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16 JUNE, 2015

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

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“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you — good stories should change you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

On how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC’s Note to Self):

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

[…]

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked — we do not even know which plants will kill us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years — a method that would transmit information for at least as long:

Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.

But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

On how the internet is changing storytelling:

A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.

I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.

[…]

The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potter slash.

On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:

Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…

The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.

[…]

One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:

You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses… Functionally, they are symbiotic — they give and give back…

The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.

Complement with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, his superb commencement address on the creative life, his advice to aspiring writers, and his eight rules of writing, then join me in supporting the Long Now Foundation’s vital and vitalizing work.

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15 JUNE, 2015

The Subterranean River of Emotion: Cheryl Strayed on Writing, the Art of Living with Opposing Truths, and the Three Ancient Motifs in All Great Storytelling

By:

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder,” Cheryl Strayed told an aspiring writer in her no-nonsense advice on faith and humility. But there is an enthralling ease — or willingness, perhaps — with which Strayed herself digs into the impenetrable surfaces of things and mines the raw material with which to warm our souls, be it in her celebrated Dear Sugar advice column or in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (public library), her magnificent memoir of mourning and self-redemption in the wilderness, which rose to such levels of cultural resonance as to become a major movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.

On the fantastic Longform podcast — a belated but befitting addition to these favorite podcasts for a fuller life — Strayed dives into the depths of her writing process, her credos and how she channeled them as Sugar, and the singular and quite possibly unrepeatable-in-our-time experience that precipitated Wild. Her immensely vitalizing conversation with Longform founder Max Linsky emanates the very personhood from which Strayed’s enchanting prose springs.

A necessary note here: We live in a culture that expects us to cushion a conversation with a phenomenal person with the apologetic caveat that it’s two hours long but it’s brilliant and well worth it — a tragic symptom of our shortcuttism. As I’ve lamented elsewhere — incidentally, in a long conversation — real conversations (much like a good book, which requires the same investment and rewards with the same intimacy of insight) are among the few ways to invite meaningful ideas into our lives, for we don’t arrive at meaning via sound bites and status updates. Lest we forget, William James was right — conversation is how “bound energies are let loose.” True thinking — the kind of deliberate reflection that welcomes wisdom — takes time. Digging past the surface of things — getting to what Strayed herself calls “the subterranean river” of truth and meaning — takes time. Time alone may not be a sufficient condition, for the conquest of meaning also requires thought and wholeheartedness and resolute intentionality, but it’s an absolutely necessary one.

Which is all to say, let’s begin to reclaim our humanity by reclaiming our language, which both reflects and shapes our thought. Let’s revert to the lucid conjunction: When it comes to communing with a shimmering mind, the conversation is long and therefore it’s brilliant and well worth it. And so: This conversation with Strayed is indeed brilliant and deeply rewarding in its totality. Below, I’ve transcribed some of the most shimmering parts.

On the latent recognition of how our seemingly unremarkable experiences add up to our becoming, something Strayed addressed beautifully as Sugar:

Some of the most interesting experiences, maybe all of them … become more interesting in retrospect, in hindsight. You know everything that happened and how it came to be.

On good books being the product of processing life’s raw material at its rawest and how that transmutation of sorrow into story into solace fueled her Dear Sugar column:

All of my life has been a processing… Having to forgive and cry and understand mortality and love … you have to do this, I think, to write a book.

[…]

We can’t essentially escape who it is that we are, and I am — for better or worse — a writer who likes to go into that subterranean, emotional world and to talk about the mysterious and dark and beautiful places inside of us… I always felt that story was the greatest consolation in my own sorrow, so when I started to help people in their sorrows and their confusions, I had to tell stories.

[…]

[In Dear Sugar] I might have told a story about myself, but it was really about the letter-writer — it was really about how can that story illuminate a truth that is universal, not just for me, not just for letter-writer, but for [the readers]. That column was like doing therapy in the town square.

On the misconception that her Dear Sugar column was about giving answers to others, while it was really about showing up for the questions throbbing in her own self and, in doing so, providing the sort of assurance that brings others closer to their own answers:

Ultimately, the truth is that we have to help ourselves — we all benefit from people helping us, but we will never get anywhere if we don’t help ourselves… [There is a] universal truth that we are all are responsible for our lives — that we all suffer and we all need to find light in that darkness, strength in that weakness.

[…]

It’s not as if I’m some sort of font of wisdom and perfection — what I’m speaking to is my own struggle. I’m talking to myself, too — all the time, every day. It’s not as if I have the answer and I’m giving the answers. I’m, instead, really down there in the struggle, speaking to it, trying to speak as openly as possible about what it means to be human.

On how great art transcends its creator and speaks to our own lives in the universal voice:

When we see a painting that we love, we’re not standing there thinking about the artist who made it — we’re thinking about how that painting makes us feel, what that reflects to us about our lives and the world. And so I love when love exceeds … its creator, which is the whole goal of art…; when it becomes not about the person who created it, but about the people who consume it…

This is especially true in memoir, where you’re writing about yourself — it has this horrible, false reputation of being the narcissistic form, which I think is pure bullshit. No good memoir is really about the writer — and yet it’s deeply about the writer.

On the three main narratives undergirding any good memoir — common threads of the universal language that illuminate the commonality between Strayed’s memoir, a form predicated on introspection, and her advice column, predicated on empathic outrospection:

If we go back to the ancients, those three narratives are there — they’re in the first writing that we have: It’s about sorrow, it’s about redemption, it’s about journey — the hero’s journey… When I teach writing, I always tell my students: “You might think you’re writing about your divorce, or your infertility, or whatever it is — remember the ancients, because nobody wants to read your book about your little tale.” Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story — insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…

That’s the writer’s work — it’s consciousness. It doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art — this is what we talk about when we talk about having to really apprentice yourself to the craft of writing.

