Anne Lamott on the Gift of Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Writing

 

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Anne Lamott and Fr. Tom Weston. Via: (Flickr)

 

Writing is hard for every last one of us–straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” This was Cheryl Strayed’s uplifting response to a letter of despair she received from an aspiring writer named Elisa Bassist.

To write is to dig deep beneath our surface and excavate everything that needs to be said. This process is not always pleasant. Some days, if we are lucky, our words and metaphors can string together, creating equal parts of truth and beauty. But some days, as Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Is writing really like what Vonnegut described? Even if it’s true, there are things that can help us to ease the uncomfortable experience of writing. Anne Lamott‘s book titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Public Library) (Amazon) is one of those comforters for any perplexed writers.

Lamott does two grand things in this book: offering non-cliche friendly wisdom on writing that can also be applied in life and sprinkling hilarious anecdotes in every page that will make her readers giggle uncontrollably. The combination of wisdom and humor makes this book hard to put down.

Lamott started reading and writing at an early age. Having born to parents who had an unquenchable appetite for reading, Lamott grew up around books, stories, and fantasies. Her father was also a writer who, as she described, “wrote books and articles about the places and the people he had seen and known.” Lamott dropped out of college at the age of nineteen to pursue her calling as a writer. Her path was circuitous. Right after she was out of college, she took up some odd jobs to keep herself afloat. She was a Kelly girl, a clerk-typist, a tennis coach, and a house cleaner. All the while, she would stubbornly write everyday until she eventually got her book published when she was twenty six.

She thought seeing her book on print was everything that she had wanted. But in spite of her early publication, she eventually realized that publication was not as glamorous as she had imagined. The real gift of writing, she realized, is what we write–the act of writing itself. Publication arrives as an extra gift.

She writes:

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

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Image by Caro. Via: (Flickr)

 

In her book, Lamott argues that publication is also an illusion or a fantasy.  Whenever Lamott teaches a class on writing, she always receives endless questions about publication from her students. Some of her students, she observes, write not because they believe they have distinct stories that need to be told. They write because they want to get published. This latter motive is something that Lamott wants to reconstruct:

“Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram–it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.”

And what are those reasons again? my student ask.

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quite or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

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Image by Ian Espinosa. Via: (Unsplash)

 

One of my favorite chapters of the book talks about perfectionism. As humans, we all know very well what perfectionism is. It is our disguised “weakness” that we like to brag at job interviews. Perfectionism looks very glamorous when we see it, but at its core, it is our fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged insignificant, fear of being stuck. It is fear that drives us to be a perfectionist.

Lamott has something wise to say about this topic:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at the their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Bridging perfectionism to writing, Lamott says:

“Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”

No matter how hard we try, sometimes when we write, the voice of perfectionism will soar above our writing voice–the true voice that makes our stories alive. For Lamott, writing is always about clearing space, physically and mentally, to let ideas bloom. The hardest thing is when our state of mind is cluttered with an unnecessary voice that doesn’t contribute to the shape of our story. 

Lamott coins a funky term for this unnecessary voice. She calls it “radio station KFKD (K-Fucked)”. Writers need to be alert as soon as it starts playing its songs such as songs of self-loathing, perfectionism, and self-doubt. Lamott believes that once the volume of “radio” starts to get louder, we need to be less reactive and more reflective on its impulse. This is what she advises us:

“You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.

[…]

Still, breathing calmly can help you get into a position where the workings of your characters’ hearts and the things people say on the streets of your story can be heard above the sound of KFKD. When you are in that position, you will know.”

She continues talking about KFKD, and strangely finds a revelation that helps her to understand more about it in a little book on prayer she steals from her church. It’s not a book on writing, but it adds a new understanding of writing.

She writes:

“The meeting ended, and on my way out, a little book on prayer caught me eye. I picked it up and stuck it in my purse, figuring I could look at it over dinner and then return it the next Sunday.

[…]

I started to read and within a page came upon this beautiful passage: ‘The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it.’

[…]

So now I always tell my students about the Gulf Stream: that what it means for us, for writers, is that we need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw. When KFKD is playing, we are at cross purposes with the river. So we need to sit there, and breathe, calm ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.”

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Image by Alexa Mazzarello. Via: (Unsplash)

 

More than twenty years after its publication, Bird by Bird remains one of the most important books on the craft of writing. The amount of writing advice in the world is plenty. What separates the good ones and the greats ones is rarely articulable, but to me, the great advice on writing is the one that can be applied directly to life. Writing is part of the reality of living. It is part of how we further our understanding of the world we inhabit. To talk about writing is to talk about life itself. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott doesn’t only talk about the art of writing but also the art of living.

