Creating as a Must

Art + Creativity, Sunday Spotlight

Einstein said it is intelligence having fun, Matisse said it requires courage. The word conjures up images of lone painters hurling pain and a thousand ideas in their studios, or of writers cranking away on their typewriters. It’s a catchphrase thrown in conference rooms when faced with an impossible task at hand, used to summon the right side of the brain for insight and imagination. From one end of the world to another, it has also been invoked for the purpose of survival.

Whether it is used for artistic, commercial or life-preservation pursuits, creativity appeals to what is most human about us — the need and the ability to create something out of nothing for a purpose outside of ourselves.

At the same time, it has also become elusive. It’s not that time wears out our ability to be creative; it is because as we get older, we somehow acquire more fear. Our experiences, specially the bad or painful ones, The thought of creativity also speaks to our youth, when we are most fearless and uninhibited. At a time when we are bound by “efficiency standards,” “service level agreements” and “productivity models,” its use almost requires a luxury of time we do not have. Ironically, its employment is what created those terms in the first place, all for the glory of profit.

I’m interested in creativity not for profit’s sake, but for the expansion of the mind, heart and spirit. The kind that propels us to create work that is meaningful, that resonates with our most natural instincts. The kind that sees people as kindred, not competition. And most of all, the kind that stretches our capacity to be kind, generous and loving.

Over the years, I’ve acquired books that have spurred me in the process of creating — titles that have not only nurtured one’s creativity, but have also aided in instilling mindfulness and spirituality as a reader and a writer.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must and Seth Godin’s What to Do When it’s Your Turn have all been eye-opening, generous in their lessons.

I picked up Kleon’s books at Green Apple Books in San Francisco during a time when I wasn’t consistently writing. I was always eager to find books and frankly, any advice on how I can bring myself to the page.

And surely, these books helped. A lot.

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I also came upon Elle Luna’s book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion after reading a post on Brain Pickings, the creation of Maria Popova (her On Being interview with Krista Tippet is unmissable).

Luna’s book starts off with the same dilemmas most of us have when it comes to actualizing our most passionate pursuits. We are beset with innumerable shoulds from our parents, families, religion, institutions and other dictates of modern society. Figuring out our musts then becomes arduous in a sea of shoulds. 

With its playful illustrations, thoughtful prose and lines from beloved artists, the book invites the reader to look within themselves, making the process of investigating our musts a gentler process.


And then there’s Seth Godin’s book What to Do When it’s Your Turn (And it’s Always Your Turn) which arrived in my doorstep back in 2014 with a gift: an extra copy of the book.

I’ve long been a fan of Seth since I subscribed to his blog. His books Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? were influential guides as I sought to further my own creativity and push myself to create work that matters.

On days that I feel overwhelmed with my shoulds, Seth’s wisdom prods me to remember my musts. One of the most indispensable things I’ve learned from him is that we’re now past the industrial economy; we are now in a connection economy where more than ever, we have the most opportunities of creating work that truly resonates with people.


I was struck by this idea of connecting since then. In a lot of ways, I’ve taken Kleon, Luna and Seth’s advice to heart and created Libromance.

I had a previous blog for six years and created a total of 86 posts, where I published about 20 posts on some years and 5 on others. My blog lacked focus and consistency. Although it was a medium for my writing, it wasn’t until I started fine-tuning what I was most passionate about (reading) and infuse it with the best way I knew how to be creative (writing) that this blog was birthed (January 1, 2016).

It wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t. The act of creating at a time when we are bogged down by fear, our shoulds and other things in life makes the task of following our musts even more urgent.

Most often than not, creativity has been ssummoned by work that goes beyond ourselves — in the service of our loved ones, our communities, future generations.

So in the spirit of Seth, and everything and everyone worth creating for: Go make a ruckus. 

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. (Stephen King)

 

If there was ever a finer book on writing, it would have to be Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is King’s childhood, journey and illustration of a map, an answer to the question: How did you learn to write?

