Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 JANUARY, 2014

How to Lower Your “Worryability”: Italo Calvino’s 1950 New Year’s Resolution

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“I would like this to signal the end of ‘wasted angst’ in my life.”

What does it mean to live well, live fully? For most of us, it’s an intricate balancing act that involves enough ambition to grow and enough equanimity to keep ourselves from worrying all the time, about everything. The latter is a mental fallibility especially detrimental amidst a culture entranced by constant worries about productivity and unable to find refuge in presence.

In a beautiful January 1950 letter to his friend Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America — the 26-year-old aspiring writer lays out this wonderfully timeless and universally resonant resolution for a better, more present and worry-free life:

I would like this to signal the end of “wasted angst” in my life: I’ve never regretted anything so much as having particular individual worries, in a certain sense anachronistic ones, whereas general worries, worries about our time (or at any rate those that can be reduced to such: like your problem in paying the rent, for instance) are so many and so vast and so much “my own” that I feel they are enough to fill all my “worryability” and even my interest and enjoyment in living. So from now on I want to dedicate myself entirely to these latter (worries) — but I am already aware of the traps in this question and that’s why for some time now my first need has been to “de-journalistize” myself, to get myself out of the stranglehold that has dominated these last few years of my life, reading books to review immediately, commenting on something even before having to time to form an opinion on it. I want to build a new kind of daily program for myself where I can finally get into something, something definitive (within the limits of historical possibility), something not dishonest or insincere (unlike the way today’s journalist always behaves, more or less). For that reason I make several plans for myself: … to maintain my contacts with reality and the world, but being careful, of course, not to get lost in unnecessary activities; and also to set up my own individual work not as a “journalist” any more but as a “scholar,” with systematic readings, notes, comments, notebooks, a load of things I’ve never done; and also, eventually, to write a novel.

That year, Calvino focused his efforts on The Cloven Viscount, which was published in 1952 — a fantasy novel Calvino remarked in another letter was “written to give [his] imagination a holiday after punishing it” with the ill-fated unpublished book that preceded it.

Complement Calvino’s meditation with this fantastic 1934 guide to the art of not worrying and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter about what to worry vs. not worry about in life, then revisit other famous New Year’s resolutions from Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie.

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19 DECEMBER, 2013

Jane Austen on Creative Integrity

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How to defend your creative vision against commercial pressure with graciousness, honor, and unflinching conviction.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in,” beloved Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson famously admonished in his speech on creative integrity. “Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

In December of 1815, Jane Austen released her novel Emma (free download), followed closely by a second edition of her controversial 1814 novel Mansfield Park (free download) — the last two novels published during her lifetime. The former sold well, but the latter was a commercial failure — so much so that it nearly absorbed all of Austen’s profits from Emma. In the spring of 1816, less than a year before her death, she received a letter from Mr. Clarke, chaplain and private English secretary to Prince Leopold and the librarian at His Royal Highness’s Coburg House, who had come to admire Austen’s talents but also wanted to steer them in a certain direction. He suggested that “a historical romance illustrative of the august House of Coburg would just now be very interesting” — essentially a request for a publicity puff piece that would be at once more commercially successful for her and politically beneficial for the Prince. (A proposition tragically prescient and familiar amidst our day and age of churnalism and clickbait vacant of substance.) But in a letter from April 1 that year, found in A Memoir of Jane Austen (public library; public domain), the celebrated author stands her ground with equal parts integrity and elegance, articulating the supremacy of the creative impulse over the allure of commercial success and capturing the very essence of why writers write:

My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work…. You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
  Your very much obliged,
    and very sincere friend,
  J. Austen.

During that time, Austen had begun to write her final novel, which she titled The Elliots. She completed the draft mere months after her letter to Clarke. But she never lived to see it published, succumbing to fatal illness in July of 1817. It was posthumously published under the title Persuasion (free download) six months later.

In 2013, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen would appear on its currency, making her only the third woman in history, after Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, to appear on a British banknote.

A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and originally published in 1869, is excellent in its entirety, offering an unprecedented, highly influential first-hand account of the elusive icon’s character and habits, and painting a dimensional portrait of the author whom Virginia Woolf called “the most perfect artist among women.”

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12 DECEMBER, 2013

The Love Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, with a Cameo by William S. Burroughs

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“Life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around…”

Among humanity’s greatest art-forms is the love letter. From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco, 1955

In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:

Dear Petey:

O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!

What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .

I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.

A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:

…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .

As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:

I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .

Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to –

Love,

Allen

In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:

I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .

Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:

Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.

He ends the letter with a short verse:

Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen

My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries is fantastic in its entirety, featuring letters from and to such cultural icons as Lord Byron, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Marcus Aurelius, Alexander Hamilton, Michelangelo, and more. Complement it with the beautiful love letters exchanged between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

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