Tag Archives: creative productivity

The Importance of Memorization and Poetry.

I have written here before about the lost art of memorization particularly of poetry, and a theory that it provided artists a rich wellspring of inspiration. For example, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and probably just about any Florentine artist could quote Dante at length.

The closest equivalent, perhaps, today, is to quote pop music lyrics (just about the only umm verse most people have memorized). I often hear essayists, ministers, and authors quote them when explaining some perplexing aspect of life (“you know, when you feel like that Rolling Stone’s song ‘get off of my cloud”) . But really, aren’t we drinking from a rather shallow well here?

Now comes a book that examines the historic use of memorized poetry in the classroom: Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. The book (according to reviews, I have not read it) explores uses of memorization and theories behind it. It sounds more like an academic survey and thoughtful history that one of those “how memorizing poetry can make you great and give you and edge” books.

Some quotes from various reviews:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

She quotes one Percival Chubb, an American who wrote in a frequently reprinted book on teaching English in the elementary school that although memory and recitation are useful in “confirming the child in correct ways of speaking .??.??. its greatest service is in storing the mind with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings that have been uttered by the race.” These early impressions and memories “impart a tone to one’s spiritual system for life, rich and pure enough to outsing all base and cruder songs and to set the pitch of character.”Reason for Rhyme
The lost art of memorizing (and reciting) verse.

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Solzhenitsyn on Writing

Don’t have time to write? Can’t get in front of a computer? That didn’t stop Solzhenitsyn. In fact, Solzhenitsyn looks at his time in the gulag as essential to his becoming a writer.

In response to the question how he became a writer, Solzhenitsyn said that in a serious sense this did not take place until he found himself in prison.

I had tried my hand at literary writing even before the war, and had made determined efforts of this kind while I was a university student, but this could hardly be called serious writing because I lacked life experience. I began to write in earnest in prison, doing it in a conspiratorial fashion, concealing the very fact that I was writing—this was absolutely crucial. My method involved remembering the texts composed and learning them by heart. I started doing this with verse, then with prose as well.

I have often written abou the importance of memorizing poetry and the importance the excercise of memory. Memory is perhaps the most underused and under appreciated mental facility of the modern age. We have become mentally lazy because there is no longer a necessity to memorize things – or so we think; cheap printed material, and now digital, searchable archives mean people can reference quotes and information easily and quickly. But relying on this makes as much sense as allowing your muscles to atrophy and not exercising simply because there are cars, planes and escalators so there is no need to be as physically fit as in the past.

Secondly, he though he could not write, that did not stop him from ‘writing’ and creating in his mind. He didn’t say “Oh well, I don’t have a typewriter (or the time, or paper, or whatever).

Most of us, thank God, will never have to experience the gulag (though I would not be so complacent about this), but we have experienced ‘gulags’ of our own making, or monotonous jobs that we look at ‘life draining’ it is often in those experiences that are necessary to draw our deepest creative facilities, if we make use of them. On a lighter note, a favorite author of mine, PG Wodehouse made use of his terrible, unpleasant job at a bank to write one of my favorite ‘novel’s by him “Psmith in the City”.

Lastly, Solzhenitsyn would never and could never have composed and created this work if he did not have strong faith and a sense of hope. I am not talking about Oprah-TheSecret-Jesus-is-going-to-give-me-a-new-BMW sort of hope; but rather a deep, serious, faith.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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I lost my favorite pen and can’t write without it!

How many times have you skipped writing/painting/creating because you don’t have the ‘perfect’ tools, or waited for days for that ‘perfect’ brush to arrive? That didn’t stop the famed missionary and explorer Dr. Livingstone:

In 1871, David Livingstone spent five months stranded in a small village in the Congo called Nyangwe. He had run out of writing paper and had nearly run out of ink, so he improvised the materials for his diary by writing over an old copy of The Standard newspaper with ink made from the seeds of a local berry.

Oh, and he was also malnourished and suffering from the typical smörgåsbord of tropical diseases that European explorers picked up in Africa.

A page from Livingstone’s journal

We all have ‘favorite’ tools to work with, favorite surfaces to work on and optimal conditions we like to work under. But the lack of those conditions should never be an excuse for not doing.
You can read the whole article and view the original pages and of the field diary here.

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New York Public Library Lions

These are some quick sketches I did in front of the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th. Each took about ten minutes.

As I always emphasize, you can always find time in most days for a little drawing. It doesn’t have to be a grand old building like the New York Public Library.. Durer, for example, found beauty in ordinary turf.