To be honest, I haven’t read a single Stephen King book. I picked up this copy  back in 2012 because just like any amateur writer does (I think), I was hungry for the secret, the magical potion that rendered writers of their equally magical capabilities of pumping out word after word, of creating worlds for their readers. The reviews also bolstered the purchase; I was confident that this book contained the mythical how-to’s of successful writers.

Of course I was wrong. There is no secret, no magical potion. What I learned from King is that you have to arm yourself with four important things if you want to write: discipline, the writer’s toolkit, a big appetite for reading, and most of all, courage.

One could come up with a thousand excuses for not writing: of not having the right writing tools, of not having enough time, of not being inspired enough. I’m guilty of all of these, and I never cultivated the discipline needed for my writing. What King offers is a call to the essential, in its simplest and most honest form:

…you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to the basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse.

 

Writing as Magic, with Stephen King

Book Reviews, Writing

Sunday Spotlight: The Rituals & Routines of Creatives

Art + Creativity, Sunday Spotlight

I recently picked up Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work after seeing the cover at City Lights Bookstore, at San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, once the home of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac. I’ve always been fascinated by the routines, rituals and creative practice of artists — from writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre Bonnard.

When you are moved by a particular book or a painting, it’s hard not to wonder about the life of the writer or the painter, what induced its genesis, how it was created. It is a curiosity out of admiration and a tiny hope of, perhaps, being able to recreate the process with one’s own work.

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The book contains a glimpse of the lives of about 161 artists — writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers — in a few pages detailing their routines and at times quirky habits while doing their work. I am thankful for Currey’s work on this compendium as it enlightens and entertains, in a way that calms the nervous and anxious writer’s heart.

I am always most curious about writers and I’ve featured a few writers here on my blog and in others. Reading and writing about them has always been a joy. After coming back from the Philippines, I read Bob Ong for the first time after it was recommended by a close friend. His book Stainless Longganisa is part-memoir/part-writing manifesto, and it is filled with references only Filipinos would understand — truly unmissable.

I’ll never forget Ong’s words on not letting the space alotted for our words go to waste. There are things to be written, ideas to be shared and ultimately, worlds that unravel between the writer and the reader. And there’s nothing quite like that intimacy, all on paper.

And then there’s Marcel Proust, the French writer whom I’ve actually never read before. I read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and it was a detailed picture of the writer’s work and life, from the lavish parties he attended to the writing he did in bed. I have an illustrated copy of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve yet to open, and I think this will only nourish my understanding of his work.

I wrote about how reading the book can give birth to a different way of looking at the things around us, however grand or mundane. Proust was a sickly man, who was domestically helpless, who wrote with an adequate bedside lamp. He managed his day-to-day existence with hired help who fed and clothed him, as he wrote scrupulously.

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his. (Marcel Proust)

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And then there’s Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I read a couple of years ago. I was still living in Oakland at that time and Dillard was with me every time I crossed the Bay Bridge underwater, in the shuttle on the winding, uphill streets of San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized, enchanted by Dillard, who wrote about birds flying under her chair and locking herself in a cabin, devoid of the world so she can write.

Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair. (Annie Dillard)

Her practice consisted of avoiding appealing workplaces, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark. The work of Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds me of this, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The SympathizerDillard preferred to revel in her solitude, a feat in itself that sought to highlight the passage of time and how we spend our days.

Reading has always been, and will always be my first love. Writers also cannot stress this enough — that in order to write well, one must read a lot. Dillard mused on what constitutes a good life, what an appealing daily schedule looks like. It is her, who said after all, that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less, time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. (Annie Dillard)

I also just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Craft of the Memoir, as he documents his childhood and what has informed his writing throughout the years. He provides the reader an in-depth look on his experiences, life lessons and warns forthcoming writers of the perils of shortcuts and easy way outs; the book review will be out this Tuesday on Libromance.

