Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

01 MAY, 2015

E.B. White on Idea-Incubation and the Two Faces of Discipline

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How to ride the “wave of emotion” in creative work on a raft of conscientious revision.

“One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it … [but] another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the key to discipline in 1933. Indeed, fruitful creative work — especially writing — is predicated on this porous relationship between structure and spontaneity, discipline and imaginative freedom. That’s what E.B. White addresses in his contribution to the fantastic volume The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — a compendium of wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with literary legends like Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, and William Styron.

In the same superb 1969 conversation that gave us White’s wisdom on how to write for children and the writer’s responsibility to society, he considers the question of discipline in writing:

There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

But this discipline of discarding mediocrity in the editing process must be preceded by the appropriate gestational period for ideas, or what T.S. Eliot called “a long incubation.” White reflects on his own experience of “sneezing” Charlotte’s Web:

When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.

And yet even this “wave of emotion” — which the perhaps more coolly rational Virginia Woolf famously called “a wave in the mind” — must be ridden on the raft of revision:

I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not at all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer [but] I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment.

Complement with the cognitive science of the perfect writing routine and Anna Deavere Smith on what discipline means for an artist, then revisit this evolving library of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers and White’s warm letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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31 MARCH, 2015

How Music Heals the Soul: A Beautiful Conversation with Singer-Songwriter and Peace Activist Morley

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“Music is the sound wave of the soul.”

There are few people for whose presence in our world I am more grateful than singer-songwriter, peace activist, and luminous human being Morley’s — an extraordinary woman emanating James Baldwin’s heart, the Dalai Lama’s spirit, and Abbey Lincoln’s voice. Her 1998 debut album, Sun Machine, humbled critics into instant veneration and elicited comparisons to Sade and Portishead (TIME), Annie Lennox and Tracey Thorn (Spin), and “the socially-conscious soul of the early seventies” (Newsday), but only as a cultural backdrop for her uncategorizeable brilliance. In the years leading up to her most recent record, Undivided, she has played at Carnegie Hall, jammed with Jeff Buckley, performed for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, and done conflict resolution work with genocide perpetrators and survivors in Rwanda.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation, part of the show’s tenth-anniversary season, Morley shares the remarkable story of her creative and spiritual journey — her formative childhood in colorful Jamaica, Queens; her rebirth as a choreographer and poet after a serious injury ended her career as a dancer; what teaching yoga and meditation to ex-convicts taught her about the human spirit; squatting in Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop’s abandoned apartment; working at a children’s hospital and observing music’s enlivening effect on the soul in its purest form.

Punctuating the interview are live performances of some of Morley’s most bewitching songs. Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

On what music is, and what it does for us:

Music is the sound wave of the soul.

[…]

It opens you up to another part of yourself, or beyond the notion of yourself. That’s what music can do.

On how a news story moved her to write her now-iconic peace anthem “Women of Hope,” which she has performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the late Nelson Mandela:

I was watching a CNN program about women and war. The opening line is directly from these two women in Rwanda, who were standing in tall grass, right under a tree. They were being interviewed and they said, “The soldiers came today and we will be left to die in solitude.” It just moved me so much. I wrote that down on a napkin that I was using also to cry into, at the hotel in Germany. After I saw that program … there was no one around I knew that I could talk to. And I wasn’t alright. I couldn’t just go out and take a walk or go for a run. So I picked up the guitar and I turned to music.

You know, sometimes you take something a little too much, when you read the news. There is something that we have that is filtering, so that we can survive. Every day. And that thing wasn’t there when I watched [this CNN program]. I was raw. And thank god I had that guitar there.

On how the song’s poignant chorus line, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s words — “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” — carried it around the world, to dignitaries and common souls alike:

That song itself has long legs. Sometimes, you create something and it just travels, and it resonates. And they’re not my words — they’re Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, which is so great. It’s even better when you can pass on … some great recipe for life.

Complement with a rare and wonderful interview with Jeff Buckley, conducted by a Brain Pickings reader in Italy in the 1990s, then treat your soul to Morley’s enchanting music and subscribe to Design Matters for a steady stream of inspiring conversations.

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31 OCTOBER, 2014

Butterflies and Iron Bolts: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About Great Design and the Value of the Ungoogleable

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Celebrating the significance of small things and the iron bolts that hold butterfly wings together.

In 2002, a small and confounding book titled Schott’s Original Miscellany (public library) was released to very little fanfare by British independent press Bloomsbury, publishers of such diverse and beloved offerings as Harry Potter and Lost Cat. The author of this unusual book was a young man named Ben Schott, whose level of public prominence was closer to that of a stray feline than of J.K. Rowling. And yet, within weeks, the book — a quirky and beautifully designed catalog of curiosities, partway between a Victorian encyclopedia a century after the golden age of Victorian encyclopedias and a meticulously curated Tumblr a decade before the golden age of Tumblr — became the publishing sensation of the year. Soon, it had sold a million copies and was translated into thirteen languages.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Schott — who identifies neither with being a writer nor with being a designer but describes himself instead as “a writer who uses design and a designer who uses word” — shares the unlikely, remarkably heartening story of his success. Folded into it are Schott’s reflections on how his father’s obscure scientific papers on the history of the footnote shaped his miscellaneous mind, what Virginia Woolf can teach us about the secret of great design and craftsmanship, and why the art of finding the ungoogleable is of ever-increasing value today. Highlights below.

