Does anyone else remember Brain Pickings?
Brain Pickings was a blog created by writer Maria Popova, which began as a weekly email sent out to close friends. It eventually became a legitimate inventory of knowledge, a little corner of the internet cultivated by Popova where she could reflect on the lessons of great artists and thinkers and make sense of the world. It’s still around, but it was really a thing back then, and I remember the website was super popular among my peers when I was still a student in the earlier 2010s, a tiny era whose Western cultural real estate Popova shared with TED talks, Humans of New York, The Holstee Manifesto, and other meaningful-but-sometimes-corny things.
I hung out with other kids in the humanities (ugh) so reflections on love, existence, and the creative life were routinely shared on my feed. We were trying to equip ourselves not just for modern life in general and all its weird baggage, and to change the world, but for the endeavor of transforming into our idealized artistic selves. Joan Didion said this. Oliver Sacks said that. Picasso steals.
Let’s drop another name. Hanya Yanagihara, the author of 2015 Man Booker finalist A Little Life, described her creative process with the novel as something like “a fever dream,” in which she could barely concentrate on anything else but the book for 18 months. Fever, like an overheating engine. The book revolves around a protagonist whose suffering always escalates and rarely abates, and I think about how back then we were all kind of unconsciously dead set on grabbing greatness as soon as possible, dreams of peaking at our 20s fuelling our mad dash to become incandescent. I need to be something now, or I’m nothing.
This was back in college, an academic environment that rewarded both intellect and juvenile hedonism, and romanticized the idea of genius that came from pumping your body with so much alcohol your blood could sanitize any wound. I imagine it was the same for essayist Leslie Jamison, who in a piece for The New York Times magazine, talks about the relationship between her creativity and her struggle with alcoholism, and her search to find a narrative wherein sobriety wasn’t a dry, flat existence, but “jet fuel.”
And I used to think creativity was a matter of metabolism, the way we process energy. What you take in determines what you put out. Consume good art, make good art. Inhale chaos, exhale genius. Some days I was (and still am) Yanagihara, all cylinders firing, dark circles under red eyes. Other days I was (and still am) kind of like Jamison, misconstruing the heady high of deep focus with the haze of various poisons, assuming they could produce the same luminous things.
Compare and contrast those sprints with the mental marathon that Ezra Pound ran when he wrote “In A Station of the Metro” “I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it […] Six months later I made a poem half that length,” he says, and after a year he would eventually come to those two lines, and would spend even more time agonizing over punctuation. The couplet would eventually finds itself in the syllabi of poetry teachers everywhere. Years spent on just two lines.
But God, I don’t know. I wanted to catch fire then and I still do now. Burning bush holy.
A couple years later, I’m out of college working as a creative professional (UGH) and things are a little different. I know I’m growing older because I don’t really know where my money goes, and sometimes my back hurts, and there’s a little less of me left to burn than there was before. This article — notice the pattern here: I’m hoarding text, obsessively replenishing fuel reserves — talks about the lives of artists with day jobs, and how the stomach-feeding side gig doesn’t kill the soul but can sometimes nourish it.
First of all, Jesus, I didn’t know Philip Glass was a plumber. Secondly, let me tell you a story. A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at a student advertising org’s event, and said that the working world is a kind of machinery, an assemblage of profit-driven mechanisms designed to exploit, not nourish. This was a talk and forum that was packaged with terms like “innovation” and “career-building,” which aren’t bad things, but tend to lure idealistic people into packaging creativity as something unsuspicious of the mechanisms that govern it and us. So I said “Fuck the Holstee Manifesto” and was met with nervous chuckling. And I mean, what the fuck am I trying to be? Dark Popova?
And I know it’s a hella bourgeois problem to have, agonizing over one’s capacity to make sense of and shape the world. But I’m typing this out a day past its given deadline to reach a piece quota, committing the sin of professional confession, feeling like a sputtering engine, wondering if creativity actually can solve the problems that matter more. Creativity is a force, a process, an inherent human power, but it doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s tangled up with a whole bunch of shit — the expectations we put on ourselves, the media we consume, our social and political and material conditions. It’s a Gordian Knot, and for all of Popova’s musings, I have no swords.
The last thing I read on creativity was an essay by poet Patricia Lockwood, in which she attempts to gauge the problem of how to write in this time, in and about this politically chaotic and emotionally draining point in history. One passage goes:
“The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine. If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. If I don’t look out a window right away the day will be windowless […] If I open up Twitter and the first thing I see is the president’s weird bunched ass above a sand dune as he swings a golf club I am doomed.”
What she gets at here, and in scattered ways in the rest of the piece, is protecting one’s headspace, the sacred place where one’s creative powers and actions are properly honored. This isn’t to say that the mind should be completely closed off to anything distressing. But I haven’t heard anybody else say, quite like Lockwood, that creativity can be threatened, can be protected, should be protected. Is that the secret?
I don’t have any reliable strategies, but at least I’ve got a stronger imperative to fall on. Something to keep me from burning out completely. You need that, if you expect to change the world, let alone keep your spirit alive.