Seneca on Understanding the Shortness of Our Lives

 

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Seneca. Via: (Daily Stoic)

 

Lately I have been pondering about time–how it moves swiftly but quietly through our lives. The scariest realization of its fleetingness is when we use it lavishly. At the end of the day, we wonder: where did time go? What did we do all day? Even for people who have treated their time as their most valuable resource, time will keep on moving, unconcerned of what we do. Once it vanishes, time won’t come back to us.

I was reminded of this strange nature of time by an essay that I read called “On the Shortness of Life”, one of the three moral essays compiled and translated into English in a book titled Seneca: On the Shortness of Life (Public Library) (Amazon). This essay was written by Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65), one of the most well-respected stoic philosophers, for his friend, Paulinus, around 49 CE. This was the year when Seneca returned to Rome after his exile in Corsica. What makes this essay compelling to me is Seneca’s crisp and precise articulation of the nature of time can still be evocatively felt by this generation though this letter was written more than two thousands years ago.

Translated by C.D.N Costa, the essay powerfully begins:

“Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because of this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it.”

Stoicism is philosophy that promulgates living in conformity with nature’s laws. This idea is very present in most of writings of stoicism, especially in this letter. Then the question becomes: what does it mean to live in line with nature’s laws? Robin Campbell, the editor and translator for a book called Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Amazon) said that living according to nature’s laws means “not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing, and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world.” (Massimo Pigluicci, Professor of Philosophy from CUNY, also thoroughly explored the meaning of living according to nature in Stoicism on his blog.)

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. 1931. Via: (Artstor)

 

Returning to our main topic on the swiftness of our time, Seneca continues to offer a wise and yet harsh reminder for us:

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.

[…]

Many are occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly–so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

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Alarm Clock by Diego Rivera. 1914. Via: (Artstor)

 

What Seneca says in the following sentence is something that we do all the time. We are more terrified of the risk of losing something replaceable such as money or our personal properties than losing something that is inherently irreplaceable, which is our time:

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

I remember I asked my childhood friend what he wanted to have for his tenth birthday. He said jubilantly: “A time machine!” I asked why and he explained he wanted to foresee his future faster than anybody else.

It was a serious thing to be uttered from the mouth of a nine year old boy.

Reflecting on what my friend said, I think his underlying meaning behind his longing was he wanted to be able to mitigate any risk in his future life.

We are all eager to know what will happen to our lives in the future so that we can use our time wisely and do the things we need to do immediately. But we cannot predict our future because it will always dance with uncertainty and mystery.

Seneca captures this longing of foreseeing our future in the letter:

“But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them! And yet it is easy to organize an amount, however small, which is assured; we have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.”

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Walentas Clock Tower by Glen Hansen. 2011. Via: (Artstor)

 

Someone wisely said, “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.” Another wise man also said, “Start small, start now.” However, being present is not an easy thing to do in our age of endless distractions. Though procrastination done strategically could enhance our creativity, procrastination is still one of the biggest obstacles that can hamper the progress of our work. This topic of procrastination found in this letter remains as fresh as when it appeared thousands of years ago. Seneca writes:

“But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining?”

With everything that he has said, Seneca has one last urgent request for all of us:

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Carl Sagan on the Power of Science and Popularizing Science Through Books

 

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Carl Sagan sitting on a barrier in City Hall Plaza, March 1972. Photographer: Jeff Albertson. Via: (UMASS Amherst)

 

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

This was the speech delivered by marine biologist and one of the finest science writers of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson, when her book The Sea Around Us (Amazon) (Public Library) won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1952. The rest of the speech, she talked about the value of science and her aim as a writer to write truthfully and enchantingly about science.

Carson was not alone in her ambition to popularize the importance of science to public. One of our greatest scientists, Carl Sagan, arrived in our public consciousness and intensified Carson’s ambition unflinchingly through all of his work he did when he was alive–more than 700 articles and 20 books on science, an award winning TV series called Cosmos, and his work for NASA and Cornell University. Just like Carson, Sagan always had a missionary’s zeal about pushing science into the public arena.

In one of those articles he wrote, there’s one titled “Describing The World As It is, Not As It Would be”–a short but robust article on the importance of understanding and applying science into our lives. I found this article in Marie Arana’s book titled The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work (Public Library) (Amazon)–featuring fifty six writers reflecting on the craft of their writing and the trajectory of their lives as a writer.

