Love and Work: Is happiness bad for creativity?
by Robert Bosnak
Green mountains of Laos ripple before me. It’s a hot and humid winter day. We’re in the ancient royal city of Luang Prabang. This morning at 6 am I witnessed a moving ritual. The village women get up well before 5 am to cook for the orange monks. During the day the monks’ chanting is heard all over town. Then at 6 am they come in long lines — the citizens (now aided by busloads of Korean tourists) fill their bowls with rice and other food for the day. This has nothing to do with begging. At least not in the way I feel it. The chanting of the monks is work. They fill the village with respect and peace; they set a hierarchy of honor as they weave the town in a web of meaning and community. It is not just the magnificent golden spires of the nimble temples that connect the community to the eternal laws of endless repetition, reaching deeply into what lies beyond our individual existence; it is the constant repetitions in humming monotone of the men and boys producing cosmic sound. Their concentrated efforts lighten my step and connect me to my vertical axis.
I stare at a golden Buddha as my beloved is around taking photographs. He sits quietly without care. He has gone beyond all the necessary illusions of individuality, realizing in full that ‘I’ is a repetition of human experience as such. When I feel the intense privacy of this moment I’m actually part of a self-experience of a particular point in the cycle of human becoming. He knows all this, truly; I only catch glimpses. I tell him that my heart is open with love. I see her kneeling behind some monks taking another of her endless stream of pictures that she will look at for a year to select the best of 12,000. All I need from him, from his quietly sitting presence, is discipline. If I’m lucky I may have 15 more years of creativity, maybe twenty. I agree with Freud that all that matters are love and work. Love, touch wood, I have aplenty, with a family full of warmth and riches, closely knit into a quilt of care. My photographer expands my boundaries each time I look at her. But work in all this happiness is suffering. If I want to complete the tasks this life has put before me I will need to work hard and steady!
Is happiness bad for creative work? I ask myself. If it is, then to Hell with creativity and let love reign. I remember having this conversation with my friend Denise Levertov, the great poet. She scoffed at all these artists who feel that basic unhappiness is essential to creative work. Being satisfied in the realms of love and family can go together with good creative work, she insisted. She would write her poetry at the kitchen table between family obligations. Yet here I am … When my heart was broken into a million pieces by a love that left me I wrote two novels. Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I am reminded of a soloist musician who once told me that he felt he had become a true professional when he could perform a good concert without being inspired. Then there is the painter Chuck Close who says: Inspiration is for amateurs; we just show up. Maybe feeling terrible is good for inspiration but that by itself does not mean that work must stop when life is sweet. Work is about showing up. Feeling that work and inspiration have to coincide may be a puerile attitude I need to let go of at this point in my life. Just be happy and show up uninspired.
Golden Buddha, give me your discipline to show up to work every day as the monks do. Their chanting doesn’t sound particularly inspired or passionate. It is resonant and repetitive.
I have a seat belt on my desk chair that doesn’t come off for 90 minutes at a sitting. Love and work can coincide as long as inspiration is left to the muses who come blowing in and out and can’t be depended upon. I do think misery makes them more prolific, however.
I remember when I first went to the Soviet Union in 1987 in the middle of Perestroika when dissident painters in Moscow were miserable and super creative. Then came Sotheby’s with its landmark Moscow 1988 sale of Russian avant-garde art — by 1991 creativity had migrated, uninspiring financial bourgeoisie had become triumphant and artists were imitating themselves now that they had become the international flavor of the month.
Comfort and inspiration may not be friends, but by showing up the muses still enter through the cracks.
So, dear golden Buddha, I’ll just fasten my seatbelt.
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