What exactly does Rick Rubin do? For more than 40 years, Rubin has produced some of the most popular and influential musicians in the world. He’s helped Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, Adele, and many more make some of their best work, but this basic question has evaded answer. In “Shangri-La,” a 2019 documentary series about Rubin and his studio, he struggles with it himself. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s only instinctive. I have no skill set.”
“The Creative Act: A Way of Being” is evidence that, a few years later, Rubin’s answer remains the same. His view of the creative process and the tools he provides for leading an artistic life are often head-scratching, convoluted, and contradictory. This is especially grating in the first half of the book, where he speaks most generally about making art.
The language he chooses to describe inspiration oscillates between spiritual and technobabble jargon. “We are all translators for messages the universe is broadcasting,” he writes at one point. “There’s an abundant reservoir of high-quality information in our subconscious,” he writes at another. He often abandons established vocabulary after a few pages. The metaphor he turns back to most often is perhaps the least appealing of them all: artists are vessels, their inspiration is the source, and there’s a filter in between which “distills.” It sounds like copy lifted from a microbrewery tour and doesn’t do much to enlighten.
When he breaks out of these alienating images, he steers into even more bizarre territory. One of the few personal anecdotes in the book comes with Rubin’s recommendation to open a book to a random page and read a random line. In this story, he has just been diagnosed with a burst appendix. Instead of going to the hospital as the doctor suggests, he goes to a bookstore. There, he opens up a new book by controversial alternative medicine advocate Dr. Andrew Weil. The first line he sees tells him that any doctor who says a part of your body serves no purpose is lying. “The information I needed was made available to me in that moment. And I still have my appendix,” he concludes.
Wading through these descriptions and stories, it eventually becomes clear where the disconnect is. Rubin believes that artists should do whatever and be wherever they need to be in order to make their best art. His essential skill is saying the things they need to hear at the times they need to hear them and creating the space they need to be in when they need to be in it. This is a one-on-one skill based on intuition. It is the opposite of the type of thing that makes a good book.
To Rubin’s credit, he does not try to mask this: “For every rule followed, examine the possibility that the opposite might be similarly interesting. Not necessarily better, just different. In the same way, you can try the opposite or the extreme of what’s suggested in these pages and it will likely be just as fruitful.” It’s better to be honest about this than it would be to lie, but it doesn’t make the advice any more useful. It’s true that experimenting and keeping an open mind is good, but it’s more like a tweet than a book.
“The Creative Act” is most compelling when Rubin stops trying to offer multiple paths at once and starts writing about things he is more certain about. Across his dozens of collaborations with an incredibly varied collection of artists, the only consistent approach to the actual work is reduction. “Distilling a work to get it as close to its essence as possible is a useful and informative practice,” he writes. “Sometimes the ornamentation can be of use, often not. Less is generally more.” These soft-spoken directions have the volume of 1,000 megaphones compared to earlier wishy-washy suggestions, although “The Creative Act” as a whole suggests that cutting is easier said than done. “If you’ve written a book that’s over three hundred pages, try to reduce it to less than a hundred without losing its essence,” he writes on page 387. Maybe he gave it a shot and this was the result.
Ironically, the most searing part of “The Creative Act” isn’t about the act of creation at all: It’s about what comes after. “Success occurs in the privacy of the soul,” Rubin writes. “Success has nothing to do with variables outside yourself.” Rubin has seen first-hand the consequences of expecting outside validation to provide inner fulfillment, and he tries to prevent readers from making the same mistake. “Most aspects of popularity are not as advertised. And the artist is often just as empty as they were before, probably more so.”
This moment is one of a few in which Rubin even alludes to the creative work that he actually does. His philosophy is carved out of his personal experience, but he works diligently to keep that process out of view. Without stories of how he came to his beliefs or examples of his techniques working in practice, the book is insubstantial. Rubin fails his own standard twice: “The Creative Act” is bloated and missing its essence.
THE CREATIVE ACT: A Way of Being
By Rick Rubin
Penguin Press, 432 pages, $32
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic.