Brenda Ueland on the Incubation of Ideas & the Importance of Idleness to Creativity

if you want to write

We live in a productivity-obsessed age where we streamline our lives with the efficiency of assembly lines, devoting our every minute, every second to the capitalist task of “getting things done.”  Today some ten-year-olds have busier schedules than corporate CEOs.  Hour after hour is crammed with basketball games and ballet classes, playdates and piano.

The problem?  In our rabid race to achieve, we leave little time for idleness.  We all need “time freed from time”— respite from the relentless hamster wheel of duty and obligation.  Savoring a cup of chamomile tea, unwinding in a hot bath, lounging on a languid summer afternoon with nothing pressing to do and no set plans: such idle moments are restful commas in a hurried sentence.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that we all require time for rest, renewal, and relaxation.  Yet in our “time is money” capitalist culture, we feel guilty if we don’t maximize every hour and do something “useful.”  If we fritter away a Saturday morning painting or writing sonnets or simply staring out the window, we’re slothful— or worse— sinful.  Idleness is an unforgivable violation of the capitalist credo.

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, delightfully defiant Brenda Ueland suggests idleness is not a condemnable waste of time but a critical component of the creative life.  Much like Rebecca Solnit, who argued the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour, Ueland believes the imagination “works slowly and quietly.”  Indeed, throughout time, idleness has been behind all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “What we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.

Sadly, in our accomplishment-manic society, we find it hard to tolerate the idleness so crucial to creativity.  To write, to paint, you need long stretches of seeming un-productivity.  Or as poet Mary Oliver so elegantly phrased, “a place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”  To be an artist, we have to resign ourselves to the dispiriting fact that some days we’ll slave for hours and have almost nothing to show for it; some days “working” will consist of simply staring out the window and sitting at our desks.  But if we’re to remain artists, we can’t be discouraged by this apparent lack of progress.  As Ueland writes:

“When we hear the word ‘inspiration’ we imagine something that comes like a bolt of lightning, and at once with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair and feverish excitement, a poet or artist begins furiously to paint or write.  At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.

But this isn’t so.  Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly.  Say that you want to write.  Well, not much will come to you the first day.  Perhaps nothing at all.  You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out the window and begin to brush your hair absent-mindedly for an hour or two.  Never mind.  That is all right.  That is as it should be,— though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper sooner or later.  And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”

Though we tend to idolize what the ancients called the vita activa, or life of action, Ueland believes we should devote just as much time to quiet contemplation.  Our ideas are like seeds: we can’t plant them in the ground and expect them to immediately sprout— they need to sit in the fertile soil of silence and solitude before they can bloom into fully-formed flowers:

“Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.  Bernard Shaw says that it is not true that Napoleon was always snapping out decisions to a dozen secretaries and aides-de-camp, as we are told, but that he moodled around for months.  Of course he did.  And that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people often say: ‘I am not creative.’  They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time.”

For Ueland, there is one crucial difference between the active, go-getting man and the idle man: while the go-getting man mindlessly follows other people’s maxims out of a stern sense of obligation, the idle man is a free thinker who has his own ideas and creates his own rules.  

“It is these fool, will-worshipping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten Commandments— not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you— but mechanically.

‘Honor thy father and thy mother’… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior.

The idle man says:

‘Honor they father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is?  and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained.  This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: ‘Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?'”

When we get quiet, we can hear the hushed whisperings of our own heart.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, in idleness the “more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.”  In what is perhaps my most beloved and oft-quoted line from If You Want to WriteUeland reassures us if we sit still and listen hard, the Muse will strike:

“So you see the imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’  But they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from the office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” 

For more of Brenda Ueland’s heart-sustaining meditations on art and creativity, revisit art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies.  Longing for more insight into writing and the writing life?  Read advice from our era’s leading literary lights including Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood, Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, and Maya Angelou on her writing routine and the exquisite torment of the creative life.

