The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.

Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback. 

Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle

Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.

Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored. 

Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown. 

Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls. 

Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.

Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.

However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.”  Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time.  Art is useless and worthwhile.  Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial.  Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul.  Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.

In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

           What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

           Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all.  Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone.  In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word.  However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over.  As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.

Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird.  Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.

3 Revolutionary Scientists’ Rituals & Routines

Here are the rituals and routines of yet 3 more remarkable people profiled in Mason Currey’s delightful Daily Rituals:

1. Charles Darwin

At the ripe age of 22, Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos.  At this time, his life was romantic and adventure-filled: he traveled to faraway lands with foreign customs and strange people who spoke in even stranger languages, marveled at the boundless biodiversity of our improbable blue planet, studied his now famous finches and began to formulate his earth-shattering theory of evolution.

However, his life while actually writing On the Origins of Species was rather dull by comparison.  To escape the commotion of city life and work without disturbance, Darwin and his family left London in 1842 and moved to the quaint English countryside.  There they made their home at Down House, a former parsonage in Kent, about 14 miles southeast of London’s Charing Cross.  Darwin loved his secluded home— the “edge of the world” he called it— because he could be alone with his controversial thoughts.  He knew his theory of evolution would cause an uproar.  Not only did his thesis directly contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible, it suggested that man, who was supposedly created in the image of God, was just another beast in the animal kingdom.  Man descended from monkeys?  He knew such a blasphemous notion would cause an outcry and potentially ruin his career (time proved Mr. Darwin right; after he published his theory, one critic raged, “Darwin’s story begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail.”)

Still, Darwin worked steadily in secret on his ideas.  At Down House, Darwin led a simple, solitary life.  After waking, eating breakfast and taking a morning stroll, the great scientist settled into work.  There he labored for an hour and a half before meeting his wife, Emma, in the drawing room, where she’d read him the family letters and a portion of a novel.  At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and worked for another hour and a half, which he considered a good day’s work.

Much like Wordsworth and Thoreau, the father of evolution understood the importance of idleness to creativity and made time for long, meandering walks throughout the day with Polly, his beloved fox terrier.  Afternoons were reserved for leisurely lunches with his family and letter writing (Darwin made an effort to respond to every letter he received no matter how nonsensical or crazy); if he didn’t reply to even a single missive, he’d feel so guilty, he couldn’t get to sleep).  In the evening, he’d have a small dinner (even if his family was indulging in a luxurious feast, he’d only have tea, an egg or small piece of meat), smoke a cigarette or two, play backgammon with his wife and then read and retire to bed around 10:30.

2. Albert Einstein

einstein #2

Perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, Albert Einstein was many things: groundbreaking physicist, champion of the imagination, unwavering believer in human goodness, unapologetic individualist, passionate pacifist, stanch defender of free speech and civil liberty.  In addition to discovering E = mc2 and developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, he made great contributions to human thought and philosophy. 

When Hitler rose to power and the threat of war began to darken the continent in 1933, Einstein fled to the United States where he joined the faculty at Princeton University.  There, he followed a predictable routine: he read the papers and ate a breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and honey, then headed to the office.  At 1:30, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon nap.  The rest of the day, Einstein worked, answered letters, and occasionally entertained.

Despite his legendary life, Einstein’s day-to-day wasn’t particularly noteworthy.  Like most remarkable men throughout history, his life wasn’t glamorous or thrilling, filled with fascinating people, faraway places and glittering parties— it was single-mindedly focused on his work which— from the outside— doesn’t look all that interesting.  Picasso could delight in a dinner party now and again, but preferred to paint in his quiet studio in MontparnasseMatisse worked 7 days a week, only taking a brief respite to oar in the harbor and play violinWhen he wasn’t revolutionizing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot was wearing a suit and tie and working a rather regular job at a bank.  As philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed so astutely, “Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting.”

Indeed, Einstein preferred to do certain things the same way everyday to save valuable time and energy.  Rather than squander a precious hour debating whether to wear a button down shirt or a cashmere sweater, Einstein bought several versions of the same gray suit so he had a “uniform” he could wear everyday.  “The same exact thing…everyday?” you fashionistas may be gasping in horror, “How boring!”  Though his unrelentingly gray wardrobe might seem dreary, Einstein understood life was full of decisions: better to automate as many unimportant ones as possible so you can focus on what truly matters: your mission.  Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.  Mark Zuckerberg and his uber-casual Silicon Valley uniform of a tee shirt and jeans.  If you want to found a multi-billion dollar company or unlock the scientific mysteries of the universe, the idea goes, simplify your wardrobe and streamline your routine.

