When I got to the end of Rick Rubin’s newly published book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, I’d underlined more sentences in its 432 pages of text than not. It didn’t take long for me to realize that as a roadmap back to specific moments of meaning, my profuse underlining was effectively useless. In place of an easily-accessed field of distinction, I’d made a rolling sea where everything and nothing was visible. But still, it was something.
Giving up my anxiety around a future ability to recall one certain passage or another by giving the pages a quick flip, I instead put what I’d just read to use. I imagined all the lines my hand had made while I was reading extracted and displayed, the text they emphasized gone. I saw a floating object, a transparent volume of pages holding an ocean of short horizontal lines. A little dense here, a little airy there—like a transcription of breathwork. My record of reading Rubin’s Way of Being, I decided, would be called Being With.
Releasing anxiety about getting the creative process “right,” or pinpointing art’s exact meaning or purpose, is what The Creative Act is all about. While the book—which is divided into short chapters, each concluded by a short, prayer-like summary—is sure to appeal to artists, designers, or other creatives by nature of its title and the renown of its author, what Rubin writes about is far bigger than a certain set of steps taken while making art.
The creative act, as Rubin describes in profound detail, is a spiritual attunement to life and what he calls Source. Actually, the act is not an act at all—it is neither singular, nor is it ever done. “To live as an artist is a way of being in the world,” he writes. “A way of perceiving. A practice of paying attention…Attuned choice by attuned choice, your entire life is a form of self-expression.”
Rick Rubin should know. He’s been present to the creative processes of scores of history’s most influential musicians, as well as his own. He co-founded Def Jam Recordings in his senior year of high school and has since spent decades producing award-winning records by Jay-Z, Run-DMC, Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Metallica, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Adele, and Brandi Carlile—to name a few.
However, within the book’s very first sentences it becomes immediately clear that Rubin’s insights, written in a way that is simultaneously simple and soul-piercing, are not the byproduct of his career credentials, but a collection of truths he was born knowing and has spent a lifetime recollecting. The table of contents alone provides guidance, with chapter titles including It’s Always There, Temporary Rules, Ending to Start Anew, and the question every artist I know is seeking to answer: Why Make Art?
The spiritual approach in The Creative Act will make it a timeless volume, but to read it now felt especially important, with technological advancements altering how some of us make art and how all of us may come to think about it. For those who find the prospect of something like artificial intelligence infiltrating the creative process destabilizing, this book acts as a balm in two really big ways.
First, it is a reminder of how intrinsically bound our subjective human experience and the creative process really are. What makes a piece of art about a universal ideal feel nonetheless specific is that it’s been wrested through one person’s idiosyncratic filter, formed by a chain of associations that can be hard to anticipate or replicate even by their maker. Rubin makes the comparison to clouds, all made of water vapor but infinitely individuated in shape and appearance. Like clouds, he writes, “art is a circulation of energetic ideas. What makes them appear new is that they’re combining differently each time they come back. No two clouds are the same.”
Which leads to the second and perhaps even more meaningful way The Creative Act serves as an assurance in a world of presumed scarcity and speed: there is no limit to ideas, no set amount for how much art can be made, or when, or by whom. In fact, Rubin believes the more we engage our creativity, the more of it there is—for all of us. “The universe is only as large as our perception of it,” he writes. “When we cultivate our awareness, we are expanding the universe. This expands the scope, not just of the material at our disposal to create from, but of the life we get to live.”
But most of all, Rubin writes that there is little choice in being an artist, and that once we accept that we are a channel for whatever wants or needs to come through us, there is little to worry about. “No matter what tools you use to create, the true instrument is you. And through you, the universe that surrounds us comes into focus.” What a relief.
I read The Creative Act cover to cover in order to understand its fullness, but I probably wouldn’t again. In large part because the depth of it felt impossible to absorb in a handful of sessions over a short period of time. It will go on the shelf next to other titles I believe have the power to divine in-the-moment truths when opened at random, like Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. (Rubin even talks about this—what he calls “looking for clues”—as a necessary practice. “Any relevance it bears might be by chance,” he writes, “but you might allow for the possibility that chance is not all that’s at play.”) By Rubin’s gentle laws about the ongoing nature of creation, to “have read it all” feels meaningless, and to “have completed it” feels impossible. When it comes to The Creative Act, I simply don’t want it to end.