Brenda Ueland on the Imagination as the Glorious Gateway to the Divine

Poets and philosophers have been enraptured by the imagination since the beginning of time.  “I am if you want to writecertain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” romantic poet John Keats once wrote.  For playwright George Barnard Shaw, imagination was the beginning of creation, the first step to manifesting our deepest desires in the physical, material world: “You imagine what you desire.  You will what you imagine.  And at last, you create what you will.”  Founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought the imagination was a gift generously bestowed upon us by the gods.  “Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay,” she wrote in characteristically evocative prose.

But no words on the imagination startle with more truth than Einstein’s famous assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  In our era of content-driven education with its mechanical memorization and high-stakes standardized tests, how can this be true?  The word “imagination” itself carries a magical— if childlike quality— as if it only belonged in rainbow-colored kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes.  No, forget inspiration and invention, ingenuity and curiosity.  Knowing the exact years of WWI and the number of elements on the periodic table—we’ve been told— is more important.  Rather than encourage students to imagine, we cram their brains with useless facts.  So obsessed are we with knowing that we devotedly read What Your Sixth Grader Should Know and reduce what could be a consciousness-raising curriculum to a list of spirit-squashing state standards.

Yet despite our education system’s emphasis on knowledge, there can be no innovation without imagination.  If knowledge is composed of the things we know for sure, imagination permits us to play with possibilities, to explore the untrodden terrain of new ideas.  Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Einstein’s theory of relativity.  No feat in the arts or sciences can be accomplished without the ability to see and believe in something that is not yet there.

In her timeless classic on art and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, the same trove that gave us art as infection and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, Brenda Ueland suggests the imagination is a glorious gateway to the divine.  If the atheist/agnostic among us shudder at her use of “God” and “Holy Ghost,” we can exchange her religious language for more secular terms.  God, Universe, Spirit, Fate.  Whatever we call it, the fact remains: when we create, we connect to something magnificently larger than ourselves.  In splendidly simple prose, Ueland argues— much like her idol Romantic poet and fellow champion of the creative spirit William Blake— that we should create for the whole of our limited time on Earth.  Why?  Because more than our capacity to reason, our imagination is what separates us from brutes:

“But the ardor for it [the imagination] is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.

Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost.  My theology might not be very accurate but that is how I think of it.  I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination and he said it was God. 

[…]

Now Blake thought this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives.  And so do I.  Why?  Because it is life itself.  It is the Spirit.  In fact it is the only important thing about us.  The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”

If creative expression is the portal to a more exalted life, one question remains: how do we keep the imaginative impulse alive?  Ueland offers a simple solution: use it.  Unfortunately in our efficiency-obsessed era, we find it hard to waste time on such “frivolous” pursuits.  After all, wouldn’t it be more productive to go grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner than compose a love song?  What’s the point of writing a 5-act play or perfecting a Beethoven concerto?  Why bother painting a vase of sunflowers or a wheat field at dawn?  Why devote time to our art when there are more serious things to be done?

Though there are always to-do lists and time sheets, we must create— it’s what we’re here to do.  To disregard the muse and refuse ourselves the God-given gift of creation, to deny ourselves what we most want is an unforgivable betrayal of the self.  Sadly, in our sensible world of should’s and have to’s, it’s common to sacrifice our wants:

“But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or play the piano.  And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves.  They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunsets, as they wanted to.”

If You Want to Write is a rousing reminder to forget duty and obligation and honor our wants, whether we want to write a novel or learn to cook Szechuan.  For more invaluable wisdom on creativity and art, read The Artist’s WayBird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer.

Leo Tolstoy on Art as Infection

if you want to writeWhat makes writing “good”?  In algebra, good math is accurate math; if we solved for the equation “x + 2 = 6,” for example, a good calculation would result in x = 4.  In quantum physics, a good scientific theory would have sufficient evidence and be able to be proved.  But how do we evaluate the quality of something as subjective as writing?  Does writing follow laws as immutable as those that govern the universe?  Does good writing always prefer the energetic active voice to the lifeless passive?  Does it use specific, concrete nouns and vigorous verbs?  In grade school, we were assured writing could be calculated with the precision of a math problem and handed rubrics with different criteria during peer review.  Did our partner use at least ten “academic” words (as if pretentious, highbrow words were better than simple, exact ones)?  If so, they earned a shiny gold star.