Our time is far more advanced than the time when Sagan lived. Science has increasingly altered the way we interact to each other and helped us to solve unsolvable issues in the past. Behind this glorious achievement, some of us still perceive that science only belongs to those white-coated people, especially men, who sit hours on high lab stools looking at a microscope. This belief is destructive and something that Sagan wanted to reconstruct. He wrote:

“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements–transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment and protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting–profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. We might get away with it for a while, but eventually this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

The demand of scientifically driven minds are increasingly desired. Sagan argued that science must reach beyond academia. He wrote:

“. . . it’s insufficient to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals; some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.”

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The great comet of 1881. Observed on the night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M. Painted by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

What was it about science that Sagan cherished? Sagan explained some of the powerful values that science can bring into our lives:

“It alerts us to subtle dangers introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the environment.

It teaches us about the deepest issues of origins, natures and fates–of our species, of life, of our planet, of the universe. In the long run, the greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavor has been able, something about our cosmic context, and about who we are.”

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 This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed “Pale Blue Dot,” is a part of the first ever “portrait” of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. © NASA/JPL

 

Sagan peered beyond his scientific mind to trace the value of science. On the connection between national economy and science, Sagan said:

“It [science] makes the national economy and the global civilization run. Other nations well understand this. This is why so many graduate students in science and engineering at American universities–still the best in the world–are citizens of other countries. Science is the golden road out of poverty and backwardness for emerging nations. The corollary, one that the United States sometimes fails to grasp, is that abandoning science is the road back into poverty and backwardness.”

With his deep intuitive mind, Sagan saw the commonalities between science and democracy. He wrote:

“The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it. Science thrives on the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of honesty and evidence. Science is a baloney detector, a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. The more widespread its language, rules and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly with the tools of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.”

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Carl Sagan’s reading list, fall 1954. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Once Sagan famously said, “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” His profound relationship with books since he was a kid made him believe that the best way to popularize science is through books. He said:

“With books, you can mull things over, go at your own pace, revisit the hard parts, compare texts, dig deep. As a youngster, I was inspired by the popular books of George Gamow, James Jeans, Arthur Eddington, J. B.S Haldane, Rachel Carson and Arthur C. Clarke. The popularity of well-written, well-explained books on science that touch our hearts as well as our minds seems greater in the last 20 years than ever before, and the number and disciplinary diversity of scientists writing these books is likewise unprecedented. Among the best contemporary science-popularizers, I think of Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins in biology; Steven Weinberg, Alan Lightman and Kip Thorne in physics; Roald Hoffman in chemistry; and the early works of Fred Hoyle in astronomy. Isaac Asimov wrote capably on everything. (And while requiring some calculus, the most consistently exciting science popularization of the last few decades seems to me to be Vol. I of Richard Feyman‘s Introductory Lectures on Physics.) Nevertheless, current efforts at science popularization are clearly nowhere near commensurate with the public good and the national need.”

In this digital world, we have invented some alternatives that can help us to enlarge our understanding of the world. Though books are still beloved by a lot of us, the rise of blogs, podcasts, Ted Talks, have made knowledge acquisition much easier and more accessible than before. Sites such as: Brain Pickings.org, Farnam Street, Ted Talk, Ted Radio Hours, It’s Okay to be Smart, Open Culture, On Being, Radio Lab, Science Friday, Aeon.co, Khan Academy, Kids Should See This; they have revolutionized our education system, especially freely teaching science to public.

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Carl Sagan with the planets. 1981. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Everything that Sagan said in this article remains as fresh as when it was written in the middle of 90’s. At the end of the essay, through the question he posed, Sagan invited us to imagine the possibility that science can have for our future generation:

“What kind of society would it be if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?”

Nobel-Winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman On the Danger of Overconfidence

 

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Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman speaking at NYPL. 2013. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In a conversation with Krista Tippett, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2002, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, talked about the danger of overconfidence.

The transcript:

Krista Tippett: One thing you’ve also said is that if you had a magic wand, overconfidence is the thing you would banish. Would you explain that?

Daniel Kahneman: Well, and I’m–I did say that, but I’m not sure I was right. But what I meant to say was that when you look globally at people’s actions, overconfidence is endemic. I mean we have too much confidence in our beliefs, and overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence. And overconfidence–whenever there is a war, there were overconfident generals. You can look at failures, and overconfidence had something to do with them. On the other hand, overconfidence and overconfident optimism is the engine of capitalism. I mean entrepreneurs are overconfident. They think they’re going to be successful. People who open restaurants in New York think they’ll succeed; otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But at least two-thirds of them have to give up within a few years–more than two-thirds, probably.

