Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

05 FEBRUARY, 2015

Kafka’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters

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“I belong to you… But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”

“Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences,” a wise woman once said, echoing Rilke’s memorable proclamation that love is “perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” When we fall in love, we are asked to rise to this task — a polarizing pull that stretches the psyche in opposite directions as we crave surrender and safety in equal measure.

The discomfort of this wildly disorienting bidirectional pull is what 29-year-old Franz Kafka articulated in a beautiful and heartbreaking letter to Felice Bauer, a marketing rep for a dictation machine company whom the young author had met at the home of his friend and future biographer Max Brod in August of 1912. Young Franz and Felice immediately began a correspondence of escalating intensity, with Kafka frequently exasperated — as was Vladimir Nabokov at the start of his lifelong romance with Véra — over his beloved’s infrequent and insufficiently romantic response. Over the five-year course of their turbulent, mostly epistolary relationship, they were engaged twice, even though they met in person only a few times. During that period, Kafka produced his most significant work, including The Metamorphosis. Five hundred of his letters survive and were posthumously published in the intensely rewarding and revelatory Letters to Felice (public library).

In November of 1912, three months after he met Felice, Kafka writes:

Fräulein Felice!

I am now going to ask you a favor which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter. It is also the very greatest test that even the kindest person could be put to. Well, this is it:

Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday — for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough. But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you?

Whether out of self-protective rationalization or mere pragmatism — the onset of tuberculosis was, after all, what ended the relationship five years later — he plaintively points to a physiological reason, almost as an excuse for the psychological:

Oh, there is a sad, sad reason for not doing so. To make it short: My health is only just good enough for myself alone, not good enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood. Yet when I read your letter, I feel I could overlook even what cannot possibly be overlooked.

He resumes his plea, which seems directed more at himself than at her:

If only I had mailed Saturday’s letter, in which I implored you never to write to me again, and in which I gave a similar promise. Oh God, what prevented me from sending that letter? All would be well. But is a peaceful solution possible now? Would it help if we wrote to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter…

He closes in true Kafkaesque fashion:

If we value our lives, let us abandon it all… I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.

It makes sense, of course, for a man who associated pleasure with pain — nowhere more vividly than in his famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — to experience love as at once elating and anguishing. But the paradox of love is perhaps the same as that of art, which Jeanette Winterson so elegantly termed “the paradox of active surrender” — in order for either to transform us, we must let it turn us over and inside-out. That is what Rilke called love’s great exacting claim, and in that claim lies its ultimate reward.

Illustration from 'My First Kafka' by Matthue Roth, a children's-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.

Complement the exquisite Letters to Felice with the breathtaking love letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

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“When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored my all-time favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download), this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

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

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the beloved author’s thoughts on happiness, morality, religion, identity, and much more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then fortify this particular bit with the psychology of the perfect writing routine and more ideas on overcoming creative block from Brian Eno, Carole King, and some of today’s most exciting creators.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

How Ursula Nordstrom, the Greatest Patron Saint of Modern Childhood Stood, Up for Creativity Against Commercial Cowardice

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“Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults.”

Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious, imaginative children than legendary Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such multi-generational classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964). Nordstrom was more than an editor to her authors and artists — she was often their therapist, confidante and friend, and always their creative guardian and greatest champion. Above all, Nordstrom was a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience, to which unimaginative grownups so often lay perilous claim, and of the artist’s creative integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures toward marketable conformity and safe, commodified, politely pedestrian storytelling. Modern childhood’s most benevolent patron saint turned out to be a childless gay woman living through the height of consumerism in America and yet managing to envision, publish, and defend children’s books that were not forgettable commodities but masterpieces that stood the test of time and enchanted generations.

Her deeply lovable spirit blossoms in the pages of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — an endlessly rewarding volume by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, which also gave us Nordstrom’s heartening New Year’s resolution, her feisty response to a conservative librarian who had tried to censor Maurice Sendak, and her witty, wise, and prescient lament about the state of publishing.

