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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

19 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay: Robert Frost’s Letter of Advice to His Young Daughter

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“The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White wrote in the foreword to his collected essays. Annie Dillard sees things almost the opposite way, insisting that essayists perform a public service — they “serve as the memory of a people” and “chew over our public past.” Although he had never written an essay himself, the advice Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) offered to his eldest daughter, Lesley, not only stands as an apt mediator between White and Dillard but also some of the most enduring wisdom on essay-writing ever committed to paper.

During her junior at Amherst College, Lesley shared her exasperation over having been assigned to write an academic essay about a book she didn’t find particularly inspiring. In a magnificent letter from February of 1919, found in The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1 (public library), the beloved poet gave his daughter sage counsel on her particular predicament, emanating general wisdom on writing, the art of the essay, and even thinking itself.

Five years before he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, 45-year-old Frost writes:

I pity you, having to write essays where the imagination has no chance, or next to no chance. Just one word of advice: Try to avoid strain or at any rate the appearance of strain. One way to go to work is to read your author once or twice over having an eye out for anything that occurs to you as you read whether appreciative contradictory corroborative or parallel…

He speaks to the notion that writing, like all creativity, is a matter of selecting the few thrilling ideas from the lot of dull ones that occur to us — “To invent… is to choose,” as French polymath Henri Poincaré famously proclaimed. Frost counsels:

There should be more or less of a jumble in your head or on your note paper after the first time and even after the second. Much that you will think of in connection will come to nothing and be wasted. But some of it ought to go together under one idea. That idea is the thing to write on and write into the title at the head of your paper… One idea and a few subordinate ideas — [the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them — not let them escape you… The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature.

The Frost family in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, 1915: Elinor and Robert, Lesley and Irma, Marjorie and Carol (University of Virginia Library)

Reflecting on his days as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, Frost points to precisely this over-and-above quality as the factor that set apart the few of his students who mastered the essay from the vast majority of those who never did. (Although by the time of his tenure the Academy officially accepted young women, Frost’s passing remark that his class consisted of sixty boys reveals a great deal about women’s plight for education.) He writes:

They seem incapable of the over-and-above stuff. I think maybe it goes on in their heads as they read but they are incapable of catching it. They are too directly intent on the reading. They cant get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn’t have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading. It may be a childhood memory; it may be some homely simile; it may be a line or verse of mother goose. They want it to be big and bookish. But they haven’t books enough in their heads to match book stuff with book stuff. Of course some of that would be all right.

Indeed, in many ways Frost’s advice on essay-writing is really advice on reading — that mutuality of thought between reader and writer, pulsed through by the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s dictum on how to read a book, Frost offers counsel so passionate that it becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, barely punctuated:

The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse — give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together! Being careful to hold up our end and to do our part agreeably without too much contradiction and mere opinionation. The best thing of all is going each other one better piling up the ideas anecdotes and incidents like alternating hands piled up on the knee. Well its out of conversation like this with a book that you find perhaps one idea perhaps yours perhaps the book’s that will serve for other lesser ideas to center around. And there’s your essay.

He lands from this poetic elation into some practical advice:

Be brief at first. You have to be honest. You don’t want to make your material seem more than it is. You won’t have so much to say at first as you will have later. My defect is in not having learned to hammer my material into one lump. I haven’t had experience enough. The details of essay won’t come in right for me as they will in narrative. Sometimes I have gotten round the difficulty by some narrative dodge.

[…]

Take it easy with the essay whatever you do. Write it as well as you can if you have to write it. Be as concrete as the law allows in it — concrete and experiential. Don’t let it scare you. Don’t strain. Remember that any old thing that happens in your head as you read may be the thing you want. If nothing much seems to happen, perhaps another reading will help. Perhaps the book is bad or is not your kind — is nothing to you and can start nothing in your nature one way or another.

He interjects a meta-remark on the nature — and naturalness — of the essay form:

Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.