On choosing creative purpose over a profitable or prestigious occupation, something with which young William James also tussled, and dropping out of advertising:

If you look up and you don’t want to get to the top of the ladder you’re climbing, then why are you climbing the ladder?

On being self-taught as a photographer and learning the craft through apprenticeship, via absorption:

That’s how I learned — you find a standard and think, “This guy is really good, or this girl is really good, and if I can be that good, I’m getting there.”

On being inspired by Virginia Woolf — his first book opens with a quote from The Common Reader: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” — and what Woolf, who herself had strong opinions on craftsmanship, can teach us about the secret of excellence in design and any craft:

I’m a fan Virginia Woolf — I’m a real fan of Mrs. Dalloway more than anything else she’s written. But what, I think, seduces her work is that sense that small things are significant. There’s another great quote [from To the Lighthouse] which sums up one of my theories of design, to the extent that I’m entitled to have any theories, which is: “light and evanescent but held together by bolts of iron.”

[Design] must be, on the surface, like a butterfly’s wing — but underneath it must be clamped together with bolts of iron…

This is what I think is the secret of so much craft — to make it look effortless and evanescent, like a butterfly’s wing, but it needs to have structure, rigidity, purpose.

But perhaps Schott’s most pause-giving point — at least for me, as someone who spends a considerable amount of time dwelling in archives and literature of which there is no pervious trace online — has to do with how he found the curiosities and quotes for the book in a pre-Google age. I frequently say that books are the original internet — every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another idea — and Schott captures this notion beautifully by inviting us into a time-machine that exposes all we’ve come to take for granted in just a few years:

Information totally changed in the last fifteen years, since this book came out. You have to remember what the mindset was then. So a lot of it was [spending] time in libraries and stumbling across things. People said, “Oh, have you seen this?” It was a wonderful paper chase. And anyone who’s spent time in libraries knows: you follow the footnote; you get taken for a walk — one footnote leads to another footnote leads to another footnote. By the time you know it, you’re drowning in paper…

The point was not to get stuff that was out there — it was trying to find things that no one else had talked about. Which is increasingly hard, by the way — to find stuff that is ungoogleable.

Schott’s Original Miscellany, which Schott describes as a book about “everything on the back of your mind and the tip of your tongue [and] all the things that you think you know or would like to know but don’t really know,” was followed by Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany in 2004, Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany in 2005, and Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany in 2011.

If you aren’t yet subscribed to Design Matters — the world’s first podcast about design, which celebrates its 10th birthday in just a few months — remedy the situation immediately and gladden yourself on iTunes.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog on America and His Lifelong NASA Dream

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“The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change.”

“America,” young Italo Calvino wrote upon his first visit to the United States, “is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible.” But for a land this vast, full of this many people of such enormous diversity, what is “America,” really, if not an abstraction onto which each person projects his or her narrow slice of experience? The landmarks, icons, and stereotypes that have come to signify “America” as a kind of shorthand certainly don’t even begin to capture the full dimension of that abstraction, for the measure of any country — as that of any person — lives between the lines of such shorthand, in the richness of the ordinary and the of the aliveness of the mundane.

From Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging interview by Paul Cronin, three decades in the making, that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s no-bullshit advice to aspiring creators and his thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love — comes Herzog’s meditation on America. Remarking that contrary to some critical interpretations, his film Stroszek was not intended as a critique of capitalism — “The film doesn’t criticize the country; it’s almost a eulogy to the place,” he adds — Herzog tells Cronin:

What I love is the heartland of the country, the so-called “flyover” zone, like Wisconsin, where we filmed Stroszek and where Orson Welles was from. Marlon Brando came from Nebraska, Bob Dylan from Minnesota, Hemingway from Illinois, these middle-of-nowhere places, to say nothing of the South, the home of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I like this kind of terrain, where you can still encounter great self-reliance and camaraderie, the warm, open hearts, the down-to-earth people. So much of the rest of the country has abandoned these basic virtues. I like America for its spirit of advancement and exploration; there is something exceptionally bold about the place. The idea of everyone having an equal chance to succeed, no matter who they are, is impressive. If a barefoot Indian from the Andes had invented the wheel, the patent office in Washington would have assisted him in securing his rights.

As an immigrant myself, having brushed with the less generous sides of American law during my decade-long tussle with the immigration system, I found Herzog’s optimistic take on the attitudes embedded in other aspects of the law particularly heartening:

When I made The Wild Blue Yonder I discovered an extraordinary cache of footage shot by NASA astronauts in outer space, and was told that because it was filmed by federal employees, the material was “property of the people.” I asked, “Can I, a Bavarian, be considered one of the people?” Such images, it turns out, according to American law belong to everyone on the planet. This is a unique and astounding attitude to the world. Naturally there are things in the United States I’m ambivalent about, just as there are when it comes to Germany. I could never be a flag-waving patriot. But there are many reasons why I have been in America for so many years. The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change. I could never live in a country I didn’t love.

Recontextualized NASA footage used in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder

Herzog, indeed, holds a soft spot for NASA. “We thank NASA for its sense of poetry,” he says at the end of The Wild Blue Yonder, a line that reads like a eulogy itself as we bear witness to NASA’s tragic downward slide in government priorities today. In contemplating the necessary risks of the creative life, Herzog shares with Cronin his dream of joining NASA — a notion that seems so naturally resonant with his penchant for the lyricism of wanderlust:

I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible any more. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet instead of an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Sample Herzog’s life-tested wisdom further here and here, then complement this particular bit with Debbie Millman’s illustrated literary geography of America.

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