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Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Allan Poe’

28 JANUARY, 2014

The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

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“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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07 JANUARY, 2014

French Artist Benjamin Lacombe’s Haunting Illustrations for Poe’s Tales of the Macabre

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“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”

Certain types of literature readily invite gorgeous complementary artwork. Classic fairy tales, for instance, have attracted some magnificent illustrations over the centuries. But arguably the most haunting art for literary-literature is that accompanying the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly a century after Harry Clarke’s remarkable 1919 illustrations and shortly after the stunning graphic novel for Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven, French artist Benjamin Lacombe illustrated Poe’s Tales of the Macabre (public library) in his signature style of gentle, eerie, endlessly evocative large-eyed creatures.

The result is nothing short of bewitching.

The Lacombe-illustrated Tales of the Macabre is an absolute treat. Complement it with Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s take on The Raven.

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02 DECEMBER, 2013

The Raven: Lou Reed’s Adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, Illustrated by Italian Artist Lorenzo Mattotti

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A graphic novel “meant to be heard in the mind.”

Over the past century, illustrations and riffs on Edgar Allan Poe have ranged from Harry Clarke’s stunning 1919 illustrations to today’s parodic Amazon reviews and literary action figures. But our era’s most exquisite take on the beloved poet comes from none other than the late and great Lou Reed. In 2003, he endeavored to set Poe’s most famous stories and poems to music, unleashing his legendary composer-lyricist magic on an album that was part tribute, part remarkably inventive interpretation of Poe’s literary legacy. Alongside the record came the eponymous graphic novel The Raven (public library) — Reed’s collaboration with legendary Italian cartoonist and artist Lorenzo Mattotti, whose mesmerizing crayon pastel illustrations amplify the dark whimsy of Poe’s poetry and infuse it with the defiant eroticism of Reed’s lyrical adaptation.

Prefacing Mattotti’s art and the cast of characters is this beautiful note from Reed on how the graphic novel is intended to be read:

This is the work for the imagination; therefore I have included only audio clues, as this version is meant to be heard in the mind.

Here’s Reed’s rewrite of “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary
as I pondered, weak and weary
over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore
while I nodded, nearly napping
suddenly there came a tapping
as of some one gently rapping
rapping at my chamber door
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered
“tapping at my chamber door
only this and nothing more.”
Muttering I got up weakly
always I’ve had trouble sleeping
stumbling upright my mind racing
furtive thoughts flowing once more
I, there hoping for some sunrise
happiness would be a surprise
loneliness no longer a prize
rapping at my chamber door
seeking out the clever bore
lost in dreams forever more
only this and nothing more
Hovering my pulse was racing
stale tobacco my lips tasting
scotch sitting upon my basin
remnants of the night before
came again
infernal tapping on the door
in my mind jabbing
is it in or outside rapping
calling out to me once more
the fit and fury of Lenore
nameless here forever more
And the silken sad uncertain
rustling of the purple curtain
thrilled me, filled me
with fantastic terrors never felt before
so that now, oh wind, stood breathing
hoping yet to calm my breathing
“‘Tis some visitor entreating
entrance at my chamber door
some lost visitor entreating
entrance at my chamber door
this it is, and nothing more.”
Deep into the darkness peering
long I stood there
wondering fearing
doubting dreaming fantasies
no mortal dared to dream before
but the silence was unbroken
and the stillness gave no token
and the only word there spoken
was the whispered name, “Lenore.”
this I thought
and out loud whispered from my lips
the foul name festered
echoing itself
merely this, and nothing more
Back into my chamber turning
every nerve within me burning
when once again I heard a tapping
somewhat louder than before
“surely,” said I
surely that is something at my iron staircase
open the door to see what threat is
open the window, free the shutters
let us this mystery explore
oh, bursting heart be still this once
and let this mystery explore
it is the wind and nothing more
Just one epithet I muttered as inside
I gagged and shuddered
when with manly flirt and flutter
in there flew a stately raven
sleek and ravenous as any foe
not the least obeisance made he
not a minutes gesture towards me
of recognition or politeness
but perched above my chamber door
this fowl and salivating visage
insinuating with its knowledge
perched above my chamber door
silent sat and staring
nothing more
Askance, askew
the self’s sad fancy smiles at you I swear
at this savage viscous countenance it wears
Though you show here shorn and shaven
and I admit myself forlorn and craven
ghastly grim and ancient raven
wandering from the opiate shores
tell me what thy lordly name is
that you are not nightmare sewage
some dire powder drink or inhalation
framed from flames of downtown lore
quotes the raven, “nevermore.”
And the raven sitting lonely
staring sickly at my male sex only
that one word
as if his soul in that one word
he did outpour, “pathetic.”
nothing farther than he uttered
not a feather then he fluttered
till finally was I that muttered as I stared
dully at the floor
“other friends have flown and left me
flown as each and every hope has flown before
as you no doubt will fore the morrow.”
but the bird said, “never, more.”
Then I felt the air grow denser
perfumed from some unseen incense
as though accepting angelic intrusion
when in fact I felt collusion
before the guise of false memories respite
respite through the haze of cocaine’s glory
I smoke and smoke the blue vial’s glory
to forget
at once
the base Lenore
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil
prophet still, if bird or devil
by that heaven that bend above us
by that God we both ignore
tell this soul with sorrow laden
willful and destructive intent
how had lapsed a pure heart lady
to the greediest of needs
sweaty arrogant dickless liar
who ascribed to nothing higher
than a jab from prick to needle
straight to betrayal and disgrace
the conscience showing not a trace.”
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting
bird or fiend,” I yelled upstarting
“get thee back into the tempest
into the smoke filled bottle’s shore
leave no black plume as a token
of the slime thy soul hath spoken
leave my loneliness unbroken
quit as those have quit before
take the talon from my heart
and see that I can care no more
whatever mattered came before
I vanish with the dead Lenore.”
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
But the raven, never flitting
still is sitting silent sitting
above a painting silent painting
of the forever silenced whore
and his eyes have all the seeming
of a demon’s that is dreaming
and the lamplight over him
streaming throws his shadow to the floor
I love she who hates me more
I love she who hates me more
and my soul shall not be lifted from that shadow
nevermore

