How can you know what is arising within you? Long before this constant parade of information, Leonardo da Vinci, in his Notebook, implored us to stop. He believed talent is not so much something one is born with, as something that can be cultivated. He gives us ways to increase our talent by describing a contemplative device, by giving us a way to pause, a method to access our imagination. He confirms that both imagination and talent are faculties that we can develop indirectly by simply paying attention.
Stories and poetry have truth that is timeless, a truth that doesn't change with cultural conditions or politics. To create, we must turn away from the external chaos, and pause and turn within ourselves. As makers, our task is to keep that voice alive, especially in these times of great confusion. Here is Rilke's advice to a young poet:
Think, dear (one), of the world you carry within you... be it remembrance of childhood or longing for your own future. Only be attentive to what is arising in you, and prize it above all that you perceive around you. What happens most deeply inside you is worthy of your whole love. Work with that and don't waste too much time and courage explaining it to other people.
I have just returned from a trip to St George Island with my son, who is an avid fisherman. I follow him around on rocks and jettys, carrying my sketchbook. I watch the water for signs: a dolphin fin, a pelican diving, gulls gathering. A great white egret perched in a tree of green. There are long periods where there are no signs of a fish– only the limitless expanse of water. And the percussion sounds of the water slapping the rocks: on the right, and then a response on the left. The pleasure of being out there eventually even halts my urge to get out my sketchbook.
It is curious to me that a few hundred years ago Leonardo felt awkward suggesting an approach to artists that he feared could be dismissed as "trivial" or "ludicrous". He says, apologetically:
Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud...in which, if you consider them well, you may find marvelous ideas...
When I looked into these ideas in Leonardo's Notebook, I was surprised to discover them in the section titled:
"How to increase your talent and stimulate various inventions."
When he says: "...it should not be hard for us to stop sometimes..." Imagine, he was saying this long before automobiles, airplanes, computers, internet– or even telephones of any kind.
And still, we get the impression that it was, even then, difficult to stop. Rilke gives us the same message, reminding us that it is we who set the pace:
We set the pace
But this press of time–
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.
All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.
Young ones, don't waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.
See how all things are at rest–
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.
–This Press of Time, Sonnets to Orpheus I, 22, Rilke
What are you doing to increase your talent and stimulate your imagination? When was the last time you stopped? I'd love to hear from you.