Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

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“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace took the podium at Kenyon College and delivered the now-legendary This Is Water, one of history’s greatest commencement addresses — his timeless meditation on the meaning of life and the grueling work required in order to stay awake to the world rather than enslaved by one’s own self-consuming intellect. It included this admonition:

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Three years later, on September 12, 2008, Wallace murdered his own terrible master — not by firearms, but by hanging himself. Several months prior, frustrated with the disorienting side effects of the antidepressant he had been taking to alleviate his 20-year struggle with depression, he had attempted to wean himself off the medication. His personal tragedy was soon inscribed into the modern-day literary canon, turning him into a kind of public patron-saint of the Tortured Genius archetype.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace (public library) — an essential, the essential, collection of 22 interviews and profiles of the beloved author — reveals with empathic granularity Wallace’s conflicted relationship with life and death, and its slow, subtly menacing evolution.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, 31-year-old Wallace appears already remarkably aware of the mortality paradox, the exorcism of which he sees as the highest achievement of fiction:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

This dark whimsy is what lends literature its mesmerism, and in it Wallace sees both redemption and remedy for our existential dance with anxiety:

If you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche — the writer’s, or some character’s, etc. — and you’re also trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated — “re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me — by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.

Later in the conversation, Wallace considers, with his typical sharp self-consciousness and meta-awareness, the terrifying joy and vulnerability that great art necessitates and the courage creativity calls for:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

How wistful to consider that, fifteen years later, Wallace took his young self’s advice all too seriously, too literally, too extremely — for isn’t suicide the ultimate, most tragic, and most permanent denial of the ego?

But perhaps most prescient of all — most heartbreaking, most humbling, most harrowing — is something Wallace said to one interviewer particularly preoccupied with the root of the author’s genius:

That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is revelational in its entirety. Complement it with his timeless wisdom on why writers write, the original audio of that mythic Kenyon commencement speech, and Wallace’s animated advice on ambition.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

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“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman’s Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman’s philosophy on writing and his advice to aspiring writers — a fine addition to celebrated authors’ collected wisdom on the craft. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously scoffed that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and like Chuck Close, who declared that “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” and like Tchaikovsky, who admonished that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Gaiman argues that the true muse of writing lies not in divine inspiration but in unrelenting persistence of effort and force of will:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

On the exhilarating joy of writing and the stalwart showing up that makes it possible:

The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.

On grit as the driving force of creative growth, reiterating the third of his 8 rules of writing:

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

On why true creativity requires eclectic influences, wide interests, and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

Gaiman’s most important piece of advice, for the writer who has mastered basic technique and is ready to begin writing, echoes the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see 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.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

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“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Crazy Daily Routine

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“Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.”

The latest addition to this ongoing omnibus of famous writers’ advice on the craft comes from none other than Charles Bukowski — curious creature of proud cynicism and self-conscious sensitivity, of profound pessimism and heartening insight on the meaning of life.

In Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963–1993 (public library) — the same indispensable gateway to the poet’s mind that gave us the first-hand backstory on his “friendly advice to a lot of young men” — Buk extols the intrinsic rewards of writing. Years before he would come to explore the subject in his famous poem “so you want to be a writer,” he echoes Borges’s sentiment that writing is a form of pleasant laziness and Bradbury’s insistence that one must create with joy or not create at all. The message, of course, is delivered with Buk’s signature blend of crudeness and sincerity:

Writing isn’t work at all… And when people tell me how painful it is to write I don t understand it because it’s just like rolling down the mountain you know. It’s freeing. It’s enjoyable. It’s a gift and you get paid for what you want to do.

I write because it comes out — and then to get paid for it afterwards? I told somebody, at some time, that writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money. I’ll take it.

When pressed about his daily routine, Buk scoffs and adds to the peculiar rituals of famous writers:

I never type in the morning. I don’t get up in the morning. I drink at night. I try to stay in bed until twelve o’clock, that’s noon. Usually, if I have to get up earlier, I don’t feel good all day. I look, if it says twelve, then I get up and my day begins. I eat something, and then I usually run right up to the race track after I wake up. I bet the horses, then I come back and Linda cooks something and we talk awhile, we eat, and we have a few drinks, and then I go upstairs with a couple of bottles and I type — starting around nine-thirty and going until one-thirty, to, two-thirty at night. And that’s it.

Complement Sunlight Here I Am, which exudes Buk’s inextinguishable spirit from every page, with more notable wisdom on the written word, 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, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews

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“A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”

Jorge Luis Borges is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the name of Fernando Sorrentino, only thirty at the time, sat down with the beloved author for seven afternoons in a tiny, secluded room in the National Library and recorded their conversations — “low-key, casual chats, free from any bothersome adherence to a rigid format” — on tape. Published in 1974 as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library), the conversations, spanning everything from literature to politics, couldn’t be commercially distributed until the overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976 due to the author’s anti-establishment political convictions and the frankness with which he discussed them with Sorrentino.

Culled here from the seven lengthy and meandering conversations is Borges’s wisdom on writing — a fine addition to famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.

On why, as Joyce Carol Oates elegantly put it, it’s toxic to imagine an ideal reader, defying Michael Lewis’s assertion that the awareness of an audience’s existence exerts “invisible pressures” on the writer:

An absurd statement; how is a person going to write better or worse because he’s thinking about who’s going to read him?

On finding one’s purpose and trusting the “intuition pumps” of life, and the yin-yang of reading and writing:

Before I ever wrote a single line, I knew, in some mysterious and therefore unequivocal way, that I was destined for literature. What I didn’t realize at first is that besides being destined to be a reader, I was also destined to be a writer, and I don’t think one is less important than the other.

