Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

15 DECEMBER, 2014

Being vs. Becoming: John Steinbeck on Creative Integrity, the Art of Changing Your Mind, the Humanistic Duty of the Artist

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“If I can’t do better I have slipped badly… I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success.”

The fact that we humans have such a notoriously hard time changing our minds undoubtedly has to do with the notion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” which belies the great robbery of the human experience — by calling ourselves beings, we deny our ever-unfolding becomings. Only in childhood are we afforded the luxury of inhabiting our becoming, but once forced to figure out who we want to be in life, most of us are so anxious about planting that stake of being that we bury the alive, active process of our becoming. In our rush to arrive at who we want to be, we flee from the ceaseless mystery of our becoming.

To show up wholeheartedly for our becoming requires doing one of the hardest things in life — allow the possibility of being wrong and incur the anguish of admitting that error. It requires that we grieve every earlier version of ourselves and endure the implicit accusation that if the way we do a certain thing now is better than before, then the way we did it before is not only worse but possibly — and this is invariably crushing — even wrong. The uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind is thus central to the courage of facing our becoming with our whole being.

This constant tussle could be especially difficult for artists, who imbue their creative work with an enormous amount of their being at the point of creation but must also include it in the ongoing record of their becoming. Hardly any figure in creative history has faced that anguishing moment of changing one’s mind for the sake of creative integrity, and faced it publicly, with more courage than John Steinbeck.

In September of 1936 — more than a quarter century before he was awarded the Nobel Prize — 34-year old Steinbeck witnessed a gruesome clash between the migrant workers and growers in a lettuce strike in California. “There are riots in Salinas and killings in the streets of that dear little town where I was born,” he despaired in a letter to his friend George Albee. Deeply invested in the fate of the migrant workers — who were also suffering from massive floods, had no help from the government, and lived in conditions over which Steinbeck repeatedly expressed compassionate outrage in his letters — he began working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But over the two years that followed, it unraveled into an angry and rather bitter satire of Salinas leadership. Steinbeck was very much of the conviction that, as E.B. White eloquently put it many years later, a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down.” And this text — a work of tearing down rather than building up — seemed to move young Steinbeck not closer but further away from the great champion of the human spirit he would one day become.

As soon as he finished the manuscript in mid-May of 1938, Steinbeck did something few people and perhaps even fewer artists are able to do: He murdered his darlings in a courageous letter to his editor, found in the altogether revelatory Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library). The missive is a masterwork of looking one’s becoming in the eye and somersaulting one’s entire being into a strenuous and seemingly backbreaking change of course for the sake of creative and spiritual integrity.

Steinbeck writes:

This is going to be a hard letter to write … this book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! these incidents all happened but — I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire you have to restrict the picture and I just can’t do satire…. I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies. I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book… Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly.

He attributes the misfire to a kind of creative complacency — another admission too anguishing for most of us to make — which made him forget that writing, as David Foster Wallace put it, is an art in which the horizon for self-improvement is infinite; forget the constant becoming that is any craft:

I had got smart and cocky you see. I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.

Steinbeck — who had just gotten significant critical acclaim for his warmup essays on the migrant workers’ plight, published in The Nation — is also exquisitely aware of how blinding success can become to that essential incompleteness of an artist’s creative journey:

I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success….

I think this book will be a good lesson for me. I think I got to believing critics — I thought I could write easily and that anything I touched would be good simply because I did it. Well any such idea conscious or unconscious is exploded for some time to come. I’m in little danger now of believing my own publicity….

Again I’m sorry. But I’m not ready to be a hack yet. Maybe later.

First-edition cover for 'The Grapes of Wrath,' published on April 14, 1939

Less than two weeks later, Steinbeck was already hard at work on The Grapes of Wrath — the iconic epic of the Great Depression that shines a light on the same uncomfortable and often gruesome subjects of class struggle, power, and oppression, but does so in a way that ennobles the characters, chooses dignity over depravity, and critiques a hopeless situation while granting hope. He gave himself a hundred days to finish the novel and recorded his creative process and personal journey in Working Days, which is in many ways as significant and rewarding as the novel it chronicles. The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize a year after its publication, became a cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later, and endures as one of the most important works of social justice ever published in the English language.

Complement it with Steinbeck’s unforgettable letter of advice to his teenage son on falling in love.

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09 DECEMBER, 2014

Albert Einstein on the Fickle Nature of Fame, the Real Rewards of Work, and the “Whole Buffoonery” of the Cultural Establishment

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“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.”

Albert Einstein was a master of articulating his convictions with mesmerizing precision in his letters — he counseled his son on the secret to learning anything, explained to a colleague the secret of his genius, wisely answered a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, assured another who feared that her gender would hold her back, and corresponded with Freud about the deepest truths of violence, peace, and human nature.

Now, thanks to Princeton University’s newly released archive of Einstein papers, one of Einstein’s most perceptive, prescient opinions comes to light.