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Always find time to draw

Being an artist can be likened to being a athlete or a ballet dancer. You stop practicing, you get ‘out of shape’. I have had a busy few weeks of non-art but necessary obligations, and found that “I’ll skip drawing today” turned into nearly a month. When I did pick up a pencil, I could tell my skills had already dulled a bit. That is why I always carry two sketchbooks- a larger sized one and a literally pocket sized one that can be carried anywhere. I stopped by Grace church today, enjoyed the silence and peace, and did a quick twelve minute sketch of the pulpit. I feel better.

There is always time to draw. If you hone your skills a bit every day, they will improve much faster than if you just draw once a week. As noted elsewhere, you can also draw ‘in your head’ and draw from memory later – this is a fun exercise for the mind and brain. So even if you forget your sketchbook, always find time to draw.

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Creative Productivity: Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was an extraordinarily productive painter and also had a keen business sense. It’s not surprising he became wealthier than many of his noble clients, and in fact, became a noble himself.

He shatters the myth of the ‘crazy’ egocentric artist – by all accounts he was kind, generous, temperant. He attended private mass every day, first thing in the morning,and set about his work. The following should give any artist pause.

Peter Paul Rubens came on a diplomatic mission to Madrid, charged by his government to pave the way to the conclusion of peace between England and Spain. Rubens was then about fifty years old. He stayed nine months in the Spanish capital, and, despite his diplomatic duties and the gout, found time to paint an extraordinary number of pictures, including five of Philip. He also copied the king’s Titians. 1

Five portraits of Phillip and he copied all the king’s titians. He may have had assistant’s help on the portraits- but he probably copied the Titians for his own study. Thus, in nine months he produced dozens of high quality paintings and succeeded at his ‘day job’ of negotiating a treaty.

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Creative Productivity – Lessons From Theodore Roosevelt

To list Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments could easily take the rest of this post; any random year of his life contains more adventure and accomplishment than most men achieve in a lifetime. Cowboy, Rancher, Naturalist, Big Game Hunter, Police Commissioner of New York City, Colonel of the “Rough Riders”, Governer, Vice President, President of the United States….He also still found time to play with his five children a couple of hours and day and a remain a devouted husband.

On top of all of this, also wrote more than thirty books – more than many authors who write full time.

So did how did he do it?

One clue can be found in Candace Millard’s wonderful book “River of Doubt” an account of Roosevelt’s disaster plagued expedition in the Amazon basin.
At one point they were on half rations – despite doing back breaking labor of porting canoes over land, paddling, and enduring sweltering Amazon heat.

Roosevelt was also suffering from recurrences of malaria he had contracted during the Spanish American War, often running a temperature of over a hundred degrees.

Roosevelt at his portable writing desk, wearing mosquito netting.

Although Roosevelt was a co-expedition leader, he still had his share of duties. They were lighter than those of the younger men and porters but still tedious: hand laundering clothes for example.  Despite all this he still found time to write.

Funds for the expedition were raised in part by Roosevelt promising to provide Scribner’s with an account of the expeditions. Readers stateside could follow along with Roosevelts adventures from the comfort of their homes.  These became the basis for his popular book Through the Brazilian Wilderness.

Did he wait until he returned to the comfort of Sagamore Hill, don his cigar and slippers and retire to his study? No.

He would rise before the rest of the camp was awake and official duties began, go for his morning swim (first checking for piranhas and alligators), then he would write his self set quota of pages for Scribner’s.

It made sense to write this early for several reasons:

Firstly there were no other disturbances or distractions. Second, it’s a lot easier to write at the begining of the day rather than than at the end of if, when one is tired.  Knowing he knocked out his quota of pages for the day was probably a relief to Roosevelt, rather than having them waiting after a long day.

Some might counter that it would be better to wait until the expedition was over with to sit down and write in the comfort of one’s own home, but undoubtedly many details would have been lost.  Even in our day of ubiquitous media capture devices, it’s much better to reflect on events while they are still fresh in the mind. Also, the task of recalling the whole expedition could be quite daunting. Instead, he chipped away at it every day.

Another famous explorer and productive writer, Sir Richard Francis Burton also insisted on writing every night while on expedition,  despite suffering from similar ailments to Roosevelt.  To this day his observations of the Punjab, Somoliland, as he called it,  are still referenced by researchers.

