Brain Pickings

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt

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Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.

But hardly anyone has captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt — which is part of the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear — better than Virginia Woolf, she of enduring wisdom on creativity and consciousness and the challenge of writing about the soul.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 novel, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process, rendering in spectacular relief the particular granularity familiar to writers:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit this evolving library of great writers’ wisdom on writing.

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What Comes After Religion: The Search for Meaning in Secular Life

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“We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses…”

In their series of animated essays, The School of Life have contemplated what great books do for the soul, how to merge money and meaning, and what philosophy is for. Now comes a wonderful animation that builds on School of Life founder Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (public library) to explore what comes after religion and how we can begin to address the deeper existential yearnings which led us to create religion in the first place — a meditation that calls to mind Sam Harris’s recent guide to spirituality without religion and the broader question of how we fill our lives with meaning.

Transcribed highlights below.

Fewer and fewer people believe nowadays. It’s possible that in a generation, there simply won’t be religion across Europe and large sections of North America, Australia, and Asia. That’s not necessarily a problem — but it’s worth thinking about why people made up religion in the first place.

[…]

We may no longer believe, but the needs and longings that made us make up these stories go on: We’re lonely, and violent; we long for beauty, wisdom, and purpose; we want to live for something more than just ourselves.

Society tells us to direct our hopes in two areas: romantic love and professional success. And it distracts us with news, movies, and consumption. It’s not enough, as we know — especially at three in the morning. We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses — universal things, which need tending, like delicate flowers, and rituals that bring us together.

The choice isn’t between religion and the secular world, as it is now — the challenge is to learn from religions so we can fill the secular world with replacements for the things we long ago made up religion to provide. The challenge begins here.

For more on this slippery but vital question, see Alan Lightman on finding transcendent moments in the secular world and Mary Oliver on a life well lived.

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Mozart on Creativity and the Ideation Process

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“It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.”

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques Hadamard set out to explore how mathematicians invent ideas in what would become The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (public library) — an introspective inquiry into the process of discovery, using both his own experience and first-hand accounts by such celebrated scientists as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Albert Einstein. But what Hadamard uncovered in the process of writing his treatise were the general psychological pillars of all invention and the inner workings of the creative mind, whatever discipline it is applied to.

In staging the scene of his investigation, Hadamard quotes a letter from Mozart in which the legendary composer — who had plunged into the creative life at a young age — details his ideation and editing process, touching on some of the most universal principles of the creative experience long before contemporary psychology demonstrated them.

Applying to the question of creativity the same passion with which he imbued his love letters, Mozart considers the origin of his ideas:

When I feel well and in a good humor, or when I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me, I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so. Once I have my theme, another melody comes, linking itself to the first one, in accordance with the needs of the composition as a whole: the counterpoint, the part of each instrument, and all these melodic fragments at last produce the entire work.

More than two hundred years before poet Mark Strand would come to capture the electrifying flow of creative work and a century before Tchaikovsky would come to write of the “immeasurable bliss” of creativity, Mozart describes a similar experience:

Then my soul is on fire with inspiration, if however nothing occurs to distract my attention. The work grows; I keep expanding it, conceiving it more and more clearly until I have the entire composition finished in my head though it may be long… It does not come to me successively, with its various parts worked out in detail, as they will be later on, but it is in its entirety that my imagination lets me hear it.

Mozart then turns to the question of originality — a concept many creators have denounced as an illusion. (Most memorable of all denunciations is Mark Twain’s spectacular letter to Helen Keller, with Pete Seeger as a close second.) But for the great composer, originality — and thus the integrity of the creative impulse — is as indelible a part of our individuality as our fingerprints:

Now, how does it happen, that, while I am at work, my compositions assume the form or the style which characterize Mozart and are not like anybody else’s? Just as it happens that my nose is big and hooked, Mozart’s nose and not another man’s. I do not aim at originality and I should be much at a loss to describe my style. It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.

Complement The Mathematician’s Mind with the similarly spirited The Art of Scientific Investigation, an exploration of the ideation process published more than a decade later that builds on Hadamard’s work to stretch the inquiry even further into the frontiers of the creative mind, then see pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential elements of creativity.

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