Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Nature of the Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write

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“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

On the heels of the highly anticipated new David Foster Wallace biography comes Both Flesh and Not: Essays (public library) — a collection spanning twenty years of Wallace’s nonfiction writing on subjects as wide-ranging as math, Borges, democracy, the U.S. Open, and the entire spectrum of human experience in between. Among the anthology’s finest is an essay titled “The Nature of the Fun” — a meditation on why writers write, encrusted in Wallace’s signature blend of self-conscious despondency, even more self-conscious optimism, and overwhelming self-awareness. It was originally published in 1998 in Fiction Writer and also included in the wonderful 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction.

After offering an extended and rather gory metaphor for the writer’s creative output and a Zen parable about unpredictability, he gets to the meat of things:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.

Here, Wallace echoes Vonnegut, who famously advised, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Indeed, this lusting after prestige and approval is a familiar detractor of creative purpose in any endeavor. Wallace goes on:

At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.

He adds to literary history’s most famous insights on the relationship between truth and fiction:

The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation — fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

He concludes on a Bradbury-like note:

The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.

Both Flesh and Not is excellent in its entirety and just as quietly, unflinchingly soul-stirring as “The Nature of the Fun.”

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01 NOVEMBER, 2012

John Keats on “Negative Capability,” Embracing Uncertainty, and Celebrating the Mysterious

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On the art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) endures as an icon of literary creativity. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, found in Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends (public library; public domain) and dated December 21, 1817, Keats uses the phrase that has come to be the single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once: “Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.

Keats writes:

[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

In the introduction to Selected Letters, Jon Mee writes of the letters themselves as a meta-embodiment of “Negative Capability”:

The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.

Perhaps Christoph Niemann was right, after all, in asserting that insecurity is essential to creativity.

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31 OCTOBER, 2012

Alan Watts on Death, in a Beautiful Animated Short Film

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“Think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it…”

Philosopher and writer Alan Watts (1915-1973) is best-known for authoring the cult-classic The Way of Zen and popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West alongside John Cage. In this hauntingly beautiful animation based on a Watts lecture, produced by Luke Jurevicius and directed by Ari Gibson and Jason Pamment, Watts considers what death might be, exploring the notion of nonexistence and pitting it as “the necessary consequence of what we call being.”

UPDATE: A reader points out that the animation comes from a video for “Sometimes the Stars” by Australian band The Audreys from their 2010 debut album of the same title. What you see here is a mashup of the video and an Alan Watts recording.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

Complement with Watts on our illusion of separateness and his poignant probing of what you would do if money were no object.

For a closer look at his philosophy on death, and how “death and life imply each other,” here is some rare footage of Watts speaking in the 1950s:

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