5 Creativity Lessons from Pablo Neruda
During our recent visit to Chile, one of my favorite spots was La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses-turned-museums around the country. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to write a post separate from our usual “Wanderlist” outlining our favorite experiences at each place we visit (read our post on Chile here).
If you are in need of some inspiration for your job, art or business, I encourage you to read on.
Any fan of poetry, literature or love has likely heard of Pablo Neruda. He’s Chile’s most prominent author—a Nobel Prize-winning poet famous for his passionate love poems and larger than life personality.
“In my sky at twilight you are like a cloud and your form and color are the way I love them." —Pablo Neruda
I’ll admit I didn’t know much about his life before this visit, yet it turned out he was quite an interesting figure with a fascinating legacy.
Beyond a poet and Nobel laureate, Neruda was a public figure, consul, womanizer, traveler, party host and political leader, among other things. A mere 12 days after a coup that killed a president and installed a far-right-wing dictatorship, Neruda died of cancer… or so they said. Controversy and conspiracy theories sprung up immediately—Neruda was, after all, one of the leaders of the Chilean Communist Party, and the new dictatorship was no stranger to jailing, torturing or outright murdering the political left (we wrote more on Chile's crazy history here). When his wife and mourners went back to La Chascona house, they found it had been ransacked and destroyed by police in an attempt to intimidate. His funeral, then, is historically recognized as the first public manifestation against a dictatorship that would rule with an iron fist for the next 18 years, leaving thousands of Chileans dead, tortured or exiled.
Regardless of the political drama, it’s incontrovertible to say that Neruda was a creative powerhouse. He wrote over 45 books throughout his lifetime, the first published when he was 20 and the last when he was 69. He was internationally recognized, and once read his poems at a stadium with 100,000 people. After his death, his house and possessions went to his third (and last) wife, Matilde Urrutia, the woman after whom the house was named. “Chascona” was a Quechua word for “frizzled curly hair,” a salient characteristic of Matilde and Neruda’s pet nickname for her. Deciding that she wanted to keep Neruda’s legacy alive, Matilde later converted all of the houses into guided museums to celebrate the life and work of her husband.
Walking around his house, a few things jumped out at me—inspiration from a life lived creatively. Neruda had much to say, and beyond words he used the language of architecture to speak.
I decided to capture some of the key lessons here, as well as some questions you can ask yourself to apply it to your life. Whether you are a painter, designer, entrepreneur, potter, writer, mother or cook (or whatever your art form is), I hope this helps spark some ideas and light the fire in your belly to keep doing great stuff. And, if you find it helpful, share it with another creative person in your life.
Below, five creativity lessons inspired by the life, house and legacy of Pablo Neruda:
1. Surround Yourself With Inspiration
Neruda loved the ocean. He called himself “the Captain”. In fact, he loved it so much that he built La Chascona to be reminiscent of a boat—even though it was in Santiago, with no ocean in sight. Beyond its architectural design, the house was chock-full of strange and unique objects, sculptures and knickknacks collected from his many travels around the world, from places such as Russia, China, Peru or Rwanda. His favorite fruit was watermelon, so he plastered watermelon art around. In his living room, he hung paintings made by his friends, which were often full of symbolism and personal meaning. He had a room with photos of poets and authors whose writing inspired him: Poe, Borges, Hemingway, and others.
Here’s the lesson: Neruda lived a creative life. But, as you likely know if you make any kind of art, inspiration can be hard to come by and hard to hold—not to mention that translating it into action is much rarer. It can be easier to distract ourselves with Facebook or Netflix, to avoid making and sharing art due to fear or sloth (or, as Steven Pressfield calls it, “Resistance”). So how was Neruda such a prolific artist? I have no doubt that he purposefully surrounded himself with all of these things because he knew the fragility of inspiration, the ephemerality of the Muse. He did more of what made him happy, he kept more artful motivation around the house, and that kept him in the mood to create.
What, or who, inspires you? What makes you happy? What activities, objects, natural wonders or works of art light a fire in your belly? Once you know those, how can you further embed them into your life? How can you place them around your house, office, phone or other space to fuel your motivation and creativity?
Displayed in a cabinet in Neruda’s dining room is a set of white salt and pepper shakers. But upon a closer look you can see that they are instead labeled “Morphine” and “Marijuana” (the shakers were indeed full of salt and pepper). The same cabinet had one more fun feature: it opened to reveal a hidden passageway to a different room, allowing Neruda to make a surprise grand entrance when having guests over.
Ever the playful host, he loved to tease and delight guests with these kinds of unexpected games and oddities. Moreover, his whimsical nature is as much apparent in his house (he once wrote "I have built my house like a toy house and I play in it from morning till night”) as it is in his poetry (“I want to do to you what Spring does to the cherry trees”).
This attitude of playfulness, mystery and wit is not uncommon amongst creative minds and geniuses of all kinds. In fact, John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, frequently and famously speaks about academic research linking “play” and creativity. Whether in art or science, it's in curiosity, spontaneity and play that creativity flourishes, innovation thrives and discoveries are made. Neruda had fun in life, he didn’t take himself too seriously. And this kept his mind limber and curiosity sharp, making him the creative legend we know.
