Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

- Franz Kafka, 1920

Poor Kafka, born too early to blame his writer’s block on 21st-century digital excuses:  social media addiction, cell phone addiction, streaming video… 

Would The Metamorphosis have turned out differently had its author had access to a machine that would have allowed him to self-publish, communicate facelessly, and dispense entirely with typists, pens and paper? 

Had Kafka had his way, his friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, would have carried out instructions to burn his unpublished work—including letters and journal entries—upon his death

Instead Brod published them.

How horrified would their author be to read The New Yorker’s opinion that his journals should be regarded as one of his major literary achievements? A Kafka-esque response might be the mildest reaction warranted by the situation:

His life and personality were perfectly suited to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he customarily hid from the world.

These once-private pages (available in book format here) reveal a not-unfamiliar writerly tendency to agonize over a perceived lack of output:

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of getting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote nothing yesterday, that I keep getting farther and farther from it, and am in danger of losing everything I have laboriously achieved these past six months. Provided proof of this by writing one and a half wretched pages of a new story that I have already decided to discard…. Occasionally I feel an unhappiness that almost dismembers me, and at the same time am convinced of its necessity and of the existence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by undergoing every kind of unhappiness.

Psychology Today identifies five possible underlying causes for such inactivity, and tips for surmounting them. It seems likely the fastidious, self-absorbed Kafka would have rejected them on their breezy tone alone, but perhaps other less persnickety individuals will find something of use: 

1. You’ve Lost Your Way

If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the opposite of what you usually do—if you’re a plotter, give your imagination free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day creating a list of the next 10 scenes that need to happen. This gives your brain a challenge, and for this reason you can take heart, because your billions of neurons love a challenge and are in search of synapses they can form.

2. Your Passion Has Waned

Remember, your writing brain looks for and responds to patterns, so be careful that you don’t make succumbing to boredom or surrendering projects without a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the reasons you got stalled and to finish what you started. This will lay down a neuronal pathway that your writing brain will merrily travel along in future work.

3. Your Expectations Are Too High

Instead of setting your sights too high, give yourself permission to write anything, on topic or off topic, meaningful or trite, useful or folly. The point is that by attaching so much importance to the work you’re about to do, you make it harder to get into the flow. Also, if your inner critic sticks her nose in (which often happens), tell her that her role is very important to you (and it is!) and that you will summon her when you have something worthy of her attention.

4. You Are Burned Out

You aren’t blocked; you’re exhausted. Give yourself a few days to really rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to dinner with friends, or take a mini-vacation somewhere restful. Do so with the intention to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No thinking about your novel for a week! In fact, no heavy thinking for a week. Lie back, have a margarita, and chill.

5. You’re Too Distracted

Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no matter what, you will experience times in your life when it’s impossible to keep to a writing schedule. People get sick, people have to take a second job, children need extra attention, parents need extra attention, and so on. If you’re in one of those emergency situations (raising small children counts), by all means, don’t berate yourself. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to put the actual writing on hold. It is good, however, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writing your novel:

Read works similar to what you hope to write.

Read books related to the subject you're writing about.

Keep a designated journal where you jot down ideas for the book (and other works).

Write small vignettes or sketches related to the book

Whenever you find time to meditate, envision yourself writing the book, bringing it to full completion.

Make writing the book a priority.

Additionally, you may find some merit in enlisting a friend to publish, I mean, burn the above-mentioned journals posthumously. Just don't write anything you wouldn't want the public to see.

Read author Susan Reynolds’ complete Psychology Today advice for blocked writers here.

Have a peek at Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 here.

via Austin Kleon

Related Content:

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters

Franz Kafka: An Animated Introduction to His Literary Genius

Metamorfosis: Franz Kafka’s Best-Known Short Story Gets Adapted Into a Tim Burtonesque Spanish Short Film

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, currently appearing onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Milton Glaser’s 10 Rules for Life & Work: The Celebrated Designer Dispenses Wisdom Gained Over His Long Life & Career

“None of us has really the ability to understand our path until it’s over,” the celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser muses less than a minute into the above video.

The 86-year-old Glaser’s many contributions to pop culture---the  I ❤ NY logo, the psychedelic portrait of a rainbow-haired Bob Dylan, DC Comics’ classic bullet logo---confer undeniable authority. To the outside eye, he seems to have a pretty firm handle on the path he's been traveling for lo these many decades. Aspirant designers would do well to give extra consideration to any advice he might share.

As would the rest of us.

