Brain Pickings

William Styron on Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers

By:

“For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most beloved writers of the past century, in large part due to his confident idealism and dogged determination about writing. It was a spirit he cultivated early on, unwilling to accept the standard industrial model of a formal education in literature as the only path to a successful career as a writer. From the altogether wonderful Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — a fine addition to my lifelong love affair with writers’ and artists’ letters — comes a missive 20-year-old Bill sent to his father on October 21, 1946, during his senior year at Duke University. After discussing the bureaucratic logistics of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, the requirements for which included two references who could attest to his “character, sobriety, virtue, and that sort of thing,” he launches into a spirited dissent against the limitations of higher education. Among other things, he argues that reading philosophy, particularly Montaigne, is not only a better teacher of writing than literature but also better at helping us learn how to live, which is in turn essential for great writing.

William Styron as a college student

Dear Pop …

I’m fed up, disgusted, and totally out of sorts with Duke University and formal education in general, for that matter, and I hardly see why I’m taking a crack at this Rhodes scholarship when I’m such an execrable student. Only the fact that this is my last semester keeps me from packing up and leaving.

I’ve come to the stage when I know what I want to do with my future. I want to write, and that’s all, and I need no study of such quaint American writers as Cotton Mather or Philip Freneau — both of whom we are studying in American Lit — to increase my perception or outlook on literature and life. For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year. By that time he knows that further wisdom comes from reading men like Plato and Montaigne — not Cotton Mather — and from getting out in the world and living. All of the rest of the scholarship in English literature is for pallid, prim and vapid young men who will end up teaching and devoting 30 years of their sterile lives in investigating some miserably obscure facet of the life of some minor Renaissance poet. Sure, scholarship is necessary, but its [sic] not for me. I’m going to write, and I’ll spend the rest of my days on a cattle-boat or jerking sodas before I teach.

Styron lived up to his determination. After graduation, he took an editing job at a major New York publishing house, which he hated so much that he intentionally got himself fired. He spent the next three years toiling away on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, under the New York equivalent of a cattle-boat lifestyle, scrapping together just enough money to get by. It paid off — when the book was published in 1951, it was received with wide acclaim and earned Styron the prestigious Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

William Styron in 1979

He never did teach in the formal sense, though his monumentally influential 1985 memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, provided unparalleled insight into the disease and informed much of our modern discourse about it.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Shepard Fairey on Capitalism, Freedom, Selling Out, and What Makes Great Art

By:

“I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards.”

In 1989, street artist, graphic designer, and activist Shepard Fairey created his famous Obey Giant sticker campaign, which spread like wildfire to amass a massive following and take on the characteristics of a singular semi-secret subculture. Nearly twenty years later, Fairey’s art reached a critical mass of mainstream awareness when he created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster as a tool of grassroots activism, rebelling against a previous administration that betrayed Fairey’s ideas and ideals in just about every imaginable way. At the heart of Fairey’s ethos is a profound commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which lends his work a new level of resonance today, as debates about net neutrality expose how toxic the intersection of corporate interest and government is for democracy and civic freedom.

Included in the altogether magnificent 2009 monograph OBEY: Supply & Demand (public library), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, is an interview with the artist by the prolific design historian, writer and critic Steven Heller. In it, Fairey discusses capitalism, the deeper ideological unity beneath the seeming dualities of his work, and the question of what it means to “sell out.”

HELLER: How do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?

FAIREY: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect… I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It’s not an easy game but I’m making the best of life without a trust fund.

Peace Elephant (2008)

Reflecting further on this question of “life without a trust fund” — the complexities of poetry and privilege in the arts, and the often limiting cultural mythology around those — Fairey turns to the question of what “selling out” really means. Coincidentally, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson had given a remarkable commencement address on the subject in 1990, a few months after Fairey created Obey — a character he considers “the counterculture Big Brother.” Fairey tells Heller:

To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let’s face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars… for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I’m diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!

[…]

I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I’m sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources.

Tyrant Boot (2008)

The Robin-Hooding of Fairey’s art isn’t directed just at corporations but also at the government, finding in street art and public space the ultimate arena for free speech and anti-censorship activism. He tells Heller:

I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy… I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the government. I’m a taxpayer — why can’t I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads, but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part, I think the merchants and the city governments don’t want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I’m trying to provide.

