Art Backstories Creative Process Discussion of lyrics

“Nothing comes from nothing.”

Pondering creativity

When you have read and reviewed many books, as I have done, you eventually realize that even the least impressive creation is still an achievement, considering how difficult it is to do. People sit down and say to themselves, I will write that book, or I will publish that research I did, or I will write down that music I’ve had in my head, or I’ll sort out those poems that have been bubbling away at the back of my mind for yea long. And then they do, and they realize, oh, heck, this is difficult, dull and demanding. Takes forever, never seems to be good enough, or get finished, and everyone and their dog wants to comment on it. It’s not fun, it’s work!

It’s like that scene in the 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens), where “Tom Sawyer” is punished by his aunt by making him whitewash their picket fence. 

Photo by Scott Webb on

Tom, of course, doesn’t want to, but pretends that painting the fence is an exciting job that requires special skill. His friend, who watches him do it, falls for the idea, and ends up painting the fence instead of Tom. Tom has cleverly got out of doing the work. This was an illustration of Twain’s idea that work is whatever a person is obliged to do (must do, should do), whereas playing, or having fun, is whatever a person wants to do. Twain had a lot to say about work and how to avoid it.

What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it. Who was it who said, “Blessed is the man who has found his work”? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work–not somebody else’s work. The work that is really a man’s own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man’s work and cannot lose it.”

Samuel Clements/Mark Twain in “A Humorist’s Confession,” in The New York Times, 26 Nov. 1905

Work versus play

So, writing is like that: What promises to be your personal little game, your own personal fun and moment of creativity, becomes work – hard work – as soon as it you make it real and it becomes someone else’s work in a way. At that moment, when you have to consider your creation in terms of what else is out there, what people will expect, and what you will have to do to it in order to make it happen, it is no longer entirely voluntary.

That being the case, I have often wondered why people still write books, and how they traverse this change of purpose, from play to work. Take Dame Hilary Mantel, who has been pretty clear, and very amusing, about the fact that writing is simply hard work.

Dame Hilary Mantel (Photo: The Guardian UK)

She says that when she has start her day with writing, she occasionally would like to “hide under a tarpaulin and groan”. And, answering a question from a reader about what she wishes she knew when she started her writing career, she says that;

“…being a novelist is no fun, so it’s worth at least trying to be a playwright. But again, fun isn ‘t high on my list, it’s more of a self-respect agenda.”

Hilary Mantel in Mantel Pieces

It’s good to know that even supremely successful authors have the same difficulties with writing that the rest of us mere scribblers have.

This led me to consider why writers write, and painters paint, and poets…well, poet. If it is work, not play, and damn difficult work at that, why do it?

Nothing comes from nothing

For me the answer lies in the oddly philosophical line in one of the songs composed by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) in the 1965 film of the musical, The Sound of Music:

“Nothing comes from nothing.”

Something Good, sung by “Maria” and “the Captain” in The Sound of Music
A scene from The Sound of Music film, with “Maria” (Julie Andrews) and “Captain George von Trapp” (Christopher Plummer) finally getting romantic. Nothing did not come from nothing after all.

The lyrics go: “Nothing comes from nothing – nothing ever could.”

The phrase has much deeper meaning than one would expect from a frothy, romantic musical like The Sound of Music. But, partly due to the fact that I’ve had the music in my head for years, it has been my mantra for work. I always said to myself: if I make mistakes, and get into trouble, it is because at least I’m doing something. If I did nothing, nothing can go wrong, and vice versa, if I did something, something could go right. If I don’t try to make something, I’ll make nothing. There will always be that void, the promise of something that could have been, that could have been beautiful, that could have been significant.

The concept of “nothing comes from nothing” (Greek: οὐδὲν ἐξ οὐδενός; Latinex nihilo nihil fit) is a philosophical statement first argued by Parmenides in Ancient Greece, but the idea is universal: there is no break between a world that did not exist and one that does, since the world that exists could not be created ex nihilo (out of nothing) in the first place. In other words, something cannot come from nothing.

The philosophical concept of “nothing” is related to the scientific notion of “nothing”, in that most scientists agree that since the universe exists, it had to have come from something. Alexander Vilenkin, Professor of Evolutionary Science, defines “nothing” as a universe of zero size: it is as close to nothing as one can get, but still not absolutely nothing.

So, under that simple line, which Rodgers and Hammerstein further explains by saying that “Maria” must have done something good, rather than done nothing at all in her youth, lies a massive philosophical and scientific discourse.

Do nothing, and get nothing

But, as I said, if you do nothing, you get nothing. Whatever you make has to come from something, somewhere, somehow, and you have to make it.

And when you make the effort, and do the work, then you prove the theory of the creation of the universe: You are creating something new from something, just like a star is created from interstellar gas, and a flower is created from a seed.

This is what I tell myself when I’m feeling discouraged and embarrassed by my amateurish attempts, when my lyrics don’t work, and the damn chords sound wrong, and the story takes forever to get down, and the painting becomes a muddied mess: Hang in there. Keep trying. Remember: Nothing comes from nothing.

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