Gary Snyder & the Need to Feel Deeply in Your Creative Work

Feeling things intimately can drive us more than money. That’s the finding of business behavior smart guy and “free agent” Daniel Pink. Feeling what we’re doing, immersing ourselves in the moment of activity, crafting meaning from our work – these qualities motivate us.

Yet, emotions often get hijacked by the intellect’s abstraction. A mind with analysis and quotidian fret at the forefront keeps otherwise potentially stoking emotions such as compassion and gratitude at a comfortable distance.

But to keep feelings at bay isn’t an option for creatives and creative entrepreneurs who want to flourish and feel alive in their work, who want to connect with their audience or clients, and ultimately who want to wed an intimate part of themselves with their work or business.

Writers, artists, designers, and other creatives burrow into their subjects’ skin. A strange sensual dance happens in the creative process between subject and medium. Words wrap around a subject. Paint becomes the subject.

We enter a place of felt mind, that part of awareness that glides into creative awareness so fully that we literally can feel words’ or images’ textures on our skin as we write, paint, or design. It is a place of verve and stillness at once. It is a place of emotional intimacy. It is a place we often yearn to return to.

I was reminded of all of this last night before we ate dinner. My wife and I have a simple ritual before we eat. On our farm table are scattered various books of poetry. One of us takes a volume, opens semi-randomly to a page, and reads that poem. Sometimes the poems seems appropriate; other times, not, but we enjoy the pleasure of the poem regardless.

Last night, Hillary took Gary Snyder’s collection No Nature and opened to “Prayer for the Great Family.” Now, if you know anything about Gary Snyder, you know that he’s not religious. But he is a man who lives in the deeply felt textures of his days. The inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, he has taken guidance from Zen, the Chinese arts, and any number of traditions that aim at living artfully.

The poem begins

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day--
	and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
			in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light-changing leaf
	and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
	and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
			in our minds so be it.
[the rest of the poem]

The poem proceeds this way with a stanza to Air, Wild Beings, Water, Sun, and Great Sky. Snyder has a masterful way of keeping himself out of the way and yet entwining himself intimately with the words and his subject. I don’t think of earth as sailing, but that’s precisely what it’s doing each nano-second. The staccato rhythm of “rich, rare, and sweet” evokes the simple yet complex nature of soil without embellished language. Each stanza is an intimate honoring, a way of the poet submitting himself both to the subject of the elements and to language itself.

In that intimate act, Snyder cares and connects that much more personably to the elements and to his medium. This poem is no generic “thank you” card to the elements grabbed off the Rite-Aid rack on Thanksgiving morning.

Why should our work – whether it’s writing a poem, working for a client, developing a business project, or crafting a shadow box – be any less intimate and meaningful?

In this season of gratitude, here is what Snyder shows me about the heart of creative innovation:

1. Submit to what you create and work on. Don’t try to figure out everything via analysis and prediction. Business plans are fine but not if they stifle your creating the business now. Outlines for novels are fine but not if you spend most of your time tinkering with the storyboard and little time drafting – and definitely not if an outline kills the joy of discovery and surprise. Humble yourself to the process and to not-knowing. Snyder submits himself to the elements and to language.

2. Feel what you create and work on. Drop down to this moment. What am I developing this business for? What am I designing this logo for this client for? What am I writing this memoir for? Feel the question circulate. What words and images and sounds and physical sensations arise that uniquely resonate with the nature of this work? Only in this way can Snyder hear and feel phrases such as “fine root-hairs” and sense the entwined relationship between what is out there in the physical world and the mind.

3. Dare to be intimate and unique and vulnerable in your work and in your audience or client relationships. The age of automaton, neutralized, voiceless, faceless “professional business” is fading. Clients and customers – like audiences for artists and writers – don’t want humanoid customer service reps reading from scripts. They want a human being who cares about what they need and want. This adage doesn’t mean that we get sloppy and self-centered and waste our clients or audiences time talking about ourselves. It does mean that we can respond with feeling, humor, transparency. Poets – whether ones with Zen-like observations or Mary Oliver-like lyrical exuberance – remind us how to be deeply feeling human beings in our work.

4. Feel gratitude. It’s not a concept. See it in your actions. Hear it in your words. Touch it with your fingers.

I wish each of you a Thanksgiving in which real words are spoken and true gestures expressed, in which family brings out the best in us, in which laughter and warmth prevail regardless of what someone else says or does, in which we feel our abundance, and in which we act for those without.

See you in the woods,


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  1. Well spoken, Jeff, thank you, and to you and yours as well.

    For those who doubt that work for hire can be every bit as embodied/heartfelt/transformative as any other creative work, check out the recent brilliant documentary on the advertising business, Art & Copy (http://www.artandcopyfilm.com/).

    Particularly eye-opening is innovative adman Lee Clow’s assertion that it’s actually a huge diservice to clients to withhold yourself from your work and robotically give them what they ask for to the letter. His firm, ChiatDay, created the famous Super Bowl ad heralding the Apple Macintosh in 1984 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8).

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