How Bon Iver taught me to stop trying to be creative

The value of creating space, showing up, and paying attention

Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.
- Susan Sontag

Writing and publishing something every day is hard, even if you have some tricks up your sleeves. But that’s OK, because “easy” is not the point.

My goals with daily publishing: get better at paying attention to the world, noticing interesting things, capturing them in written form, and polishing what I’ve written so it’s more enjoyable to read.

That’s it. And some things that would make it easier would also interfere with those goals.

For example, one thing I’ve avoided so far is building up a backlog. Yes, it’d be nice to have a dozen pieces in the hopper, but I fear it might interfere with the daily practice of listening, of waiting, of “paying attention to the world”.

One of my tricks is jot down ideas of things to write about whenever they come to me. I’ve captured 70+ ideas in the last month, but curiously, I rarely go back and find something interesting and then write about it. The act of recording the note seems to be more helpful than referencing it later.

Probably, the act of jotting down an idea lodges it in my subconscious somehow, so that later if it resurfaces it’s easier to write about.

But that’s a boring way to think about it, so I prefer to imagine that me jotting down ideas is a way of giving them to my muse as an offering. And maybe if I’m lucky she’ll give them back to me later, in a better form, when the time is right.

This idea of a muse intrigues me. It conjures a sense that the creativity is not really coming from you, but rather you’re just letting it flow through you.

On the amazing podcast You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, Zach Braff talks about having Bon Iver write a song for his film Wish I Was Here:

My music supervisor went up to Wisconsin where he works out of a farm. She showed him the movie, and he just stood up and went in his studio and wrote the song…the song was beautiful but it wasn’t exactly what I pictured for the moment…so I had the balls to reach out and say “Oh my god, thank you so much, this is an outstanding piece of music, but it doesn’t exactly fit where I was going to put it, is there any chance you’d do X, Y, and Z to it?” which I’m embarrassed to say I said, but I did say it.

And he just wrote back and said “Zach, I just have admit, that’s what came out of me.”

I love that idea, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything is going to come, or that I won’t like what does come.

However, with the muse model, I stress about it less. My goal shifts from “write something amazing”, which feels like a standard I will often fail to measure up to, and instead becomes “show up and record what you’re given”, which feels much more approachable. All I need to do is create some space and then show up and listen.

For example, the routine I’ve fallen into is to get up very early (4:30am), have coffee, do my morning pages (which I’ve been doing most days for 15+ years), meditate, and then go for a long walk in the park nearby. If I have something that’s really foremost in my mind, I’ll ruminate about that and usually end up writing about it later. If not, I try not to force it. I trust that something will be given to me.

This morning I left my apartment at 5:45am with nothing in mind to write about later. I scanned my list of ideas. A couple seemed mildly interesting, but nothing jumped out at me. I kept walking and thinking. I took this picture of a raccoon:

I kept trying to think of something to write about, but nothing was really jumping out at me, so I let go and just ambled. I let my mind wander for the next half hour. Eventually this post came to me, so I recorded a short voice memo with the elements, then kept walking. Then two more ideas came to me, which I dutifully jotted down. Maybe I’ll write about them next, or maybe the muse will give me something else. We’ll have to see.

But what if what comes isn’t good, or people don’t like it?

Ultimately if you view creativity as something that flows through you, then maybe don’t worry too much about it. Sure, you edit and polish, but you didn’t really create this thing, you were just given it, and then you conveyed it to the best of your abilities. Sometimes it’ll be good, sometimes it’ll suck. And trust that if you keep doing your best to convey what the muse tells you, she’ll tell you better and better things.

If you’re a writer or artist or otherwise creative, I’d love to hear about your process and how you think about your relationship with creativity!

Much love,

PS - if you’re a Scrubs fan, I highly recommend the new podcast “Fake Doctors, Real Friends” where Scrubs co-stars and real-life best friends Zach Braff and Donald Faison watch the old episodes of Scrubs from 20 years ago and reminisce about what the experience of making it was like. It’s light and heartwarming, which I often need right now.