T.S. Eliot is considered one of the best writers of our era. But what can he teach us about the creative process?
Here are the 7 lessons I took from studying him during the month of June.
1) Embrace Your (Inherited) Strengths
You are a younger version of your parents.
You know that, right? Of course you will do great and different things than they did. Of course you have your own characteristics and individual genius. Of course you will carve your own legacy.
But at the end of the day, you are a jumble of cells formed from a finite combination of 2 sets of DNA. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad.
Therefore, it’s likely to assume you will share some of the same interests, pursuits, and natural abilities which those older versions of you.
T.S. Eliot recognized the lineage of his craft. The Eliots had used writing as a major tool from communication dating back for generations. His mother, Charlotte Eliot, wrote an enormous amount of religious poetry, setting an example for her son.
Tom dove into that which came easy to him. Writing came naturally. Why? Because he had been observing a writer since the day he emerged from the womb. And although he later moved on to plays and critiques, his career started from the exact style of literature he’d seen his mother write.
Which begs the question:
What talents are you rejecting which come naturally to you?
2) Show Initiative, Even (Especially) if You Aren’t in Charge
Scholars will tell you Eliot was not a poet worth mentioning until his move to London and subsequent publications of major works.
In his school days, Tom conceived, wrote, published, and distributed his own newspaper to classmates. It didn’t seem to matter who read it. From that moment, he became a “real” writer. In a world where so many sit on their dreams, initiative itself is reason for praise. Eliot needed a vehicle to do what he loved. So he created one.
Let me say that again in bold so you don’t miss it:
Eliot needed a vehicle to do what he loved. So he created one.
3) Patience, Patience, Patience
There are traces of verse from The Waste Land as early as 1914. Eliot claimed this was the beginning of work on a “long poem.”
The masterpiece did not see the light of publication until 1921. The Waste Land is 3,016 words, roughly 430 words per year or ONE AND A HALF words per day.
Most days, it doesn’t matter how far forward you move. Just move.
4) Creative People Don’t Fit In
Whether consciously or unconsciously, all artists marginalize themselves on some level. Perhaps no artist was more intentional about this than our own Tom Sterns.
Tom entered Harvard in 1906. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “Harvard,” I pretty much think “okay that guy is going to have it made.” Yet, right from the beginning Eliot felt uncomfortable at the Ivy League school. A conservative locked in a campus full of progressives, he never did feel at home. This set off a pattern of nonconformity which continued through his life.
Creative scholar Howard Gardner writes:pica
“[Eliot] was clearly marginal by choice… the midwesterner at Harvard, the conservative among liberal students, the American perennially abroad, the celibate among the profligate, the believer among atheists, the poet among the philosophers and the philosopher among the poets.”
Like another Harvard dropout we all know about, Eliot planned to chase what seemed like an impossible dream — he would sail across the ocean to London and become a poet.
A sentence like that demands context, so let’s run through a brief reminder — in 1900, Europe was booming as an art scene. Pablo Picasso had moved to Paris. Henri Matisse began to set the foundation for his own career. Right next door in Russia, Stravinsky planted innovation after innovation in the world of composition via ballet. To parallel this era to the current Silicon Valley boom is not inaccurate. Success stories traveled quickly and widely. Stars of the age begin to emerge. T.S. was certainly not the only young man to dream of a success in the arts.
For Eliot, the choice to leave the lap of luxury and chase a literary life was the first of many instances where, when the whole world went left, he went right.
It worked out okay.
5) Use the Pain
Why is it that famous creative people never have a normal amount of sex?
Either they are wildly active and driven (see: Picasso, Martha Graham), or they are stifled to the point of impotence (see: Van Gogh, and our current subject)
Vivienne turned out to be Tom Eliot’s worst nightmare. She was wild and loud while he was awkward and shy. This dynamic stayed consistent through the bedroom, with records showing him refusing sex almost every time during the course of their marriage. Viv grew frustrated with the relationship and went on to have several affairs, of which Tom was acutely aware.
It is perhaps because of this tension, and not in spite of it, that T.S. created so much work. Unequipped with the means to express himself sexually and unable to communicate with his firecraker of a wife, Tom dove into what Freud called “secondary pursuits.” In this case, Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, and The Waste Land.
Said Viv’s sister of the relationship:
“Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet.”