Krista Tippett: Well, and too, what’s also baked into that is, we reward overconfidence. We celebrate it.

Daniel Kahneman: Absolutely, we want people to be overconfident. We want our leaders to be overconfident.

To devour Kahneman’s insights on the mystery of human thought and behavior, listen to the podcast below:

 

Maybe, after all, what we need to tell people, especially aspiring creators, is that confidence is not the prerequisite for any creative endeavor. It is courage that counts–the engine that propels us to take the first step of anything unfamiliar and scary. In a conversation with Chase Jarvis, Debbie Millman, who got inspired by Dani Shapiro’s notion of confidence, said eloquently about the necessity to be courageous. She said:

“I believe that the act of being courageous—taking that first step—is much more critical to a successful outcome than the notion of feeling confident while engaged in the process. Courage requires faith in your ability before you experience any repeated success. But that doesn’t mean taking that first step will be easy. It won’t. Taking ANY step for the first time is difficult and there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability and nervousness you are likely going to experience. But experiencing that vulnerability and nervousness doesn’t give you an excuse not to take the step.”

How to Ask Better Questions from Tim Ferriss

 

 

To think means to ask questions. The form of questions that we ask matter because well-formulated questions can lead us to the answers we are searching for. The practice of asking questions, especially better questions, is becoming rare these days as people are more favoring answers than questions. We all want answers but we seem to forget that the only way to get better answers is by asking better questions. To understand what makes good questions, Tim Ferriss, the best-selling author, the host of podcast Tim Ferriss show, a modern day of Stoic philosopher, offers some practical tools on guiding us to be better at asking better questions.

These are some of the main points of the video:

    1. Ask questions that can be answered quickly and concretely

“Can it be answered relatively quickly? For instance, if you found someone you idolize in an elevator, Jimmy Fallon, if you asked Jimmy a question, could he come up with a really concrete answer in 5 second or less. If the answer is no, find a different question, for you or for other people. What is your favorite book for instance, not a good question, because people have read hundreds or thousands of books in many cases. But what book or books have you gifted the most to other people? It’s gonna be a short list. The search query is really refined. It’s fast click.

Much like asking yourself: what makes me happy? It’s not really a great question, too broad and takes too long to search. But let’s just say: what makes me feel most relieved after work when I get home?” […] Now it’s more refined and you can answer it much more quickly and is more actionable.

    2. Don’t ask questions that can be answered on Google

“A few things you should not do, if you meet someone who is, say, above your weight class in terms of professional development and you want to connect with them, don’t ask them questions that you can answer on google.”

   3. Avoid broad questions

“Don’t ask them really broad questions. They couldn’t conceivably answer quickly. What should I do? What advice would you give me for succeeding? These are not good terms. If you can’t define success, in say, 10 words or less, get rid of it, lose it from the question.”

At the end of the video, Ferriss, who has been asking hundreds of excellent questions on his podcast, says:

“And I would encourage you to strive to be interested in the form of good questions, if you seek to be perceived as interesting. Stop talking. Start thinking about questions. And then stop and listen.”

Can We Demystify Creativity?

 

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Fanny Elssler in dem Divertissement: “Des Malers Traumbild.”. 1843. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Our world is brimming with many mysteries. One of which has continued to enchant us is the quest to unravel the source of creative inspiration. When we talk about creative inspiration, it’s hard not to bring up its famous myth. There are some people who still believe that creative inspiration comes from a “divine” invisible creature from an unknown place who will assist the artist to shape the form of his or her work.

In her engaging 2009 Ted Talk, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, believes that everything that we hear about this myth of creative inspiration, to the historical evidence, can be traced back to ancient Greece. She says that Socrates used to have a demon who would speak philosophical ideas to him. Socrates was not the only example of an historical figure who had a mystical encounter with creative inspiration. In his recent book titled The River of Consciousness (Amazon), Oliver Sacks explains that Mendeleev, the great Russian chemist, once remarked that he discovered his periodic table in a dream. Feeling inspired and a sense of urgency, he woke up immediately and wrote it down on an envelope. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Amazon), he writes that when the French mathematician, Henri Poincare floundered about arithmetical questions for days, he decided to spend a few days at the seaside to relax. One day when he was out walking and thinking about something unrelated to math, the solution came to him. These are the stories of creative inspiration that have been perpetuating in our culture. We adore these stories because they suggest that the inception of any creative project is easy. We don’t do the work, creative inspiration will do it for us.