In her lovely ode to art, beauty, and the soul-affirming act of unabashedly expressing yourself, If You Want to Write, the same volume that explained why art is a grand gesture of generosity and idleness is important to creativity, Brenda Ueland revolts against the spirit-sucking rules of too rigid English classrooms.  Much like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron, Ueland believes we write best when we feel free and unselfconscious, when we have permission to write recklessly.  If we want to write well, we have to liberate ourselves from the padded walls of “ought’s,” “should’s”  and “have-to’s”:

“Yes, you must feel when you write, free.  You must disentangle all oughts.  You must disconnect all shackles, weights, obligations, all duties.  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to— a six-act blank verse, symbolic tragedy or a vulgar short, short story.  Just so that you write it with honesty and gusto, and do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.  What’s the use?  You can never be smarter than you are.  You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this: while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.) 

As you write, never let a lot of ‘oughts’ block you: I ought to be more humorous, more Leftist, more like Ernest Hemingway, more bitingly satirical.  Then it shows.  That spoils it.  It will not be alive, but dead.” 

What makes something art?  Ueland agrees with Leo Tolstoy’s definition.  In his landmark essay “What is Art,” Tolstoy asserts real art has the ability to transmit a feeling from artist to audience.  Its distinguishing characteristic?  The power to move.  A great novel (or painting or film) can foster sympathy, stir us to action, incite us to anger; it can reacquaint us with beauty or simply remind us to marvel and wonder.  If a work requires too much analyzing and dissecting, too much stuffy debate among academics in tweed suits, it’s not art.  Real art is felt, not merely understood: 

“Art is infection.  The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too.  And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art.  If you have to puzzle timidly over a picture or a book, and try, try, to like it and read many erudite critics on the subject so that you can say at last, ‘Yes, I think I really do begin to understand it and see that it is just splendid!  Real art!’  Then it is not Art.”

tolstoy

So how do we infect our readers?  Our English teachers had us believe good writing was characterized by pomp and pretension; they encouraged us to use flowery, overdramatic language and craft elaborate rather than simple sentences.  The result?  Though it’s been many years since we’ve seen judgmental red ink on a midterm paper, we still write like little school girls trying to please teacher.  Rather than choose the word that most precisely expresses what we’re trying to say, we diligently follow those strict rules of composition we learned long ago in grade school.  We endlessly search the thesaurus for a grand word that will dazzle with its sophistication; we prefer longer obscure words to too “short,” too “simple” ones.  But this only leads to bad art.  Because, despite what our teachers told us, what separates good writing from bad writing is not word choice or syntax but truth.  We can only infect our audience with an emotion if we genuinely felt it ourselves, if what we write is true.  Reflecting on her students, Ueland writes:

“I saw in their own writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were.  But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead.  No infection.”

Ultimately, we should concern ourselves not with whether our writing is “good” but with whether it’s true.  When we write what is true, when we put what we think and what we feel and what we see in the simplest terms, our writing sings with exuberance and truth.  But when we write something because we think “this is how writing should sound” or because we convince ourselves “this is what our reader wants to hear,” our writing loses its vigor.  Worse still, we compromise the trust of our readers.  “She’s calling her boredom ‘agonizing’?” our readers scoff when they come across an overwrought bit of description, “I no longer believe her.”  Ueland maintains we should never write for the validation of too stern English teachers— or anyone for that matter.  As writers, our only allegiance is to our own truth:

“And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored.  This is all you have to do.  Don’t say the boredom was ‘agonizing. excruciating,’ unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful.

That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true.”

For more of Brenda Ueland’s stirring meditations on writing and the writing life, delight in the qualities of good writing and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  Hungry for more soul-nourishing writing advice?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut.

Why Van Gogh Painted Irises & Night Skies: Art as a Grand Gesture of Generosity

sunflowersWhy do we write?  In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead.  I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.”  “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  Novelist Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  In her landmark essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion confessed writing was a process of discovery: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” she observed in characteristically clear-eyed prose. 

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland examines why great artists throughout time have bothered to paint landscapes and compose poems.  In one of the volume’s loveliest chapters “Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets,” she suggests writers write to better understand themselves and the world:

“One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the noblemen knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or English language was.”

