Brain Pickings

Claiming an Education: Adrienne Rich’s Spectacular 1977 Commencement Address

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“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”

In September of 1977, months before the publication of her exquisite Dream of a Common Language and exactly two decades before becoming the first and so far only person to refuse the prestigious National Medal of Arts in an act of remarkable political courage, Adrienne Rich stood before the graduating women at Douglass College and delivered one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time. The speech, titled “Claiming an Education,” was eventually reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library) — the same magnificent compendium of Rich’s writing that also gave us her timelessly beautiful exploration of how relationships refine our truths.

Adrienne Rich at age 22, 1951. Photograph by Peter Solmssen (Schlesinger Library)

What does it mean to “claim” an education, exactly? Like time, which is not something we make but something we find, Rich begins by arguing that education requires an element of active personal initiative:

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Rich considers the gendered nature of academia’s substance, a lament that seems dated only if we choose to remain blind to the hidden currents still sweeping society. She captures this with devastating succinctness:

One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women’s experience and thought from the curriculum… What you can learn [in college] is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc. When you read or hear about “great issues,” “major texts,” “the mainstream of Western thought,” you are hearing about what men, above all white men, in their male subjectivity, have decided is important.

And yet Rich is careful to counter any misperception that taking more “women’s studies” courses is the solution to this cultural imbalance:

While I think that any [student] has everything to gain by investigating and enrolling in women’s studies courses, I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves. Our upbringing as women has so often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people…

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation… It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others — parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children — that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.

Enacting this responsibility to ourselves, Rich argues, is how we can begin to imagine immensities and a choice monumental stakes:

The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

Adrienne Rich, 1970s

Lamenting the institutionalized biases of the academy — an academy that only a century earlier refused to grant women access and even today has a severe gender bias — Rich urges:

Too often, all of us fail to teach the most important thing, which is that clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and that these require hard work. Sometimes, perhaps in discouragement with a culture which is both antiintellectual and antiwoman, we may resign ourselves to low expectations for our students before we have given them half a chance to become more thoughtful, expressive human beings. We need to take to heart the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet, a thinking woman, and a feminist, who wrote in 1845 of her impatience with studies which cultivate a “passive recipiency” in the mind, and asserted that “women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.” Note that she implies a defect which can be remedied by intellectual training; not an inborn lack of ability.

Returning to the central notion that education is something we claim rather than receive, Rich turns to the student’s own responsibility in the equation — an assertion essential to the education and empowerment of women, but also one whose foundation applies to all genders across all fields of personal growth:

The contract on the student’s part involves that you demand to be taken seriously so that you can also go on taking yourself seriously. This means seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do…

It means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here. It means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to the belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college — if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will no longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.

More of Rich’s inextinguishable mind can be found between the covers of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Sample it further with Rich on the dignity of love, then complement this particular gem with more spectacular commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work

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“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Van Morrison once characterized Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) as the greatest living poet. And since poetry, per Muriel Rukeyser’s beautiful definition, is an art that relies on the “moving relation between individual consciousness and the world,” to glimpse Dylan’s poetic prowess is to grasp at once his singular consciousness and our broader experience of the world. That’s precisely what shines through in Paul Zollo’s 1991 interview with Dylan, found in Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — that excellent and extensive treasure trove that gave us Pete Seeger on originality and also features conversations with such celebrated musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, Carole King, and Neil Young, whose insights on songwriting extend to the broader realm of creative work in a multitude of disciplines.

Zollo captures Dylan’s singular creative footprint:

Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him.

[…]

There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained his songs throughout the years.

One essential aspect of Dylan’s creative process that comes up again and again in the interview is the notion of the unconscious and the optimal environment for its free reign. Dylan tells Zollo:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

Like many creators, Dylan values that unconscious aspect of creativity far more than rational deliberation, speaking to the idea that the muse cannot be willed, only welcomed — a testament to the role of unconscious processing in the psychological stages of creative work. He tells Zollo:

The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.

In order to do that, he adds, one must “stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” Contrary to Bukowski’s punchy assertion that the ideal environment for creativity is an irrelevant delusion and E.B. White’s admonition that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Dylan believes this optimal frame of mind can be induced — or, at least, greatly aided — by the right conditions:

For me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing…

Environment is very important. People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments.

To foster such unconscious receptivity, Dylan argues that “you have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind” and explains:

First of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of them thoughts.

Then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see it but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all that it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the Me Decade, whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.

Dylan makes a seemingly controversial statement that resonates with new layers of poignancy in our present age of seemingly infinite cloud libraries of streamable music and a constant, industrialized churning out of disposable pop hits:

The world don’t need any more songs… As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred songs, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs.

Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.

But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it… Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.

In fact, Dylan seems to regard “popular entertainers” — despite counting himself among them — with a certain degree of contempt and mistrust:

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.

Dylan considers what it takes to be among the few rare exceptions worthy of true creative respect:

Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kinds of stuff together, she’s learned her thing… But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot.

When Zollo asks Dylan whether he sees himself the way Van Morrison famously characterized him, Dylan replies:

[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication.

[Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t… poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets! [Laughs]

[…]

Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code.

[Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings…

When the conversation veers into the question of whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and people’s skepticism about accepting that a single person was able to produce such a body of work, Dylan makes a remark that extends to a great many more aspects of society:

People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.

He seems especially dismissive of public opinion and even more so, similarly to David Bowie, of artists’ preoccupation with it:

It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.

As the conversation progresses, Zollo returns to songwriting, citing Pete Seeger’s assertion that originality is a myth and all songwriters are “links in a chain,” to which Dylan responds:

The evolution of a song is like a snake, with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.