At the very end, before signing off “Affectionately Papa,” Frost can’t resist taking a little jab at the essay, voicing the sentiment that seems to explain his own lifelong resistance to partaking in the genre:

I don’t know you know whether its worth very much — I mean the essay — when you have it written. I’m rather afraid of it as an enemy to the really creative writing that holds scenes and things in the eye voices in the ear and whole situations as a sort of plexus in the body (I don’t know just where).

Robert Frost with his daughter Lesley (left) and her two children, 1945

Lesley grew up to be an author herself, albeit not of essays — she published two books of stories for children: Really Not Really in 1962, published mere months before her father’s death, and Digging Down to China in 1968.

In its portly 850-page totality, The Letters of Robert Frost is a trove of writerly wisdom and heartwarming parental advice to the poet’s six children, of whom Lesley and her sister Irma outlived their father. Complement it with Frost’s beautiful poem on art and government, which he intended to but didn’t read at JFK’s inauguration, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing in a letter of advice to his own daughter, then revisit this growing library of writers’ advice on writing.

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16 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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13 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mozart’s Magnificent Love Letter to His Wife

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“If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed.”

It’s hardly surprising that humanity’s most beautiful minds — the creative visionaries who bequeath us with the finest works of art, music, and literature — should also be the ones who author the most bewitching love letters, that highest form of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” One particularly heartwarming specimen of the genre comes from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791) — doubly so for the unusual start of the romance that would become the love of his life.

In late 1777, Mozart fell in love with Aloysia Weber — one of four daughters in a highly musical family. Despite the early cultivation of his talent, he was only just beginning to find self-actualization; she, on the other hand, was already a highly successful singer. (A century later, another great composer — Tchaikovsky — would tussle with the same challenge.) Despite her initial interest, Aloysia ultimately rejected his advances.

Over the next few years, Mozart established himself not only as the finest keyboard player in Vienna, but also as a promising young composer. When the father of the family died in 1782, the Webers began renting their house to lodgers to make ends meet. Young Mozart moved in, and soon fell in love with Constanze — the third Weber daughter.

On August 4, 1782, the two were married and remained together, very much in love, until Mozart’s death nine years later.

Shortly before his sudden death, in a letter from September of 1790 found in Love Letters of Great Men (public library) — a collection of romantic correspondence featuring Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, and dozens more lovers of letters — Mozart writes to Constanze from Frankfurt, where he had gone seeking gainful employment to remedy the family’s financial downturn:

Dearest little Wife of my heart!

If only I had a letter from you, everything would be all right…

Dearest, I have no doubt that I shall get something going here, but it won’t be easy as you and some of our friends think. — It is true, I am known and respected here; but, well — No — let us just see what happens. — In any case, I do prefer to play it safe, that why I would like to conclude this deal with H… because I would get some money into my possession without having to pay any out; all I would have to do then is work, and I shall be only too happy to do that for my little wife.

After a getting a few more practical matters out of the way, Mozart fully surrenders to the poetical:

I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever

your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.

But even lovelier than the signature is the part that comes after it. Mozart violates in the most endearing of ways Lewis Carroll’s rule about postscript and writes:

PS. — while I was writing the last page, tear after tear fell on the paper. But I must cheer up — catch — An astonishing number of kisses are flying about — The deuce! — I see a whole crowd of them. Ha! Ha!… I have just caught three — They are delicious… I kiss you millions of times.

Complement this gem from Love Letters of Great Men with other masterworks of the genre, including the exquisite letters of Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Female Psychoanalyst, on Human Nature in Letters to Freud

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“The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.”

Russian-born poet, essayist, and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) created for herself a freedom that modern women have come to expect, at a time when such freedom was practically impossible. She became a philosopher in an era when women were neither expected nor even allowed to study philosophy and was a muse to Rilke, who wrote her passionate love letters and dedicated his Book of Hours to her, and to Nietzsche, who set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her and whose Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her.