Why do artists scribble in notebooks and paint at easels?  Some create to attain a lofty goal: to revolutionize modern thought, say, or to change the world.  For others, art is an act of ego.  You know the type: the young and status-obsessed who dream of seeing their byline in the sophisticated typeface of the New Yorker.  At writing retreats, they only have one concern: will my work sell?  Rather than dedicate themselves to the noble quest of expressing what is beautiful and true and good—in other words, the work— they busy themselves with the economics of the work: is it marketable?  does it deal with a timely topic?  is it written in a hip, of-the-moment style?  These writers care about things like Oprah’s book club selections and best seller lists and book sales.  Their drive to create originates from the ego: they want to immortalize their name in the canon of English letters; they want awards and acclaim, prestige and a Pulitzer.

However for some, art is a selfless act of service— a way to offer others consolation and comfort.  The visionary Vincent Van Gogh belonged to this latter class of creator.  He didn’t paint irises and night skies to put a stop to global warming or end racism, nor did he paint to achieve any sort of worldly success (after all, despite his talent, he died by his own hand unknown and penniless).  He painted red poppy fields and farmhouses in Provence just because he thought they were beautiful and worth sharing with people:

“If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was.  It was just this: he loved something the sky, say.  He loved human beings.  He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was.  So he painted it for them.  And that was all there was to it. 

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman.  He had no thought of being an artist at all.  He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much.  He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamppost, a star, and he said something in his letter like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.”  And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.”

van gogh letter

van gogh letter #2

What, exactly, qualifies as “art”?  Who earns the distinguished title of “artist”?  Is art always contained in the dimensions of 4-by-4 picture frames and leather-bound covers?  Or can it be a sketch on a coffee-stained napkin?  as simple as a home-cooked meal and a beautifully-arranged bouquet of daffodils?

Though we imagine art is something lofty, the artist is someone who is simply awake to being alive in the world.  What makes a man an artist is not his raw talent or technical skill but his way of seeing: to create, you have to have attentive eyes and a receptive mind, you have to— in the elevating words of Van Gogh— devote one’s life to the task of expressing the hidden poetry of the world.  For the true artist, work is a labor of love undertaken in the spirit of generosity.  As Ueland so eloquently expresses, we paint, we draw, we write because we cherish something:

“But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse.  It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.”

For Ueland, the defining characteristic of art is exquisite attention to detail and a devotion to truth:

“Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care.  He made it as much like what he loved as he could.  You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly.  Well, that would have been a good thing to do too.  But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.”

irises

Master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once said “all art is quite useless”— a rather ironic statement considering he was a playwright and poet.  However, when he used the word “useless,” I think he meant in the sense that art has no practical purpose: it can’t keep you warm on a frigid winter night, it can’t nourish anything other than your soul.  After all, if you were stranded on a deserted island, you’d want a compass and a canteen of water— not a volume of Shakespeare’s poems. 

Those of us who aspire to be artists and writers are often reminded of our dream’s unfeasibility.  “You can’t support yourself writing!” we hear from concerned relatives at Thanksgiving.  If we’re bold enough to name ourselves writers over the clink of champagne glasses at a dinner party, we’re met with one question: “So are you published anywhere?”  The assumption is making art is only worthwhile if it earns us acclaim or contributes to our income.  We want things to be “useful.”  To fritter away hours attempting to capture the surreal blues of a starry night would be a pointless endeavor— that is, unless we sold the painting or had the opportunity to showcase it in a museum.

