Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

20 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook


“It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”

In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her own Gremor Press — the small publishing house Nin founded in 1942 out of disillusionment with mainstream publishing, which led her to teach herself letterpress and self-publish a handful of elegant manually typeset books with gorgeous engravings by her husband.

On Writing, in which Nin considers the future of the novel and reflects on what keeping her famous diaries since the age of eleven taught her about writing, was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. Only a few are known to survive. I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of them — here is its gist, for our shared enrichment.

Nin, with insight at once incredibly timely and subtly heartbreaking in our age of mass-produced commercial fiction coexisting with bold independent experimentation with the form, begins by considering the evolving role of the modern novelist:

In the presence of a collective neurosis it is all the more essential for the novelist not to share with the neurotic this paralyzing fear of nature which has been the cause of so much sterility in life and in the writing of today.


While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside.

We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.

Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.


Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.

That is why James Joyce shattered the old form of the novel and let his writing erupt in a veritable flow of associations.

Most novels today are inadequate because they reflect not our experience, but people’s fear of experience. They portray all the evasions.

Nin reiterates her conviction that emotionality is essential to creativity:

In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness.

And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.

The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s faith in the creative benefits of keeping a diary, later famously articulated by Joan Didion as well, Nin reflects on her experience as a prolific diarist:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

The Diary dealing always with the immediate present, the warm, the near, being written at white heat, developed a love of the living moment, of the immediate emotional reaction to experience, which revealed the power of recreation to lie in the sensibilities rather than in memory or critical intellectual perception.

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

The Diary also taught her that the ideal of “objective” writing is an oppressive standard that only drains literature, which is inherently subjective, of its vitality:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

But her greatest insight from the Diary has less to do with writing and more to do with human nature:

It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. … The heightened moments … are the moments of revelation. It is the moment when the real self rises to the surface, shatters its false roles, erupts and assumes reality and identity. The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.

Touching on the concept of the “fourth culture” and the ever-timely idea that science and philosophy need each other, Nin observes:

The new dimension in character and reality requires a fusion of two extremes which have been handled separately, on the one side by poets, and on the other by the so called realists.

Another learning from her diary experience captures the same idea Ray Bradbury articulated in arguing that ideation should flow uninhibited from the intuitive mind, and the intellect-as-editor should only come later. Nin considers the discipline this requires:

To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.

Indeed, Nin considers the inner censor that so often stands in the way of this flow to be the gravest peril of writing, one that the diary taught her to bypass:

There is another great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor. … It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read [the writing].

This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.

In elaborating on this, Nin adds to history’s most profound definitions of art:

Naked truth is unbearable to most, and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth. The writer has the same role as the surgeon and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.

Human beings, in their resistance to truth, erect fortresses and some of these fortresses can only be demolished by the dynamic power of the symbol, which reaches the emotions directly.

Reflecting on the power of ancient stories and fairy tales, Nin returns to the critical role of sensuality in art, once again asserting that emotion and logic coexist — but only if the artist or writer is able to fully inhabit his or her own emotionality, thus understanding its underlying patterns:

In the human unconscious itself there is an indigenous structure and if we are able to detect and grasp it we have the plot, the form and style of the novel of the future.

In this apparently chaotic world of the unconscious there is an inevitability as logical, as coherent, as final as any to be found in classical drama.

In this new dimension of character the form is created by the meaning, it is born of the theme. It is created very much as the earth itself is created, by a series of inner convulsions and eruptions, dictated by inner geological tensions.

It is an organic development.

Concluding with an example of her own creative process — an anecdote about how a sudden memory of a sight at a concert she had heard in Paris years earlier inspired a key section in her novel Ladders to Fire — Nin speaks to the importance of unconscious processing in how creativity works and remarks:

How creative the unconscious can be if one allows it to work spontaneously.

For more wisdom on the written word, see this omnibus of 50+ famous authors’ advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Complement with Nin’s timeless wisdom from her now-published diaries, including her reflections on the meaning of life, how inviting the unfamiliar helps us live more richly, Paris vs. New York, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How Evolution Works, Animated in Minimalist Motion Graphics


From Darwin to your dog, or why DNA copying errors explain blue eyes.

“Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority, legendary science writer and evolution-illuminator Stephen Jay Gould proclaimed, “and they make more noise than their numbers.” But despite Gould’s confident optimism, we live in an age when creationism is still taught in classrooms and mythology requires constant debunking with reality in order to keep the voice of reason from being drowned by that noise. Sometimes, however, it’s simply a matter of conveying the science of evolution with equal parts captivation and clarity.

