What Tom Waits, Liz Gilbert, Steven Pressfield and Oliver Sacks have in common

Go and bother Leonard Cohen

I was going to write a nice long blog post about buying and reading poetry on the Kindle, but I’ve run out of road (head down in some more editor’s notes on The English Monster), so here’s just a quickie.

I’m a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a mighty little tome which introduces us to a fearsome beast which Pressfield calls Resistance. That’s Pressfield’s name for the crappy little whiny voice which stops each and everyone of us from creating things, each and every day.

Reason for raising it here is that the sublime Radio Lab addressed a similar subject in its show from March 9 this year, aptly titled Help! A whole section of the show was dedicated to the creative process (which Pressfield’s book is all about), and they called it Me, Myself and Muse.

Two stories I wanted to pull out from the show:

Oliver Sacks spent weeks and weeks struggling with his first book Migraine before telling himself that he would finish it in 10 days or he would kill himself. The trick worked, but it’s not the trick which interested me (I mean, pretty unbelievable, no?). What interested me is what happened when his apparent writer’s block broke after another day or two at his desk under the threat of imminent self-immolation. He said he could feel something start up within him, a “wonderful associative engine which weaves thoughts together” which started to churn out the words which would make up the book. “I felt the book was being dictated to me.”

Any idea where I can get one of those associative engines?

Liz Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love – of course) who is “trying to find a way to live a life of creativity without cutting my ear off” told an anecdote about Tom Waits and how he speaks to his own creativity as if it is a thing outside him – how he speaks to individual songs like they’re outside him. Waits says (according to Gilbert) his “artistic anxiety ended and his freedom began when he was driving down the freeway and a little fragment of a little song came into his head, and he’s got no way to record it, and he starts to feel all the old pressure, and then he just backed off, looked up at the sky and said: “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? Leave me alone, and go bother Leonard Cohen.””

Gilbert says she’s taken to talking to her own creative self in a similarly third-person way: “The title of Eat, Pray, Love was the last thing that came, and it was about to be published, so I wrote an email to my friends called Title Search, and in it I said “my fucking book won’t tell me its name.” And a friend wrote back and said “well, if you’re going to talk to it like that, it won’t tell you anything.””

I love that. I rather suspect I wouldn’t love Eat, Pray, Love (my inner curmudgeon is waaaay too well established), but I love that.

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