Brain Pickings

Joyce Carol Oates on Wonder, Consciousness, and the Art of Beholding Beauty

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“How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) — a chronicle of Oates’s characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.

One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 — a pivotal time in Oates’s life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the “blue wild snow-glaring world outside” and marvels:

How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.

She watches a “puffy-feathered female cardinal” rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as “the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God.” Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity — our human capacity — to behold such beauty:

Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?

…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.

She ends with a “tentative conclusion” that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman’s awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:

All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates’s 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.

For more beloved writers’ diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates by Marion Ettlinger

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Where Do Babies Come From? A Sweet and Honest Primer on How Reproduction Works by Illustrator Sophie Blackall

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How to answer the question that stumps every grownup.

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that continues to stump grownups — but no longer has to.

Complement with Blackall’s wonderful The Mighty Lalouche and peek inside her singular mind through her fantastic conversation with Debbie Millman.

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Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

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“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

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