Is it true that inspiration alone will do the work for us? There’s another way to investigate the source of creative inspiration by observing the quantity of the work that an artist has produced. In his book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Amazon), Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist and a professor of business at University of Pennsylvania, shatters the common myth of creativity that comes from a mystical and divine inspiration. Drawing inspiration from Dean Keith Simonton’s intensive research on creativity titledCreative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks,” Grant argues that what Simonton finds is, when a creator produces a lot of outputs, his or her chance to create a masterpiece is more attainable. Grant continues to say that when someone is producing a lot of work, he or she is more likely to stumble upon some variations that can enrich their work and will bring their work closer to originality. Grant says, “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.” Then Grant describes the abundant creative output of Picasso and Maya Angelou. In his life, he says that Picasso has produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more tapestries, rugs, and prints. Then one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, though she’s widely known for her poem “Still I Rise,” people often overlook her 165 other poems.

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Thomas Edison. 1906. © Museum of the City of New York. Via: (Artstor)

 

In his paper, observing Thomas Edison’s creative career, Dean Keith Simonton talks about Edison’s prodigious work output. “His 1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He also argues that the diversity of the projects that Edison did had helped him to channel his energy whenever he faced a long series of trials followed by consecutive errors. This method, when he moved from one project to the other, according to Simonton, awakened his mind with some neglected solutions for his unfinished projects. Simonton goes on to say, “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear.” Grant and Simonton seem to agree that quantity is a better stimulant than quality to invite inspiration.

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Ginevra King Pirie. Via: (FindaGrave)

 

There is another source of creative inspiration that we can try to investigate other than the quantity of artist’s work. Inspired by the book titledThe Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, Maureen Corrigan for the Boston Globe wrote that there are people in the writers’ personal lives that have played an enormous role in supplying inspiration for their work. When Fitzgerald met Ginevra King on January 4, 1915 at a party over Christmas break in St. Paul Minnesota, the two instantly attracted to each other. King was only sixteen and Fitzgerald was nineteen. They started to correspond and their letters to each other were full of passion, flirtation. They stayed in touch only for two years. King eventually married a wealthy young businessman from Chicago and Fitzgerald married Zelda. Though King and Fitzgerald did not stay together, King was an enormous source of Fitzgerald’s fictional characters in his literary career. Corrigan argues that King is Judy Jones in his short story “Winter Dreams.” She is also Isabella Borges in Fitzgerald “This Side of Paradise” and Daisy Buchanan in his memorable work of fiction “The Great Gatsby.”

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Portrait of Agnes von Kurowsky in her American Red Cross nurse uniform, Milan, Italy.  1918. Via: (JFKLibrary)

 

Corrigan also mentions that one of Hemingway’s fictional characters was also inspired by someone that he had met. It was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that helped Hemingway regain his sense of vitality after he was wounded during World War 1. Hemingway was madly in love with her and they had planned to marry, but by the time Kurowsky went to the U.S, she sent a letter to Hemingway that she had engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway’s early love life was a hapless event in his life, but he turned Von Kurowsky into a fictional character in “A Farewell to Arms” as Catherine Barkley.

All of the examples I have presented above seem to suggest that the myth of creative inspiration that we always carry is just a myth. In fact, if we look deeper into Mendeleev’s life, though his idea of periodic table seems to appear out of the blue, his work ethic to solve this chemical mystery doesn’t enter our conversation whenever we talk about creative inspiration. For almost nine years, he was constantly pondering this subject, consciously and unconsciously. So did Poincare who refused to succumb to this myth and chose to work hard to solve the mathematical problems. Only when he disengaged himself from his work for days at the seaside and let his ideas simmer, while he was thinking of something else, the solution came to him.

Rex Jung, a prominent neuroscientist who studies creativity for more than a decade knows why the solution came to Poincare when he stopped working. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Jung argues that “eureka” moment usually comes after someone has consciously absorbed ideas and then let them simmer for a while in his or her mind to interact with other ideas. Jung says, “You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

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The creative inspirations that catapulted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edison, Mendeleev, and Poincare into public consciousness are missing our romantic idea of artistry that must come from magic. Their dogged determination was the path that granted them the creative inspiration. Even from a scientific perspective, Jung arrives to remind us that when we deliberately make a space for our ideas to simmer and interact to other ideas after countless hours of working, inspiration is more likely to come to us.

To believe that good ideas must come from a mystical place is to believe that work ethic is a useless ingredient to achieve mastery. This is a dangerous belief that needs to be clarified. Understanding a craft of writing, for instance, is not something that can be done in a night by magic. It takes years or even decades to be able to present language that can tell stories and evoke emotions to readers. There is no shortcut for the conquest of mastery because “Everything worthwhile takes a long time.