Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 OCTOBER, 2014

The Architecture of Bliss: Artist Anne Truitt on the Perfect Daily Routine and How Parenting Shapes Our Capacity for Savoring Solitude

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“It is heavenly to work until I am tired… [After dinner] I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it.”

I have a longstanding fascination with the daily routines of writers, particularly with the psychology behind them.

Due in no small part to the fact that she was formally trained as a psychologist before becoming one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Anne Truitt speaks to this confluence of fascinations in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the superb record of Truitt’s lifetime of reflections on the creative life, which also gave us her wisdom on compassion, humility, and how to cure our chronic self-righteousness and the difference between doing art and being an artist.

In a diary entry from mid-July of 1974, while living at the Yaddo artists’ community at Saratoga Springs, New York, 53-year-old Truitt writes:

I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad — often a whole head of new lettuce) and thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio.

At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterward I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep.

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

But in a culture where we have a painfully hard time savoring solitude, what is more important than Truitt’s routine itself is her articulate awareness of how the formative years of her childhood and upbringing made this capacity for fertile solitude possible. The kind of parenting that fosters secure attachment is perhaps the greatest gift of psychoemotional advantage one could have in life — something psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore in detail in their indispensable book A General Theory of Love. In a diary entry a day later, Truitt reflects on the early freedom her mother gave her, both by personal example and by parenting style:

My mother’s moral force radiated from her like a gentle pulsation. Sensitive people picked it up and found her presence delicately satisfying.

[...]

She was herself only when alone.

[...]

This satisfaction with being solitary was a tremendous source of freedom for me. It implied a delight in self and affirmed my own obsessive sieving of experience. By taking her mind totally off me, she gave me my own autonomy. I knew from experience that she was careful and responsible. I realized that she would have watched me had she not been sure that I was all right. And, if she were sure, I could be sure. Very early in my life, I set out stoutly to look around at everything.

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist is enormously soul-stretching in its entirety. Complement it with the cognitive science of the perfect creative routine, C.S. Lewis on the ideal daily routine, and a stimulating read on why great parenting is about presence rather than praise.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

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“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

  3. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

  5. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

  7. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Therapy and the Creative Mind

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“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.”

It’s paradoxical that while “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness” for those who experience it, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is well-documented among those who make it, as is the anguish of artists who experience it. This, perhaps, renders the cultivation and preservation of mental health all the more urgently important for artists and those operating on a high frequency of creativity.

Eight-time Grammy recipient Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943), undoubtedly one of the most original and influential musicians of the past century, as well as an enormously talented painter, speaks to the value of therapy and a commitment to mental health in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library) — that wonderful collection of wide-ranging conversations by musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom, which also gave us Mitchell on freedom, creativity, and the dark side of success.

Joni Mitchell's 1995 self-portrait for the cover of her album 'Turbulent Indigo,' one of twenty album covers she painted herself, referencing Vincent van Gogh's famous self-portrait with the bandaged ear that has become a symbol of his struggle with mental health.

When Marom asks why Mitchell chose to record her unusual cover of Annie Ross’s old jazz song “Twisted” from the 1974 album Court and Spark — a song about psychoanalysis — she answers, half-jokingly, that her own experience of therapy earned her “the right to sing it.” But reflecting on the more serious aspects of therapy as a commitment to one’s wellbeing, Mitchell echoes the famous Tennessee Williams aphorism — “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels” — and tells Marom:

Everyone has confusion… Simply by confronting paradoxes or difficulties within your life, designating a time to confront them several times a week, they seem to be not so important as they do when they’re weighing on your mind in the middle of the night, by yourself, with no one to talk to…

I went through a lot of changes about [therapy]. It’s like driving out your devils — do you drive out your angels as well, you know, that whole thing about the creative process. An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that. It’s been part of the creative force. I mean, even out of severe depression there comes insight, if you meditate on it. It’s sort of masochistic to dwell on it, but you do gain understanding.

And yet Mitchell sees therapy as a kind a clarifying tool for her inner life, for her priorities and values, at a point in time:

That’s mostly what it was, questions about myself and the way I was conducting my life and what were my values in this time … What aren’t values in this time? Everything is so temporal.

Ultimately, however, she champions the benefits of therapy unequivocally:

I think it did me a lot of good. I think that self-confrontation is a good thing, whether you do it by yourself in solitude, or whether you do it in the presence of another person.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a wonderful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what therapy and art have in common in soothing the soul.

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Donating = Loving

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