“In my experience, inspiration is not something that finds you, or offers itself to you, nor for that matter is faith. Inspiration and faith are similar in so far as they both ask something of us. They each require real and constant practical application. For me, inspiration comes only when I practice certain things regularly and rigorously. I must commit fully to the task in hand, sit down each day, pick up my pencil (actually it is a medium black or blue Bic Biro) and get to work. It is not exactly toiling down the coal mines, but it is labour enough, and I undertake it through the good times and the bad, through the dry periods and the periods of abundance, and I keep on going regardless of my successes or failures. Inspiration comes because I put in the work.”Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files (06.10.22)
He’s regarded by many as one of the finest composers alive today but Philip Glass didn’t catch his big break until he turned 41. Before then he worked odd jobs as a plumber, furniture mover and a taxi driver in New York where he once picked up a group of men fleeing a store they just robbed. In-between shifts and taking his children to school he wrote music and later toured with an ensemble for weeks before returning to work. Glass said he expected to work a day job for the rest of his life.
His life story soothes my anxiety about success because, unknown to myself, I’ve carried the belief that success only comes at a certain age or it doesn’t come at all. Nice to know that isn’t the case.
Last month I travelled to Crosby for a bi-annual five day retreat with my local Zen group. Three times a day, along with hours of sitting, we would chant sutras while I struck a wooden percussion instrument called a mokugyo to maintain rhythm. Back in Liverpool I would play the instrument almost every week for service in our usual place so I think by that point I was in a stage of unconscious competence. Then, on the fourth day, the Ino, our lead chanter, praised my mokugyo skills and proclaimed, in part jest, that I was a mokugyo master. While I was pleased to be complimented I also noticed a small thought afterwards that said, now because people saw me as a master, I better not mess up.
In her book Mindset Carol Dweck proposes a two part model for success and achievement which has caught on in education and sport: fixed mindset and growth mindset. Growth mindset allows you to make the inevitable mistakes that will help you grow and eventually succeed. When a teacher compliments a student for being clever, that praise can induce a fixed mindset and hamper learning because now this student, like me, feels that they have something to lose: their standing with the teacher. If the teacher were to praise the effort instead, what’s there to lose?
Perhaps it’s not so important to be recognised as a master as it is to stay on the path of mastery? Fortunately the path goes on forever.
I read an obituary this week for a woman I met three years ago on a meditation retreat in the Lake District. We only met for five days and I had forgotten her name until I saw her photo in the obituary but I never forgot her. Carl W. Buehner, a speechmaker, once wrote that “they may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
I remember her mother had recently died before the retreat and in our circle talks she was open with her grief. I remember walking with her on a field covered with goat faeces while she told me about her work in makeup. I remember driving with her and a friend to see the lakes and we bought ourselves overpriced ice cream and visited the local souvenir shop.
Once I was reading Gary Synder’s poetry during a tea break and another man on the retreat, Keith, noticed the book and asked if I had read any other Beat poets. Sharon, sat on the couch nearby, joined in and recited a line or two from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘A Footnote to Howl’ on the holiness of the madman, the typewriter and, for Ginsberg, the holiness of balls. I enjoyed her quirkiness.
On the last day Keith gave her a lift to the train station and before she left she hugged me and said “I love you.” Then she put her suitcase in the boot and drove off. I sometimes wondered over the years what became of her and if we would ever meet again.
Before he died the Zen Master, Kozan Ichikyo, wrote:
Empty handed I entered
Barefoot I leave it
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled
The Red Hot Chili Peppers released a song in their 2002 album By The Way called ‘Venice Queen’ about a woman close to the band who had died and one of the verses went:
Where you come from? / Where you going?
Coming and going. The Great Matter of Birth and Death.
Where has that person who said “I love you” gone?
I hope, wherever she is, that she’s reunited with her mother.
I love you too Sharon.
T.S. Eliot once wrote that “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.” Given his background Eliot may have been talking about the creative restrictions of poetic forms but I think the principle applies to rules in general as well.
Art is one of the few places where you get to make the rules. When recording his fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West laid out some studio rules that included:
NO HIPSTER HATS
NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE
These rules may seem arbitrary to me or you but to Kanye these were essential to the particular situation he was in. Someone in the studio, possibly Kanye himself, was tweeting or blogging and no music was being made. So, in that hypothetical situation, the rules are there to prevent (or minimise) the sprawl of procrastination because it’s easy, maybe even natural, to turn away when there’s difficult work to be done.
On this dual nature of ours Don DeLillo wrote that “a writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” If an award-winning novelist also struggles with procrastination (and still manages to write) we’re in good company.
So go ahead. Make some rules for yourself.
Years ago my mother and I saw Swan Lake, our first ballet, at the Liverpool Empire theatre. I loved Tchaikovsky’s score and the skill of the dancers although by the final act of the show my arse fell asleep and I began to wish the dancing would just end. Call me uncultured. But, that said, I never forgot the grace of the dancers.
In “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”, his piece for The New York Times on the 2006 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, the late David Foster Wallace wrote:
“Beauty is the not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
I remember, about six or seven years ago, I was invited to a wedding reception and I watched with awe while a friend of the bride, a young gay man, vogued on the dance floor to Madonna. To the best of my memory he was the only man that night who seemed comfortable in his own skin. In time other men and women joined him but their uncoordinated, drunken shuffling, the kind you see at every wedding reception, was poor by comparison.
Kinetic beauty. It’s something to behold.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
When Henry Rollins listens to music he hasn’t heard before he calls that protein listening. When he listens to familiar bands he calls that carbohydrate listening. We eat carbs for energy and protein for muscle mass but how, in the context of reading, can this analogy apply to us as writers?
The first thing I do each morning after I get out of bed is check my Google feed (notice how we use the word feed). It’s more compulsive than nourishing and I’m not going to be well fed by a half-baked article on Keanu Reeves’ new haircut but it’s information nevertheless. That said, I don’t think information alone makes one thing a carb and another protein.
I think what really distinguishes carbs from protein in the context of reading is the quality of the writing and the quality of my attention. Clickbait like tabloid gossip is garbage though I still click on them the same way I might treat myself to a Toblerone or Terry’s Chocolate Orange on occasion. Who doesn’t want to see how Keanu is doing these days? If I read for information it’s carbs but if I read for learning it’s protein. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable and I just read something because I like it.
As for my attention its quality differs from day to day as with anyone’s, but I’ve found it easier to sustain it with books (the physical kind) because a book can’t multi-task. A book can only be a book unlike the Kindle app on my phone where the temptation to switch over to YouTube or Google is always there. Still, I enjoy them both.
So, what are you eating?