Cutting to the core of creativity

I’m reading two books right now: “Kudos,” the mesmerizing new novel by Rachel Cusk, and the non-fiction treatise “The Creative Habit” by celebrated dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp.

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The former is a whole-cloth original, narrative-defying, discursive and brainy, like the two previous books in Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, “Outline” and “Transit,” of which “Kudos” is the ravishing finale. Challenging and unorthodox, the seemingly autobiographical novels crack open your mind in a furiously fresh manner. They evoke Karl Ove Knausgaard’s rambling “My Struggle” series but are more rigorous, compressed, and chewier.

Catching my breath, I’m really here to dwell on Tharp’s self-described “practical guide,” whose full title is “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” I’m a sucker for eloquent lessons on creativity and the artist’s way, including, yes, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. These books possess transformative powers, tweaking your creative habits just so, massaging your brain to look at the blank page or canvas with a kind of nervous optimism instead of paralyzing dread or clogging trepidation. They are weighted with wisdom.

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Tharp, a paragon of her art form, knows of what she speaks, and she speaks it plainly and persuasively, with little decorative dressing but plenty of panache. She’s a beneficent, caring lecturer, and the book, breezy and empathetic, bulges with sticky, pragmatic advice. Quick: “In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Or: “There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.” That’s in the first nine pages, and somehow I find these statements awfully encouraging. 

She digs much deeper, with infectious enthusiasm. Using hard-earned lessons from her own work methods and creative processes in ballet and presenting instructive anecdotes about artistic challenge and triumph among such underachievers as Mozart, Beethoven Richard Avedon, Balanchine and Maurice Sendak, Tharp casts a wide net showing how happy accidents, preparation and luck (those are Siamese twins), ritual, archiving and mineable memory are critical components of productive creativity. (She also includes some loopy exercises that I didn’t have much use for. One required a bunch of eggs.)

Flipping through this clean, handsome, none-too-big book I plucked a few quotables:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty, I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.'”

“Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you can take the next step. You won’t move on to that second chapter until the first is written, rewritten, honed, tweaked, examined under a microscope, and buffed to a bright mahogany sheen. You won’t dip a brush in the paint until you’ve assembled all the colors you can possibly imagine using in the course of the project. I know it’s important to be prepared, but at the start of the process this type of perfectionism is more like procrastination. You’ve got to get in there and do.”

“The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them.”

“There is no one ideal condition for creativity. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming.”

“Jerome Robbins liked to say that you do your best work after your biggest disasters. For one thing, it’s so painful it almost guarantees that you won’t make those mistakes again. A fiasco compels you to change dramatically. The golfer Buddy Jones said, ‘I never learned anything from a match I won.’ He respected defeat and he profited from it.”

“These mistakes — relying too much on others, waiting for the perfect setup, overthinking structure, feeling obligated to finish what you’ve started, and working with the wrong materials — are deadly. Any one of them will undermine your best efforts.”

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources … Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.”

“You might not struggle for spine. You might be content to receive any random thought floating through the ether that happens to settle on you that day. You might think you don’t need a supporting mechanism for the art you’re constructing, a controlling image, a collateral idea to guide you. You might think getting lost is a big part of the adventure. You may think that, but you’d be wrong.”

More highly finicky reading

I’m the worst. I’m impatient. I’m mean. I’m discerning. I have taste. When it comes to books, I am ruthless. I’m even worse with movies. Most don’t stand a chance.

I have put down four books, closed them for good well before the 100-page mark, in the past two and a half weeks. Suffused with sorta-guilt — ah, not really — I swan to the next book, hoping for gems and genius. I am an optimist garbed as a very dark pessimist.

Mining this small stack I located gold — the books are by literary heavyweights, after all, and they do often gleam — but I also found fool’s gold, which I will not abide.

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The yeasty comic novel “Less” was the chintziest of the four. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year for fiction. What are you gonna do? I read, I shrugged, I shut. 

With wan humor tangled in wry, hackneyed observations about gays and straights and executed in lite-beer fizzy prose — “a quick, easy summer read,” said one critic, as if that’s a compliment — “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, reminded me of a gay-themed comedy series on HBO, one of those middling shows no one watches. The novel, says Greer, is “a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart.” Thanks, Mr. Greer, for defining “generic.”

I read some 75 pages of “Less” and I must agree with this writer who actually finished the book: It’s “chock-full of gay clichés that feel outdated, and the tone is generally one of superficial, unearned cynicism that sometimes drifts into cattiness.”

Yup. Even The New York Times, in an upbeat review, called it “too sappy by half.”

Zadie Smith writes with a magic wand; her language and storytelling gifts are things celestial (and she makes me gush floridly). I’m an ardent fan of her fiction — “White Teeth” glitters — but her 2012 novel “NW,” a typically vibrant latticework of people and place, didn’t grab me by the lapels, no matter that I don’t have lapels. As exceptional as the writing is, the story has a matte finish when I yearned for glossy. 

