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A Most Delightful Response to Life’s Nagging Questions: “Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility”

A Most Delightful Response to Life's Nagging Questions: "Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility" | rethinked.org

Artist Unknown

This week, I found myself puzzling about life–puzzling more than usual that is. I lost myself in questions about passion, purpose, action, fear, choices, growing up, courage, art and pain. No need for alarm, this happens every year about a month before my birthday comes around. I find myself undergoing a tiny annual existential crisis, where I question everything, worry that the gap between my actual self (my behaviors, patterns and habits?) and my “ideal” self is widening rather than shrinking and neurotically overthink the connections between thinking, doing and becoming.

The good news about all this mental time travel I undergo each year is that recent studies have found self-projection to be correlated with a greater sense of meaning. What’s a little annual mental anguish over all of one’s life choices in exchange for a meaningful life?

Several lines of work seem to converge on the idea that self-projection is a valuable exercise. Mentally traveling in time, imagining other places, and stepping into other people’s minds can give people a sense of meaning in life. Researchers have found that engaging in nostalgia, the process of sentimentally reflecting on past events, produces reports of greater meaning in life. Projecting oneself forward into the future—whether through hopeful thinking or considering one’s legacy after death—has also been associated with elevated reports of meaning in life.

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In five additional studies, we found that having people project themselves forward or backward in time or into other geographic locations—compared with having people think about the present—boosted their subsequent reports of meaning in life. The reason for this link turned out to be deceptively simple. When our research participants considered life beyond the present moment, they often conjured up events and places that were more profound, meaningful, and awe-inspiring than the current moment. – Step Outside Yourself: Meditation says to focus on the present. But life may be more meaningful if you don’t.

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When I start to become overwhelmed by questions, I generally turn to the artists for insight and guidance. I’ve written a lot about the creative process on rethinked …* and shared countless insights from various artists. That’s because an artist, by definition–at least by my definition–is someone who owns, cultivates and deploys his or her own distinctive voice. At the end of the day, I don’t believe someone without a particular point of view and the ability and desire to express said point of view can be considered an artist. So I was excited to see this short video featuring French high-wire artist and general creative “outlaw,” Philippe Petit on what it means to live as an artist:

“Anyone that embarks into the arts, and even if you’re not an artist or a performer, in the art of living as an extension, will have the most difficult life because it’s the opposite of lethargy and laziness and dragging your feet and dying as you live. So if you want your life to be exciting, if you find the motor necessary for a great life, which is passion, you will have a difficult life and at the same time your life will be very easy in a sense that you will not have to struggle to find ways, it is in you, it devours you, you have to do it–using your intuition and your passion. So, for example, well people sometimes ask me, “how can I be creative?” Or. “I am a young artist and I want to develop my art.” And right there, I build a big wall between two concepts that to me are very opposite: the concept of a career and the concept of life. So, if somebody says, “You know, I am starting a career as an actor, do you have any advice?” I say, “Yes, drop the word career from your vocabulary—LIVE as an actor, you know? Don’t try to do things in a strategic way, do things as your heart tells you. If you feel you are a comic character, do not accept any drama, go into the comic and start developing it. The work of art is a perpetual trampoline; it is ephemeral; it is fragile; it is mysterious. There is no rule to describe what an artistic way of life is. So if you want to go in an artistic way of life and you carry the luggage of money and time and strategy and politics, well you will never be an artist. You know? But it’s fine, many false artists are doing that. But the true artist, in my opinion, should not think of a career, you should think of your life.

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When the questions become overwhelming, or when one cannot find an entry way into living one’s life as one wants, Van Gogh has the perfect remedy:

Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares—and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’—they say.

Let them talk, those cold theologians.

Advice from Van Gogh: Just Slap Something on It

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Finally, I think I’ve shared this before, but when I am anxious or puzzled or just generally blue I go straight to the bookstore. Earlier this week, while browsing the children’s books–which I love as I truly believe most children understand very deeply and intuitively a lot of things we forget and unlearn and complicate terribly as we grow older–I discovered Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (who also coauthored the sublime Duck Rabbit book). It’s the charming story of an exclamation mark who feels out of place amongst the other punctuation marks until he meets a question mark who, through her endless questions, helps him discover his voice!! Enjoy …* 

Carol Dweck on Helping Kids Move From the Tyranny of Now Into the Power of Yet …*

In this short TEDx talk, psychologist Carol Dweck gives an overview of her research on the power of mindset to facilitate or hinder children’s capacity to connect with and activate their potential. The ways in which children frame and cope with challenges and difficulties have enormous implications on their ability to thrive. Students with a fixed mindset are prisoners to the tyranny of the now, believing that each challenge is a reflection of a fixed level of a given capacity–be it intelligence, creativity or athleticism. Meanwhile, students with a growth mindset luxuriate in the power of yet, understanding that each new challenge is an opportunity to learn something new and to practice and refine skills. Dweck shares some tips and strategies for helping students move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset–praising process rather than intelligence to help students redefine things like effort and difficulty, for example.

watch & rethink …* 

Ernest Hemingway: “As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.”

Ernest Hemingway: "As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come." | rethinked.org

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?” -Ernest Hemingway

Today we are celebrating Ernest Hemingway’s birthday here at rethinked* Other than being a great and completely superfluous excuse for gorging ourselves on cupcakes, it is a splendid time to reflect on some of his insights on the creative process. Here are some of my favorite quotes from his 1958 interview with the Paris Review.

eat [cup]cakes, reflect, create & rethink …* 

– On the Feeling Tones of the Creative Process – 

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

 

– On Knowing When to Stop – 

But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.

 

– On Solitude, the Passing of Time & the Creative Act – 

The further you go in writing the more alone you are. Most of your best and oldest friends die. Others move away. You do not see them except rarely, but you write and have much the same contact with them as though you were together at the café in the old days. You exchange comic, sometimes cheerfully obscene and irresponsible letters, and it is almost as good as talking. But you are more alone because that is how you must work and the time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

 

– On Enhancing One’s Craft By Learning From Other Fields – 

I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

 

– On the Artist – Audience Relationship & the Need For a Work of Art to Stand Alone –  

Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.

A sensible question is neither a delight nor an annoyance. I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.

 

– On the Only Constant of the Creative Act Being Change & Movement – 

Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.

 

– On Competition – 

I used to try to write better than certain dead writers of whose value I was certain. For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.

 

– On Reminding Oneself that Creating Something Out of Nothing Is Always Difficult & Often Involves Some Degree of Despair – 

I read them [his own novels] sometimes to cheer me up when it is hard to write and then I remember that it was always difficult and how nearly impossible it was sometimes.

 

– On the Importance of Observing & Soaking Up Experience – 

If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.

 

– On His Principle of the Iceberg – 

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story. 

[…]

First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.

Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.

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Source: Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21. The Paris Review, Spring 1958

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