The truth of this statement turned out to be more and more glaring as the years ticked by.
At last overcome by his tumultuous marriage, Tom abandoned the union in 1932. He continued to build his legacy with plays and critiques, but no more poetry. In the mid 1950s, he married another woman – Valerie, and his work slowly declined both in frequency and poignancy.
One possible reason for this? For the first time in his life, Tom seemed… well, happy.
Surely he had reached a level of career satisfaction with the outstanding success of The Waste Land. He probably felt a sort of pride in his rise to recognition as a critic. But happy? Comfortable? Content? Not a chance.
Picasso was probably still clutching a brush when he dropped dead at 91. Einstein contributed to a paper condemning the use nuclear weapons the year of his death, signing it just days before he passed. Yet Eliot’s creative output fell off a cliff once he sunk happily into comfort at age 68.
Can you make good art without an unhappy life? Probably. But drama often serves as fuel for work that can burn through the ages.
See also: Why Do Creative People Die Early?
6) There are Only 2 Ways to Become a Famous Writer
In a letter to his philosophy teacher, Eliot said this:
“There are only two ways in which a writer can become important — to write a great deal, and have his writing appear everywhere, or to write very little…and make each of these perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Let’s briefly run through each of those:
1) Write a great deal and appear everywhere.
Most writers trying to grow following today have a task list which looks something like this:
- Write post
- Edit post
- Publish post
- Create Instagram quote picture
- Use Buffer to schedule 16 “see my new post!” tweets
- Share snippets on Facebook
- Put out a funny gif and a screenshot on Snapchat
- Paste, re-format, and re-publish on Medium
- Pray to the nine Muses for blessing
There’s one problem with this strategy: It’s terrible.
“But T.S. Eliot said to be everywhere!”
Yes. And “everywhere” for writers like Tom Sterns in 1905 meant only “published literary journals.” Do you you think Eliot’s legacy would be better served had he read Portrait every day on a street corner?
I think not.
2) Write very little and make each one perfect in its kind
Which is exactly the strategy Eliot himself chose. Although his work is read by nearly every high school literature class across the country, Eliot created a relatively small amount of work.
Said Eliot about his own work:
“I write very little and I should not become more powerful by increasing my output… my reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse.”
*An important side note for writers trying to succeed today.
Today’s writer must be able to implementing BOTH these strategies.
Learning to write a solid listicles (yes, the ones your “real writer” groans at on your Facebook feed) can lead to crazy things — a massive new audience, syndication in publications like CNBC… and sometimes even a book deal.
Crafting an article worthy of T.S. Eliot’s “perfect in its kind” label can deliver results that don’t just get hot for a day, but cultivate a slow burn that is loved and shared for months to come.
How many of each should you do? Only you can answer that.
Besides, formulas don’t make a writer, flexibility does.
7) Creative People Need Partners
If my 2018 reading has a theme, it’s this: Busting the Myth of the Lone Genius.
Humans cling to stories of individual genius and prodigy. Odysseus conquers the sea. Jason leads the Argonauts into battle. Beowulf tackles the mighty Grendel. Hercules comes up against all the powers of Hell. Luke Skywalker overturns the Empire. All these tales are spun around the main character, the unstoppable will of a single individual.
Myths I can live with. Hyperbolic truths are harder to let go.
Take Picasso for instance. The movement for which he is MOST well known — Cubism — is often seen as a product of his imagination alone.
There is a much lesser known co-founder of Cubism — George Braque. Braque and Picasso forged the new form together. Neither of them necessarily stole from the other. They acted as partners and rivals, trying to better the other day after day. The result of this clash put an enormous mark on art history.
As for Eliot, his move to London earned him the fortuitous bump in to Ezra Pound, an American poet who had built a sort of foundation for Eliot to build upon. Ezra spotted Tom’s raw talent and knew he could make something of it.
This is not the story of a genius and his assistant. Truthfully, Eliot’s work probably never sees the light of day without the careful and critical eye of Pound. Ezra became the head editor, chief coach, primary publicist, and main motivator for the budding young poet.
Prufrock, Eliot’s breakout work, only had one author on the byline, but both knew the effort was a result of Pound’s relentless pursuit.
In this era of individualism, it is often easy to forget all our role models had others dictate their scripts.
It’s also easy to forget creative people are simply less effective alone.
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