In one of his last interviews, Reed discusses the challenges of making the album and the joy of his collaboration with Mattotti:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is exquisite to behold, both visually and lyrically. You can sample the album, which is an absolute masterpiece of literary adaptation, below:

Images courtesy of Galerie Martel

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

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Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.

Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from 'On the Road'

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.

James Joyce in his white coat

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:

This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.

Pages from 'Virginia Wolf,' a children's book about Virginia Woolf's relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell. Click image for more.

Woolf remained incredibly resourceful — an inventor of sorts, even. After she switched from standing to sitting, she created a contraption of which she was very proud: She used a piece of thin plywood as a writing board, to which she attached a tray for pens and ink so she wouldn’t have to get up and disrupt her flow of inspiration should she run out of materials. Driven by a similar fear of depletion of materials, John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He used them so heavily that his editor had to send him round pencils to alleviate the calluses Steinbeck had developed on his hands from the traditional hexagonal ones.

Some habits, of course, were far less pragmatic, harking instead to creative superstition. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.

Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.

A minority, however, measured quantity as inversely proportional to quality. James Joyce proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work and Dorothy Parker, an obsessive reviser, even skewed to the negative, once lamented, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:

Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.

He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:

Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.

But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

(A semi-scientific hypothesis of an aside here: If left to rot long enough, decomposing biomass, such as apples, produces methane gas. Though methane is not toxic, it can displace oxygen in a closed space — like, say, an obsessive writer’s small den — and could eventually pose asphyxiation risk if the displacement runs rampant. In small doses, however, it can cause light-headedness — that pleasant near-tipsy feeling of slight dizziness one gets when in the grip of creative inspiration. It is possible, then, that the rotting apples were more than an odd olfactory stimulus for Schiller and actually had a biological effect on his mental state.)

Most authors, of course, didn’t let their food rot for inspiration, but they were no less particular about their preferred edibles for fueling the muse. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots, Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers, and Vladimir Nabokov fueled his “prefatory glow” with molasses.

Charles Dickens's manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend.' Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.

Gertrude Stein's famous Model T Ford. Click image for details.

Many authors were notorious multitaskers: Alexandre Dumas dedicated every spare moment to his craft, writing between errands and meals, and Gertrude Stein wrote during errands as her wife, Alice B. Toklas, drove the duo around in their famed Model T Ford, Aunt Pauline (named after Stein’s real aunt, because the car, like Pauline herself, “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered”). Johnson tells us:

In the privacy of an automobile, she could let her mind wander and jot down a few lines, no matter where she was. Stein was especially productive during errands. She’d sit in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, dashed into a store. While she waited, Stein would pull out a pencil and a scrap of paper. She was particularly inspired by the traffic on busy Parisian streets. Automobiles stopped and started with a rhythm that thrummed right into her poetry and prose.

Stein, like Vladimir Nabokov, even liked to write in a parked car, which served as a perfectly contained bubble of stillness ideal for writing. But other authors’ relationships with transportation and the muse were decidedly less safe — Eudora Welty jotted down ideas during the long drives to her mother’s nursing home and Sir Walter Scott composed poetry on horseback.

Moving vehicles and motion, in fact, have a long history of stirring up inspiration. (I get the vast majority of my own ideas while riding my bike around the city or working out on the elliptical at the gym.) Joseph Heller arrived at some of his greatest ideas while riding the bus and even famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. When he was sixteen, Woody Allen channeled his budding comedic genius on his daily crowded subway rides to the New York ad agency that had offered him an after-school job. Most impressive of all, however, was that he managed to write his ideas down without the luxury of a seat, standing and wobbling alongside irate commuters. Johnson cites Allen’s recollection:

Straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes … fifty jokes a day for years.

But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:

That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.

[…]

You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.

Odd Type Writers is both fascinating in its particular oddities and oddly assuring in its general testament to the grounding power of personal habit and the coexistence of creativity and quirk. Complement it with some more practical help from famous authors in their collected wisdom on writing.

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