His “Ten Things I Have Learned,” originally delivered as part of a talk to the AIGA---a venerable membership organization for design professionals---qualifies as solid life advice of general interest.


Yes, the Internet spawns bullet-pointed tips for better living the way spring rains yield mushrooms, but Glaser, a self-described “child of modernism” who's still a contender, does not truck in pithy Instagram-friendly aphorisms. Instead, his list is born of reflection on the various turns of a long and mostly satisfying creative career.

We’ve excerpted some of his most essential points below, and suggest that those readers who are still in training give special emphasis to number seven. Don't place too much weight on number nine until you’ve established a solid work ethic. (See number four for more on that.)

MILTON GLASER”S TEN RULES FOR WORK AND LIFE (& A BONUS JOKE ABOUT A RABBIT).

1. YOU CAN ONLY WORK FOR PEOPLE THAT YOU LIKE

Some years ago I realized that… all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client.

2. IF YOU HAVE A CHOICE NEVER HAVE A JOB

Here, Glaser quotes composer John CageNever have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. 

3. SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM.

Glaser recommends putting a questionable companion to a gestalt therapy test. If, after spending time with that person “you are more tired, then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy, you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.”

4. PROFESSIONALISM IS NOT ENOUGH (or THE GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF THE GREAT)

Glaser concedes that a record of dependable excellence is something to look for in a brain surgeon or auto mechanic, but for those in the arts, “continuous transgression” is the quality to cultivate. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. 

5. LESS IS NOT NECESSARILY MORE

I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’

6. STYLE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED

Style change is usually linked to economic factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs when people see too much of the same thing too often.

7. HOW YOU LIVE CHANGES YOUR BRAIN

The brain is the most responsive organ of the body…. Thought changes our life and our behavior. I also believe that drawing works in the same way…. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.

8. DOUBT IS BETTER THAN CERTAINTY

One of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty. Schools encourage the idea of not compromising and defending your work at all costs. Well, the issue at work is usually all about the nature of compromise…. Ideally, making everyone win through acts of accommodation is desirable.

9. IT DOESN’T MATTER

Glaser credits essayist Roger Rosenblatt’s Rules for Aging (misidentifying the title as Aging Gracefully) with helping him articulate his philosophy here.  It doesn’t matter what you think. It does not matter if you are late or early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn’t say it, if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are cockeyed. If you don’t get that promotion or prize or house or if you do – it doesn’t matter.

10. TELL THE TRUTH

It’s interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public. If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do.

BONUS JOKE

A butcher was opening his market one morning and as he did a rabbit popped his head through the door. The butcher was surprised when the rabbit inquired ‘Got any cabbage?’ The butcher said ‘This is a meat market – we sell meat, not vegetables.’ The rabbit hopped off. The next day the butcher is opening the shop and sure enough the rabbit pops his head round and says ‘You got any cabbage?’ The butcher now irritated says ‘Listen you little rodent, I told you yesterday we sell meat, we do not sell vegetables and the next time you come here I am going to grab you by the throat and nail those floppy ears to the floor.’ The rabbit disappeared hastily and nothing happened for a week. Then one morning the rabbit popped his head around the corner and said ‘Got any nails?’ The butcher said ‘No.’ The rabbit said ‘Ok. Got any cabbage?’’

Read Milton Glaser’s “Ten Things I Have Learned” in its entirety here.

via Kottke

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Patti Smith, Umberto Eco & Richard Ford Give Advice to Young Artists in a Rollicking Short Animation


Note: There are a couple brief not-safe-for-work moments in this film.

Patronizing, ponderous, well-meaning, self-aggrandizing, incoherent… young artists are subjected to a lot of unsolicited advice, and not just from their parents.

But what happens when a young artist actively seeks it out?

Daniella Shuhman turned to the Louisiana Channel’s series, "Advice to the Young," feasting on the collected wisdom of such heavy hitters as performance artist Marina Abramovic, author Umberto Eco, artist Olafur Eliasson, and the multitalented Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith in preparation for her final project at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.


Her resultant short film, above, appears to be the work of a deliriously aggro inner child, one with a keen bullshit meter and an anarchic sense of humor.

“The most important advice I have is to have fun,” counsels novelist Jonathan Franzen---a man who allegedly wrote The Corrections while wearing earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold, then busted on Oprah Winfrey when she chose it for for her Book Club.

Cue great spurts of animated arterial blood.

At least Franzen bothers to sound encouraging… much more so than Abramovic, or fellow novelist Richard “Talk Yourself Out of It If You Possibly Can Because You’re Probably Not Going to Be Very Good At It” Ford.

(Parents struggling to come up with tuition may be relieved to learn that Ford’s on leave from Columbia University this term.)

Meanwhile, Shuhman breaks for NSFW territory to visualize artist Eliasson’s advice, a move that would surely please another Louisiana Channel personality, cartoonist David Shrigley. Perhaps it can be his consolation prize for not making the cut.

The pulsating reproductive organs aren't entirely inappropriate. Listen to Eliasson’s full interview to hear him equate making art with making the world. Now that's the sort of advice that will put a young artist to work!

Some of the more generous advice:

Build a good name, keep your name clean, don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful.

Don’t be embarrassed about what excites you.

If you are doing something weird that everybody hates, that might be something worth looking into and worth investigating.

Make your own way in the world. Wrap up warm. Eat properly, sensibly. Don’t smoke and phone your mom.

We love imagining the sort of unfettered advice Shuhman will one day be in a position to dispense.

You can see some of her post graduation illustration work on her Flickr page.

Related Content:

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Great Filmmakers Offer Advice to Young Directors: Tarantino, Herzog, Coppola, Scorsese, Anderson, Fellini & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Wynton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Practice: For Musicians, Athletes, or Anyone Who Wants to Learn Something New

Photo by Eric Delmar, Wikipedia Commons

Practicing for countless hours before we can be good at something seems burdensome and boring. Maybe that's why we’re drawn to stories of instant achievement. The monk realizes satori (and Neo learns kung fu); the superhero acquires great power out of the blue; Robert Johnson trades for genius at the crossroads. At the same time, we teach children they can’t master a skill without discipline and diligence. We repeat pop psych theories that specify the exact number hours required for excellence. The number may be arbitrary, but it comforts us to believe that practice might, eventually, make perfect. Because in truth we know there is no way around it. As Wynton Marsalis writes in “Wynton’s Twelve Ways to Practice: From Music to Schoolwork,” “practice is essential to learning music—and anything else, for that matter.”

For jazz musicians, the time spent learning theory and refining technique finds eloquent expression in the concept of woodshedding, a “humbling but necessary chore,” writes Paul Klemperer at Big Apple Jazz, “like chopping wood before you can start the fire.”


Yet retiring to the woodshed “means more than just practicing…. You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on the music and your instrument.” As beginners, we tend to look at practice only as a chore. The best jazz musicians know there’s also “something philosophical, almost religious” about it. John Coltrane, for example, practiced ceaselessly, consciously defining his music as a spiritual and contemplative discipline.

Marsalis also implies a religious aspect in his short article: “when you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to sound good… I like to say that the time spent practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician.” Maybe this piety is intended to dispel the myth of quick and easy deals with infernal entities. But most of Marsalis' “twelve ways to practice” are as pragmatic as they come, and “will work,” he promises “for almost every activity—from music to schoolwork to sports.” Find his abridged list below, and read his full commentary at “the trumpeter’s bible,” Arban’s Method.

  1. Seek out instruction: A good teacher will help you understand the purpose of practicing and can teach you ways to make practicing easier and more productive.
  1. Write out a schedule: A schedule helps you organize your time. Be sure to allow time to review the fundamentals because they are the foundation of all the complicated things that come later.
  1. Set goals: Like a schedule, goals help you organize your time and chart your progress…. If a certain task turns out to be really difficult, relax your goals: practice doesnʼt have to be painful to achieve results.
  1. Concentrate: You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and moaning. This means no video games, no television, no radio, just sitting still and working…. Concentrated effort takes practice too, especially for young people.
  1. Relax and practice slowly: Take your time; donʼt rush through things. Whenever you set out to learn something new – practicing scales, multiplication tables, verb tenses in Spanish – you need to start slowly and build up speed.
  1. Practice hard things longer: Donʼt be afraid of confronting your inadequacies; spend more time practicing what you canʼt do…. Successful practice means coming face to face with your shortcomings. Donʼt be discouraged; youʼll get it eventually.
  1. Practice with expression: Every day you walk around making yourself into “you,” so do everything with the proper attitude…. Express your “style” through how you do what you do.
  1. Learn from your mistakes: None of us are perfect, but donʼt be too hard on yourself. If you drop a touchdown pass, or strike out to end the game, itʼs not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, analyze what went wrong and keep going….
  1. Donʼt show off: Itʼs hard to resist showing off when you can do something well…. But my father told me, “Son, those who play for applause, thatʼs all they get.” When you get caught up in doing the tricky stuff, youʼre just cheating yourself and your audience.
  1. Think for yourself: Your success or failure at anything ultimately depends on your ability to solve problems, so donʼt become a robot…. Thinking for yourself helps develop your powers of judgment.
  1. Be optimistic: Optimism helps you get over your mistakes and go on to do better. It also gives you endurance because having a positive attitude makes you feel that something great is always about to happen.
  1. Look for connections: If you develop the discipline it takes to become good at something, that discipline will help you in whatever else you do…. The more you discover the relationships between things that at first seem different, the larger your world becomes. In other words, the woodshed can open up a whole world of possibilities.