In 1922, Einstein decided to join the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, even though he indicated in his letters — not without snark — that he wasn’t entirely certain of its purpose. Meanwhile, his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, had written to express his vexation over the petty politics of the scientific world. In a June 18, 1922, letter to his friend, Einstein addresses the general posturing of the establishment and the fickle nature of fame — a sentiment that resonates at even higher frequencies of truth in the context of today’s conveyor belt of celebrity and the sandcastles that pass for the ivory towers of contemporary culture:

Dear friend Zangger,

You wrote me affectionately and at length, and some of it I was even — able to read. Don’t take any heed, if [anyone] is placing obstacles in your path. You always have pleasure in doing your thing well; it must give you independence from the whole buffoonery into which we have been born. I have largely attained this independence. Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God* knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.

Decades later, the great Richard Feynman — the scientist-sage of a new generation — would come to echo this in his spirited opprobrium of honors. And yet Einstein was both right and wrong — as disposable as most objects of hero-worship may be, here we are admiring a great mind a century after his heyday. One can’t help but wonder, then, who the Einsteins of today are and whether, in a culture that increasingly confuses being noticed for being notable, any of our present idols will stand the test of time to have their emails quoted by future generations.

Complement the wholly absorbing Princeton archive with Einstein on fairy tales and education, why we are alive, and his soul-stretching conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

Photograph of Albert Einstein colorized by Mads Madsen

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Public Opinion and What It Means to Be an Artist, in a Letter to Sherwood Anderson

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“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you…”

Georgia O’Keeffe, celebrated as America’s first great female artist, was a woman of strong opinions on art, life, and setting priorities and an uncommon gift for committing to words what she committed to canvas. But some of her most revelatory insights on art and the creative experience were shared in a series of letters to writer Sherwood Anderson, who had befriended legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz — O’Keeffe’s husband and her correspondent in volumes of passionate love letters. Encountering O’Keeffe’s art in the early 1920s had inspired Anderson to pick up the paintbrush for the first time and begin painting himself. Meanwhile, the two developed an epistolary fellowship around their shared ideas about art and their amicable intellectual disagreements. (Only three years later, Anderson would come to articulate his own unforgettable wisdom on art in a letter to his son, very likely influenced by O’Keeffe and their creative rapport.)

Found in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library) — an altogether unputdownable out-of-print volume released in 1987, a year after O’Keeffe’s death, to mark her centennial — the letters stand as a sublime paean to the kind of creative integrity that rises above public opinion and blazes with crystalline clarity of conviction. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder how O’Keeffe’s art — how her sanity — might have suffered had she lived in our present era of perpetual sprinting on the social-media hamster wheel of public opinion.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

On August 1, 1923, she writes to Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you—I’ve wanted so often to write you—two things in particular to tell you—but I do not write—I do not write to anyone—maybe I do not like telling myself to people—and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you—way back in the winter that I liked your “Many Marriages”—and that what others have said about it amused me much—I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do—I seem to—like—or discard—for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment.—At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it—because I do not consider my liking—or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself—And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish—in your way for the clear thing ahead—And when I think of you—I think of you rather often—it is always with the wish—a real wish—that the work is going well—that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine—like fine days in the mountains—fine to remember—clear sparkling and lots of air—fine air.

After a characteristically evocative note about Stieglitz’s health that spring had rendered him “just a little heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him,” O’Keeffe expresses deep gratitude for the very thing that led Virginia Woolf to term letter writing “the humane art”—the soul-salving power of a letter sent by one human being to another:

You can see why I appreciated your letters—maybe more than he did—because of what they gave him—I don’t remember now what you wrote—I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is—that it means much to you in your life—adds much to your life—and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad—and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too—so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much—Thanks

Aware of misfortune’s one-way mirror of hindsight, she adds, “I can only write you this now because things are better.”

'The Lawrence Tree' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1929

O’Keeffe and Anderson continue their correspondence and in another letter sent a month later, she defies her self-professed distaste for “telling [herself] to people” and instead divulging — with the exhilarating intensity of expression that both her art and her letters to loved ones emanate — a magnificent glimpse of her inner life and creative spirit. She considers the role of form in art and the experience from which art stems:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

In a remark of extraordinary humility and wisdom, especially in the hindsight of both O’Keeffe’s present status in the canon of art and Anderson’s in that of literature, she considers the feebleness of any present metric of success against a creator’s ultimate significance for posterity:

You and I don’t know whether our vision is clear in relation to our time or not—No matter what failure or success we may have—we will not know—But we can keep our integrity—according to our own sense of balance with the world and that creates our form—

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maurice Sendak’s famous dissent with a common classification of his work — “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” — O’Keeffe adds:

What others have called form has nothing to do with our form—I want to create my own and I can’t do anything else—if I stop to think of what others—authorities or the public—or anyone—would say of my form I’d not be able to do anything.

I can never show what I am working on without being stopped—whether it is liked or disliked I am affected in the same way—sort of paralyzed—.

All of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters is a treat for eye and spirit alike. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us and Rilke on why external interference in the artist’s private experience poisons the art.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.