What Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Watermark’ Teaches Us About Creativity

12 February 2024

Joseph. Brodsky Watermark Jeremy Bassetti
Joseph Brodsky's 'Watermark' in Venice

I recently reread Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, a little book published two years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The book is not just a series of reflections on his annual visits to Venice. Watermark transcends the conventional bounds of a travelogue, memoir, or history; it instead offers a brooding collection of vignettes of his time in Venice. Though, Watermark is much more than that. It speaks to the relationship between life, art, and creativity. Below are some passages that spoke to me on the nature of creativity, the arts, and the creative life.

Unconventional narratives

Brodsky’s little book challenges linear, conventional narratives. In it he writes, “The most crucial lesson in composition is understanding that what makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what.” This note is interesting because I’m not sure there is a narrative in Watermark. And herein lies the fist lesson. Watermark shows us that travel writing, nature writing, and books about place can work well, and say something meaningful, without conventional narrative.

The importance of experience

We all know that a good writer is at her core an astute observer, and in Watermark Brodsky suggests that experience is the foundation of creative expression. This is especially true for writers who draw inspiration from place and lived experience. In this way, writing is holding a mirror to the world.

One’s eye precede’s one’s pen.

Brodsky says he went to Venice not for romantic or touristic purposes, but to write and to simply exist. “It is a virtue, I came to believe long ago, not to make a meal out of one’s emotional life. There’s always enough work to do, not to mention that there’s world enough outside.” There is world enough outside, as there is in Venice, to pay attention to, to reflect, and to depict.

Depict! Depict!

Brodsky imagines the city of Venice commanding us to “depict it!” with pen or camera or our tool of choice. The city is not just a playground, a backdrop. It is rather a creative place, a place that wants us to engage with it and reflect it in our art.

The revelatory nature of art

Brodsky suggests that our art reveals more about us than what we explicitly say. Artifacts, or the products of our creativity, are imbued with our perspectives, experiences, and subconscious thoughts.

Our artifacts tell more about ourselves than our confessions.

If the act of creation is an act of confession, I’m not convinced Brodsky thinks it is something we, as artists, should concern ourselves with. Perhaps it is wise to leave the commentary, interpretation, and analyses to the critics, historians, and academics. Instead, as artists, it is our job to create. The true value of art lies in its existence and in the process of its creation.

The primacy of doing

Brodsky also stresses the importance of the physical and expressive aspects of creativity over the intellectual or conceptual motivations behind them.

The very movement of someone’s lips is more essential than what moves them.

And it makes sense that artistic expression holds more significance than the ideas or intentions that underlie them, for once a work of art is released into the world, it becomes the public’s to interpret and derive meaning from (or not).

On beauty, depth, and meaning

The most profound art emerges spontaneously. When Brodsky says,

Beauty can’t be targeted… it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

I think he means that beauty — or any other quality — is not something that we should strive for in our art. Instead, beauty and other qualities emerge organically from the pursuit of our art, often in the midst of mundane or routine processes, if they are to emerge at all.

If that’s the case, I wonder if artistic meaning, depth, and beauty are just serendipitous. Those who set off to write, say, the next Great American Novel are on a fools errand and will never live up to the challenge. The writer who doesn’t, however, and writes from a place of authenticity might have a better chance.

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