John Lennon on the Satisfying Difficulty of Excellence and the Vital Role of Invisible Incubation in the Creative Process
“Every song I’ve ever written has been absolute torture… except for the ten or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.”
By Maria Popova
“I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down,” Beethoven, having revolutionized music with his stubborn devotion to making unexampled sound, told a young composer in reflecting on the role of incubation in his creative process. Two centuries after his death, psychology — a science not even a glimmer on the horizon of humanity’s imagination in Beethoven’s lifetime — confirmed this intuitive practice, demonstrating that incubation precedes illumination in the five stages of the creative process.
Beethoven lived before the Age of Celebrity, before this awful contortion of art that bamboozled us into confusing visibility with merit and grandiosity with genius. Amid such confusion, that inner incubus of creativity — invisible to the outside world, impervious to public appraisal — is all the more vital, for it is also what enables artists to create rather than cater, to go on making works of truth and beauty answering only to their inner voice and accountable only to their own artistic integrity, rather than producing sellable commodities that fit snugly into some existing market of tastes and expectations.
That countercultural creative integrity and its relation to private incubation is what John Lennon (October 9, 1940–December 8, 1980) channels in his conversation with Jonathan Cott, included in the altogether shimmering collection Listening: Interviews, 1970–1989 (public library).
Cott found himself charmed by the way Lennon “wrote little reminders to himself in the wonderfully absorbed way that a child paints the sun,” touched by the way this grown man, thrust into a public life and all the cynicism it can catalyze in a person, retained the fundamental childlike sweetness that is always our deepest connection to life — our own, and the lives of others that compose the shared symphony of aliveness. Cott observes:
Acerbic and skeptical as he could be, John Lennon never lost his sense of compassion.
It is this opinionated, openhearted man of forty that Cott met one December evening in 1980 in Lennon’s ground-floor apartment at the Dakota — the iconic twentieth-century castle in Manhattan, in front of which he would be slain by the gruesome antipode of compassion three days later.
What occasioned Cott’s interview was the release of Lennon’s collaboration with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy — the first record of his in what appeared to the outside world as a five-year creative lull, but was in fact the sort of vital, invisible incubation period out of which so many great works of art are born, the type that artist Rockwell Kent celebrated in the solitary Alaskan wilderness as one of those times in life “when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.” Lennon tells Cott:
The illusion that I was cut off from society is a joke. I was just the same as any of the rest of you, I was working from nine to five — baking bread and changing some nappies and dealing with the baby. People keep asking, “Why did you go underground, why are you hiding?” But I wasn’t hiding… It was a big event for us to have a baby — people might forget how hard we tried to have one and how many miscarriages we had and near-death scenes for Yoko… and we actually had a stillborn child… We put ourselves in situations that were stressful, but we managed to have the child that we tried to have for ten years, and my God, we weren’t going to blow it. We didn’t move for a year, and I took up yoga with the gray-haired lady on TV. [Laughing]
In a passage replete with life-tested assurance, echoing Beethoven’s insight and applicable to anything from new parenthood to pandemic lockdown, Lennon adds:
There’s a Zen story that Yoko once told me… A king sent his messenger to an artist to request a painting, he paid the artist money, and the artist said, “Okay, come back.” So a year goes by, and the messenger comes back and tells him, “The king’s waiting for your painting,” and the artist says, “Oh, hold on,” and whips it right off in front of him and says, “Here.” And the messenger says, “What’s this? The king paid you twenty thousand bucks for this shit, and you knock it off in five minutes?” And the painter replies, “Yeah, but I spent ten years thinking about it.” And there’s no way I could have written the Double Fantasy without those five years.
Clad in a torn Jagger T-shirt he had gotten during the Rolling Stones’ 1970 tour, Lennon reflects on a review of his song “From Me to You” that dismissed it as “below par Beatles,” and considers the odd petty satisfaction critics — be they paid or self-appointed — get from chipping at an artist’s general excellence by magnifying and lambasting small defects in particular works:
Mick’s put out consistently good work for twenty years, and will they give him a break? Will they ever say, “Look at him, he’s Number One, he’s only thirty-six and he’s put out a beautiful song, ‘Emotional Rescue.'”… And God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he’s no longer God… Right now his fans are happy. He’s told them about being drunk and chasing girls and cars and everything and that’s about the level they enjoy. But when he gets down to facing his own success and growing older and having to produce it again and again, they’ll turn on him, and I hope he survives it. All he has to do is look at me or Mick. So it goes up and down, up and down — of course it does, but what are we, machines?… When they first criticized “From Me to You” as below par Beatles, that’s when I first realized you’ve got to keep it up, there’s some sort of system where you get on the wheel and you’ve got to keep going around.
Artistic excellence — as every artist has realized, and some have enacted and articulated with uncommon clarity — lies not in running oneself into the ground on this clattering hamster wheel of public approval, but in continually and quietly ascending one’s own private ladder of creative development. Two centuries after Beethoven told a little girl asking his advice on the creative life that the true artist feels no pride in public admiration but “is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” and a century after Georgia O’Keeffe told the young Sherwood Anderson that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant [because] making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Lennon laughs as he tells Cott:
I’m always complaining about how hard it is to write or how much I suffer when I’m writing — that almost every song I’ve ever written has been absolute torture… I always think there’s nothing there, it’s shit, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage… and even if it does come out, I think, “What the hell is it anyway?”… And then I realize that I’ve been saying that all these years about every session and every song, you know, except for the ten or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.
Couple this fragment from Listening with another — Cott’s conversation with Bob Dylan about vulnerability, the meaning of integrity, and music as an instrument of truth — then revisit Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work and Lennon on the value of meditation.
Published February 16, 2022