However, for Ueland, art is valuable in and of itself— we should make art for its own sake.  The rewards of a creative life are many: an awakeness to the marvels and mysteries of existence, a deeper appreciation for living.  But the greatest reward is a clarified, magnified understanding.  When we take the time to contemplate the colors of a spring sky and recreate it in words or in a painting, we see the sky more clearly.  The result?  We love it more dearly as well.  So even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time was wasted.  We’re always better for having created:

“And one of the most important of these intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination.  By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

Carl Sandburg wasn’t exaggerating when he said If You Want to Write was “the best book ever written about how to write.”  It’s one of a few cherished volumes (among them The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer) that I revisit every few years.  If you want more soul-sustaining encouragement from Brenda Ueland, revel in her insights on art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine and the incubation of ideas & the importance of idleness to creativity.  For practical nuts-and-bolts advice about the writing craft, study the wisdom of Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and John Hersey

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

maya angelou

All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

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“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard 

Women Writers at Work is a compendium of invaluable conversations with literary lights as dazzling as Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  For even more writing wisdom, visit Andre Dubus III on writing as dreaming, not thinking, Elizabeth Gilbert on joy, curiosity & having the courage to rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence and Yiyun Li on seeing, staring & the necessity of looking closer.

Writing as Salvation & Sustenance: Anne Sexton on How Poetry Helped Her Exorcise Her Demons & Gave Her A Sense of Purpose

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What causes suffering?  Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.”  Maya Angelou agreed.  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote.  To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal.  Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told.  Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful.  In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable.  Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal.  To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, the page was quite literally a confessional booth, a sacred place where she could speak the unspeakable: her near unendurable struggles with depression, her dysfunctional upbringing, her childhood abuse.

When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:

“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies.  I didn’t know I had any creative depths.  I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream.  All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.  I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down.  I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.  But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out.  The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight.  I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”

Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia.  Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable.  The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)

After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself.  Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home.  Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:

“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’  He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station.  He said I had a perfectly good mind.  As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using.  I protested, but I followed his suggestion.  One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’  So I sat down and wrote a sonnet.  The next day I wrote another one, and so forth.  My doctor encouraged me to write more.  ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said.  ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’  That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”

A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya AngelouWomen Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers.  Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.

 

Joyce Carol Oates on the Myth of Mood

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“Write according to program and not according to mood!” Henry Miller advised in his 11 commandments of writing, a series of maxims he devised to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Jack London had a similar no-nonsense approach to the writing life: “You can’t wait for inspiration,” he insisted, “You have to go after it with a club.” 

Whether we’re rationalizing our decision to skip our regular morning run or our daily hour at the keyboard, we employ the same excuse.  “Ah, I’m just not in the mood!”  At some blissful juncture in the future (and it’s always the futurenever the present, this minute, this hour), we’ll finally be struck by that mythical lightning bolt and be able to articulate ourselves.  Until then, what’s the use?  Writing, we become convinced, depends on the “muse.”  When our muse calls on us, we’re inspired, a word literally meaning to be “breathed into.”  During these rare visitations, writing feels effortless; we’re not speaking so much as being spoken through.

But the problem is we can’t depend on the muse.  She could feel like getting to the page once a year or once an hour.  She’s erratic, mercurial.  Like a diva superstar, she’ll refuse to go onstage unless certain needs are accommodated for.  First, her requests will be eccentric but easy enough— water sourced from tropical rain and purified by equatorial trade winds, dim lighting, essential oils— but her demands inevitably get more impossible as time goes on.  Soon she’ll refuse to work unless her dressing room is exactly 78 degrees and all the yellow M&M’s are removed from her candy bowl. 

Though we believe we can only write when we’re in the “mood,” time and time again distinguished authors assert writing requires one thing: a willingness to work.  “Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship,” Julia Cameron, creativity guru behind the perennial classic The Artist’s Way, once observed, “Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.”  If we wait to write until we feel the irrepressible urge, we’ll never write a word.  Rather than romanticize writing as a sacred act surrounded by superstition and requiring ritual, why not begin where we are?  In writing— as in life— success is 99% showing up.

The idea that we have to be in the “mood” to write is a myth Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, poet, playwright and one of the most prolific writers of our time, cogently debunks in her thought-provoking interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work.  Complied of wide-ranging conversations with our era’s finest women writers, including Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Women Writers at Work has been hailed as “invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature.”  Where do you get your ideas?  Do you read your reviews?  Do you keep a journal or follow a writing schedule?  Whether you’re an aspiring writer looking to crack the code of the creative process or simply fascinated by the mysterious inner workings of the mind of the artist, these compelling conversations will illuminate the path to the writing life, not to mention inspire and instruct you.