On literature as a gateway to the human condition:

I believe in psychological literature, and I think that all literature is fundamentally psychological.

On not mistaking anonymous authorship for lack of creative exertion, and why fairy tales exemplify the refinement of storytelling:

Each year a person hears four or five anecdotes that are very good, precisely because they’ve been worked on. Because it’s wrong to suppose that the fact that they’re anonymous means they haven’t been worked on. On the contrary, I think fairy tales, legends, even the offcolor jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome. So we could say that a folk tale is a much more refined product than a poem by Donne or by Góngora or by Lugones, for example, since in the second case the piece has been refined by a single person, and in the first case by hundreds.

On not getting lost in movements:

I no longer believe in literary schools now; I believe in the individual.

On the advantage of writing about history:

I believe that a writer should never attempt a contemporary theme or a very precise topography. Otherwise people are immediately going to find mistakes. Or if they don’t find them, they’re going to look for them, and if they look for them, they’ll find them. That’s why I prefer to have my stories take place in somewhat indeterminate places and many years ago.

On Shakespeare’s singular gift, echoing Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on craftsmanship, and the limitations of translation:

I think of Shakespeare above all as a craftsman of words. For example, I see him closer to Joyce than to the great novelists, where character is the most important thing. That’s the reason I’m skeptical about translations of Shakespeare, because since what is most essential and most precious in him is the verbal aspect, I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated.

On why free verse is more challenging to write than metered poetry, the former embodying Bukowski’s poetic admonition that the only worthwhile writing is the kind that “comes out of your soul like a rocket”:

I find it harder to write free verse. Because if there isn’t some kind of inner drive it can’t be done. On the other hand, using a regular meter is a matter of patience, of application . . . Once you’ve written one line, you’re forced to use certain rhymes, the number of rhymes is not infinite; the rhymes that can be used without incongruity are few in number . . . That is, when I have to fabricate something, I fabricate a sonnet, but I wouldn’t be able to fabricate a poem in free verse.

Touching on Italo Calvino’s meditation on what makes a classic, Borges defines what makes a book timeless:

A timeless book … would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.

On why the explicit pursuit of prestige warps the integrity of writing and how commercial pressures commodify literature:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

On trusting your inner compass for merit, in literature and in life:

I believe that whenever one does wrong, he knows he’s doing wrong. Still, he does it. I believe that no one thinks his own behavior is exemplary. And this holds true in literary matters as well.

On writing and aging:

To reach the point of writing in a more or less uncluttered manner, a more or less decorous manner, I’ve had to reach the age of seventy.

On the advice his father gave him about when not to take advice:

My father gave me that advice. He told me to write a lot, to discard a lot, and not to rush into print, so that the first book I had published, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was really my third book. My father told me that when I had written a book I judged to be not altogether unworthy of publication, he would pay for the printing of the book, but that it was each man for himself and I shouldn’t ask anyone for advice.

On the metric of literary merit:

A writer should always be judged by his or her best pages.

On his distaste for novels, a form Borges believed would eventually die out, and the advantage of short stories over them:

I never thought of writing novels. I think if I began to write a novel, I would realize that it’s nonsensical and that I wouldn’t follow through on it. Possibly this is an excuse dreamed up by my laziness.

[…]

The essential advantage I see in it is that the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there’s the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another. On the other hand, it’s possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or — shall we say — appear to be essential, in a short story. I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too. It’s true they’re not too short.

When Sorrentino pushes back against Borges’s self-alleged laziness — an incongruous notion given his prolific literary output — the author replies with a sublime affirmation that creative labor never feels like work and, to the extent that “laziness” is the avoidance of work, the best way to avoid work is by making a living out of what you love:

A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something . . . And then comes the actual writing, and that’s his trade. That is, I don’t think the two things are incompatible. Besides, I think that when one is writing something that’s more or less good, one doesn’t feel it to be a chore; one feels it to be a form of amusement. A form of amusement that doesn’t exclude the use of intelligence, just as chess doesn’t exclude it, and chess is a game I’m very fond of and would like to know how to play — I’ve always been a poor chess player.

Towards the end of the final interview, Borges offers his counterpart to H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers and shares his own bit of wisdom:

I would advise that imaginary young man to study the classics; let him not try to be modern, because he already is; let him not try to be a man of a different epoch, to be a classical writer, because, indubitably, he cannot be this, since he is irreparably a young man of the twentieth century.

His parting words reflect on creativity, aging, hope, and legacy:

I believe one must not lose hope after fifty years. Besides, one learns by hard knocks, isn’t that so? I think I’ve committed all the literary errors possible and that this fact will allow me to succeed some day.

[…]

The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a treasure trove of insight in its entirety, its magic best captured by Borges himself in the prologue, penned on July 13, 1972:

Paradoxically, the dialogues which take place between a writer and a journalist bear less resemblance to a question-and-answer session than to a kind of introspection. For the interviewer, they can be a chore which is not entirely free of fatigue and tedium; for the interviewee, they are like an adventure in which the hidden and the unforeseeable lie in wait. Fernando Sorrentino knows my work — let us use that term — much better than I do; this is due to the obvious fact that I have written it one single time and he has read it many times, a fact which makes it less mine than his. As I dictate these lines, I do not wish to slight his kindly perspicacity: how many afternoons, speaking face to face, has he guided me, as though it were unintentional, to the inevitable answers which later astonished me and which he, no doubt, had prepared.

Fernando Sorrentino is, in a word, one of my most generous inventors. I wish to take advantage of this page to tell him of my gratitude and the certainty of a friendship that will not be erased by the years.

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