The Creative Act: A Way of Being
Production icon Rick Rubin On Finding The Way
If you haven’t caught Showtime’s excellent 2019 Rick Rubin series, you’ve missed an opportunity to take a plunge into the depths of Shangri-La – the studio complex perched on the bluffs above Zuma Beach where any number of well-known artists have climbed in order to confer with the great man about their next musical move.
Semi-surreal scenes of Rubin’s life story are intercut with Zen-like shots of the man, barefoot and often reclining as he listens to playback after playback while trying to coax some untapped level of creativity from his guests. They play pool on the table seen in Scorcese’s ‘Last Waltz’ and take extended breaks on the grass taking in the Malibu air that kicks up off the Pacific below. It looks…idyllic.
But once you’ve seen it, you can almost hear his voice speaking out to you from the pages “The Creative Act: A Way of Being,” his newly published book that arrives in a nicely textured jacket from Penguin Press. The ethos that Rubin largely hints at in the documentary is laid bare in a 400-plus page collection of deep reflections into what it means to be truly inventive whether you do or don’t consider yourself as an artist.
What you don’t get are the studio tales and filtered gossip of what it was like to watch Tom Petty record Wildflowers, or to drink Brass Monkey in an NYU dorm room with Jazzy Jay. Rubin maintains that he’s been approached to write that sort of book many times before and that it was of no interest to him. Instead this volume almost presents itself as a self-help book— something that you can dip in and out of when you need to find a comforting waypoint amidst the chaos of the modern world. There’s even a nice chunk of blank pages in the back to make thoughtful notes about how you feel about your novel/song/painting when the universe seems to be pushing you towards watching re-runs of The Office instead.
But in and amongst the koans and the soothing affirmations, are some very thoughtful and practical approaches to rethinking how one might reconsider their practice. An overheard line, or a random page in a book could be the key to going…further. A trip out of doors can unlock an untold realm of color and curiosity. And a peek at what is within wouldn’t hurt either. In fact, Rubin would probably say it’s fundamental. Accessing the subconscious is one of the big keys. Context is another. If you’re blocked up about the thing in front of you, maybe it would be a good idea to let the air out of it— to deflate its importance and allow yourself the opportunity of creating without consequences. The passages are short and feel as if they were purposely paced to slow the reader’s digestion.
It almost feels like the book was written a page or two at a time—with Rubin setting each page down like a calligrapher, calmly and assuredly…one deliberate stroke after another. This might not be to everyone’s taste. Cynics and people in hurry might reflexively push back at the kind of Zen-like narrator that Rubin has become. Where is the brash, WWF fan who comically chided interviewers about not giving the Beastie Boys their due during their heyday? Or the detached label impresario whose detached cool saw Johnny Cash through one of the most magnificent resurrections the music industry has ever seen?
As he states here in black in white: “Each of us has a container within. It is constantly being filled with data. It holds the sum total of our thoughts, feelings, dreams and experiences in the world.” So this then is a more considered waypoint in the long career of someone who’s watched enough art being born that he can now distill those experiences down to their primal, constituent parts.
“Ultimately, the act of self-expression isn’t really about you.” Then what is it, you might logically ask. Rubin maintains that “art is a reverberation of an impermanent life”—an undeniable force that stems from our innate need to stake our claim on a particular moment in reality. True enough, and perhaps by his laying down this in such rudimentary terms, the intention is for us all to stop and peek behind the curtain of intention to see what else may actually be there. That examination, if approached honestly, might deliver a better sense of what there is to be had from taking a hard look.
So, in a world where YouTube can dispel a lot of the mysteries of how to record music or to play that guitar solo you’ve always wanted to learn, maybe there is a real need for Uncle Rick’s slow=cooked take on creativity—a dead reckoning of why we engage with the process at all.