(Via The Rock’s Instagram.)
“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Oliver Sacks working at his desk, 2015. Photo by Bill Hayes.
Nat Hentoff at work in The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff (2013).
One of the many amazing tidbits from David Remnick’s New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen:
In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.
“Two years,” Cohen lied.
Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.
Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”
“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.
This resonates with me because I too am a slow worker, often, like Cohen, laboring on and fussing with little things for years, though nothing quite at the level of “Hallelujah,” it’s true. It’s more like some people are Cohens, some people are Dylans. Speed-wise, I wanted to be more like Dylan for years, but now I’m more okay with my Cohen-like process, though the Dylan style has its advantages.
Here’s another great tidbit from the piece:
Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop. Like the other adepts, he cleaned toilets. He had the honor of cooking for Roshi and eventually lived in a cabin that was linked to his teacher’s by a covered walkway. For many hours a day, he sat in half lotus, meditating. If he, or anyone else, nodded off during meditation or lost the proper position, one of the monks would come by and rap him smartly on the shoulder with a wooden stick.
And here’s Cohen’s latest single:
May we all be as cool at 82.
UPDATE: There’s an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that covers fast vs. slow creativity and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Whatever you think of Malcolm Gladwell or podcasts, I think it’s worth listening to.
(Hat tip: @GenerationMeh.)
“When you’re young, and things come super easily to you, and you have success right out of the gate, you’re liable to think that’s how it actually works. You start to think you don’t need to be fully prepared or committed to have these things meet you.”
—actress Sarah Paulson on success later in life, GQ, October 2016
“Think of Darwin, working for decades on his theory of evolution, refraining from publishing it because it wasn’t yet perfect. Hardly anyone knew what he was working on. No one said, Hey Charles, it’s okay that you’re taking so long, because what you’re working on is just so important. They didn’t know. He couldn’t have known. He just knew that it wasn’t done yet, that it could be better, and that that was enough to keep him going.”
—Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy
“How many scholars are there whose single book or article has generated more intellectual energy than the collected works of other, quantitatively far more ‘productive,’ scholars? The commensurating device known as the ‘tape measure’ may tell us that a Vermeer interior and a cow plop are both twenty inches across; there, however, the similarity ends.”
—James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism
“I’m determined to think through the book from beginning to end before I start it. First I make a very short outline, just a page or two. Then I start filling it in with transitional sentences and key thoughts. You’re really writing the book without the details at that stage. Then what I do is I go through the notes and fill in the details. Let’s say I have a hundred and fifty pages of notes dealing with a particular incident—but of course I don’t; I have nearly a thousand. Anyway, you give a number to each interview. You go through all your file folders, and you index everything in it to that outline. And the outline keeps growing until you’ve got the entire book—an entire wall, twenty or thirty feet long, covered with paper. There it is. And then you come in one day, and you look at it, and you have to start writing.”