[…]

When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.

On the great leap into the unknown that writing requires, the intuitive flow of which should still be tempered — as Ray Bradbury famously believed — by the intelligent discernment gained only through deliberate practice of the craft:

I’ve been a serious writer since I was nineteen or twenty, and I would say that the difference between being a writer now in my forties versus being a writer in my twenties is that I have just learned how to trust the mystery of the writing process… The most important thing that I’ve learned to trust is that I don’t know where I’m going to land, and it’s okay — but to follow the path where it leads me… I trust that there’s some intuitive place within me that’s driving me forward.

[…]

So you trust the intuition, but there is this point in the writing process where you damned well better know what you’re doing — you damned well better know the connection… The intuition falls away — you trust the intuition to get to that place you need to go as a writer, but then it’s not just, like, “Oh, I don’t know how it’s connected — I just know it is,” this kind of, “It sounds poetic, so it must mean something.” That never has worked for me — I’ve always had to eventually say, “No, this is the bridge.”

On the necessary capacity for duality, the complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the well-meaning but wholly misguided and infuriating cultural narrative that one should only “think positive” in order for positive outcomes to occur:

My mom was forty-five and she had a terminal diagnosis — she died seven weeks to the day after she was diagnosed… She wanted to live — and she didn’t. And she didn’t have any power over that… For a long time, I was very angry … at this very prevalent idea that we could conquer these terminal diseases with positive thinking — because, the fact of the matter is, sometimes people just get sick and die. And sometimes you just have to live with that fact, no matter what you want.

[…]

[And yet] you have to be a positive thinker — you really do have to control your mind in some way and think “I can” instead of “I can’t.” But I think that the danger of saying that is always [the question of] will this be misinterpreted [and] taken to its extreme [of believing that] you can actually reverse course on something like a terminal diagnosis with positive thinking…

If I had to say, in one fell swoop, what is Sugar, what is Sugar trying to espouse, it’s that two things can be true at once — even opposing truths. It could be true that you will suffer forever because you were sexually abused as a child — it can also be true that you can overcome that and not let that experience define your life. And you can hold those two truths in two hands, and walk forward.

I think it’s the same way with the positive thinking — you can’t necessarily think your way out of lung cancer, but you can have a happier life if you think positively in the face of profound sorrow.

On how she applied this dynamic duality to her own life when her memoir became a movie and she was played by the gorgeous Reese Witherspoon, which called for a real discipline in not succumbing to self-comparisons and resisting the tyranny* of perfectionism:

It can be, sometimes, really hard to rise at the most beautiful moments of our lives… I decided that I was going to try to shine, in a sort of Hollywood way — I was going to wear those pretty dresses and get my hair and makeup done and not feel out of place in that world, but I was also going to be who I am and be the size that I am and have the body I have and be the forty-six-year-old that I am, and not allow myself to feel bad about it.

So I did … this mind-control thing, where every single time I thought [something negative about myself], I said, “Don’t think that — you’re not allowed to think that.” And it’s amazing what that can do — when you actually don’t let yourself be mean to yourself… You’re saying, “There you are — I see you, I acknowledge your presence, and you will not rule me.”

And I think that is so essential to any kind of success. We’re all flawed, we’re going to fail, we’re all going to be afraid sometimes, we’re all going to feel terrible about ourselves sometimes, or regret what we did or said… But you have to say, “Well, who is going to be my ruler?” — almost on a moment-by-moment basis.

On growing up poor and being a struggling writer until only recently, then being plunged into a very different world after the staggering success of Wild and learning to reconcile her lifelong values with the realities of her new life as she raises her kids:

[My kids are] going to have to learn what my struggle taught me about the world — they’re going to have to learn that another way. And that’s the thing — I think you can… You can learn as much from your privilege as you can from our oppression, but only if you’re aware of it and only if you have consciousness.

On our mythology of success, which once again bespeaks our difficulty with holding duality:

Every day of my life since the crazy-ass shit happened with Wild, I am fully aware that this is crazy-ass shit. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think I worked my fucking hiney off to have that success — I did. I actually worked my ass off. I also know that it would be true that I worked my ass off if nobody read Wild… The hard work is what’s true — the crazy-ass shit is … just the luck of life, the great fortune of life.

The distinction I’m trying to make here is that there’s a long history of women saying, “Well, I just got lucky.” I didn’t just get lucky — I worked my fucking ass off, and then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky — so you have to do the work, you always have to do the work. And part of the work is about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning how to say, “Hello, fear, thank you for being here, because you are my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.”

On learning to dance with the fear and the inevitable self-doubt which, as John Steinbeck’s diary so grippingly attests, bedevils even the greatest of writers:

The way it feels to write a book is that you can’t write a book.

Complement with Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers and her reflections, by way of Adrienne Rich and Marie Curie, on what power really means.

You can — and should — subscribe to the Longform podcast here.

* No era was more tyrannical in its unwillingness to hold paradox than the Victorian, which arguably cemented not only our superficial beauty standards but also our inability to live with duality. A mere century and a half before Strayed, another woman genius was constantly tormented by the pressure to choose between poetry and mathematics. But it was ultimately the fusion of the two that made Ada Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Even so, she wasn’t spared the era’s tyrannical resistance to duality — Lovelace, unlike Strayed, didn’t engage with the era’s ideals of ladyhood, leading her contemporaries to describe her as “poetical in appearance,” which was euphemism for unkempt and badly dressed, and only one step removed from “writerly in appearance.”

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15 JUNE, 2015

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship

By:

The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

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12 JUNE, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

By:

“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

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