Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

22 NOVEMBER, 2012

Fiona Apple’s Stirring Handwritten Letter About Her Dying Dog

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“I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.”

The love of dogs has produced its fair share of moving literature and art, but little comes close to the stirring four-page handwritten letter that Fiona Apple sent her fans as she cancelled the South American leg of her tour to be with her dying dog, Janet — a 13-year-old rescue pitbull with Addison’s Disease and a chest tumor.

Apple writes:

I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can’t leave her now, please understand.

[…]

These are the choices we make, which define us. I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.

I am the woman who stays home, baking Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable & comforted & safe & important.

Though profoundly different in nature and sentiment from Christopher Hitchens’s meditation on mortality, Apple’s is a counterpart of unparalleled sincerity and humanity:

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life that keeps us feeling terrified & alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest, to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.

Full transcript below.

It’s 6pm on Friday, and I’m writing to a few thousand friends I have not met yet. I’m writing to ask them to change our plans and meet a little while later.

Here’s the thing.

I have a dog, Janet, and she’s been ill for about 2 years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly. She’s almost 14 years old now. I got her when she was 4 months old. I was 21 then — an adult, officially — and she was my kid.

She is a pitbull, and was found in Echo Park, with a rope around her neck, and bites all over her ears and face.

She was the one the dogfighters use to puff up the confidence of the contenders.

She’s almost 14 and I’ve never seen her start a fight, or bite, or even growl, so I can understand why they chose her for that awful role. She’s a pacifist.

Janet has been the most consistent relationship of my adult life, and that is just a fact. We’ve lived in numerous houses, and joined a few makeshift families, but it’s always really been just the two of us.

She slept in bed with me, her head on the pillow, and she accepted my hysterical, tearful face into her chest, with her paws around me, every time I was heartbroken, or spirit-broken, or just lost, and as years went by, she let me take the role of her child, as I fell asleep, with her chin resting above my head.

She was under the piano when I wrote songs, barked any time I tried to record anything, and she was in the studio with me, all the time we recorded the last album.

The last time I came back from tour, she was spry as ever, and she’s used to me being gone for a few weeks, every 6 or 7 years.

She has Addison’s Disease, which makes it more dangerous for her to travel, since she needs regular injections of Cortisol, because she reacts to stress and excitement without the physiological tools which keep most of us from literally panicking to death.

Despite all this, she’s effortlessly joyful & playful, and only stopped acting like a puppy about 3 years ago. She is my best friend, and my mother, and my daughter, my benefactor, and she’s the one who taught me what love is.

I can’t come to South America. Not now. When I got back from the last leg of the US tour, there was a big, big difference.

She doesn’t even want to go for walks anymore.

I know that she’s not sad about aging or dying. Animals have a survival instinct, but a sense of mortality and vanity, they do not. That’s why they are so much more present than people.

But I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can’t leave her now, please understand. If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.

Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes just to decide what socks to wear to bed.

But this decision is instant.

These are the choices we make, which define us. I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.

I am the woman who stays home, baking Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable & comforted & safe & important.

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life that keeps us feeling terrified & alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest, to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.

When she dies.

So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and I am revelling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel. And I’m asking for your blessing.

I’ll be seeing you.

Love,

Fiona

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs — and what more poignant attestation than this?

Letters of Note

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20 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

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“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

UPDATE: These daily routines have now been adapted into a labor-of-love visualization of writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews — many from the fantastic Paris Review archives — and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.

Ray Bradbury, a lifelong proponent of working with joy and an avid champion of public libraries, playfully defies the question of routines in this 2010 interview:

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

[…]

I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

Joan Didion creates for herself a kind of incubation period for ideas, articulated in this 1968 interview:

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.

E. B. White, in the same fantastic interview that gave us his timeless insight on the role and responsibility of the writer, notes his relationship with sound and ends on a note echoing Tchaikovsky on work ethic:

I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Photograph by Tom Palumbo, 1956

Jack Kerouac describes his rituals and superstitions in 1968:

I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?

He then adds a few thought on the best time and place for writing:

The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.

Susan Sontag resolves in her diary in 1977, adding to her collected wisdom on writing:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

Then, in a Paris Review interview nearly two decades later, she details her routine:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

[…]

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

In 1932, under a section titled Daily Routine, Henry Miller footnotes his 11 commandments of writing with this wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:

MORNINGS:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

AFTERNOONS:

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.

EVENINGS:

See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

In this 1965 interview, Simone de Beauvoir contributes to dispelling the “tortured-genius” myth of writing:

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

[…]

If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.

Ernest Hemingway, who famously wrote standing (“Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”), approaches his craft with equal parts poeticism and pragmatism:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Don DeLillo tells The Paris Review in 1993:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.