3. Margaret Mead

margaret mead

Like most productive people from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was deeply devoted to her work.  Endlessly energetic, Mead was always working on something, be it her revolutionary study of adolescence in the South Pacific in her controversy-stirring book Coming of Age in Samoa or her PhD.

Mead’s life is a testament to what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his fascinating study of “flow”: we’re happiest not when we’re relaxing in leisure but when we’re engaged in something difficult and worthwhile.  Mrs. Mead despised being unproductive and hated nothing more than frittering away hours.  So protective was she of her time that she became enraged at anyone who disrupted her schedule.  On one occasion at a symposium, Mead was outraged to learn that a session had been postponed.  “How dare they,” she exclaimed, “Do they realize what use I could have made of this time?  Do they know that I get up at five o’ clock in the morning to write a thousand words before breakfast?  Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?”

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

“Follow your dreams.”  “Take risks.”  “Be brave.”  In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything.  We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.

In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess.  An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.

To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing.  Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly.  After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?

But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially.  No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money.  Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity.  Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing.  At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender.  At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially.  I will support both of us.”  Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.

Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day.  Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Is there anything less poetic than working at bank?  Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade.  From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department.  Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.

The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig.  Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin.  To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London.  Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling.  Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed.  Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work.  It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”

Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer.  Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle.  Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school.  He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer.  Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934. 

Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5.  “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”

Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours.  However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time.  When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write.  Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted).  When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.

Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents.  We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless.  In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress.  Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry.  “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.

3. Anthony Trollope

Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed.  From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.

Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying.  In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.”  Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working.  To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee.  “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.

With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour.  By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.

Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father.  Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing.  To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday.  Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.

3 Artists’ Rituals & Routines

Self-help books and personal development podcasts all tout the importance of having a morning routine.  But what— exactly— is the ideal way to start the day?  Many experts argue you should begin with your most important task and avoid checking email and social media first thing in the morning.  Others contend you should make your bed every single day.  Such a simple act is a symbolic gesture: by establishing order in your physical environment, you establish order in your psyche.  Still others recommend journaling, meditating and exercising.

Despite our cultural fascination with the most productive way to divide our days, a quick perusal of Mason Currey’s charming Daily Rituals will reveal there’s no one perfect routine.  An extensively researched collection of over 160 artists, writers, painters and poets, Daily Rituals suggests there’s no single path to a Pulitzer or literary fame: the only thing that matters is sitting your butt in a chair, no excuses, day after day after day.  Whether you work for at least 8 hours like phenomenally productive Joyce Carol Oates or can’t write for more than 2 hours like Southern gothic novelist Flannery O’ Connor, you can write a novel or compose a poem so long as you consistently stick to some sort of routine.  Below are how 3 groundbreaking artists structured their days:

1. Pablo Picasso

Picasso

Pablo Picasso was many different things to many different people: to some, he was a genius, a god; to others, a devil.  At times, he could be charming and convivial, at others, callous and cruel.  His daughter Paloma compared him to the center of our solar system: “If you get too close to the sun, it burns you.”

Picasso was notorious for his moodiness and bad temper.  When he finished working for the day, he’d join his girlfriend Fernande for dinner.  “He rarely spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,” she recalled.  The painter was more companionable when they had guests over but remained ambivalent about entertaining: though he liked to take breaks between periods of intense productivity, he quickly tired of too much frivolous socializing.

Painting, on the other hand, never bored him.  Like many artists, he was most content when he was in front of a canvas.  For 12 hours a day, Picasso would withdraw to his studio on boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse.  More a night owl than a lark, he’d begin his work day at 2pm, work until 10, have a late dinner until 11, then continue painting until 3 am, long after most of us have gone to bed.  The result?  Picasso was incredibly prolific, producing over 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints, 300 sculptures, and 34,000 illustrations.

2. Andy Warhol

andy warhol

Andy Warhol is one of the 21st century’s most accomplished artists.  Besides leading the pop art movement, he managed the Velvet Underground, popularized the expression “15 minutes of fame,” and founded The Factory, a hip gathering place for artists, intellectuals, models, musicians, drug users, and drag queens which came to epitomize the nonconformist spirit of the 1960s.  Warhol, much like great artists Van Gogh and Chardin, found beauty in the most mundane things.  In the same way that Duchamp shocked the world when he submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Warhol broke the barrier between the elevated and everyday.  For him, art wasn’t only bowls of fruit and breathtaking landscapes; it could be Coca Cola bottles and Campbell Soup cans, Brillo soap pads and iconic portraits of celebrities.

