In which we discuss the Muppets, Gertrude Stein, and the need for a bathtub with lavender salts in a room of one’s own.
J: So a good topic for such a wintry week is creative motivation. How do we stay inspired when struggling with stressful work schedules, routines and such? How is a lady to type when her fingers are frozen, which is in direct violation of E’s new year’s resolution of never being cold?
E: The resolution is real. I guess a good place to start is to consider what the major barriers are to creative energy. Like what’s the stuff for us that’s most in the way?
J: For me, perhaps the biggest physiological barrier is just not having enough energy at the end of the day. After working all day, dragging yourself to Planet Fitness/outside for a run, and dealing with the myriad of other tasks that one must deal with as a condition of modernity, it is often very difficult to just get the energy to write. Let alone the focus you need.
E: I think particularly now the weather also affects energy levels. There isn’t much light and the light that’s there is artificial light from a lamp. I know they make these lamps that stimulate natural light but still. And yes, totally agree about having mental energy after work/gym/random whatever that comes up.
Particularly with work also, there’s a catch 22 a lot of the time, because if you have a job that’s pretty mentally taxing, it can be hard to bring the energy mentally to your work. But if it’s a job where you think too little, you can get into this numb dead zone where it’s hard to conjure anything.
J: That is very very true. And it fluctuates every day so it is hard to find a rhythm and a routine that works for your creative process. Creativity is tied so intrinsically to our mental and emotional states. And both can either help or hinder us.
E: An interesting point that relates to that is the concept of having to conjure one’s muse, and to what degree one takes ownership of one’s work as an artist (ie does it come from you or an outside source). There is an excellent TED talk by Elizabeth GIlbert that goes deep into this issue, and her essential point is that back in Greek/Roman situations, artists and writers ascribed their creativity to muses. Which was great when they did well, because they didn’t get cocky, and also great when they did poorly, because they didn’t get depressed. But then humanism happened and it was all about taking ownership and having agency and now we’re in this place where it’s all on you. So there’s a huge pressure on artists and it’s all taken very personally.
J: That is fascinating. I had always just dismissed muses as this silly idea that old men came up with to remove any culpability when they were struggling creatively, but I had never considered how the idea might also benefit them when they are doing well i.e. make sure that they didn’t get too arrogant. I think that’s another barrier to creativity. And of course, to place the authority in the hands of an unknowable other removes a lot of the pressure you feel as an artist.
E: EXACTLY. And actually her impetus for the talk was the fact that so many modern writers end up committing suicide, due in part to insane pressure on them to continue to outperform their last work.
J: We still use some language that appears to be rooted in that idea. That we use the word “inspired” so frequently in discussions of the creative process has got to serve a similar purpose? I am not sure of the etymological roots of that word or if it has any connection to the concept of muses, but it does seem to conform to this idea of placing the agency of the creative process into some other realm that is out of your control.
E: Hold on, trying to look up. Okay, here’s something helpful: “The words respiration and inspiration have the same Latin root, spirare, which means “to breathe.” So like all about air and the things floating around in it and taking them in.
J: I envision these disembodied voices speaking to me.
E: Also, when you say disembodied voices speaking, it just make me think of the old guys in the Muppets watching everything from the balcony. Aka how we are going to end up.
J: They are basically us and everything I would like our old age to be, which is just hanging out at theatres and in other cultural spaces, being well-dressed, having witty conversations and laughing all the time. They clearly experience the best quality of life in the Muppet world.
J: Do you ever have creative experiences that you would describe as being inspired? And under what circumstances did they take place or could you imagine them taking place?
E: Good question. I’ve definitely had a few experiences that I’d describe as being really inspired, and they’ve all been when working on screenplay stuff. I remember being so into what I was doing that I didn’t really eat/sleep/shower/speak to anyone for like several days. Like, legit benders but with no substances other than coffee. I think I lost 5 lbs in the space of 2-3 days. And normally, you’d feel shitty after that type of thing, but I felt so elated and incredible. Just so in tune with myself and what I was producing. Honestly the closest other thing to that feeling is sex I think. Like you’re so in your body but so outside of it? It’s the best thing for me in the world.
Also, DO NOT fuck with me during that time. I was REAL upset with anyone who tried to make demands on my time. THANK GOD I happened to have periods of several days when I could check out.
What about you?
J: I was also going to say, thank god you had a room of your own. Honestly, Virginia Woolf was so right. We need independence, including financial, to be able to create.
E: Being an artist is a luxury. Okay, sorry please continue.
J: OH IT ABSOLUTELY IS. But yes, inspirational moments. I agree with you completely on that feeling of being within and without of your own body. It is very similar to sex. I would also compare it to a really amazing run (I’m sure this is also true of swimming and other activities like that) where you just feel your body being propelled forward without your mind having to work at it. When I have a truly inspirational moment, it feels like that. And it sounds very cliche, but time really does disappear in those moments. In working, in running, in sex, in activities where you can truly lose your mind and regain it at the same time. It’s cathartic as well.
E: Absolutely. And I think that once you’ve truly hit that feeling once with your own work, just knowing that that’s out there/possible is hugely motivating to keep working to try and get it again.
Also, something that usually features prevalently for me during these times is music. You did a great job alluding to that with the writing playlist you made. I was so on your level. For me, the nature of the music totally changes depending on the project and the vibe etc. but it’s usually a huge component of what’s happening.