Considering his own songs, Dylan contemplates their nature, the self-transcendence necessary for writing, and the creative value of being an outcast:

My songs aren’t dreams. They’re more of a responsive nature…

To me, when you need them, they appear. Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Complement it with similar meditations on process and creativity from the world of writing, including thoughts by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Masturbation, and the Beloved Author’s Response

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“Dear Judy, I want to ask you a very important question…”

In 1879, Mark Twain delivered a brilliant satirical lecture about masturbation, mocking the cultural hypocrisies around a practice so prevalent, so natural, yet so condemned. Nearly 130 years later, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach traced the perilous religious roots of these hypocrisies. But the most poignant reflections on the subject come from those that suffer from such stigmas most acutely and with the least social support available: children. It’s no surprise, then, that kids whose parents and teachers either don’t address the subject or shroud it in censorship and condemnation would look for solace elsewhere.

Generations have found such solace — as well as a comforting sense of being less alone and less abnormal in their unwitting normalcy — in the books of beloved author Judy Blume, who has tackled many timelessly tricky subjects in her young-adult novels, including masturbation in the 1973 classic Deenie. But Blume addresses the subject directly in a chapter of the wholly excellent Letters to Judy (public library) — the same wonderful vintage compendium that gave us children’s moving letters to Blume about being queer.

Judy Blume signing a copy of Deenie (photograph by Mariah Jasmine Bonifacio)

In one letter, 13-year-old Nikki sends an itemized list of questions that might appear amusing at first glance, but is, upon closer inspection, emblematic of a profound cultural failure — a failure to inform, and an implicit failure to comfort by normalizing the very thing that is so natural and common yet so capable of instilling a soul-shattering sense of isolation in children made intentionally unaware of this prevalence:

Dear Judy,

I read your book Deenie. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was to know that I’m not the only person to do what Deenie does. You are the only person who has ever mentioned anything about this. So could you please answer my questions.

  1. How did you find out about this?
  2. Is it a kind of disease?
  3. How did I know to start doing this?
  4. Am I weird?
  5. How many other letters have you received saying that other people do this (if any)?
  6. Approximately how many people do this?
  7. Is what I do going to harm my insides (like by not letting me have children)?
  8. Am I a fag?

I hope to hear from you very soon. Please!

Blume targets the source and addresses the parents who make such anguishing and unnecessary spirals of anxiety possible, relaying a story at once heartening in showing that kids will always find a way to pursue their curiosity, and heartbreaking in revealing the outrageous acts of censorships of which adults are capable in their efforts to curtail that boundless curiosity:

When you are choosing books about sexuality for your kids make sure that there is an honest discussion of masturbation included. Chances are, they’re not going to want to talk about it with you, but just finding out that it’s okay will be a relief for them.

A young man wrote that he didn’t get a good night’s sleep during his adolescent years. He tried to train his mind before he went to sleep to think about mathematical problems. He tried to concentrate on them so he wouldn’t have erections, or worse, wet dreams.

When Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was published I met a woman who told me that her son had been given a copy for his twelfth birthday. She read the book first but before giving it back to him she cut out two pages. “How did you do that?” I asked. “With a scissors,” she said. When I asked why she had cut out those two pages she told me that she didn’t think her son was old enough to read about wet dreams or masturbation.

Last year I met her son. He is twenty-four now. I asked him if he remembered the book. “Sure,” he said. “And I always knew that my mother had cut out those pages even though she told it was a printing error. So I went down to the public library and I read the rest of the book there.”

Another 13-year-old, Jolene, speaks to the precious gift of Blume’s books in pulverizing that sense of isolation and aberration:

Dear Judy,

I have read all of your books. They helped me not to be afraid and they answer my questions. I thought I was different but I’m not. In your books are things I would never bring out in the open with my mother. Like in your book Deenie — she touches her special place. Well, I do that too, but I always thought I was the only one.

14-year-old Barbara is on the same page:

Dear Judy,

My mom and I have a very open relationship. But the one thing I cannot bring myself to mention to anyone is masturbation. I know (and your books helped me to understand) that it’s not bad. Just something about it is really embarrassing.

In this heartbreaking letter, 12-year-old Heather offers another account of the traumatic and toxic cultural narrative purveyed to children about one of the body’s most natural physical experiences:

Dear Judy,

I want to ask you a very important question. Okay, I’ll start from the beginning. When I was little, about four or five, I started touching my special place. And I got a nice feeling. I had a baby-sitter during this time. Her name was Donna. And she knew that I touched my special place. She said that if I kept touching it, it would get big, then it would bleed, then it would fill with pus and pop! Then I would have to have an operation. So I stopped touching it.

When I was going into sixth grade I started again. And one day this stuff came out of me. My mom said it was discharge and that it’s normal. But I’m scared to even touch my special place now. I think it will pop. This is serious. I told my mom and she told me that Donna was just lying but I’m still scared. Can you explain what happened? Please answer this letter as I am very scared.

Blume addresses the all too pervasive issue:

Yes, there are still myths about masturbation! The stories that Donna told Heather were frightening and destructive. A grown man wrote that his adolescent years were “a quiet hell of silent suffering.” He said that he thought it was the fact that nobody ever talked about masturbation that led him to believe that he was the only disgusting, degenerate pervert in the world.

I never heard the word masturbation when I was growing up. Yet at twelve I knew I had a special place and that I could get that good feeling by touching it. I talked about it with some of my friends, who had also discovered that they had special places. I never found anything relating to my early sexuality in books, so there was some comfort in finding out from my friends that I was not alone.

For an added delight, complement Letters to Judy with Amanda Palmer’s tribute to Judy Blume, from the altogether fantastic collaborative record An Evening with Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer:

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