Though he was notorious for his eccentricities, Warhol deeply valued routine.  According to his collaborator and longtime friend Pat Hackett, “keeping to his beloved ‘rut’ was so important to Andy” that he veered from it only when absolutely necessary.  Every weekday morning from 1976 until his death in 1987, Warhol— who was obsessed with documenting his day a whole half century before social media— called Hackett and recounted the events of the last 24 hours: the things he’d done, the people he’d seen.  Hackett then transcribed and collected these events in The Andy Warhol Diaries.

After his daily call with Hackett, Warhol showered, got dressed and had breakfast.  Then he’d go shopping for a few hours, usually along Madison Avenue, then in antique shops, auction houses, and the jewelry district.  Between 1 and 3, he’d get to the office.  Before doing any real work, he’d check his appointment book, take a few calls, and open the mail, looking for letters, invitations, photographs and magazines for his Time Capsules.  A snapshot of both his personal life and the zeitgeist of his age, the Time Capsules were an extensive collection of mementos Warhol kept in hundreds of 10×18×14 inch cardboard boxes from 1974 to 1987.  “Less than one percent of all items that he was constantly being sent or given did he keep for himself or give away,” Currey writes, “All the rest were ‘for the box’: things he considered ‘interesting,’ which to Andy, who was interested in everything, meant literally everything.”

After finding material for his Time Capsules, Warhol chatted with people in the reception area and then moved to the sunny window ledge to read the newspaper and leaf through magazines.  Eventually, he would go to the back part of the loft near the freight elevator and settle in to do some real work.  A socialite who loved a glamorous party, Warhol reserved evenings for socializing.  Never the stereotypical reclusive artist, he believed life was a vital part of his art— not an enemy of it.  Indeed, Warhol often used his real life for inspiration.  An obsessive chronicler of the commonplace, he never left the house without film in his instant camera and often taped conversations.  Whether he was hanging with Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger or model Edie Sedgwick, Warhol thought a bit of captured conversation might later supply the dialogue for a play or movie script.

3. Henri Matisse

henri matisse

A French artist known for his expert craftsmanship, bright, expressive colors, and strong shapes, Henri Matisse is considered— along with Picasso— to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  The father of Fauvism, an artistic movement that emphasized vivid and unnatural use of color, Matisse had a great influence on expressionism and continues to inspire artists today.

Basically, I enjoy everything; I’m never bored.  Do you understand why I am never bored?  For over fifty years, I have not stopped working,” Matisse told a visitor to his studio in 1941.  This was no exaggeration: over the course of his career, he worked 7 days a week.  Though his paintings give the impression that they were created with effortless ease, Matisse confessed he had to labor painstakingly to achieve such seeming simplicity.  However, he loved the challenge of capturing his vision in painting.  “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he once said, “I threw myself into it like a beast.”

Matisse’s day began at at dawn when he’d head to Club Nautique, where he’d oar in the harbor.  After he returned home, he’d practice the violin for a few hours.  From 9 till noon, he’d sit to work only to briefly take a break for a nap and lunch.  Around 2, he’d pick up his brushes again and paint until dusk.

The French painter followed this rigorous routine even on Sundays.  “On Sundays I have to tell all sorts of tales to the models,” he admitted, “I promise them it will be the last time I will ever beg them to come and pose that day.  Naturally I pay them double.  Finally, when I sense that they are not convinced I promise them a day off during the week.  ‘But Monsieur Matisse,’ one of them answered me, ‘this has been going on for months and I have never had one afternoon off.’  Poor things!  They don’t understand.  Nevertheless, I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them merely because they have boyfriends.”

Dorothea Brande on Being a Stranger in Your Streets

Most of us stumble through our lives in an insensible stupor, asleep to the sensory details of physical reality.  We may go to the grocery store once a week but when was the last time we noticed the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the bakery?  We walk through our neighborhood almost daily yet do we see the charming old-fashioned street lamps, the lemon tree against the spring sky, the lavender and red geraniums, the tire swing and oak tree? 