You’ll note in even a cursory scan of Marsalis’ prescriptions that they begin with the imminently practical—the “chores” we can find tedious—and move further into the intangibles: developing creativity, humility, optimism, and, eventually, maybe, a gradual kind of enlightenment. You'll notice on a closer read that the consciousness-raising and the mundane daily tasks go hand-in-hand.

While this may be all well and good for jazz musicians, students, athletes, or chess players, we may have reason for skepticism about success through practice more generally. Researchers at Princeton have found, for example, that the effectiveness of practice is “domain dependent.” In games, music, and sports, practice accounts for a good deal of improvement. In certain other “less stable” fields driven by celebrity and networking, for example, success can seem more dependent on personality or privileged access.

But it’s probably safe to assume that if you’re reading this post, you’re interested in mastering a skill, not cultivating a brand. Whether you want to play Carnegie Hall or “learn a language, cook good meals or get along well with people,” practice is essential, Marsalis argues, and practicing well is just as important as practicing often. For a look at how practice changes our brains, creating what we colloquially call "muscle memory," see the TED-Ed video just above.

Related Content:

Wynton Marsalis Takes Louis Armstrong’s Trumpet Out of the Museum & Plays It Again

Sonny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Practicing Yoga Made Him a Better Musician

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Fiction of the Science: A Meditation on How Artists & Storytellers Can Advance Technology

In elementary school, a playful teacher gave us an assignment. Everyone was to dream up some sort of amazing invention, then draw both a design and an advertisement for it.

It seemed most of my classmates were primed for a future in which sneakers would come equipped with fully operational, built-in wings.

I succumbed to peer pressure and turned in an ad showing a laughing, airborne boy, taunting an earthbound adult by dangling his be-winged sneaker-clad foot just a few inches out of reach.


My Fleet Foot was awarded a good grade, but I felt no passion for it. The invention that truly captured me was the one depicted in my favorite illustration from Patapoufs et Filifers, the funny French children’s book my father had passed down, about a war between fat and thin people. The thin characters were industrious and highly driven, but the fat ones knew how to live, lounging in feather beds beside wall spigots dispensing hot chocolate.

Those spigots were---then and now---a technological advancement I would love to see realized.

Robert Wong, are you listening?

In the Fiction of Science, the short film above, Wong, a graphic designer and Google Creative Lab’s VP, shows how storytelling can put the spurs to those with the training and know-how to usher these wild-sounding advancements into the real world.

Case in point, the cell phone.

Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, is widely regarded as the father of the mobile phone, but when we take a broader view, the cell phone actually has two daddies: Cooper and Wah Ming Chang, the artist responsible for many of Star Trek’s iconic props, including the phaser, the tricorder and the communicator---a “portable transceiver device in use by Starfleet crews since the mid-22nd century.”

(Not surprisingly, Cooper was a huge Star Trek fan.)

Touch screens and 3D fabrications born of hand gestures are among the many creative fictions that have quickly become reality as science and art intermingle on movie sets and in the lab.

If you’re inspired to take an active part in this revolution, Google Creative Lab is currently taking applications for The Five, a one-year paid program for five lucky innovators, drawn from a pool of artists, designers, filmmakers, developers, and other talented, multi-dextrous makers.

Related Content:

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John Berger (RIP) and Susan Sontag Take Us Inside the Art of Storytelling (1983)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker whose play Zamboni Godot is playing in New York City through March 18. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Cormac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Working: How 9-to-5 Jobs Limit Your Creative Potential

Last summer, a rumor circulated that Cormac McCarthy, one of America’s most beloved living writers, had passed away. In the midst of a devastating year for famous artists and their fans, the announcement appeared on Twitter, but it “was, in fact, a hoax.” As McCarthy’s publisher---recently merged juggernaut Penguin Random House---confirmed, the author of such modern classics as Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men “is alive and well and still doesn’t care about Twitter.” The literary community is better off not only for McCarthy’s good health, but for his disregard of what may be the most fiendishly distracting social media platform of them all. He is still hard at work, on a novel called The Passenger, tentatively slated for release this year.