J: Music can be an incredibly useful tool for pushing past barriers as well. If you’re struggling to change speeds from your work day to your creative process, having those cues and creating that space is often so helpful. I definitely have certain genres of music that I lean on when I am writing and they tend to vary depending on the project, as you said. And sometimes just playing a song or a piece of music that has been a part of a successful period in the past can cue me into it again. (I am fairly certain that many studies have been done on this that we could dig up for a future post.)
E: Oh my god. If I play any Paul Simon I go to the screenplay I was doing in Summer 2013.
J: Another thing. Going. For. Walks.
E: The benefits of perambulation are real and oft-discussed by many great artists. We should do a series on artists praising walking.
J: I’m trying to find that piece I think I sent you on just this topic. I think it was this one.
E: Of course, New Yorker got to it first. Whatever. Glad it’s out there.
J: We could totally do our own piece on it.
E: Agree. Also, Thoreau really got to it first.
E: Completely. I’m trying to find this article that was circulating last week about how it’s also important for your mind to have these periods where it’s free to wander. Put down your phones, look out a window of a train, etc. I had multiple people reference it in conversation and it was great.
J: Oooo I don’t think I read that. That would be great to bring into this discussion. That’s something that is often cited by people as barrier to creativity, and while I mostly agree, I do think that sometimes people over emphasize it as an issue. At least, I am not sure if it is as recent an issue as we make it out to be. It’s a condition of modernity, at the very least, so we can place some of the blame on the Industrial Revolution and such.
E: Agree. Here it is, by the way. The whole bit about creating an expectation that we need to be accomplishing more just because we’re capable of it.
Something I think might help now is to sort of recap all the techniques we’ve been circling around that help us continue to push forward creatively, and see if we’re missing anything?
So far, I think we’ve got sort of putting yourself in a job that gives you the funds and mental energy that work for you, music, walking/physical activity, accepting that you’re not in total control (muse concept). Another big one I’d like to add is being in a community of people doing creative work.
J: This is clearly a big one. It’s no accident that artists are drawn to other artists and that the greatest turning points in art have occurred because of artistic movements fueled by particular communities that work together and compete with each other. Obviously the English Romantic period (the poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.) and Impressionism are big ones that we are familiar with. But, really it’s there everywhere you look.
E: Competition is a huge point and a fascinating one to me. Like to what degree do I want to be challenged and pushed by those around me and to what degree do I just want empathy and support?
J: Do you think that that is a uniquely female desire or do you think that we are just more likely to express that desire and to give that to each other? Or maybe, it is a cultural invention that we are more likely to want/do those things than men are or something that we just believe to be true? Sidebar: it’s also interesting that female figures like Gertrude Stein are better known for being artistic leaders that have drawn people together rather than as just pure artists.
E: OH my god. DO I have a segway. In their recent Vogue interview, Karlie Kloss said the following of Taylor Swift: “Kloss says that bringing together disparate women from different industries may be Swift’s most unsung talent. ‘I’ve met a lot of really great girls through Taylor. She’s incredible at connecting people who might not normally meet. We’re all in different jobs, but we’ve become strong friends who are there for each other—a sisterhood of girls, a support team. But we’re also just normal 20-something girls, and I think you have to have people that you can be that with.’”
Before the interview was conducted, Karlie had NEVER SEEN TAYLOR PLAY THE GUITAR.
J: I don’t even know if there is anything I can say after that. That is just so perfect. Also, seriously? How had she never seen Taylor play the guitar??
E: The phrasing is: “The first time Kloss ever saw Swift pick up a guitar and noodle around on it was during the photo shoot for this story.” So perhaps she’s seen it in concert, but she’s never seen her casually play around in her apartment or whatever, which is almost MORE tragic.
J: I hope their relationship dynamic fundamentally changed after that. Like, I like Karlie, but Taylor is clearly the alpha friend in that relationship.
E: In this weird video they made them film, which is a whole separate issue, Karlie won the arm wrestling contest. but Taylor won the staring contest. And Karlie’s job is her stare.
J: That just makes sense. I mean, Taylor is just so powerful. I feel that looking into her eyes in person would be too much for most mortals.
E: I think of her as I think of Dumbledore. Building an army.
J: Is Taylor busy forming the next great artistic salon? Can we merge our salon with her salon? Can the whole world just be one big salon with Taylor Swift as Gertrude Stein and we could be her assistants?
E: Elle Woods is all about the salon #literal.
But really, yes, that is a smashing idea. Actually, I prefer to conceptualize of heaven as such. I think that’s why Gertrude in her last known form left us when she did. She’s preparing. Drawing curtains and baths and such. Lavender salts are being scattered.
J: Which is also my idea of heaven in winter. Baths with great ladies, tapestries, and lavender salts. Could that be the ultimate tool for fighting creative blocks? Taking a bath with a creative mentor (whether it be in body or in written form)? Have we just discovered the secret to creative motivation???
E: Oh my god. QED. I think we’re done.
J: Once again, I believe we have come full circle. It’s really all about being warm with your muse.
E: Gertrude, we’re coming for you.
What motivates you creatively? Which artistic icon/muse would you like to take a bath with? What are your thoughts re: Taylor Swift as our generation’s Gertrude Stein?
xox J and E
ps: To get your creative juices flowing, here are some more useful pieces on creativity:
- check out this book on Jim Henson’s creative process
- or this book on the daily rituals of artists
- any interview from the Paris Review
pps: The tasteful image above is adapted from a photo taken by J at The Cloisters. Yet another fountain of creative energy.