What would happen if you took yourself a little less seriously? How can you embed ‘play’ into certain aspects of your art, work and life? Which relationships could use a little more playfulness, mystery or quirkiness?
3. Discomfort Breeds New Perspective
Walking around La Chascona, one thing stood out: it was a little uncomfortable. The floors were uneven and varied in surfaces. The ceilings were low (I had to frequently duck to walk from one room to the other). It was built in modules, so stairs and passageways abounded. Trees were growing from the floors. Back when Neruda lived there, a small creek flowed through the middle.
The house literally kept you on your toes. You could easily trip if you didn’t watch where you were going.
If you’ve ever lived in the same place for six months or longer, you know that very soon a predictable routine sets in. You leave the keys in the same spot. You wake up on the same side of the bed. You walk the same path, in the same hallways. You frequently use your favorite bowl to eat. After a short period of time, the set of habits and patterns executed each morning or evening is pretty much the same.
This very routine is what Neruda was trying to avoid. Inspired by nature, he built a house with the intent of being quirky and imperfect. Once again, he embedded playfulness to keep himself in a state of awareness, a state of alert. He knew that keeping his brain awake through discomfort is what kept him creative, what kept him fresh, what bred the new and unique perspectives required for creative work. Using architecture, he designed discomfort into his life to heighten his senses and boost creative serendipity.
How can you make yourself slightly less comfortable, break your routine? What can you do to keep your brain wide awake regardless of where you are? How can you spark a little serendipity into your life?
4. Find Others Who Challenge You
One thing I was impressed by as I walked around Neruda’s house was how many pictures he had with other famous people. He hung out with, among others, Pablo Picasso, Miguel Angel Asturias, Arthur Miller, Federico Garcia Lorca, and even, showing his communist tendencies, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Joseph Stalin.
Neruda was famous for surrounding himself with brilliant individuals, traveling to where they were or hosting them at home. More than just meeting them though, he actively sought interesting conversations with interesting people that were different than himself. He sought to be challenged, to debate, to inquire, to connect. Rather than only congregate with those similar to himself, he put effort into meeting people of other countries, cultures, disciplines, political views and art forms. Once again, he sought to keep his brain in “discomfort."
I am sure that this habit and approach to life was as much cause and effect of his fame—he met interesting people because he was famous, but he also became famous because he surrounded himself with interesting people.
I’ve written about this topic before (see lesson #3 here), so I won’t belabor it. But I will say that in the day and age of the Internet, it’s far too easy to only absorb information we agree with, to only interact with people with whom we identify, and that puts us at risk of living in a narrow mindscape, in a closed mind. In other words, these trends make us less creative. The broader point is that as creatives we must seek to be constantly challenged, to be confronted with perspectives that are broader, greater and more different than what we’re used to. Challenge breeds growth, and the more we grow, the more we’ll be able to create.
Who challenges you? Who helps you grow? Who inspires you? How can you spend more time with people like that? Similarly, what type of person would you usually disagree with? What would happen if you spent a little more time with people with whom you disagree politically, economically or religiously? What can you find in common, and what can you learn from them?
5. Purpose + Hard Work = Legacy
The last lesson I found inspiring is perhaps the most obvious one: Neruda left a lasting legacy. His house, his objects, his letters, his thousands of poems… all remnants of a life lived fully and creatively. We enjoy La Chascona today because he made stuff. He left something behind. And the world can now savor some of the joy, the passion and the words that he left behind.
That's what made Neruda (as well as other legacy-leaving creatives) stand out: he had passions, and then worked extremely hard to chase them. Neruda started writing at a young age and he never stopped. He wrote prodigiously, publishing his first essay at 13 and writing over 45 books over his lifetime, some poetry and some prose. Whether it was love, politics, Latin America or travel, Neruda had an internal fire that he spread using his words and actions.
Even more, he believed and fought for something during his lifetime. In his case, it was the expression of love, the pride in Latin America, and the Communistic ideal. And while I don’t endorse that last particular ideology, I admire the intent and passion behind it. More importantly, the fact that Neruda had a cause he fought for during his lifetime gave him purpose, it made him wake up every morning intent on getting something done, on writing a book, a poem or a letter that would make a difference.
Those who are remembered, even if they are remembered for one thing, have a mountain of work behind them. It’s a lot of work threaded together by a common purpose. It didn’t look like much while they were creating it, but at the end of their lives they all of a sudden could look back and see a massive body of work, of art, of change made in the world. And you know what’s another word for that? Legacy.
What will people remember you for? What would you like them to remember you for? What body of work would you like to leave behind? How can you create a life and habits that helps you achieve it?
I hope you find these lessons inspiring and helpful. If you’ve asked yourself the questions above and come up with interesting answers, I would love to hear them.
I’ll end with one last quote from Neruda himself, below.