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Wade into Rivka Galchen’s hailed stories “American Innovations” and it’s clear why she is one of America’s hottest young fiction writers. She’s crisp, funny and fanciful, with a biting originality and a smidge of the surreal. But as much as I appreciated the collection, I put it down. I almost fell for it, then fashioned a one-word review: meh.

While there’s no shame in not finishing a book — I can’t believe people who feel they have to get to the last page even if it’s a slog — I can’t help but gulp and blush at this failure: Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic “The Age of Innocence.”

I did not get far in the rather slim novel. I found the prose cluttered and perfumey, chokingly Austenian (though without all the giggling), and fustily 19th-century for my contemporary palate. (Oddly, I loved Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome.”) Wharton weaves long, highly populated sentences of lace and crushed velvet, many of them woozy and lovely.

Problem: I kept picturing doilies. 

Antidotes to these literary losers are a trio of new fiction by some of the most acclaimed women authors around: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk, “How Should a Person Be” by Sheila Heti and “Homesick for Another World” by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

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I’m knee-deep in that last title, a 2017 collection of stories by the precocious Moshfegh, whose novel “Eileen,” a darkly off-kilter character study, impressed and troubled me — just how I like it.    

Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them. 

Some excerpts:

“He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius — some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.” 

“Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” 

“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.”

To me, that is dreamy writing, all at once blithely sardonic, intelligently aloof and drolly perceptive, attached to the stinger of a scorpion.

Death becomes us

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”

For some of us, the above “rumble of terror” is a buckling, earth-cracking tremor felt many times each day, a sort of clockwork bell that tolls every hour, on the hour. It is, of course, death, our unavoidable mortality, crooking a finger, baring its teeth and uttering a horror-movie cackle.

Drama aside, what Becker says is that without a sharp recognition of the reality of your own death you paper over a critical dimension of existence. Without death, paradoxically, a major chunk of life is muted. You reside in the dark.

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The existential denial Becker speaks of amounts to an ignorance as willful as it is mystifying. To mention dying has become taboo. How can the most important stage in life, the great closure, the monumental punctuation mark, be off limits? I don’t want to think about it,” goes a common refrain. “It’s just too horrible.” 

But is it? By being aware of your mortality, knowing you will die, that it is an unstoppable event, you can cultivate a richer, more philosophical, existentially awakened life. The aim of this consciousness, as I’ve written before, is to “put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness.”

Instead, people distract themselves from the big questions and tough realities. Texting, Facebook and binge TV shows are potent diversions. We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

Rubbish.

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker says.

Death isn’t on my lips — I rarely broach the subject — but it weighs on my mind like an anvil. I’m not talking about the gruesome, corporeal details of death — the corpse, the medical examiner, the venal funeral industry, the land waste of burial — but the chilly philosophical fact of mortality, of dying. Not how we die, but that we die.

Hans Larwin's amazingly evocative 'Soldat und Tod' ('Soldier and Death') from 1917

It’s confounding that people dodder through life without considering death, as though it’s some vague, distant inconvenience that won’t afflict them — not even when they’re crossing a busy street or speeding down the highway or eating a marbled slab of steak or hauling around 100 pounds of extra body weight. The musty cliché “ignorance is bliss” could not be more fitting.

Accepting our fate now, in the present, dulls the fear factor. The idea of dying — Becker’s “rumble of terror” — is inarguably frightening, and that’s certainly why so many of us keep it at bay. But awareness makes you smarter, more prepared. It eases the angst. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

To live fully, says Becker, means to live mindfully, to be cognizant of that lyrical rumble of terror, to embrace one’s fate, or to at least be on cordial terms with it. It is, in fact, consciousness in full bloom.

Spring’s atonal symphony

To sit outside on a warm spring day, breeze swirling, sun sparkling, is a thing of momentous good fortune to be savored and cherished. Ah, springtime. It is beautiful, what with nature’s flowery plentitude, cloudless azure heavens and a frenzy of insects. (Ah, bugs.)

A medium-size translucent spider — a nasty arachnid, not an insect, let’s be clear — descended on me from the heights of the patio umbrella. I broke its silk safety line and, holding it by the shiny thread, released it on the deck to do its venomous butchery. 

Next, a frisky mosquito could not be shaken from my index finger, its blood-sucking proboscis neatly jabbed into my flesh. I removed it with a violent flick. It tumbled through the air, probably trailing my bodily fluids.

Then, despite the umbrella’s yawning roof, pollen-like detritus from a tree landed on my lap and in my hair. Not enough specialness? I soon started breaking a minor sweat and I felt kind of itchy.

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That is the ballad of spring for me, a symphony of notes glorious and galling, a sun-soaked wonderworld of short sleeves and short pants, tiny athletic socks and expensive sunglasses to avert instant blindness. Sunscreen is for chumps, but the coconutty perfume forever wafts in the light, distinctly welcome breeze. 

Ah, springtime. If you can’t tell yet I am one of three souls in the universe who is totally divorced from the purported pleasures of the season. (I have tallied my woes here previously. Patience, reader.) 