You can hear excerpts of The Passenger read in the dim, shaky video below, from an event in 2015 at the Santa Fe Institute, an independent scientific think tank where McCarthy keeps an office and where he has plied a secondary trade as a copy-editor for science-themed books, including Quantum Man, physicist Lawrence Krauss’s biography of Richard Feynman. (McCarthy’s “knowledge of physics and maths,” writes Alison Flood at The Guardian, is said to exceed "that of many professionals in the field.”) McCarthy’s latest work seems like a departure for him.

His earlier novels mined the richness of Southern Gothic and Western traditions, and “have subtly woven in science,” writes Babak Dowlatshahi at Newsweek. But The Passenger “will place science in the foreground.” Santa Fe Institute president David Krakauer calls it “full-blown Cormac 3.0---a mathematical [and] analytical novel.”

So we know Cormac McCarthy is a genius, but how is it that he found the time to become a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowship-winning novelist and, on the side, a student of theoretical physics and math? His secret involves more than staying off Twitter. As McCarthy tells Oprah Winfrey in the video at the top of the post, excerpted from his first television interview ever in 2007, he has made his work the central focus of his life, to the exclusion of everything else, including money and public adulation from fans and admirers. For example, he answers a question about why he turned down lucrative speaking engagements with, “I was busy. I had other things to do.”

It’s not that I don’t like things, I mean some things are very nice, but they certainly take a distant second place to being able to live your life and being able to do what you want to do. I always knew that I didn’t want to work.

How did he pull off not working? “You have to be dedicated... I thought, ‘you’re just here once, life is brief and to have to spend every day of it doing what somebody else wants you to do is not the way to live it.’” McCarthy doesn’t “have any advice for anybody" about how to avoid the daily grind, except, he says, “if you’re really dedicated, you can probably do it.” As Oprah puts it, “you have worked at not working?” To which he replies, “absolutely, it’s the number one priority.”

Lest we immediately dismiss McCarthy’s philosophy as cluelessness or privilege, we should bear in mind that he willingly endured extreme and “truly, truly bleak” poverty to keep working at not working—or working, rather, on the work he wanted to do. There’s a bit more to becoming a multiple award-winning novelist and MacArthur “Genius” than simply avoiding the 9-to-5. But McCarthy suggests that unless artists make their own work their first priority, and material comfort and economic security a “distant second,” they may never truly find out what they’re capable of.

Related Content:

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Cormac McCarthy’s Three Punctuation Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Culture

Werner Herzog Reads From Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Stop It and Just DO”: Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Advice on Overcoming Creative Blocks, Written by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse (1965)


A quick fyi: this video is a little not safe for work.

You know you want to create something, but how on Earth to get it out of your mind and into reality? Sometimes you simply can't see the way forward, a situation in which every creator finds themselves sooner or later. When the sculptor Eva Hesse hit a creative block in 1965, she wrote of her problem to a close friend, the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt. He emphatically suggested that she "just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder," and furthermore that she stop

wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just

DO

You can read Lewitt's reply in full, which offers much more colorful advice and supporting verbiage besides (as well as a far bolder "DO" than HTML can render), at Letters of Note. Though personally tailored to Hesse and her distinctive sensibilities, Lewitt's suggestions also show the potential for wider application: "Try and tickle something inside you, your 'weird humor.'" "Don't worry about cool, make your own uncool." "If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety." "Practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty." "Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT."


Though all this has plenty of impact on the page, it has an entirely different kind when performed by actor (and champion letter-reader) Benedict Cumberbatch, as seen and heard in the Letters Live video above. Putting on a not-overdone New York accent, the English star of Sherlock and The Imitation Game delivers with all necessary force Lewitt's advice to "leave the 'world' and 'ART' alone and also quit fondling your ego," to "empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing," to know "that you don't have to justify your work — not even to yourself." Be warned that this creative coaching session does gets a little NSFW at times, but then, so do some of the finest works of art — and so do the truths we need to hear to make them.

Related Content:

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Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Albert Camus’ Touching Thank You Letter to His Elementary School Teacher

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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