A slender, shy woman with pale skin and otherworldly eyes, Joyce Carol Oates gives the impression, her interviewer writes, that she “never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences.”  Indeed of all the interviewees, Oates is perhaps the most erudite and articulate.  When asked whether she has to be in the mood to write, the phenomenally productive Oates replied: 

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.  If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function— a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind— then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in.  Generally, I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been uttering exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for more than five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” 

Very few writers start the day wanting to write just as few runners start the day wanting to run.  But in much the same way that “life begets life,” writing begets writing.  Writing— like all creative endeavors— is self-generative and self-sustaining: once we begin writing, we want to write; we don’t wait till we have ideas, we get ideas once we put pen to paper.  The hardest part of writing is beginning: once we overcome our initial resistance and simply start, we gain momentum and become unstoppable.  Lesson?  We have to sit at our desks no matter what.  

Time Freed From Time: The Importance of Silence, Stillness & Solitude to the Contemplative Life

jane brox“Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor,” German poet and novelist Herman Hesse once wrote, “Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight…I believe what we lack is joy.  The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival…But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  And yet in our cutthroat capitalist culture where minutes equal money, we’re always hurrying in a never-ending battle against time.  Unlike our ancestors, whose sense of time was inseparable from the natural world— the unhurried passing from day to night, from winter’s dark days of hibernation to spring’s giddy exuberance and renewed life— our notion of time is bound to a human invention: the clock.  Its hands measure our lives, shaping formless eternity into definite, discrete blocks.  The standardization of time made us unrelentingly conscious of the clock.  The punch of our time stamp, the shriek of the factory whistle, the shrill ring of our six-thirty alarm: no matter where we were, we couldn’t escape its ceaseless tick-tock.  Our every hour suddenly demanded we accomplish something productive, something useful.

In her exquisitely written and intensively researched Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox worries we in the modern era no longer have “time freed from time”— those blissful moments unburdened by duty, what great philosopher Bertrand Russell termed “fruitful monotony.”  For Brox, when man is freed from the bondage of strict schedules and endless responsibilities, his imagination can finally wander.  If we’re constantly scrambling to cross obligations off our to-do lists, we can never sustain the deep thought needed to compose a poem, discover a scientific truth, or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem. 

At the beginning of “Chapter 8: Measures of Time,” Brox examines our culture’s pathological accomplishment-mania.  Rather than cherish silence and stillness, we exalt busyness as if a person’s worth was equal to the number of commitments on their calendar: 

“Today, the small, cut-up things of time have become inextricably mixed with our idea of participation in society.  A full calendar and list of obligations stand as marks of our usefulness, and attunement to time keeps us believing we are part of the world.  The old have moved beyond time, to the margins of society, for they have nothing calling them urgently in the day.  But they are in a double bind— they are conscious of the hours and they are waiting for events.  ‘What’s your rush?’ the old inevitably ask the young.” 

Citing ethicist Andrew Skotnicki, Brox suggests our preoccupation with productivity began not with the emergence of the capitalist economy, but with the rise of Christianity.  Though Christian theology insisted social status wasn’t an accurate index of moral worth (after all, Christ, the most moral of men, the son of God himself, had only been a carpenter), it did attach moral significance to productivity.  Proverbs 14:23, for example, states, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”  If you squandered your days on Earth, it was believed, you would be condemned either to everlasting damnation in hell or purification in purgatory.  For the medieval monk, the gong of the bell tower represented not only another hour passed, but another hour closer to inevitable judgement day:

“Ethicist Andrew Skotnicki has suggested that this sense of urgency tied to the mechanical clock— all the hurry and consciousness of time— isn’t just the result of the advent of industrialization: ‘Punctuality is the sense of time that we have internalized that is tied directly to productivity and performance.  It has been secularized to meet the demands of the capitalist workplace, but the clock entered Western social history not with the modern business enterprise, but with the notion of Purgatory…Productivity in the Christian West is first measured in moral and spiritual terms…The ticking of the clock is a reminder of the eventual judgment for what one does with one’s time.” 

