful and beautifully crafted packets of human thought and feeling ever bound between two covers. Complement this particular portion with Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely and David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, then revisit Woolf on why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind and her electrifying account of the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

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Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke

A woman of extraordinary intellectual and creative potency, the Russian-born writer Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) became a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated thinkers, including Nietzsche, whose masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her. Already an established poet and philosopher by the age of fifty, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first woman psychoanalyst. But perhaps the most significant relationship of her life was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who became besotted with her in his youth, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her.

Like Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the two remained lifelong friends and intellectual peers after their romance ended. Andreas-Salomé was Rilke’s most trusted confidante and, in many ways, his greatest influence.

Particularly beautiful was their intimacy around the trials and triumphs of the creative spirit, revealed over and over in Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) — the record of their decades-long, deeply poetic correspondence, which also gave us Andreas-Salomé on the relationship between the mind and the body.

In a letter from the summer of 1914, Rilke confides in her about his exponentially exasperating struggle with depression and creative block. He captures the overwhelming and vulnerable-making emotional porousness that makes us feel completely devoid of control over the anguishing invasiveness with which the world enters us:

I am like the little anemone I once saw in the garden in Rome; it had opened so wide during the day that it could no longer close at night. It was terrible to see it in the dark lawn, wide open, still taking in through its calyx, which seemed as if frantically flung open beneath an all-overpowering night that streamed down on it undiminished… My senses, without asking me, attach themselves to anything intrusive, whenever there’s a noise I give myself up to it and am that noise, and since everything, once it has been set for stimuli, wants to be set off by stimuli, so at heart I want to be disturbed and am so without end. From such exposure to an existence in public, some sort of life inside me has taken refuge, has retreated to an innermost place and lives there the way people live during a siege, in deprivation and perpetual worry… And in between, between this uninterrupted outward-addiction and that interior existence I can barely reach any longer, are the true dwelling-places of healthful feeling: empty, abandoned, cleared out, an inhospitable middle zone whose neutrality also explains why all the kindnesses of people and nature are wasted on me.

Anemone flower
Anemone flower

But in her response, Lou Andreas-Salomé offers some counterintuitive yet tremendously insightful consolation — the emotional porousness that makes for such despairing vulnerability, she argues, is also the wellspring of creative self-expression, as evidenced by Rilke’s exquisite articulation of his very anguish. She writes:

While you are perpetually feeling sick and miserable you are also perpetually finding expressions for that experience, and those expressions, in the distinctive form you give them, would be quite impossible unless somewhere inside you there is a flowing together, an experiencing in unison, of what you feel as so torn into one impulse fleeing outward and another burrowing inward, with only an empty, self-deserted middle space between them. Those words with which you articulate this condition, and that passage, for example, about the anemone — they are nothing if not works, works accomplished, the coming about of deepest unities in you!

In a sentiment that Anaïs Nin would come to echo thirty years later in her beautiful meditation on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, Andreas-Salomé adds:

A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs, certainly; but if it arose out of that despair, the despair of not being capable of just such poetic syntheses, there’d be a contradiction, don’t you think? To your consciousness of yourself it appears that way, your consciousness finds itself on the side of what is being blocked, and therefore is not party to those moments which show again and again that you are not so lacking throughout in unity as you feel and think “yourself” to be; you suffer yourself as a person blocked, and that piece of happiness which is lodged in this situation remains hidden from you, withheld, even though all its requirements are inside you and express themselves; for one cannot write about the anemone the way you do without some store of happiness (which is just not fully working its way into consciousness!)

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

At the heart of her consolation is the notion that creative block is evidence of creativity rather than of its absence. She writes:

This may not factually change anything, since one has nothing of that which eludes one’s feeling and thoughts; yet proof that it is real and is present remains important, — somewhat the way an insensate limb does not stir the same terror as an amputated one: the paralysis may be connected with processes that can at any moment resolve, and that do not block the flow of food and nourishment, etc.

Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably beautiful and poetic Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters with Lewis Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block, Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, and some advice from successful contemporary artists, then revisit Rilke on the soul-expanding value of difficulty, our fear of the unexplainable, and what books do for our inner lives.

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John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

“A good writer always works at the impossible.”

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf saw this informal practice as training ground on which one can “loosen the ligaments” for formal writing. But hardly anyone has put private writing to more fruitful use as a creative and psychological sandbox for public-facing art than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

Thirteen years after he completed the remarkable and psychologically revelatory journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck enlisted another private medium of informal writing in perfecting his public prose. In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily “letter” to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici.

