The self-help book “The Creative Act” by producer Rick Rubin


The creative act: a way of being

By Rick Rubin
Penguin: 432 pages, $32

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In 1984, Ronald Reagan was President; “Beverly Hills Cop” topped the box office; and Rick Rubin, a Jewish NYU sophomore with an abiding love of hard rock, punk, and rap, teamed up with black music executive Russell Simmons to give young Def Jam Recordings the creative boost it needed to start a hip to become a hop juggernaut. His dormitory initially served as Def Jam’s headquarters.

In the years that followed, Rubin produced or executive produced several hip-hop classics, including LL Cool J’s “Radio,” Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell,” the Beastie Boys’ “License to Ill,” and “It Takes.” Public Enemy a nation of millions holding us back.” Rubin’s minimalist, spare production style, combined with the gentle mood, sensitivity and tireless encouragement he brought to the studio, helped these and other artists unleash their creativity.

In 1988 he left Def Jam and headed to LA in search of fresh sounds and a fresh start. If the story had ended there, Rubin would still go down in history as one of the most important music producers. But he was just getting started.

For four decades Rubin has produced everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Slayer to Tom Petty. Rubin revived Johnny Cash’s ailing career over the course of several albums that stripped the Man in Black down to his emotional heart. Incidentally, the shaggy, bearded, Zen-esque impresario has picked up nine Grammy awards, most recently for his work with the Strokes. Rolling Stone has named him the most successful producer of all genres.

Now Rubin has distilled his hard-earned knowledge into a book on creativity and how to tap, nurture and liberate it in the service of great art. For the most part, The Creative Act: A Way of Being succeeds in those terms, although readers can find many of the same ideas in countless self-help, business, and spiritual books. The difference is in the narrative, which with the assistance of author Neil Strauss is clear, compelling and compelling.

"The creative act: a way of being" by Rick Rubin

For Rubin, art is the ultimate form of self-expression, a noble vocation that enriches the soul. “The reason we live is to express ourselves in the world,” writes Rubin, “and creating art is perhaps the most effective and beautiful way to do this.”

So how does an artist go from conception to creation? Rubin methodically lays out the process and offers a mix of encouragement, inspiration and tips.

According to Rubin, artists of all kinds should open their senses to the world, to absorb information, to collect seeds that can sprout into an idea. Meditation, connection with nature, and exercise could help open these pathways. Artists should trust their instincts and feel free to experiment with form, function, materials and different perspectives. You can immerse yourself in great works for inspiration and even try to emulate them to find a new way of expressing yourself.

Some Ruby Rules: Hide naysayers. Avoid chasing money or fame. Strive for authenticity.

Then there are practices that are best avoided. “Fear of criticism. Investment to a commercial result. Compete with previous work. Time and Resource Constraints. The aspiration to want to change the world. And every story beyond ‘I want to do the best I can do whatever it is’ are all undermining forces in the pursuit of greatness,” he writes.

In The Creative Act, Rubin offers useful advice. For example, when an artist is feeling stuck, they suggest working around the problem to maintain forward momentum. “It’s easier to build a bridge when you know what’s on each side of it,” he says. Similarly, an artist could tap into their subconscious by placing a pen and paper by the bed to record dreams as they wake up.

Rubin’s reflections mostly hit the mark. However, he occasionally sounds more like a cool philosophy student than the musical and spiritual guru touted by his admirers. Take the stereotypically tormented artist whom Rubin seems to be romanticizing: He excuses her selfishness because “her needs as creators come first.”

Along the same lines, Rubin suggests that artists’ ability to see and feel things others don’t see—both a blessing and a curse, he says—can leave creators feeling alienated and alone. Maybe true. But only wealthy artists — multimillionaire record producers, for example — have the money and time to marinate in their own misery while chasing after this elusive muse.

Rubin also hints that artists have superpowers. “Whether we know it or not, we are a channel for the universe. Material is allowed by us,” he writes. “When we are a clear channel, our intention reflects the intention of the cosmos.” Right, man!

In the end, Rubin wrote a fascinating book, steeped in deep thought, insight and, yes, lots and lots of creativity. Although it would have benefited from more personal anecdotes, The Creative Act deserves a careful read with an open mind, body and soul.

Ballon, a former reporter for the LA Times, teaches an advanced writing course at USC. He lives in Fullerton. The self-help book “The Creative Act” by producer Rick Rubin

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