Productivity maniac Benjamin Franklin had a formidably rigorous daily routine:

Image by Nick Bilton

Haruki Murakami shares the mind-body connection noted by some of history’s famous creators:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

William Gibson tells the Paris Review in 2011:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

[…]

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

Maya Angelou shares her day with Paris Review in 1990:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.

Anaïs Nin simply notes, in a 1941 parenthetical comment, in the third volume of her diaries:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

She then adds in the fifth volume, in 1948.

I write every day. … I do my best work in the morning.

Lastly, the Kurt Vonnegut routine that inspired this omnibus, recorded in a letter to his wife in 1965:

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

For more wisdom from beloved authors, complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2012

Geometrical Psychology: Benjamin Betts’s 19th-Century Mathematical Illustrations of Consciousness

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“Imagination receives the stream of Consciousness, and holds apart and compares the different experiences.”

“What makes a mathematician is not technical skill or encyclopedic knowledge,” Paul Lockhard recently wrote, “but insatiable curiosity and a desire for simple beauty.” But what if this mathematical curiosity and desire for beauty were applied to questions that have perplexed scientists and philosophers for millennia — questions about consciousness, what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our lives? That’s precisely what New Zealander Benjamin Betts set out to do in the 19th century with his unusual diagrams of consciousness, collected in the 1887 tome Geometrical Psychology, or, The Science of Representation (public domain), a predecessor to Julian Hibbard’s geometric diagrams of love.

Editor Louisa S. Cook, who assembled Betts’s diagrams, writes in the introduction:

Mr. Betts has spent more than twenty years in studying the evolution of Man. He contemplates Man, not from the physical, but from the metaphysical point of view ; thus the evolution of Man is for him the evolution of human consciousness. He attempts to represent the successive stages of this evolution by means of symbolical mathematical forms. These forms represent the course of development of human consciousness from the animal basis, the pure sense-consciousness, to the spiritual or divine consciousness; both which extremes are not man — the one underlying, the other transcending the limits of human evolution.

Mr. Betts felt that consciousness is the only fact that we can study directly, since all other objects of knowledge must be perceived through consciousness.

Mathematical form, he considers, is the first reflection and most pure image of our subjective activity. Then follows number, having a close relation to linear conception. Hence mathematical form with number supplies the fittest symbols for what Mr. Betts calls “The Science of Representation,” the orderly representation by a system of symbolisation of the spiritual evolution of life, plane after place. “Number,” Philo said, “is the mediator between the corporeal and the incorporeal.”

Cook notes the form of Betts’s forms:

The symbolic forms which Mr. Betts has evolved through his system of Representation resemble, when developed in two dimensions, conventionalised but very scientifically and beautifully conventionalised leaf-outlines. When in more than two dimensions they approximate to the forms of flowers and crystals.

These mathematical curves might serve as a truer and more scientific basis of classification for Botany than de Candolle’s system or any other yet employed, many so-called amorphous developments of the Flora being readily reducible to law according to this method. For instance, the simple corollas, the horn-shaped corollas, and the bi-axial corollas would supply three main classes of flower forms, each of which might be divided into various distinct sub-classes.

The fact that he has accidentally portrayed plant-forms when he was studying human evolution is an assurance to Mr. Betts of the fitness of the symbols he has developed, as it affords presumptive evidence that the laws he is studying intuitively admit of universal application.

On Betts’s model of the imagination:

After the repeated recurrence of any sensation, though slightly varying in form, the individual develops the consciousness of its identity, and he begins to form an image or idea, both of the subjective sensation and of the accompanying objective perception, which he can retain in his mind though the sense affection of which it is the counterpart is transitory. Mr. Betts calls this power of ideation Imagination, using it in the literal sense of the word. As a prism receives a beam of light and deflects the rays, holding them apart so that the colours of the spectrum are separated and distinguished, so Imagination receives the stream of Consciousness, and
holds apart and compares the different experiences.

Comparison is represented in the diagrams by the angle-; Consciousness from one-dimensional becomes two-dimensional, the line is expanded to a surface.

[…]

And since every idea is dual — e.g., the positive idea of light brings with it the negative complementary idea of darkness — of a colour, its complementary colour — therefore the positive representative line on the right hand of the diagram is duplicated by a counterpart line on the left. The sensation of the present moment is not yet reflected as an idea, nor distinguished by comparison. In the diagram it is the apex of the form. When more than two senses occupy Consciousness the lines representing them are arranged radially round the centre. Although the distinction must then be represented by a smaller angle, it does not follow that it is less in amount, as the form itself of Consciousness has become enlarged. At the same time it is quite possible that when the number of modes of manifestation is very limited the sensations are more vivid, and consequently the distinctions more marked, than when more modes of consciousness are differentiated.

Whether abstracting something as complex as consciousness in such concrete physical forms is a reasonable proposition remains a question for the metaphysicians — but the forms themselves are, unequivocally, pure visual mesmerism.

Betts’s diagrams are now in the public domain and the book is available for free in multiple digital formats from Open Library.

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