Since the days of Darwin, the theory of evolution has lent itself to ample visualization, animation, and even rap. This lovely motion graphics piece combines animation and infographics to explain the complexity of evolution with delightful simplicity.

Complement with this graphic biography of Darwin, Neil deGrasse Tyson on why intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, and the visual history of evolution.

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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:

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Makes Iconic Design: Lessons from the Visual History of the London Underground Logo


Celebrating 150 years of elegant balance between tradition and innovation.

The London Underground is renowned around the world for its iconic map, which has sprouted a number of creative derivatives and parodies, and its formidable legacy of graphic design. But most legendary and celebrated of all is its bar-and-circle logo — also known as the bulls-eye or the roundel — which celebrates its 150th birthday in 2013 and which is comparable only to an international icon like I♥NY.

From British publisher Laurence King — who previously brought us the impressive Saul Bass monograph, famous designers’ advice to students, and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art — comes A Logo for London (public library), in which architecture and design historian David Lawrence traces the story of how the revered roundel came to be an international icon and an echelon of successful design. More than a mere trivia curiosity, its history reveals universal insight on the essential elements, principles, and decisions that make a piece of graphic design exceptional and enduring, part of a culture’s visual lexicon rather than mere commercial decoration.

‘Be punctual’ poster by Tom Eckersley, 1945.

Shortly after its origin, the roundel exploded onto every part of the transit system. By the early twentieth century, it infiltrated the burgeoning art of graphic design, populating publicity posters, brochures, and pamphlets. In doing so, the London Transport logo served to establish the identity of a brand decades before airlines and automakers awoke to the power of identity design and branding in the 1930s. By the 1950s, London Transit had become a beacon of integrated design, using a consistent visual language across every aspect of its operation to weave the narrative of the entire brand. Over the decades that followed, the logo both evolved and endured across redesigns, to emerge today as a family of symbols for various modes of transportation, united by clarity and common sensibility.

But why did the iconic logo take the shape it did? Lawrence takes us back to the anthropological intersection of symbolism and pragmatism:

When the first humans drew the sun, they inscribed a circle. When they sought to build and travel, objects with a circular form proved the most efficient aids. Direction finding produced circular compasses, and science called for circular lenses. Looking into the sky through these lenses, astronomers followed the ancients by drawing circular symbols for several planets and their positions: the sun’s center is shown as a circle horizontally bisected by a line. As a wheel, the circle symbolizes eternity and good luck; it appears in alchemy and magic. Given wings it traditionally represents safe travel, and has been used in this form for many transportation emblems.

Impression of the original Underground bar-and-disc symbol from a design of 1908, recreated in 1955 by former Underground officer W.H. Hilton.

The ultimate power of a logo, however, lies in transcending the immediacy of the brand itself and coming to represent its broader ecosystem — a product category, a city, a nation. That’s precisely what Lawrence reminds us makes the roundel so special:

Throughout its history, the bar and circle has been modern, but with a heritage; adaptable, but coherent; serious and fun. As new transport services come to London — with or without external sponsors, and below the streets or suspended by cables — so the bar-and-circle symbol continues to identify the system and is thereby reasserted as London’s brand. But isn’t this abstract device something else too? When it is seen in London, we know we are close to transportation services; in a global context it has become shorthand for the city itself. Rare for a device sponsored by an established organization, the logo is “cool” too. Such is its strength as a visual symbol of the city, the bar and circle has inspired other areas of culture such as fashion and pop music. … Beyond even this widespread understanding, the long association of the bar and circle with the word Underground has seen the symbol adopted unofficially to define ideas, activities and products as being in vogue, edgy, different. Its ability to be rapidly recognized in such contexts has seen it used on record album covers, badges, patches, posters, baseball caps and pretty much every form of memorabilia.

‘Eclipse of the Sun’, poster by Charles Sharland, 1912.

‘This week in London’, poster by Harry Beck, 1932.

‘This week in London’, poster by J.Z. Atkinson, 1933, carrying C.W. Bacon’s ‘LPTB’ symbol, and the bulls-eye as the man’s face.

