Brain Pickings

Werner Herzog’s No-Bullshit Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers and Creative Entrepreneurs

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Why all creative work is the product of “a furious inner excitement” and how to cultivate the best possible “climate of excitement of the mind.”

Psychologists have long championed the idea that the ability to remember and integrate experiences is a central component of creative work. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging beast of an interview that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you loveWerner Herzog lays out a spectacular case for the value of experience, of having lived wide, as the essential tool of creativity.

A decade before Kickstarter, he offers idealistic yet practical advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies with equal poignancy and precision to just about any field of creative endeavor:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

Later in his conversation with interviewer Paul Cronin, Herzog goes on to outline his unconventional vision for the ideal film school based on this very notion that all creative work must be rooted in lived experience and not in theoretical teaching or technical skill:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

A diverse repertoire of experience, Herzog argues, offers the creative person “legs to stand on” — a kind of insurance against the loss of dignity and independence:

If a filmmaker has no other legs to stand on, he can be easily broken. When someone knows how to milk a cow, there is something solid about him. A farmer who grows potatoes or breeds sheep is never ridiculous; nor is a cattle rancher or a chef able to feed a table full of hungry guests. The eighty-year-old man who brought me a bottle of wine from his vineyard before my first opera opened in Bologna could never be an embarrassment, but the film producer who takes to the red carpet at every opportunity and keeps his awards polished will always look foolish. I have seen dignified ninety-year-old cello players and photographers, but never filmmakers. My way of dealing with the inevitable is to step out of my job whenever I can. I travel on foot, I stage operas, I raise children, I cook, I write. I focus on things that give me independence beyond the world of cinema.

His most important advice, however, is also the one that seems most obvious but remains the hardest to stomach — a straightforward formulation of the psychology-backed idea that grit rather than mere talent is the key to success:

Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Elsewhere in the interview, Herzog addressed one of the eternal struggles in filmmaking and other creative careers, offering his no-bullshit advice on the question of funding. Indeed, A Guide for the Perplexed — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s equally engrossing 1978 philosophy book of the same title — is an immeasurable trove of idealism and practical wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work and advice to aspiring writers.

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Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau: Cultural Stereotypes Subverted in a Subtle Celebration of Diversity

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A sweet reminder that however different the hats we wear may be, we are united by a common thread of goodwill.

The loveliest children’s books have a way of distilling the complexities of our most universal emotions into simple, symbolic stories that invite us to restore our faith in the human spirit. Such is the gift of Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (public library), written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts — the story of an unusual day in the otherwise routine life of “the world’s finest hatmaker,” who spends her days crafting exquisite one-of-a-kind hats for “the hatless but hopeful” that show up at her atelier. Ordinarily, once the bustle of her busy day is done, Madame Chapeau returns to her quarters and dines alone, with only her dog and her cat to keep company.

One night a year, on her birthday, she takes out her most elegant dress and chooses a special birthday bonnet, then walks to the town’s finest restaurant to dine alone in her festive outfit.

But on this particular birthday stroll, something unexpected happens — Madame Chateau trips and feels her birthday bonnet fly off as a crow snatches it mid-air. (Sound familiar?) Outraged and devastated, she runs through the town chasing after the crow as various townspeople — a chef, a mime, a cowboy, a police officer — try to console her by offering their respective hats.

None of them will do — Madame Chapeau yearns for her singular birthday bonnet. Meanwhile, a quiet little girl, the daughter of one of Madame Chapeau’s clients, witnesses the commotion with equal parts curiosity and compassion.

Resigned to the bonnet’s fate, the disheartened hatmaker feels like retreating home to despair in private — but she suddenly remembers that her restaurant reservation awaits, with a birthday cake already ordered. Reluctantly, she sits at her fancy table with a sigh, holding back tears.

Just then, the little girl politely approaches and presents her with a colorfully quirky knit cap that she herself had crafted with her tiny little-girl hands.

The girl held a brightly knit cap in her hand,
with thin purple stripes and a wide orange band.
Its earflaps were yellow. Its pom-pom was green.
A freakier headpiece has never been seen.

“It looks rather odd,” said the Lady Chapeau.
“This hat has no baubles. No beads. And no bow!
It’s stretchy… it’s cozy… it’s easy to squish.
It’s knitted with love and your best birthday wish!”

“How wonderfully perfect! The right hat for me!
A true birthday bonnet, I’m sure you’ll agree!”

And, just like that, the day is saved by a sweet and simple gesture of generosity. The townspeople join Madame Chapeau and her new little friend in a joyous birthday celebration, feasting on chocolate cake and dancing into the night — a grand finale made all the merrier by Roberts’s vibrant vintage-inspired illustrations and Beaty’s Dr. Seussean verses.

But there is something else that makes this gem so magical — a subtle yet enormously empowering subversion of limiting cultural stereotypes.

Because the golden age of modern children’s books took place in the middle of the twentieth century, on the cusp of the civil rights movement and decades before the second wave of feminism, it is unsurprising that the genre, even today, is burdened by the cultural baggage of inequality — only 31 percent of contemporary children’s books feature female heroines, many of which purvey limiting gender expectations, and of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 only 93 featured people of color.

And yet here is a book about an independent middle-aged woman who defies the still-prevalent stigma against singletons and is financially self-sufficient by her own creative labor, who is white and services a wealthy black client, and who is helped into the dénouement of her challenge not by a patronizing Prince Charming but by a little black girl dressed in preppy plaid. There is, too, the many-hatted citizenry of wildly diverse backgrounds and callings, joined together in a common cause of goodwill.

More than a mere treat of storytelling and illustration, Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau offers a subtle but profound deconditioning of our most toxic cultural tropes. There are no stereotypes in this charming book, only the diversity of human experience in its real dimensions.

Illustrations courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers; photographs my own

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Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

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Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.

[...]

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.

A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:

Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.

In her eternally moving The Diary of a Young Girl (public library), Anne Frank at first questioned the very act that immortalized her and touched the lives of millions:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.

Oscar Wilde, a man of strong opinions and even stronger passions, exercised his characteristic wit in The Importance of Being Earnest (public library):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag's lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.

A few years later, Sontag revisits the subject in an essay about Albert Camus’s notebooks, found in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (public library):

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

Sylvia Plath like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:

Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.

But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

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