inspiration

Keats And A Creative Fear Of Death


“When I have fears that I may cease to be

~~Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charact’ey,

~~Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

~~Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

~~Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

~~That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

~~Of unreflecting love!–then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

– John Keats, When I Have Fears
_________

I find this poem so deeply relatable. I have many books and stories I am in process of completing and I always tend to keep more content in my head than on paper. I would assume that most other artists have contemplated the fear of dying without completing the work they can visualize. J.D. Salinger had a 6 chapters draft of The Catcher And The Rye stuffed in his jacket when he landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. I wonder what other manuscripts didn’t survive that day? That’s not to mention the countless authors like Dickens who have died in the midst of some of their most intriguing work.

This poem is not simply about leaving unfinished work. It’s also about the fear of leaving behind the very inspirations of this world. Keats writes like a man nurtured by romanticized nature and the triumphs of artists before him. For him the standing alone, thinking, and sinking into nothingness must have been greater than most. To be inspired is to run great risk.

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Author Quotes: J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity and Death


There are many obvious reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien. As the years go on his son Christopher Tolkien, who is now quite an old man himself, continues to publish the nearly completed works to which his father was devoted. Just when we assume that everything great has been revealed, the author who has been dead for half a century is revealed to have written another riveting tale to add to his impressive cannon.

Aside from his fiction work, however, I am brought back time and again to the philosophical moorings upon which the author founded all of his creative thinking. His essay “On Fairy Stories” is, in my opinion, a breakthrough and little-rivaled treatment of the nature of inspiration and the mystical and supremely natural traits inherent in human creativity.

Apart from this (or perhaps as a part of this), there is one other area of thought that constantly brings me back to considering Tolkien’s creative works, thoughts on creativity, and thoughts on life in general. He was obsessed with everything being layered upon a recognition of death. Death surrounds us. Death defines our lives. Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a 10,000 letter to Milton Waldman of Collins Pub. in hopes of convincing them to include The Silmarillion in their decision to print The Lord Of The Rings. In the midst of explaining the value he sees in what really was his entire life’s work, he makes this clarifying statement

“In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.”

Tolkien always returns to contemplate the extremes of falleness against sheer natural beauty, death against the irripressable joy of living. In Tolkien’s work many find that the escape of the good story actually leaves them ready to enjoy their own life more fully rather than longing for a different world. I think Tolkien’s tragic personal history and the closeness of death throughout his formative years built a resilience and awareness in him that ultimately directed his creations and provided that almost indescibable beauty and familiarity which captures his readers.

Tolkien does himself and his work justice when he summarizes his work with a Simone de Beauvoire quote on the mysteries of dying and living.

 

*Althought I find the writing and editing quite odd, I highly suggest watching the entire Tolkien episode of the BBC’s In Their Own Words, available here in part 1 and part 2.

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem


While I have mentioned him here in passing, I must now go on record stating that Wendell Berry is my favorite living sage thinker. He takes the practical steps to live exactly what he believes. His life is an inspiration in its thought-out-and-acted-upon simplicity. He is a Kentucky farm boy, turned scholar and poet, turned university professor, turned cultural and political activist, turned farmer. While I would highly encourage you to dive into his essays, poetry, open letters, and novels, I am more eager that you delve deeper into his personal story.

While I would still consider myself a novice in his work, I always come back to one poem in particular. I have read and loved some of his short stories and his novel Hannah Coulter, and Jayber Crow is on my 55 Classic’s List. I have read many of his open letters and essays, and Bring It To The Table has also made its way into the 55.

Even with all this great material, I am most impressed by his poem “How To Be a Poet”.

How To Be a Poet
BY WENDELL BERRY
(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Is Life A Narrative And Does It Matter?


Last night I read a new article on a great blog I follow called The Bully Pulpit. The blog is mainly philosophical in bent with large doses of political thought and heaps of great quotes from thinkers throughout the ages. If you enjoy the Author Quotes section here you would probably like The Bully Pulpit.

I really find just about everything ol’ J.R. says over there to be fascinating and last night’s post didn’t disappoint. The post is titled “Is A Human Life A Narrative?” and it basically quotes a couple of authors on their thoroughly-devised philosophies of how life is distinctly not a narrative. They point out that life is simply a collection of random events to which human beings naturally assign a plot. J.R. seemed to readily agree with their logic.

The post has stirred up a lot of contemplation in me and I can tell it gets to others as well in an almost surprising way. Even though most people don’t frequently consider their own narrative or effective story-processing skills, it can prove quite unnerving to contemplate one’s own world as invalid or, worse, an illusion. As this simple blog can attest, I have made myself a student of story and creative inspiration. I have devoted a great deal to these concepts and even read some good books on the science behind the natural human behavior of narrative-based risk-weighing and decision-making (I highly suggest Wired For Story if you are a writer. While it is not a science text, it is a very light read on narrative design that builds upon scientific research into how we process information.) I would not say, however, that I have given an adequate amount of significant thought to the question of whether life is actually in fact a story. It seems that most of us interested in recognizing this axiom are already determined to validate and love on it.

I think it is easy for anyone to agree that, yes, the tuna sandwich I ate for lunch last Tuesday plays little to no role in my preconceived life narrative. While every little experience may be a grain of sand upon a scale which changes our attitudes over time, we would not include 90% of the actual content of our lives in a memoir. The things we do recognize as valuable are usually pivotal because they are sensationalized in our memories and because they are a cumulative representation, a turning point of events we would recognize as changing chapters or entire narratives from before and after said key memory. Regardless of these facts, the much larger and less theoretical question immediately becomes “should human beings continue to process information as narrative and do we even have a choice?”

I personally would argue that we have no choice in the narrative framework and that this is really a very good thing. Narrative is important. It gives life meaning. While “meaning” is a highly subjective concept, I still find it very hard to even conceptualize any sense of purpose outside of a larger set of implications termed as a narrative. It is also the starting point for processing concepts like relationship, responsibility, time, and cause-and-effect. Narrative as a cognitive tool is not invalidated by that fact that every detail of a life may not be an aspect of a consecutive narrative or by the fact that we cannot adequately process it. Many people use their narratives to successfully navigate life decision making, while many are deluded to make horrify decisions. It is not the narrative process that is at fault, it is the narratives themselves which are prone to great flaws.

This question on our minds also leads into a spider’s web of intricately related and equally daunting questions of fate, time and space, creative inspiration, and relationships.

If narrative-based cognitive processing is invalid, what are we to make of the repeated interactions between beings and/or objects?
Can we measure relationships in the scientific process without believing that we have a starting relationship, an added variable relationship, and an alter resulting relationship?
Can two human beings develop beyond strangers without a joint narrative?
Can we build an idea upon one formerly supposed without calling it a narrative?
How can you read and follow the (supposed) logic I’ve put forth in this article if not by some form of following a narrative?

So many good questions included here, I would love to hear your thoughts, further questions, and rebuttals!