clock tower painting

Like Mary Oliver, who contemplated the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life (“Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions…A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again,” she so elegantly expressed in her lovely essay “Of Power and Time”), Brox asserts that to create, the artist must have “time freed from time” and devote his full— not fragmented— attention to his artistry:

“To defeat the clock, even for a short time, is often to feel that you’ve defeated the anxieties and constrictions of modern society.  Time freed from time, time unconscious of the passing of hours.  Marshall McLuhan would say that to the extent you are lost in your task, the less it resembles work, and this escape from a sense of time is often tied to the creative life.  Poet Adrienne Rich who, in her early years as a writer lived day in and day out with the pressures of motherhood, understands that a creative life cannot thrive on fragmented attention.  ‘For a poem to coalesce, for a character or action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive,’ she has written, ‘And a certain freedom of the mind is needed— freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away.  Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.'”

But time freed from time is under attack.  In our fast-paced modern world, we’ve seen a sharp decline in leisure.  Today Americans take fewer vacations and work longer hours.  But why should this be a matter of concern?  Isn’t leisure merely a fruitless frittering away of our precious hours?

Though we in the productivity-obsessed West count idleness as one of the most unforgivable transgressions, throughout time, leisure has been the seedbed of all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland proclaimed in If You Want to Write, her timeless treatise on art, independence and creativity.  Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit agreed: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” 

For the seed of a groundbreaking idea to germinate, it must have silence, stillness and solitude, the fertilizers of creativity.  Unlike loneliness, which is an estrangement from self and has— according to brilliant philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt— offered the “common ground for terror” throughout history, solitude is an affirmation of self, a restorative state where the individual can converse with his innermost being and reconnect with his true identity.  Solitude, Arendt argues, is essential to the life of the mind: only when we’re alone at our desks or in the undisturbed quiet of the main stacks of a library can we focus enough to study and probe, to observe and think, to dissect and analyze.  Far from the cacophony of other people’s opinions, we can finally make out the murmurs of our own thoughts, our own voice. 

Sadly in our noisy age, it’s getting harder and harder to hear ourselves think.  Whether it’s the empty-headed chatter of the 24-hour news cycle or the megaphone of opinions on message boards and Youtube comments, it seems there’s something clamoring for our attention and drowning out our inner voice at all times.  Today millions of people carry a source of near perpetual distraction in their pockets: a smartphone.  The notifications on our phones are seductive siren calls, enticing us to check their glowing screens 80 times a day, or once every 12 minutes.  Because we have non-stop access to the never-ending spectacle of the internet, we continually have something to divert our attention and very rarely have to suffer tedium.  The result?  Our generation has a very low tolerance for boredom.  The second we have nothing to occupy us, we desperately seek out distraction.  After all, why sit listless in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when we can play Candy Crush?

Though the smartphone dazzles and delights with an irresistible theme park of amusements, it severely limits our capacity to stand the stillness and silence so essential to sustained attention.  Because it conditions us to expect entertainment every hour, every minute, an idle moment— a welcome respite to the artists and philosophers of antiquity— is to the modern man an insufferable form of torture.  Trained as we are to seek instant gratification, we want to be captivated by page one of a book, not page one hundred.  We abandon anything that doesn’t immediately engross our interest.  But all critical and free thought, all expressions of creativity, all revolutionary, history-making ideas require we endure occasional periods of monotony.  To lead a contemplative life, a life defined by thought, imagination and creativity, Brox concludes, we have to resist the urge to always be occupied:

“…the release from chronological time is essential for the contemplative life.  Michael Casey, writing in the time-stressed twenty-first century, holds that leisure time makes contemplation possible.  He is not speaking of leisure as we have come to know it, as downtime or recreation, but as a ‘time and space of freedom in which the deep self can find fuller expression.’  Casey has argued that leisure is ‘above all being attentive to the present moment, open to all its implications, living it to the full.  This implies a certain looseness of lifestyle that allows the heart and mind to drift away from time to time…It is the opposite of being enslaved by the past or living in some hazy anticipation of a desirable future…Leisure is a very serious matter because it is the product of an attentive and listening attitude to life.’  It is, he asserts, citing German philosopher Josef Pieper, a form of silence.”

Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beachIn a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”