I’m like an albino who can’t be out in the naked sun, with pink eyes that scorch in the light. I’m like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I’m like Nosferatu: a sliver of sunlight will reduce me to a writhing pile of ash. 

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The sun kisses Nosferatu. He is not pleased.

I don’t do heat. Sweating is an international incident. Shorts render me a fashion calamity not even the “Queer Eye” guys can fix. (I used to be a strict “Never Shorts” guy. Read about us here.) Bugs are a basic annoyance, but pollen triggers sneezes 8.0 on the Richter scale. 

I appreciate the silken loveliness of verdant trees, crazy-quilt flowers, blue skies and those velvet breezes. But then one must contend with lawnmowers, street fairs, movies in the park, barbecues, pedal boats, lakes, life jackets. Enough.

And that’s just spring. Summer multiplies it ten-fold. It’s no longer a respectable symphony, it’s a full-bore, drug-fueled rave, with shirtless throngs tossing hair and sweat across a mass of herky-jerky bodies, electronic dance music throbbing, the western world teetering on collapse.

Not a thing to be done about it. I will, as usual, suck it up and scrape by. I’m a trooper like that — whiny, but a trooper. Twice already I’ve worn shorts with little tiny socks and I pulled through. The mythic ice cream-truck tools and tootles through the streets, children titter and play outside till 8 p.m., the public pool just opened its gates and I smell the carcinogenic bouquet of burning charcoal in the air.

It’s happening. Now. If you can prod me outdoors, I’m the guy huddled in the shade, shielded from the sun, far from the water, book in one hand, beer in the other, grinning and bearing it, with only the vaguest curl of a scowl on my lips. The symphony roars on.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising: Self-realization — it’s a bitch.

The cafe’s human carnival

It is on Saturdays in the teeming cafe that the grasping hodgepodge of humanity is on circusy show, performing a bustling if familiar boogie starring tip-tapping lap-toppers, laughing friends, wailing toddlers, softly groping couples and expert baristas, frenzied, always frenzied, deploying tentacles behind the long curving counter, confecting elaborate beverages for the restive masses. 

It’s not quite as crazed as it sounds — well, it kind of is — yet characters abound, vivid regulars I see several times a week. Like:

The frowzy old codger, pants up to here, who shuffles through the cafe, pacing to and fro, issuing random quack-quacks like a grizzled duck. Or The Wayward Whistler, who sort of bops in, sunglasses on, whistling blithely, lost in his own groovy cosmos, loud and vexing. He’s like the guy strutting with a boom-box on his shoulder, self-awareness at zero, tweetling away through lips like a Cherrio.

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And let’s get her out of the way: one of the most unfortunate stars of the show, a barista I’ll call C. (as in Crazy). She is the worst kind of “funny,” the aggressive kind. She inflicts her humor on you, weaponizes it. She uses her post behind the counter as both launchpad and stage.

C. is loud — screeching jetliner loud. And she weirdly believes that feistily abusing customers and colleagues is a hoot. “Every single last one of you, even my coworkers, gets on my nerves!” she booms in a strangled bray directly at a customer whose icy, confused half-smile makes you want to shrivel up and die. Hilarious!

Another time, C., a squat, stout woman, waddles up to the register and thunders: “DO I HAVE TO RING THEM UP? THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY!” She is pointing at two customers. She is smirking, this distaff Don Rickles. They don’t know what to do. Hysterics!

One day C., a dumpling of ear-shattering zingers, actually starts barking like a dog. “You all right?” a coworker quietly asks, eyebrow cocked, embarrassment flooding the room.

The cafe, much like C., is a frequent shambles, with boxes scattered across the floor, unkempt bathrooms, backed-up orders. That said, many of the baristas are pros: efficient, conscientious, polite and often doting.

Yet it’s the people-ly parade that’s most engaging, the variety of voices, the panoply of personalities that eddy through what is, at its best, an aromatic oasis from the familiarities of home.

It’s the nebbishy white guy with the foot-tall afro of such fluffy resplendence it could be a follicular monument. It’s the pretty, modish woman with the irresistible bangs and regrettable tattoos who consorts with a dubious bearded fellow in too-short skinny jeans.

It’s the gabby, globular ex-cop who wears black and yellow Steelers regalia — cap, jacket, shirt — everyday and clearly doesn’t know what an “inside voice” is. His guffaws are small earthquakes registered as far away as Idaho.

It’s the just-retired mailman who looks roughly 90 and has the ashen, cadaverous facade of a slain vampire, yet is endlessly friendly, despite the fangs. It’s the knots of teenage girls who come in giggling and gabbing, texting the entire time, mad multitaskers who have this smartphone shit down.

Amid all this, the chatty din, the roiling throngs, I read and write. Inconspicuous as I am, head buried in the computer, I’m not quite invisible. A few baristas know my name, including cackling C., who has unleashed her corrosive humor on me to no effect, except my urge to barf.

Yet I lay low, tucked in, watching the human carousel, that merry microcosm, by turns fascinating, alarming and heartening, spin on.