At the age of fifty, suddenly seeing the human problems she had previously examined through the lens of philosophy now best addressed by the young science of psychology, Andreas-Salomé became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. In the fall of 1911, she attended the Weimar Psycho-Analytical Congress and befriended Freud, whom she had first met a decade and a half earlier, soon becoming at once his muse, his disciple, and his intellectual peer. “Hoping that one day I shall have the opportunity of having a private conversation with you,” Freud wrote to her shortly after they met. The dream was consummated in their ensuing prolific correspondence, collected in Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters (public library), where the two discussed each other’s papers and patients, exchanged views on everything from narcissism to anxiety to masturbation, traded perspectives on working methods, and pondered the psychology of the artist. They graced each other not only with admiring friendship — she addressed him by “Dear Professor” and he thanked her for the “pertinent and stimulating discussion” — but also with the assuring kinship of a shared dedication to the deepest human concerns: love, creativity, spirituality, death, the meaning of life.

But as much as their correspondence reveals a deep mutuality of values and ideas, it also sheds light on some meaningful psychological contrasts, the starkest of which is their divergent perspectives on human nature and the dominant hues of the human spirit. And what more powerful and poignant a trigger for contemplating these issues than bearing witness to humanity at its worst? In one of her earliest letters to Andreas-Salomé, penned on the cusp of WWI as two of his sons had entered the army, a pessimistic Freud writes:

I do not doubt that mankind will survive even this war, but I know for certain that for me and my contemporaries the world will never again be a happy place. It is too hideous. And the saddest thing about it is that it is exactly the way that we should have expected people to behave from our knowledge of psycho-analysis. Because of this attitude to mankind I have never been able to agree with your blithe optimism. My secret conclusion has always been: since we can only regard the highest present civilization as burdened with an enormous hypocrisy, it follows that we are organically unfitted for it. We have to abdicate, and the Great Unknown, He or It, lurking behind Fate will someday repeat this experiment with another race.

But decades later, as that “experiment” was indeed repeated in another world war, Freud’s views would change as he tussles with the subject in his little-known correspondence with Einstein — a change perhaps precipitated by Andreas-Salomé’s unflinching optimism about the human spirit. Indeed, in her response to Freud, she argues for the inherent duality of good and evil in each of us and for the choice we have, as individuals and a civilization, as to which half we feed — a choice that is essentially the ur-divide between hope and cynicism:

At one point it touches both your and my attitude to the distress of our time and what you called my optimism, which now seems so sadly shipwrecked. And yet I believe that behind every individual human activities and the territory which can be reached through psycho-analysis there lies an abyss where the most valuable and nastiest impulses inextricably condition each other and render impossible any final judgment. This remarkable mixture remains a fact not only for the once surmounted stage of earliest development (of the race as well as of the individual), but ever anew and for everyone this remarkable unity is a fact — calculated to cast down the arrogant, but also to exalt the lowly of heart. It is true that this makes no difference to our loathing for or our delight in a particular piece of human conduct, and a time like the present can consequently deal a death-blow to joy and confidence; but nevertheless one knows from oneself that one can only go on living in such an ultimate faith, and the same ought to apply to everyone else. Ought to: but of course it doesn’t, not in these days. However the fact that it ought to … that alone helps me a little.

In another letter, Andreas-Salomé adds:

The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.

But these ideas about human nature predate Andreas-Salomé’s foray into psychoanalysis and crystallized decades earlier, during her days as a poet and philosopher. In fact, they shine most brightly in an 1882 poem titled “Hymn to Life,” which so inspired Nietzsche — her lover at the time — that he set it to music. The sentiment at its heart reverberates through her letters to Freud many years later.

HYMN TO LIFE

Surely, a friend loves a friend the way
That I love you, enigmatic life —
Whether I rejoiced or wept with you,
Whether you gave me joy or pain.
I love you with all your harms;
And if you must destroy me,
I wrest myself from your arms,
As a friend tears himself away from a friend’s breast.

I embrace you with all my strength!
Let all your flames ignite me,
Let me in the ardor of the struggle
Probe your enigma ever deeper.

To live and think millennia!
Enclose me now in both your arms:
If you have no more joy to give me —
Well then—there still remains your pain.

The whole of Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters is a forgotten treasure of formative ideas on the human psyche. Complement it with Rilke on the tenacity of the human spirit and Tolstoy’s little-known correspondence with Gandhi on love, violence, and why we hurt each other.

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