It’s a tragic fact of life that we become blind the more we see something.  Take your significant other as an example.  Perhaps when you first met your paramour, you were absolutely infatuated with her.  During the giddy days of first love, your heart leapt after her every text message, sank when she didn’t call.  The more you learned about her, the more you became convinced she was the long-lost half of your Platonic soul: her favorite book was Love in the Time of Cholera, her favorite singer was Otis Redding and she wanted two kids, a boy and a girl.

As you headed to her house to pick her up for your first date (a picnic in the park), your palms were so sweaty you could barely grasp the steering wheel.  You arrived promptly at noon, climbed the front steps and knocked on the door.  Nervous, you shifted your weight from one foot to another.  “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” you thought.

When she came to the door, she instantly charmed you with her self-possession (“Hi, I’m ___,” she said so confidently, reaching out to shake your hand).  You couldn’t resist her cat eye sunglasses and polka dot dress.  “Nice to meet you,” you replied, momentarily forgetting how to arrange words into sentences.  As you chatted over lemon rosemary tea and cucumber-rye sandwiches, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her infectious laughter, the dramatic way she told stories and made gestures with her hands.  When the time arrived to take her home, you were the perfect gentleman: you walked her to her door, gave her a polite kiss on the cheek.  “I had a lovely time,” you said genuinely.  It was only an afternoon but you were already fantasizing about eternity.

Fast forward a year and the woman whose mere presence once made you as shy as a school boy is now your significant other.  Though you once dreamed of having the opportunity to kiss her, your lips now meet with such regularity— first thing when you wake up, when you leave home for work, when you go to sleep in the same bed every evening— that the miracle is lost on you.  For so long, your beloved was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after a few months of being together, it is the time before you knew her, before she was casually saying “I love you” and arranging plans for your birthday, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.

Sadly, the more familiar we become with something, the more likely we are to take it for granted.  Just as we stop appreciating the object of our obsession once they become our boyfriend/girlfriend, we cease to notice things once they become commonplace parts of our day.  Take the internet as an example.  When the internet first made an appearance in the 1990s, we were in wonderment of the worldwide web.  We marveled at its speed, the miraculous way it could connect people across continents.  Now— with just the click of a button— we had all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips.

Today, however, we are no longer in awe of the internet.  Though we carry an internet-powered computer in our pockets, our phones are as astounding to us as a light switch.  We’ve forgotten that a mere hundred years ago, phones could only do one thing: transmit sound.  We take for granted that today they can measure our heart rate, track our circadian rhythms, take pictures and write emails.

stranger in the streets

But if we want to write, we must not lose the ability to see and be astonished by things.  In her timeless classic Becoming a Writer, which I consider one of the best books ever written on writing, Dorothea Brande suggests a writer must recapture a childlike awareness of the world.  Unlike adults, who very rarely inhabit the present (distracted as they are by serious obligations and mortgage payments), children only exist in this moment: they don’t dwell on the fight they had with Sally yesterday, they don’t worry about their show-and-tell presentation tomorrow.  They find unbelievable joy in the smallest things: playing in a sandpit, slipping down a slide, jumping off a swing, blowing bubbles.

Children are curious creatures.  Spend an afternoon with any child under the age of twelve and you’ll be tasked with solving the universe’s most mysterious riddles: why is there day and night?  why is the sky blue?  where did the dinosaurs go?  Because they’re young, children have yet to become weary of the world: they can still be surprised by learning something they didn’t know.  We adults, however, are convinced we’ve seen it all.  We know there’s day and night because the earth rotates about its axis once every twenty four hours; we know the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 66 million years ago.  It’s hard for us to awe at a hummingbird’s incredible speed or wonder at a butterfly’s patterned wings outside our window.  We marvel at Cassiopeia and cumulonimbus clouds as often as toaster ovens and cutting boards.  Why?  Because habit has desensitized us.  As Brande writes,

“The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world.  Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives.  Most of us are only intermittently aware, even in youth, and the occasions on which adults see and feel and hear with every sense alert become rarer and rarer with the passage of years.  Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance…The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events— a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.”

So how do we become more mindful?  Brande recommends we recover a childlike “innocence of eye”— a wide-eyed interest in the world.  Rather than remain asleep to the splendor of living, more dead than alive, she suggests we set aside at least a half an hour each day to awaken our senses and simply observe.  What do we see?  hear?  If we’re taking the subway to work, what do we notice about the people there?  Where are they headed?  What do they wear?  If we’re stopping at our favorite cafe for a cappuccino, what do we imagine is going on with the couple in the corner?  Is the woman stirring her tea in silence because she’s irritated with her husband for forgetting to do the laundry or because she’s just discovered he’s having an affair?  Our goal: to treat every place as a potential setting, every incident as a potential plot line, every person as a potential character.