At the core of Currey’s book and at the heart of Ong, Dillard and King’s routines is the act of putting pen on paper (or fingers on the Macbook) and writing away. Nothing is clearer and simpler than the act itself, no matter how many workshops one takes, or whatever fancy tools one uses (I got a trial version of Scrivener, a writing software, once to help me write a book only to discover that it made the whole process more daunting). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

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All photos & infographics from this post are lovingly made by the cool folks at Info We Trust.

#GetLit: Bibliotherapy

#GetLit

I’ve long been a fan of writer and philosopher Alain de Botton  who founded The School of Life (TSOL), which is devoted to creating emotional intelligence with the help of culture. One of the many services of TSOL is called Bibliotherapy, a therapy session that “helps you explore your relationship with books and guide you to anew literary direction.” I gushed at this idea because, well, this whole blog is dedicated to literature.

Ceridven Dovey wrote about her experience with TSOL’s Bibliotherapy, calling the session a “gift” after corresponding with Bibliotherapist Ella Barthoud.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read.

It’s not the first time that I’ve read about this idea — I had, once, a delightful and enchanting experience reading Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop. I wrote about it here too, and it was such a joy to meet Monsiuer Perdu, the bookshop’s owner.

It turns out that this is not a new practice, as Dovey references A Literary Clinic that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1914. She points out that today, bibliotherapy comes in different forms such as literature courses and reading circles. The demand for literature, it seems, is growing even as we move towards an age of instantaneous information. There’s Oprah’s Book Club, and there’s also classes like The Craft of Reading at the UC Berkeley Extension.

In the Spring of 2015, I enrolled in the online class where I was introduced to the work of Alice Munro, Marguerite Duras and Iris Chang. Engaging in discussions with other readers in class was exhilarating — demystifying Duras’s The Lover was a thrill, and so was crossing Munro’s verbal landscapes.

I’ve also engaged in mini-bibliotherapy sessions myself: recommending Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to a friend and my sisters; how I’ve given bell hooks’s All About Love to previous lovers at the beginning our soon-to-fail relationships (since 2012, a period of turmoil); gifting Michael Pollan’s Food Rules one Christmas to my mother’s siblings (all nine of them); giving a copy of John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man to my father, so he could see the scope of American imperialism from a different lens; and countless other times.

Below are a few of my musts, books that I’ve gone back to several times, titles that I’ve shared with loved ones and strangers. They are timeless, generous and full of illumination. From my bookshelf to yours, here’s my version of literary prescription.

Bibliotherapy: Straight from Libromance

 Autobiography of a Yogi  The Lover  All About Love: New Visions  The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?  The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

 How Proust Can Change Your Life  Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches  Letters to a Young Poet  Zami: A New Spelling of My Name  The Sympathizer

Life Lessons from Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull 

Art + Creativity, Book Reviews

My path to reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (Shop your local indie store) was through reading other books that quoted and referenced him, a process which I’ve come to love. This was how I read Joseph Campbell too as I’ve written in a post earlier. My fascination began with Steve Jobs, the late visionary leader of Apple; I read his biography last year by Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart to a Visionary Leader.

At a pivotal point in Steve’s career after being forced out of the board of Apple, he started working with Pixar Animation and met Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. It was at Pixar where he was first humanized, and it was because of Ed’s style of leadership.

“I liked him from the moment I met him,” Steve told me (Schlender) once about Ed. He found him an intellectual match. “Ed is a quiet guy, and you could mistake that quietness for weakness — but it’s not, it’s strength. Ed’s really thoughtful, and really, really smart. He’s used to hanging around really smart people, and when you’re around really smart people you tend to listen to them.

Steve listened to Catmull. Though he could often come across as a know-it-all, Steve was constantly trying to learn. Trim and professional, Ed was ten years older than Steve, making him as much of a mentor as a colleague.

Theirs was a quiet, sincere friendship, enabled in great part by Catmull’s maturity.

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Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

It was at this point that I wanted to know more about the President of Pixar. At the first turn of the page you can already sense Ed’s humanism: the dedication on the third page simply writes “For Steve.”