So what’s keeping you from writing? How many times have you not written because you had the sniffles, or ‘didn’t feel like it’.  I don’t doubt that there are many real obligations that are enormously time consuming – it takes a lot of energy and devotion to raise children, to truly be dedicated to doing a good job at work, or being a caring spouse.   Sir Richard Francis Burton and Theodore Roosevelt were extraordinary men, possessing enormous energy, drive, and abnormally high intelligence (TR had a near photographic memory and would often read a book in a day) ; but we could take some cues from their dedication to writing and not letting obstacles get in the way.

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“Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”

I don’t trust wikipedia on much, but this seems reasonable:

In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered, and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”

The life part is common enough today, but memory drawing is rarely practiced. In the 19th century, it was unimaginable to not do so.

Link to an article on LeCoq’s memory drawing.
An example of a memory drawing from life.

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Productivity – How a full time lawyer wrote 58 novels

“How a full time lawyer wrote 58 novels”

I know people who have plenty of time to paint (or create) and still don’t get a lot of painting done. Frankly. I don’t think I am that productive. But many people claim they have little or no time; they have full time jobs, family, commutes, etc. All that is undoubtedly true, and to muster the energy to paint, to write, to draw, to do anything beyond sit in front of the TV with a beer is pretty hard…

That leads me to two points. First what we do for ‘recreation’ is often not invigorating but mind numbing -and when we numb our minds by watching meaningless TVs or ‘entertainment’ that actually demoralizes us (and many sitcoms do just that) we lose the energy. Most ‘entertainment’ is meant to distract. This article is about the effect of one TV show on children but its foolish to think that adults aren’t susceptible to the loss of concentration (and then we seek prescription drugs to ‘help’ with “ADD”!).

Even if you’re not a full time artist, whatever you do with your ‘free time’ will affect the rest of your life – you walk away with two hours in front of the television, possibly craving some food or toy you don’t need, and feel more distracted and tense than before, or you can spend that time in something that leaves you refreshed with a sense of accomplishment. This is the difference between true re-creation and true ‘play’ and mind-numbing dropping out – which is done by watching TV, visiting mindless internet sites or numbing yourself with some form of chemical (alcohol, prescription drugs, etc). This is not say there aren’t worthwhile, refreshing film, TV and web sites, or that a prescription can’t be useful, or alcohol can’t be beneficial, but when people turn to these things to consciously (or unknowingly) numb themselves, they are using time that could be used to truly refresh oneself.

OK, let’s say someone still wanted to watch Friends re-runs… EVEN then, there is still time in the day to create or learn or re-create. I had an uncle that would always carry a pocket paperback (back when these things were made, up until the 50s, i believe) of a ‘classic’, and I mean classic: Ovid, Virgil, Socrates… whenever he was waiting for an elevator or had a minute or two he would pull it out and read it. In that way, he read a lot of books.

Likewise, the time can be used to create. This is one of my favorite stories about productivity:
Louis Auchincloss wrote 57 novels – while raising a family AND working full time as a lawyer (a real, white shoe law firm where he had to bill hours) He wrote his last book at age 90. Whit Stillman asked him how he did it:

How did you manage to combine a full-time law career with such extraordinary productivity as a writer?

What I learned to do was use bits and slices of time. If you learn that you can cover an enormous amount of ground. I’d go to Surrogate’s Court and listen to the calendar being called for a particular case – it might come up in 10 minutes or in an hour – I thought, look, I could write then. Lots of writers think you need rest and calm, your slippers and a cigar, and all that. That’s all very well if you can have those things, but you don’t need them. So I picked up a great deal of time that way. If you have a notebook, you can fill that in constantly.

And there you have it. But what about artists you say? You can’t carry your five by four foot painting around and whip it out of your pocket whenever you have a moment. No, but you can carry a small sketchbook and sketch while waiting for the subway, or even the elevator. It will never go to waste; as long as you are doing it consciously you’re improving your drafting skills which will mean you time at the easel will be more productive.

If you forget your sketchbook, you can still make ‘mental sketches’ and practice memory drawing skills. You do this by drawing just as you would if you had a sketch book, except you simply use your finger and ‘draw’ in the air or on your hand, and practice several times until you can draw your subject without looking at it. When you get home, reproduce it on paper.

Try to go through a day and note how much time you spend not creating but not really doing anything (waiting for the subway, standing on line in the supermarket) add it up -its probably at least an hour.. while not all of it can be used 100% certainly some of it can be used productively. And the more we practice productivity the more productive we get.

One last note, don’t procrastinate by writing blog posts! 😉

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