The greatest writers of all time were— above all— alert.  Hour after hour, minute after minute, they were attuned to their experience.  Turn to any page of Anais Nin’s diaries, for example, and you’ll find descriptions of accomplishment-obsessed New York and romantic, restful Paris, detailed sketches of her father, Joaquin Nin, her literary friends Truman Capote and Henry Miller, her patients, her acquaintances.  Every trivial conversation contains the suspense of a Greek drama; every mundane incident a heart-racing rising action, exhilarating climax and satisfying resolution as if her life had an underlying structure as comprehensible as a novel.  If we observe the world as closely, we— too— can gather a wealth of material:

“It is perfectly possible to strip yourself of your preoccupations, to refuse to allow yourself to go about wrapped in a cloak of oblivion day and night, although it is more difficult than one might think to learn to turn one’s attention outward again after years of immersion in one’s own problems…set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’  For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at age of five.  Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.”

If we want to be writers, we must be “strangers in our streets” and look at the world around us as if for the first time.  But how, exactly, do we truly see something, especially something we’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times?  We don’t have to seek new landscapes, only fresh eyes.  Like scientists who discard all their preconceptions and simply record what they see, we should remain open, receptive and attentively observe our surroundings.  If we see a spring sky, what color is it?  a cloud-dotted azure?  an innocent robin’s egg blue?  If we find ourselves in a winter landscape, is the air “chilly” or “frigid”?  Are the trees “bare” or “frost-bitten”?  What is the overall atmosphere and mood?  Be as specific as possible.  Or as Brande writes,

“You know how vividly you see a strange town or a strange country when you first enter it.  The huge red buses of London, on the wrong side of the road to every American that ever saw them— soon they are as easy to dodge and ignore as the green buses of New York, and as little wonderful as the drugstore window that you pass on your way to work each day.  The drugstore window, though, the streetcar that carries you to work, the crowded subway can look as strange as Xanadu if you refuse to take them for granted.  As you get into your streetcar or walk along a street, tell yourself that for fifteen minutes you will notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on.  The streetcar: what color is it outside? (Not just green or red, here, but sage or olive green, scarlet or maroon.)  Where is the entrance?  Has it a conductor and motorman, or a motorman-conductor in one?  What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters?  How do the seats face?  Who is sitting opposite you?  How are your neighbors dressed, how do they stand or sit, what are they reading, or are they sound asleep?  What sounds are you hearing, which smells are reaching you, how does the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat the brushes past you?  After a few moments you can drop your intense awareness, but plan to resume it again when the scene changes.

One way to sharpen our artist’s eye is to make time for adventure and novelty.  Brande suggests we shake off the blinders of custom and habit and, every so often, do something new: eat pancakes for dinner, take a different route to work, go to a matinee on a Tuesday at noon.

We don’t have to venture to a lush jungle in Indonesia to see things anew.  We can practice looking at things in a fresh way from the comfort of our living rooms.  Stand on the coffee table.  Somersault across the floor.  Do a headstand.  Anything to make the familiar objects of our lives as unfamiliar as possible:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.  But any moment of your life can be used, and the room that you spend most of your waking hours in is as good, or better, to practice responsiveness on as a new street.  Try to see your home, your family, your friends, your school or office, with the same eyes that you use away from your own daily route.  There are voices you have heard so often that you forget they have a timbre of their own…the chances are that you hardly realize that your best friend has a tendency to use some words so frequently that if you were to write a sentence involving those words anyone who knew him would realize whom you were imitating.”

Dorothea Brande is a kick-in-the-pants coach who will inspire you to get to your writing table.  For more tips and tricks from Becoming a Writer, read Brande on how to follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical. 

Dorothea Brande’s 15 Minute Rule

I don’t feel like writing today.  Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page.  Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work.  But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).

“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself.  As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say.  After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink.  And what do I do?  I grab a sponge and start scrubbing.  “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors!  I’ll just give them a quick polish.  Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.

dorothea-brande

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page.  We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died.  Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy.  Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.

But despite popular mythology, we don’t need to be in the “mood” to write.  As phenomenally productive writer Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.”  In his eleven commandments, Henry Miller created a no non-sense credo for himself, “If you can’t create, you can work.”  Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, one of the most timeless books on the craft, offers similarly simple advice: if you want to write, write!  Don’t wait for the mythical lightning bolt or the mysterious, mystical whisperings of the muse.

Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life.  You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook.  Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds.  You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical.  Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:

“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you.  Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself.  It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”

If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable.  Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself.  If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses.  As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:

“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must!  No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”

The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window.  The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper.  Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion.  All that matters is we do it.  Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:

“…write anything at all.  Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed.  However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”

Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes?  Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done?  For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long.  Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers.  But fifteen minutes is doable.  Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes.  Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page.  Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.

Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance.  The result?  We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.

Becoming a Writer is an invaluable addition to any writer’s library.  The 1934 classic won’t teach you the technical aspects of how to create compelling characters or construct plots, but it will train you to sharpen your powers of observation, follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical.  Want more nourishment for the writer’s soul?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  If you want more practical advice on the nuts and bolts of the craft, study Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of motif, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Ernest Hemingway on the appeal of telling almost the whole story.

Kurt Vonnegut on Why We Should Make Art Every Single, Solitary Day of Our Lives

“All art is rather useless,” dapper dandy and master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once quipped.  Art might startle and surprise, astound and astonish but it has no practical purpose.  After all, a play can’t fold the laundry, a poem can’t fix a flat tire, a painting can’t change your motor oil.  Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” can’t end global warming; Cezanne’s apples and oranges— no matter how charming— can’t cure cancer or rebuild coral.  So why bother to scribble a sonnet or compose a villanelle?

According to Kurt Vonnegut, postmodern genius behind such masterpieces of counterculture as Slaughterhouse Five and sage behind some of the wisest writing advice, we should paint and write and act and sing and dance and draw because making art helps us better understand ourselves and the world.  Will our still life save the rain forest?  Will our exhibit of black-and-white photographs find a more sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels?  No, but trying to capture something will stretch our understanding and deepen our appreciation of whatever we write and draw.  Or as Brenda Ueland once wrote, “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.”

As sensible adults, we want results.  If we spend all day at our desk, we want something to show for our work; if we devote years to writing a novel, it better win the Pulitzer Prize and become a New York Times bestseller; if we go through the trouble of painting a Renoir blue sky, it better hang in the Louvre.  What’s the point of dedicating untold hours to writing or painting if it never earns us acclaim?  if it never sells and increases our net worth?

It’s so important to make art because it reconnects us to our inner child.  Unlike too-serious, too-solemn adults who believe we are what we accomplish, children understand there is more to the day than a to-do list.  Children don’t make mud pies or build sandcastles or construct bed sheet fortresses because they want to be the envy of their friends or see their essay published.  They don’t care if their crayon drawing is hung proudly on the fridge or is forgotten in a junk drawer. They create because it brings them joy.  For them, making art is its own reward.

Vonnegut believes we can all learn from children.  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 is wasted.  We’re always better for having created.

kurt vonnegut

With his zany wit and exuberant, playful love of life, Vonnegut implores a group of Xavier High School students to live creatively.  In this lovely letter, featured in the altogether inspiring Letters of Note: Volume 2, he writes:

I thank you for your friendly letters.  You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years.  I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously!  I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.  Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her.  Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on.  Make a face in your mashed potatoes.  Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  No fair tennis without a net.  Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood.  OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

go into the arts

Being creative doesn’t have to be pompous or pretentious; it doesn’t have to be a poem or a painting on a canvas.  Everything is art: how you stir your tea, how you organize your spice cabinet, how you arrange a bouquet of flowers, how you frost a cake, how you tell bedtime stories to your children, how you kiss your husband goodnight, how you greet the day, how you laugh, how you love, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you decorate your home.  Want to learn more about how you can be an artist of the everyday?  Rejoice in Proust on how art reawakens us to the extraordinary beauty of ordinary things and 3 things I learned from Sarah Ban Breathnach.

Rilke on the Importance of Patience to Creative Work

Is there any value we so underrate as patience?  In our accelerated age of bullet trains andRilke & Moscow high speed internet, we demand instant gratification.  The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration.  If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event.  This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections.  We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up.  Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone?  We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now?  We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote.  No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists.  If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all?  why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer?  What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire?  What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?

As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock.  By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth.  But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks.  Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker?  Shouldn’t we be further along by now? 

rilke tree

In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward.  When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time.  Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something.  The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates.  As Rilke writes, 

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist.  If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit Brenda Ueland on art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want more insight into the writing life, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne SextonMaya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.

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

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, play dates 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.