An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.

On the pages of the blue-lined notebook, Steinbeck worked out and fine-tuned his ideas about writing, the creative process, family life, the purpose of art, and his most elemental convictions. These letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (public library) — an extraordinary document illuminating not only the mental, spiritual, and creative interiority of one of the most formidable artists who ever lived, but the very nature of creativity itself.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the letters is the sincerity with which they reveal the inseparability of an artist’s selfhood and personal life, with all of its elations and anguishes, from his art. (Patti Smith addressed this indivisibility in her moving letter to Robert Mapplethorpe.) Particularly touching is Steinbeck’s love for his two young sons, four and a half and six and a half at the time, to whom he addressed the novel.

In his very first letter to Covici, with undertones evocative of artist Anne Truitt’s reflections on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, Steinbeck writes:

I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, Steinbeck adds:

One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous group…

John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John. Paris, 1954. Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.
John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John, in Paris, 1954. (Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.)

But what makes the novel so abidingly powerful is that in speaking to his children, Steinbeck speaks to the most innocent parts of all of us — something he captures in articulating why his boys are the perfect objects of his artistic intent:

They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all — the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable — how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

Among these inseparable doubles are also the batteries of knowing and not-knowing, of the possible and the impossible. In an exquisite passage that captures the heart of why artists make art, Steinbeck adds:

I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. A great many never come to know that there are other rivers. Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.

Journal of a Novel is a revelatory read in its totality, brimming with Steinbeck’s earnest intensity and beautifully articulated insight into the machinery and mystique of creativity. Complement this particular portion with Annie Dillard on the animating force of great art and Henry James on its ultimate purpose in human life, then revisit Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his perennially wonderful advice on falling in love, penned in a letter to one of his sons.

BP

What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“To be perfectly original,” Lord Byron famously quipped, “one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.”

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (public library), organizational psychologist Adam Grant — who has spent years studying the counterintuitive psychology of success — brings contemporary social science to the timeless validity of Byron’s words, examining the contextual nature of creative genius and demonstrating that the most groundbreaking innovations aren’t spurred by arbitrary sparks of mystical epiphany but by intelligent and informed dissatisfaction with cultural defaults, translated into a radical and purposeful desire to upend those defaults.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

Grant — an immensely pleasurable writer who interpolates elegantly between T.S. Eliot allusions and Silicon Valley startup lore — echoes Mark Twain’s assertion that all ideas are essentially second-hand, but he offers a useful working definition of originality:

Originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it. Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

[…]

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

This conception of originality calls to mind legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” — and it affirms the idea a creative breakthrough isn’t something generated entirely outside its cultural context but a motivated response to a discontented immersion in context. Grant calls this vuja de:

The starting point [of originality] is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse — we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.

Therein lies the paradox of achievement — Grant points out that the people we celebrate as prodigies are actually not innovators, for they outperform along an existing axis of excellence rather than weaving an entirely new thread into the fabric of society. In a sense, a prodigy is an outlier, whereas an original is an aberration.

Grant writes:

Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.

This observation calls to mind psychologist Carol Dweck’s trailblazing work on the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets — one of the most important and far-reaching findings in psychology in the past century. Prodigies, as Grant describes them, represent the fixed mindset and are animated by a hunger for approval according to accepted standards; originals, on the other hand, embody the growth mindset and are driven by curiosity and a desire for improvement. Lest we forget: Even the supremest success, if it is success by someone else’s standards, is still an act of conformity — just ask Thoreau.

Art from How to Be a Nonconformist, a vintage satirical take on conformity written and illustrated by a high school girl named Elissa Jane Karg

Half a century after the great social scientist John Gardner contemplated what children can teach us about taking risks and being unperturbed by failure, Grant reminds us that the word entrepreneur, which was coined by the economist Richard Cantillon, is literally translated as “bearer of risk.” The radical risks that define originals, however, aren’t foolish risks but considered ones — successful people distribute their risks in a kind of portfolio, ensuring stability in some areas of their lives in order to have the flexibility to fail in others.

How to master the art-science of taking radical risks — including how to procrastinate strategically, why it’s easier to translate fear and anxiety into excitement than to calm yourself down, and how to harness the positive power of negative thinking — is what Grant goes on to explore in the remainder of Originals, a fine counterpart to his earlier work on the behavioral styles that predict success. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creative breakthrough and André Gide on what it really means to be original.

For more of Grant’s insight into human behavior, devour his fascinating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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