Lessons from Paulo Coelho

I like Tim Ferriss.  I’m not an entrepreneur (in the standard definition of the word) but I really do believe that if you want to make any money, you have to deal with business and so I read a great deal about business.  Tim is good at it, but he is good at a great many things because of his approach to learning skills.  He believes that for any skill, there is a small set of activities that yield the majority of possible improvement.  The simplicity of the approach is clear, but what isn’t clear is how to identify which practices are worth pursuing and which aren’t.  One way to tell the difference is to become aware and present to the task at hand, and wait for inspiration and insight to naturally arise.  But another equally valid (and related) way is to seek counsel from those who can already do what you aspire to.  Tim is a writer, and has a vast personal network, and so he has come up with a bit of a jewel on his blog.  Paul Coelho (who wrote “The Alchemist”, one of the best selling books of all time) answers Tim’s questions here .  His response contains a great many things that I feel strongly about, one of which is that Paulo does not have deadlines.

Paulo describes his creative process at the beginning of the interview as being a sort of avoidance.  He checks his email, he does his chores, and generally doesn’t write.  Then, all at once he convinces himself that he will only write for 30 minutes. And he says it so brilliantly “And of course, this half an hour becomes ten hours in a row”… of course!  Because Mr. Coelho has developed a true love for his craft, it is only the first step that gives him any trouble at all.  It reminds me of Newton actually, “Any object in motion has a tendency to stay in motion”.  Obtaining momentum is the trick, and the thing that causes us as artists the most guilt.  “I haven’t practiced in so long” or “But a half an hour is so little time” are thoughts that can easily be avoided if you just take the first step.  Kenny Werner, in his book “Effortless Mastery” (if you do one thing from this post it should be to read that book) describes a similar process he gives to his jazz students.  He tells them to practice for 5 minutes.  And “of course” that 5 minutes turns into 10, and 30, and an hour.  But it is not the amount of time spent doing the activity that is truly important, it is the fact that now, as opposed to before, you are actually doing it.  To quote my friend Melody (this is her poetry blog, she is a fine singer songwriter too… go find her on youtube.) “You either do something, or you don’t. give yourself the option for maybe, or for some of the time, or most of the time, and it isn’t gunna work out”.  And not to overdo it, but it reminds me of Yoda’s most sage advice “Do or do not, there is no try”.  Paulo Coelho doesn’t try to write as far as I can tell (I am not in his head).  He “just does it” – Nike.  His process is simpler than that of most writers.  Sit down, and allow the technique you have express the ideas that are connected to the present moment.  One of his morning rituals is to take a walk, which he describes as his meditation.  He uses a great many of the same words that zen students use to describe his walking, he doesn’t think so much as connects with the present.  Simple.  He has very few people that he works with, so he can spend most of his time with his “blessing”.  Simple.  He writes in spurts where he starts a book and doesn’t come out of “the tank” until he is done.  Simple. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ There is no set plan.  No rigorous and dedicated schedule to be followed.  The approach is flexible, and the results show its effectiveness.  Aside from being more effective, this method of creating allows Paulo to live his life as oppose to just observing it like a robot.  Which brings me to my next point, which is that Paulo does not have to strive for ideas creatively because he works this way.

One of the questions posed to Paulo is about how he gets his ideas, where does he go for inspiration, what does he do etc etc.  To which he responds “If you want to capture ideas, you are lost.”  You do not need to constantly think about what you are going to write about in order to write great things.  What is in the here and now when you are at the train station is more than good enough.  Paulo even goes so far as to say that he will take notes at night just to get those ideas out so he can sleep, he promptly admits to never using his notes.  They are a vestigial remainder of the writing that occurs during the day, an overflow.  You do not need to create everything you think of creating.  Much can be let go of.  In “Bird by Bird”, Anne Lamott tells her readers that they are going to have to write a great many drafts, and throw large portions of those drafts away to find the golden nuggets of good writing that happen in the moment.  There is no one way to create.  There is no right way.  But there is a pattern to how the greats do it, and many make the same complaint.  What is most difficult is actually sitting down and getting to it.  The rest is like pushing a boulder down a hill.  An exothermic reaction (for the chemists out there).  Creativity is an inherent human characteristic, and all of us are blessed in the way that Paulo is blessed.  But we restrain ourselves out of fear, and out of judgement, we must learn to remember that “What is important remains, and what isn’t important goes away”.  The product will be what it is going to be, what is truly important is having a free, loving process of which you are not critical.  I believe that modern technology makes it easier to meet these criteria.  The mechanisms for creating have come so far in the past few years, and continue to grow at a rate that only the incredibly wealthy can truly keep up with, and even they have no where near enough time to master the platforms of creation that have come up.

We live a world with blogs, and podcasts, and streamed radio, and torrenting, and websites dedicated to one person’s photographs, and youtube, and facebook… etc.  The mediums for expression are growing, rapidly.  There are stewards of the old way of doing things who say that this is bad.  Perhaps it will result in fewer books.  But perhaps those will be more precious and of higher quality as a result.  In the same way that the car saved the horse, the blog and the eBook will save the hardcover.  In the same way that CDs saved vinyls, torrenting will save music as a business (for the musician, who is the person that actually deserves the money dangit).  Progress is not to be scorned, and scorning it isn’t going to change things anyway.  Grow, take a deep breathe, and master blogging too.  What harm could come of it?  I love that Mr. Coelho agrees with me on this point, because academia doesn’t seem to appreciate it very much.  Free art helps the artist do what they have never been able to do for themselves before.  Advertise.  Now every card is on the table, and it is no surprise which artists are disappointed with that.  A new wave of creatives are being born into a world that will have a millions choices, and be able to craft for themselves (creatively) a set of influences so varied and vast that the potential growth in our era of art will be unparalleled by any other era.  Thanks once again to technological improvements. Those with the stones necessary will cut through forests of art that no one has even begun to map yet, and find that they wind their way back to classic forms the way that has always been done.  I can’t remember now how he said it, but in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” Shunryu Suzuki says that for every step forward you take, you also take one back.  The new and the old are one, and so to scorn the new just because it is new is also to scorn the old (Bach used to be the punk new kid on the block, and don’t you ever forget it).  We are just as, if not more creatively valid, than the generations that have come before us, and we are going to have to own up to it.  The world is essentially our oyster as far as I can tell, we just need to remember how the mussel is drawn from the shell.  Thank you Paulo Coelho.