Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

26 MARCH, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Mastering the Muse and How This Side of Paradise Was Born

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“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.”

On March 26, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published, a tale of love gone awry in the grip of greed and status-seeking as a young man, whose story parallels Fitzgerald’s own life, undergoes a harrowing sexual and intellectual awakening.

The publication of the novel carried a special kind of urgency for Fitzgerald. The previous summer, Zelda Sayre, whom the 22-year-old author had spent several years courting, had broken up with him on the grounds that he couldn’t maintain the life she wanted for herself. Determined to win her back, Fitzgerald set out to become a successful novelist. He built upon an earlier unpublished novel entitled The Romantic Egotist and sent the new manuscript to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. In this letter from the excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, dated July 26th, 1919, a young, hopeful, and full of earnest aplomb Fitzgerald articulates a broader truth about how creativity works:

This is in no sense a revision of the ill-fated Romantic Egotist but it contains some of the former material improved and worked over and bears a strong family resemblance besides.

But while the other was a tedious, disconnected casserole this is [sic] definate attempt at a big novel and I really believe I have hit it, as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.

(Cue in Elizabeth Gilbert on genius and mesmerizing the muse and Jonah Lehrer on the importance of letting go before arriving at a solution.)

In another letter to Perkins, dated August 16th, 1919, Fitzgerald explains his title choice:

The title has been changed to
This Side of Paradise
from those lines of Rupert Brookes
…Well, this side of paradise
There’s little comfort in the wise.

In the same letter, Fitzgerald does the math on the book:

Book One contains about 35,000 words
The Interlude ” ” 4,000 words
Book Two ” ” 47,000 words
Total ” ” 86,000 words

Then, later in the letter, a more meditative take on the math:

The book contains a little over ninety thousand words. I certainly think the hero gets somewhere.

I await anxiously your verdict.

Sincerely
F Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise was published to great critical success. Zelda, whom Fitzgerald dubbed “the first American flapper,” soon agreed to marry him and they embarked upon a tempestuous relationship, riddled with the author’s alcoholism, Zelda’s schizophrenia diagnosis, and the couple’s general inability to cope with celebrity at such a young age.

Bonus: Last October, This Side of Paradise was released as a beautifully minimalist Penguin Classics hardcover designed by the inimitable Coralie Bickford-Smith, who captures the elegance and glamor of the Art Deco era in her signature style of subdued yet infinitely expressive patterns.

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23 MARCH, 2012

The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss

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“…a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.”

When we celebrated the 108th would-be birthday of Dr. Seuss earlier this month with his little-known book of nudes, reader Jennifer Alluisi flagged a fascinating deeper dive into Geisel’s more obscure creations — The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, originally published in 1995, collects 65 of Geisel’s whimsical paintings, sculptures, and rough sketches of weird and wonderful beings in otherworldly settings, created for his own pleasure and never exhibited in public. Though Geisel’s most enduring legacy remains his timeless children’s literature, this volume sheds new light on his contribution to contemporary art — a realm he approached with the same blend of idiosyncratic talent and uncompromising dedication that made him a cultural icon in his “other life.”

A Seuss drawing suggesting that no matter how big, inflated or different the image we try to portray, being ourselves is most important.

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L. P., Secret Art Collection, courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry

For an added treat, the introduction was penned by none other than the great Maurice Sendak, who writes:

I retain a most vivid picture of Ted standing in his studio before his easel, palette in hand, brush poised. He would lean forward and then back on his heels, head cocked to one side and then to the other. The artistic ‘dance’ step was repeated over and over again.

He enjoyed working after midnight — seldom during the working-day hours. He did not consider painting to be ‘work,’* so it had to wait till late at night. Painting was what he did for himself and not something he felt comfortable in sharing.

[…]

I remember telling Ted that there would come a day when many of his paintings would be seen and he would thus share with his fans another facet of himself — his private self. That day has come. I am glad.

'Pink-Tufted Small Beast in Night Landscape,' 1960

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'The Stag at Eve,' 1960

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Sendak captures Geisel’s remarkable character:

The Ted Geisel I knew was that rare amalgamation of genial gent and tomcat — a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work. He was, of course, immensely charming and polite about the whole matter, but when Ted fixed you with his calm cat-gaze, you knew when to shut up. It was easy to respect the simple honesty and curious privacy behind the gentle bluster of the man, but Seuss’s apparent lack of interest in style, fashion, and any kind of analysis relating to his work astonished me. Only after years of friendship was I completely won over; Dr. Seuss was serious about not being ‘serious.’**

'Peru 1 (Giant Llama Led Through Village), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 2 (Vultures Waiting for the Fall), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 3 (Cock Fight), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 4 (Angry Pig), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Zachery

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'The Manly Art of Self-Defense,' 1927

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Untitled

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Untitled

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Of Seuss’s art in general and the works collected in The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in particular, Sendak writes:

There was certainly nothing cookie-cutter, bland, or trendy about Ted Geisel. These works abound in nuttiness, ‘political incorrectness,’*** and lots and lots of cats. In short, you have entered Seussville, where questions and doubts are left at the door with the coo-coo something-or-other. Enjoy yourself.

* See Lewis Hyde on work vs. creative labor

** See Paula Scher’‘s TED talk on serious vs. solemn design

*** For the radical politics and political incorrectness of iconic children’s authors, see Tales for Little Rebels

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22 MARCH, 2012

Jack Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life

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“No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”

In the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve absorbed David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes Jack Kerouaccultural icon, symbolism sage, exquisite idealist — with his 30-point list, entitled Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. With items like “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge” and “Accept loss forever,” the list is as much a blueprint for writing as it is a meditation on life.

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The list was allegedly tacked on the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s hotel room in North Beach a year before his iconic poem “Howl” was written — which is of little surprise, given Ginsberg readily admitted Kerouac’s influence and even noted in the dedication of Howl and Other Poems that he took the title from Kerouac.

As Charles Eames might say, “to be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.”

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