Wednesday, 10 February 2016

On going about your own life when a loved one is suffering: W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”

After I spent some time memorising Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, I decided to move on to learning W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” by heart.

There are a few reasons for this. One, it’s probably my favourite poem by Auden: I first encountered it during my second year of university, and the poem and my lecturer’s explanation of the consoling nature of some of Auden's poetry after 9/11 stuck with me.

The poem was written by Auden in December 1938, after Kristallnacht on 9-10 November had shattered shop and synagogue windows, hopes, and lives in Nazi Germany.

The poem describes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Brueghel, and it echoes how the old master depicts Icarus falling from the sky while everyone else, involved in other things or just simply not wanting to know, “[turn] away / quite leisurely from the disaster” and go about their day.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, now seen as
a good early copy of Pieter Bruegel's original.

When we are suffering, I think it might feel a bit like this: that others are now turning away from us, even if that isn’t entirely the case.

And when others are suffering, perhaps we sometimes feel ourselves turn away slightly too.

The poem begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

I think Auden encapsulates something timeless here: that common human fear that something bad will suddenly happen at some meaningless time of day, when everything else is progressing as normal. And the concern is entirely grounded.

Perhaps the answer here is nurturing a greater sense of mindfulness, both in paying attention to the good stuff when life is going well, and noticing those that are suffering around us. It could also help us to approach harder times in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us, but rather helps us to take in all aspects in a more present way.

Will Schwalbe mentions the poem in The End of Your Life Book Club, a non-fiction biographical book I’ve mentioned so many times before. While his mother was facing cancer, he described how he felt like the “someone else” who was “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” in Auden’s poem. As he writes, “Mom was suffering; I was going on with my life”.

Yet “Musée des Beaux Arts” somehow helped him to acknowledge this feeling - that it’s the normal response to feel like this - which, perhaps, may have allowed him to be more present with his mother. Finding simple understanding of our own feelings or fears in fiction can be a great help.

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Sunday, 7 February 2016

How to sustain creative thinking and projects when you have a 9 to 5 job

When you're making an effort to be more creative, or sustain an ongoing creative project such as a blog or a book draft, work can get in the way.

I'm working for a software company in Switzerland at the moment, and while I'm spending the day writing, this isn't doing-it-because-I-love-it creative time.

When I get home I feel too tired to write, and on my lunch break there are so many other things I want to get done. Often it comes down to choosing between downtime or creative time. And lately I've chosen downtime.

I don't think this is a bad thing: I know I need to look after myself.

So I don't think that the solution is forcing creativity when I want to rest. Rather, it should be about reframing my routine to best nurture the two. 




I know I'm most creative in the mornings, and I used to love waking up at crazy hours to run, read, and prepare for exams when I was in secondary school.

It's easy to put off waking up early because you didn't get to sleep at a decent time the night before, but I'm going to do what I know works for me: setting my alarm, waking up then, and giving my body clock a chance to adjust to that. Sure, it'll involve a bit of tiredness at first, but then at least the worst will be over.

And it helps to think of creative minds who have also sustained a creative project around 9 to 5 work after deciphering what works best for them. A great place to start is by reading the oft-recommended Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

T.S. Eliot joined the crowd crossing London Bridge each morning to reach his job at Lloyd's Bank

“I am sojourning among the termites,” Eliot wrote to Lytton Strachey. He would later draw on this scene for the Unreal City portion of The Waste Land, one of his most famous poems.

After Eliot had worked at the bank for five years (and was aged thirty-four), some of his literary friends, led by Ezra Pound, invented a scheme to free Eliot from his employment so he could focus on writing. They would create a £300 annual fund by soliciting £10 a year from thirty subscribers.

Wallace Steven's day job nurtured, rather than stifled, his creativity as a poet

Wallace Stevens, the American Modernist poet, woke at 6:00 every morning to read for two hours, arrived at the office at 9:00 A.M. sharp and left at 4:30. He also used an hour-long walk on his lunch break to compose poetry.

I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me [...] It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.

Philip Larkin worked as a librarian for almost his entire adult life

Like many writers, Larkin realised early on that he would never be able to make a living from his writing alone:

I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time, like Trollope.

He did wonder what would have happened had he dedicated his time to write full-time, but he thought that two hours of composition in the evenings, after dinner and the dishes, was plenty: “After that you’re going round in circles, and it’s much better to leave it for twenty-four hours, by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on.”

Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, sitting at the kitchen table in his Manhattan apartment


I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years [...] I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.



Find out how to best insert creativity around your work and commitments. Maybe you work best in the mornings or late at night. Perhaps your full-time work is currently consuming - or diverting - all of your creative energy. 

Maybe these could help to kindle your creativity:
  • a daily long walk, perhaps after lunch or in the evening
  • early morning or late night work sessions
  • the ritual of a coffee or two (far preferable to the frequent appearance of amphetamines in Daily Rituals)
  • dedicated time to reading books and articles that inspire you
  • a chance of scenery, whether it's time spent outdoors or exploring a new place


Have a proper think about it. Do what works for you.







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