Complement OBEY: Supply & Demand, which features a wealth of Fairey’s most iconic and influential work, as well as more interviews and critical essays by Rob Walker, Henry Rollins and others, with this fantastic short film about Fairey’s art by Brett Novak, commissioned by South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art:

The best art … makes the world feel a little bit less terrifying, it makes things feel a little more intertwined…

This idea that a picture can be the thing that hits the viewer in the gut, that makes their head follow their heart, is such an important concept in my work that, no matter what I’m doing, I like the idea that someone can’t resist the visual allure of an image and, even if it doesn’t align with their political predispositions … the image itself will be beckoning at them to mull it over.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Anaïs Nin on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Lament from 1940

By:

“Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) was a woman who rejected the options handed down to her by life and instead lived by her own rules. She was also modern history’s most dedicated diarist, beginning at the age of eleven and writing until her death, for a total of sixteen volumes of published journals exploring everything from love to self-publishing to why emotional excess is essential to creativity to the meaning of life.

In 1923, when Nin was only twenty, she married the Swiss banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Guiler. They decided on an open marriage, of which both took ample advantage over the decades. But the biological cards aren’t stacked evenly for men and women in such arrangements, especially two decades before the invention of the birth control pill: In the summer of 1940, while in a highly involved relationship with one of her lovers, Nin found herself pregnant — by her husband. The circumstances were less than ideal: Not only were Nin and her husband already in dire financial straits, but World War II had just broken out, engulfing the world in hopelessness and destruction. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Nin’s lover, was a highly temperamental and explosive man intensely jealous of Nin’s relationship with her husband, particularly their physical intimacy. Amid these circumstances, Nin and Guiler decided on an abortion.

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the elusive nature of joy — comes the author’s moving account of the complexities surrounding women’s reproductive rights and exposes how little progress we’ve made on the subject in more than seven decades.

She recounts the day of the abortion procedure, performed on August 21, 1940, by a doctor who operated on her without anesthesia despite first assuring her otherwise:

I arrived at nine-thirty and was strapped like an insane person, wrists tied, arms, waist, legs — a strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he began to work, he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation in spite of the terrific pain. And so in six minutes of torture, I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it.

And yet the most important encounter at the clinic wasn’t a medical one but a deeply human one. Nin writes:

The only wonderful moment in all this was when I was lying on a little cot in the doctor’s office and another woman came in. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down, to relax. The nurse left us.

Soon I heard a whisper to me: “How was it?” I reassured her — told her how I had been able to bear it without ether, so it would be nothing with ether.

She said: “How long were you pregnant?”

“Three months.”

“I only two — but I’m scared. My husband is away. He doesn’t know. He must never know.”

I couldn’t explain to her that my husband knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with Hugh. Lying there whispering about the pain, I had never felt such a strong kinship with woman — woman — this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying on a cot, filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, or guilt, and of an unfair struggle against nature — an unequal struggle with all the man-made laws against us, endangering our lives, exposing us to inexperienced maneuvers, to being economically cheated and morally condemned — woman is truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much there is to be said against the ban on abortion. What a tragedy this incident becomes for the woman. At this moment she is hunted down, really. The doctor is ashamed, deep down, but falsely so. Society condemns him. Everything goes on in an atmosphere of crime and trickery. And the poor woman who was whispering to me, afterwards, I heard her say to the doctor: “Oh, doctor, I’m so grateful to you, so grateful!” That woman moved me so much. I wanted to know her. I wanted to pull the curtain and see her. But I realized she was all women — the humility, the thoughtfulness, the fear and the childlike moment of utter defenselessness. A pregnant woman is already a being in anguish. Each pregnancy is an obscure conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing away a fragment of flesh and blood. Added to this deeper conflict is the anguish, the quest for the doctor, the fight against exploitation, the atmosphere of underworld bootlegging, a racket. The abortion is made a humiliation and a crime. Why should it be? Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.

Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 is masterwork of candor, insight, and raw humanity in its entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Italo Calvino on abortion and the meaning of life, writing 35 years after Nin.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.