Leonard Cohen’s first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, turns 50 this year. The late, great Zen poet was a master of his craft and a man who never let his creativity stop moving. When I listen to his lyrics or read his words, I can’t help but think, “Man I wish I’d written that.”
I can’t go back and steal his poetry, but I can use his philosophies for being creative. Cohen made a lot of beautiful music, but he also shared plenty of wise words on the craft of songwriting. Here are 11 laws of creativity I stole from Leonard Cohen:
1- Inspiration is elusive.
“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.” -Leonard Cohen
Good ideas are hidden. You have to wait and you have to work. Inspiration is like lightning– it doesn’t strike the same place twice. Look everywhere, try new things, find new worlds and new world views. Forget you’re looking for it and be ready when it comes. This isn’t easy.
2- Finish what you start. Then throw it out.
“Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it…The cutting of a gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.” -Leonard Cohen
Cohen believed in seeing an idea through before judging its worth. He would discard finished songs and throw out entire verses. He originally wrote 80 verses for “Hallelujah” (arguably his most recognized and commercially successful song). In the end, he threw away all but 4 verses!
3- It’s never too late to start.
Cohen was a late bloomer when it came to music. He wrote novels and poems but didn’t tackle songwriting until he was in his 30s. He entered into a scene that was already dominated by twenty-year-old Bob Dylan and The Beatles. This pushed him to work hard and to work always. He never let anyone around him say he was too old, or that his window had passed.
4- You can start late, but once you do… Don’t ever stop.
“I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.” -Leonard Cohen
Creativity knows no age, but it is a muscle. If you stop using it, it will atrophy. Cohen worked harder knowing, “there was an end in sight.” His final album, You Want It Darker came out in 2016 when he was 82 years old, just a few months before he died!
We all have a finite amount of time here. What are you creating today?
5- Process over outcome—Play for keeps.
“So, I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.” -Leonard Cohen
Art is self-renewal. It’s not about making one hit song and retiring rich. The work itself is the reward. If you make the process more important than the outcome then your art never stops. Each day becomes a day we get to create, not a rush to the finish line.
6- Stay Interested!
“As our eyes grow accustomed to sight, they armour themselves against wonder.” -Leonard Cohen
It’s easy to bring baggage and fall into old habits when starting new projects. But we can’t forget what it felt like before we knew. Be childlike. See the world through fresh, curious eyes. Don’t let your eyes fully adjust to sight.
7- Adapt and change.
“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be the sea-sick every day.” -Leonard Cohen
The times are always a changin’. This is good news for artists. There are new ideas— some great, some terrifying—born and shared each day. New ways to share your art, new ways to express yourself. You can curse the direction things are headed, but change is inevitable. Use the whirlwind of “new” for inspiration.
8- Show yourself.
“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen
It’s our flaws that make us relatable. People learn through stories and the best protagonists have flaws. They make mistakes and lose their way on their journey. Share your downfalls, show your scars.
When you feel like you’re sharing too much— showing too much of yourself—that’s when you know you’re onto something great.
9- Let your subconscious work
“In dreams, the truth is learned that all good works are done in the absence of a caress.” -Leonard Cohen
Think hard and long. And when you’re stuck, walk away. Let it sit. Hemingway also did this. He always stopped writing before the “well was empty.” When we take our attention away from something, our subconscious continues to work. Loosen your grip and the solution will rise to the surface.
10- Live, dammit!
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” -Leonard Cohen
There’s another quote I love by Henry David Thoreau: “How selfish it is to sit down and write when we have not stood up to live.” My favorite thing about writing is that it offers a license for curiosity. A life burning well means you’re changing and growing. It’s the spark of experience—good and bad—that provides the ash for great art.
11- Don’t wait for inspiration.
“One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” -Leonard Cohen
Cohen didn’t wait for inspiration to show up. This is common advice for writers. Inspired or not, you have to sit down and get to work. You have to dig and dig for a glimpse of the shine before you can truly begin. Sometimes it takes writing two pages of nonsense before one paragraph of truth appears. Don’t wait, start digging.