It all began in the late nineteenth century when, amidst chaotic, crowded, and unregulated city streets — the same streets against which Babbage and Dickens waged a war on noise — London’s bus operators began using colored liveries and symbols to set their vehicles and services apart from those of others. As the Anglo-French London General Omnibus Company — London’s leading operator of bus services, established in 1855 — began transitioning from the horse to the internal combustion engine, it became evident that the colors and symbols on the vehicles needed an upgrade as well. A semi-anonymous man, recorded in history as only “Mr. Crane,” designed a spoked bus wheel embellished with wings and crossed by a bar with the word “General” on it, which was inspired by the Greek myth of Hermes, god of travel and messenger of the gods. And so the first bar-and-circle symbol was born.

‘Underground theatres’ by Verney L. Danvers, 1926.

‘And all for a season ticket on London’s Underground’ by Frederick Charles Herrick, 1925.

The symbol continued to evolve and, when World War I ended in 1918, the flourishing of design and printed ephemera ushered in a new era of communication arts, catapulting the roundel onto the particularly fashionable medium of posters. (Those came to have a pictorial history iconic in its own right.) The roundel aligned itself with cultural change beyond the evolution of design itself.

'A woman’s job in war’ poster 1941.

‘Back room boys, they also serve: power control’ poster by Fred Taylor 1942.

But arguably most instrumental in the development of the logo was Edward Johnston, hired as a consultant for London Transport in the 1920s, who drew the initial logotypes and bar-and-circle devices that laid the foundation for the Underground’s family of trademarks.

Drawing of the proportions for Edward Johnston's roundel, ca. 1925.

By the Second World War, the roundel was very much an institution, one actively enlisted in propaganda and boosting national morale. Its posters and pamphlets addressed one of the period’s most pressing issues impacting civilians: the blackout — a government-mandated limit on light emissions by buildings, street lamps, and vehicles at night. Intended to confuse enemy aircraft, the blackout also made travel difficult — so the roundel came to the rescue, leaping onto a special series of PSA safety posters.

‘Inside it’s bright, outside it’s dark’ by James Fitton, 1941.

‘In the blackout: A flashing torch is dangerous’ by Bruce Angrave, 1942.

(Angrave’s aesthetic is strikingly reminiscent of Tom Gentleman’s vintage British road safety posters from the same era.)

As the Mad Men era peeked on the horizon, the role of publicity and advertising became even more apparent, and London Transport hired a seasoned ad man, Harold F. Hutchison, to take charge of the organization’s visual identity. Lawrence writes:

Through his work as Publicity Officer, Hutchinson would position the organization as the pre-eminent face of London, alongside the Houses of Parliament, royalty, the London policeman and the red telephone box. … Every object, place and activity would bear the bar-and-circle mark. Caught up with the spirit of post-war reform, and working with a new generation of artists and designers, he had a clear ambition to change the public face of London Transport. With hindsight, it can be appreciated that Hutchison steered a difficult course between modernity and tradition in order to attract, enthrall and inform visitors and citizens, to entice shoppers and deter rush-hour travelers, and to promote city and country.

Leaflet promoting modern architectural achievements such as office blocks, housing estates and schools across the capital, published 1960. This outline form of the bar-and-circle saw increased use in the period 1966–1971.

Posters from the series ‘The Proud City’ by Walter E. Spradbery (1944) were printed in Arabic and Farsi. ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ (Arabic version).

Posters from the series ‘The Proud City’ by Walter E. Spradbery (1944) were printed in Arabic and Farsi. ‘The Temple Church and library after bombardment’ (Farsi version)

The roundel, Lawrence argues, was instrumental in ushering in the cultural shift that made the world aware of design as a cultural practice after the 1970s — a practice that infiltrated the everyday through punk rock, fashion, and graphics. As “commercial artists” became “graphic designers,” they crept into the public eye as celebritiestypographers, magazine art directors, and album cover artists. In other words, design became a sensemaking mechanism for the man-made world, and the roundel had been there all along, to witness and facilitate this change.

Lawrence concludes:

Originally intended to identify the transport network of a private organization, the bar-and-circle symbol has, over a century, become part of, and a shorthand for, the personality of London, as a city and world center of social, political and cultural activity.

‘Around stretches the vast expanse of the world’ by Simon and Tom Bloor from the '100 Years, 100 Artists, 100 Works of Art' project celebrating the centennial of the roundel.

A Logo for London details the fascinating story of that process — a timeless allegory full of lessons on what makes successful, enduring, truly iconic design. Complement it with the pictorial history of the London Underground’s graphic legacy.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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