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Posts Tagged ‘books’

16 JULY, 2014

Barbara Walters on the Art of Conversation, How to Talk to Bores, and What Truman Capote Teaches Us About Being Interesting

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“Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive…”

What The Paris Review has done for the art of the interview in print, Barbara Walters has done for it on television. By the time she was forty, Walters was seen by more people than any other woman on TV and had grown famous for her ability not only to land interviews with seemingly unapproachable guests — presidents and politicians, actors and writers, tycoons and entrepreneurs — but also to crack open even the hardest shells and coax into the open the tender humanity within. In the late 1960s, Walters gathered her strategies, tricks, and learnings on the art of conversation in How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — a perceptive and witty guide to just what the cover promises, extending her experience of interviewing greats to everyday life and outlining “how to talk easily with anyone, anywhere [and] how to get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication.”

Walters, never one to shy away from strong opinions, begins by debunking a common myth about the key to great conversation:

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.

A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.

Walters goes on to outline a number of conversation strategies for different situations. In one of the most compelling chapters, titled “How to Talk to Difficult People,” she offers an essential caveat and advocates for listening as an act of sorely needed compassion, especially in those conversations where our impulse may be to flee. Her warm wisdom rings all the more urgent, if more difficult to enact, in our age of online conversation characterized by a propensity for knee-jerk reaction over thoughtful response. Walters writes:

I’m not in favor of escape as a unilateral policy. There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive emotionally…

Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race.

Among the several conversation partner archetypes particularly deserving of such compassion is “the bore.” Walters offers some humbling perspective:

A bore has feelings. Very often he will interrupt something boring he is saying to comment that he is a bore. His wife comes over and inquires sweetly, “Is he boring you?”

If he is, maybe it’s your fault. “Being interested makes one interesting,” Dr. Erich Fromm observed, to which I would add that you generally get out of a conversation what you put into it.

Truman Capote by Irving Penn, 1965

She points to one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century to illustrate this intricate art, a practical embodiment of Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” Walters writes:

Truman Capote has a natural gift that makes him a great guest at a dinner party: he is always interested in whomever he’s talking to. For one thing, he really looks at the person he is with. Most of us see outlines of one another, but Truman is noting skin texture, voice tone, details of clothing.

[...]

One of the reasons that Truman is always interested in people is that he won’t allow himself to be bored. He told me that when he meets a truly crashing bore he asks himself, “Why am I so bored? What is it about this person that is making me yawn?” He ponders, “What should this person do that he hasn’t done? What does he lack that might intrigue me?”

He catalogues thoughtfully the bore’s face, his hair style, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. He tries to imagine how the bore feels about himself, what kind of a wife he might have, what he likes and dislikes. To get the answers, he starts to ask some of these questions aloud. In short, Truman gets so absorbed in finding out why he is bored that he is no longer bored at all.

What a wonderful manifestation of why the capacity for boredom is essential to a full life.

Complement How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, which is both pragmatic and delightful in its entirety, with this timeless 1866 guide to the art of conversation and John Freeman on what makes a great interview.

Thanks, Ruth Ann

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16 JULY, 2014

Ray Bradbury on Failure, Why We Hate Work, and the Importance of Love in Creative Endeavors

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How working for the wrong motives poisons our creativity and warps our ideas of success and failure.

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play,” the French writer Chateaubriand is credited with saying. “He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” Few contemporary creators embody this more wholeheartedly than Ray Bradbury — beloved writer, a man of admirable routine, tireless advocate of space exploration and public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy, champion of intuition over the intellect.

From Zen in the Art of Writing (public library) — one of my favorite books on writing, which also gave us Bradbury on how list-making can boost your creativity — comes some timeless wisdom on work, motivation, and creating from a place of love.

A century after Swami Vivekananda’s poignant meditation on the secret of meaningful work, Bradbury considers why we hate work, as a culture and as individuals:

Why is it that in a society with a Puritan heritage we have such completely ambivalent feelings about Work? We feel guilty, do we not, if not busy? But we feel somewhat soiled, on the other hand, if we sweat overmuch?

I can only suggest that we often indulge in made work, in false business, to keep from being bored. Or worse still we conceive the idea of working for money. The money becomes the object, the target, the end-all and be-all. Thus work, being important only as a means to that end, degenerates into boredom. Can we wonder then that we hate it so?

[...]

Nothing could be further from true creativity.

Like Tolstoy, who some decades earlier admonished against writing for money and fame, and like Michael Lewis, who some decades later advised aspiring writers to find any motive but money, Bradbury argues that writing for either commercial rewards or critical acclaim is “a form of lying.”

This warping of motive can also deform our definitions of success and failure. Echoing Leonard Cohen’s wisdom on why you should never quit before you know what it is you’re quitting, Bradbury writes:

We should not look down on work nor look down on [our early works] as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.

(Nearly twenty years later, Oprah would mirror this closely and counsel the graduating class at Harvard that “there is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”)

A lifelong advocate of doing what you love, Bradbury ends with a beautiful disclaimer for the cynical:

Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for fifty years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is LOVE.

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a spectacular read. Complement it with some thoughts on how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit more notable wisdom on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Zadie Smith’s ten rules, David Ogilvy’s no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings, and Ernest Hemingway’s advice to aspiring writers.

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15 JULY, 2014

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

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“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[...]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[...]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.

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