In July of 1966, twelve years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nordstrom corresponded with the author about his book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, which she was about to publish with illustrations by a young Maurice Sendak — an artist whom she nursed out of insecurity and into genius, perhaps more so than with any of the other now-legendary artists and authors who came of age under Nordstrom’s wing. She writes to Singer:

To see Zlateh the Goat taking shape, becoming a book children (and their parents) will read and love for generations has been a tremendous experience for me. I think your stories have inspired some of Maurice Sendak’s very finest work. All of us in the department love your book… I think it’s going to bring you a special sort of happiness too.

Half a century before Sendak, already a cultural icon, scoffed at the artificial divide between “children’s” and “adult” books in his final interview, Nordstrom adds:

You’ve wondered why Sendak didn’t do adult books. And once you asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an editor of adult books. But most adults are dead and beyond hope after the age of thirty, and I think with Zlateh you will find a new and marvelous audience. God knows too many children’s books are routine, cynically produced, coarsely promoted. But Zlateh is a complete success artistically.

But her most fierce and emboldening defense of creative integrity against commercial cowardice came more than a decade earlier, shortly after her famous lament that what children read, and thus what shapes their minds, is being decided by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” In February of 1954, Nordstrom received a letter from a Harper & Row West Coast salesman named Jim Blake, reporting of an unpleasant encounter with a “cross buyer” who had complained about How to Make an Earthquake — a sweet, irreverent faux-activity book by the uncommonly original Ruth Krauss, in the vein of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, featuring such how-to activity ideas as making a “tunnel of love for kittens without a mother” and balancing a peanut on your nose. The indignant buyer had found some of the activities inappropriate, betraying a profound inability to comprehend the subtle humor of Krauss’s book and her deep respect for the child’s imaginative freedom.

Nordstrom, a lifelong guardian of childhood’s imaginative inner world, replied to Blake with an exquisite defense of Krauss — an author whose magnificent collaborations with young Sendak are among my all-time favorite children’s books — and of the broader spirit the buyer had failed to understand, let alone appreciate. More than seven decades later, in an age when so many writers and artists are being squeezed out of their creative vision and vigor by “mediocre ladies in influential positions,” Nordstrom stands as our most heartening example of what it means to stand — and stand up — for all the right things.

She writes:

I am crushed to the ground and I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: “I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late for any changes and lateness aside, if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don’t know … and most grownups don’t know. As for “a little editing,” well, Ruth has written a lot of books for us and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience for me, as an editor, to watch her grow and grow and develop and go deeper and deeper. I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent — and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.

Of course — and this is both the great gift and the great tragedy of this letter — Nordstrom’s ability to recognize creative talent and stand behind it, wholeheartedly and resolutely, is itself a monumental talent of increasing rarity. Those who possess it are few and far between, but when books are born out of it, it shows and never fails to delight.

And yet Nordstrom, a woman of unrelenting compassion, recognizes that her West Coast colleague is just trying to do his job and “sell a few books,” so she offers:

Can’t you tell some of those rather limited and thoroughly grown up adults that it is about time THEY accepted and trusted Krauss? … What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t?

Nordstrom is especially adamant about not dulling Krauss’s creative edge by forcing her — or any of her authors — to conform to a template that has proven successful in the past:

She doesn’t do the same thing over and over and if she ever starts she won’t be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails … she won’t be the writer she is now.

Most of all, however, Nordstrom stands up for Krauss’s ability to bridge the child’s world and the adult’s:

Grown-ups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book… I don’t know how important adults and children feeling closer together is but I guess it wouldn’t do adults and children any harm not to feel far apart for a little while, just long enough to enjoy a Krauss book together.

Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers — which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, this is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered.

[…]

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.

Nordstrom’s point — like so much of the enormous warmth and wisdom collected in Dear Genius — transcends this particular incident and even the general question of creative integrity in children’s books, and reminds us that being bewitched by wonder in any of its permutations requires precisely such an admission of not having the answers to everything. Just ask an astrophysicist.

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