c/o Rick Rubin
Dear The Creative Act,
The time we spent together has been transformative. What’s it like being an instruction manual for the creative life? I bet every artist you meet never wants you to leave. (When are you coming back to visit, again?)
This letter is probably going to be too much about me, but I will risk it because I want you to know the effect you’ve had.
I’ve read many, many books on creativity in the past twenty years. A hundred? Two hundred? I haven’t counted. So I hope you’ll really hear me when I say that you are singular. I would go as far to say that if I had to keep only one creativity book by my side for the rest of my life, you would be my choice.
This is not because the concepts are completely new. No. Novelty doesn’t seem to be what you were going for. In fact, when I first met you I found myself skeptical—I almost fooled myself into thinking you were simple, with your straightforward language, short chapters, quick pace. Instead, I was surprised as the relationships between concepts I have understood and practiced separately for years gradually and then suddenly came together. “Oh!” “There it is!” “That’s what that’s about!” There were so many, many moments like that.
What you gave to me is truth. That sounds grandiose—I’m blushing—but yes. What you achieved inside my brain doesn’t have anything to do with individual insights, but about the whole: a clearer, more holistic understanding of the nature of art and artists.
Can I share a few memories that shifted things for me?
“Though we can’t change what it is that we are noticing, we can change our ability to notice. We can expand our awareness and narrow it, experience it with our eyes open or closed. We can quiet our inside so we can perceive more on the outside, or quiet the outside so we can notice more of what’s happening inside.
We can zoom in on something so closely it loses the features that make it what it appears to be, or zoom so far out it seems like something entirely new.
The universe is only as large as our perception of it.
When we cultivate our awareness, we are expanding the universe.
This expands the scope, not just of the material at our disposal to create from, but of the life we get to live.”
Before our time together, the relationship between mindfulness and creativity wasn’t clear to me. By mindfulness, I mean the ongoing practice of observing whatever is happening in the present moment, whether it be in your body, your thoughts, your emotions, your surroundings, what you’re doing, or what someone is saying to you. By creativity, I mean the bursts of insight that make a person want to make something, and the action that follows.
Rick Rubin has a reputation as a sort of zen master of the music industry. He is one of the greatest producers of all time, if not the greatest. He believes his success doesn’t have to do with any particular musical ability, but because he pays close attention. When he listens to a piece of music, he doesn’t hear individual notes or an instrument or a particular riff; he hears his feelings. He is a master of presence.
“Art is personal
No matter what tools you use to create,
the true instrument is you.
And through you,
the universe that surrounds us
all comes into focus.”
Before I met you, I used to think mindfulness and creativity were opposites. Mindfulness, after all, involves noticing what’s happening right now rather than being lost in thought. Thoughts and emotion are often a part of “what’s happening,” but when you start to notice what you’re thinking and feeling, those things tend to fall away. That’s part of the point of mindfulness practice.
Creativity, on the other hand, involves a spark of insight (seemingly random; sometimes frustratingly seldom), and then developing that spark to its absolute fullness. Depending on what you’re making, it involves quite a bit of thinking. For a writer, it’s mostly about thinking.
Because of you, I now see mindfulness as creative conditioning. The more present and observant I am able to be, the more likely I am to notice when a thought or an idea turns something on inside of me—that faint glimmer of aliveness that is the seed of every beautiful thing. Then, instead of letting that idea fall away, I can direct my thoughts toward following it as far as it will take me. Since I’ve started approaching it this way, I’ve noticed that creative insight comes more frequently (though not usually during the time I’ve scheduled to work on my projects, but c’est la vie).
Of course, being in tune with your own creative instrument is only one part of the creative process. At some point, you have to choose an idea to bring to completion.
“It’s generally preferable to accumulate several weeks’ or months’ worth of ideas and then choose which of them to focus on, instead of following an urge or obligation to rush to the finish line with what is in front of us today.
The more seeds you’ve accumulated, the easier this is to judge. If you’ve collected a hundred seeds, you might find that seed number fifty-four speaks to you in a way that none of the others do. If number fifty-four is your only choice, without other seeds for context, it’s more difficult to tell.”
At the moment, I’m not actually focused on gathering new ideas, though. Actually finishing something is very much on my mind right now, as I’ve been working on the same short story for nearly a year. It’s not my first story, but it’s the first one I’ve taken “seriously” (which I’m realizing is maybe the whole problem now that I say it out loud).
“There is a timeliness to the work. The passing of seasons could dissipate the value the work holds for us.
Hanging on to your work is like spending years writing the same entry in a diary. Moments and opportunities lost. The next works are robbed of being brought to life.
How many pages will be left empty because your process was dampened by doubt and deliberation? Keep this question in the front of your mind. It might allow you to move forward more freely.”
“While the artist’s goal is greatness, it’s also to move forward. In service to the next project, we finish the current one. In service to the current project, we finish it so it can be set free into the world.
Sharing art is the price of making it. Exposing your vulnerability is the fee.
Out of this experience comes regeneration, finding freshness within yourself for the next project. And all the ones to follow.”
When you said these things, my reaction was less “Oh! How true!” and more “Gah. Ugh. Yep.” I’ve thought a bit about my experience writing fiction vs. non-fiction and wondered why the latter is so hard and taking so long to finish. Despite how much I want to be done, I can’t seem to force it. Every time I play the movie version of the story in my head, only the next half-second becomes clear. As I near the end, it’s gotten even slower, and I wonder if the end is actually near, or if this short story is actually a novel in disguise. In which case, I could be working on this for years.
Of course, you took seven years for Rubin to write. Maybe my problem isn’t the length of time this story is taking me, but that I’ve had the wrong expectation all along. Maybe a short story isn’t always faster or easier to write simply because it has the word “short” in it.
Anyway, I digress. I told you I was going to end up talking way too much about myself! Reading you (and now writing to you) feels like the best kind of creative therapy session. I noticed you had no blurbs, no “about the author,” no intro, no backstory; you don’t even talk about all the famous artists you’ve worked with (and if anyone has the right to name drop, it’s you). Instead, it feels like I am the artist you are working with. You are completely focused on solving the problem at hand, which is always “how do we make the most beautiful thing we can make?” It’s never about any other outcome.
“Part of the process of letting go is releasing any thoughts of how you or your piece will be received. When making art, the audience comes last. Let’s not consider how a piece will be received or our release strategy until the work is finished and we love it.”
Now of course, ignoring the audience doesn’t apply to everything anyone ever makes. In this really long and totally worth it interview, Rubin talks about how his goal was to write an instruction manual that compels the reader want to make something. In that case, the audience probably didn’t come first, but somewhere near the top of the priority list.
But if the goal is art, the art has to come before every other thing. It’s incredibly difficult to be true to the art and true to “what people want” or what we think people want.
The word you often use for things that get in the way of making the best thing we can make is “distraction.” Which has me thinking—what are my distractions? What is keeping me from making the most beautiful thing I can make? In the interview I talked about above, Rubin said his grammys are distractions. He doesn’t even know where his are; he sent some to his parents, and the rest? Who knows.
This is just one reason why, even though my intent was to write my letters primarily to fiction and any book that I consider a work of art, I had to write to you. Your intention is as pure as literature. You are welcome back any time, and I look forward to your visit with gladness.
— Sarah Avenir
Note to the reader: If you have yet to meet The Creative Act by Rick Rubin, let this be your opportunity. Purchase it for your own shelves if you can afford it; it’s a beautiful book, and I have a feeling you’re going to want to refer back to it often.
In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: