Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

19 MAY, 2015

Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination

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“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.

The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.

Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:

We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.

Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Illustration by Anne Simon from Corinne Maier's graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for more.

Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:

Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.

These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…

But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.

Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:

Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.

That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:

Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:

Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.

I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:

Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.

But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:

The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.

It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.

[…]

Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.

For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?

Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.

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07 MAY, 2015

Ray Bradbury on Storytelling, Friendship, and Why He Never Learned to Drive: A Lost Vintage Interview, Found and Animated

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“You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around.”

Ray Bradbury GIFIn the fall of 2012, Lisa Potts discovered a cassette tape behind her dresser. On it was a long-lost interview she had conducted with Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — regimented writer, creative idealist, list-maker, space-lover, sage of life and love — exactly four decades earlier, when she journalism student in 1972. Potts and her classmate Chadd Coates were driving Bradbury — a resolute, lifelong nondriver — from his home in West Los Angeles to their university, Orange County’s Chapman College, where he was about to deliver a lecture. The informal conversation that ensued emanates Bradbury’s unforgettable blend of humor, humility, and wholeheartedness to the point of heroism.

In this wonderful animation, the fine folks of Blank on Blank — who have previously given us John Lennon and Yoko Ono on love, David Foster Wallace on ambition, Jane Goodall on life, and Richard Feynman on the most important thing — bring to life Potts’s lost-and-found Bradbury treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Half a century before David Whyte’s beautiful meditation on friendship as the ultimate gift of bearing witness, Bradbury tackles the subject with his singular blend of warm wisdom and wit:

That’s what friends are — people who share your crazy outlook and protect you from the world… Friendship is an island you retreat to, and you’re all on the floor and laugh at all the other ninnies who don’t have enough brains to have your good taste.

Shortly after Margaret Mead and James Baldwin condemned car-culture, Bradbury explains on why he never learned to drive — even though he spent his life in LA, one of the world’s most freeway-raptured cities:

I’ve had too many friends killed now. I’ve seen too many people killed in my life, when I drove across the country when I was twelve — I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. If you see real dead bodies with brains on the pavement, it does a lot to change your attitude… It’s stupid — the whole activity is stupid.

Half a century after Bertrand Russell cautioned that “the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit,” Bradbury reflects on his realistic yet imaginative approach to storytelling:

It’s a combination of realism, with fantasy — but I don’t like realism, because we already know the real facts about life, most of the basic facts. I’m not interested in repeating what we already know — we know about sex, about violence, about murder, about war — all these things — by the time we’re eighteen… From there on, we need interpreters — we need poets, we need philosophers, we need theologians — who take the same basic facts and work with them, and help us make do with those facts.

Facts alone are not enough — it’s interpretation.

Bradbury, who spent a lifetime advocating for the supremacy of emotion over the intellect in catalyzing creative work, echoes Rilke’s conviction that feedback poisons art and champions the practice of unselfconscious authenticity:

Don’t pay any attention to what anyone else says — no opinions! The important thing is to explode with the story, to emotionalize it, not to think it. If you start to think it, the story’s going to die on its feet. It’s like anything else… People who take books on sex to bed become frigid — you get self-conscious.

You can’t think a story — you can’t think, “I shall do a story to improve mankind.” It’s nonsense! All the great stories, all the really worthwhile plays, are emotional experiences. If you have to ask yourself whether you love a girl, or whether you love a boy, forget it — you don’t! A story is the same way — you either feel a story and need to write it, or you’d better not write it.

[…]

You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around…

The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me — so that means, every day of my life, I’ve written. When the joy stops, I’ll stop writing.

Bradbury never stopped — the joy stayed with him until he exploded out of this world shortly before his ninety-second birthday.

For more of Bradbury’s warm genius, see his wisdom on the importance of love in creative endeavors, the value of public libraries, and his conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about Mars and the future of humanity.

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05 MAY, 2015

Kierkegaard on Popular Opinion, the Petty Jealousies of Criticism, and the Only Cure for Embitterment in Creative Work

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“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.”

“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Susan Sontag admonished in 1969. More than a century earlier, another sage of the ages and one of Sontag’s greatest influences made the same point in far less ambiguous terms in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the Danish philosopher’s prescient insights on why haters hate and why we conform to peer pressure.

Writing in 1843, long before our present age of relentless self-promotion and its tyranny of the “personal brand,” Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) laments:

Really, an author’s lot has gradually deteriorated to be the most wretched state of all. An author ordinarily must present himself … hat in hand, bowing and cringing, recommending himself with fine letters of introduction. How stupid: one who writes must understand that about which he writes better than he who reads; otherwise he would not write.

Or one must manage to become a shrewd little pocket-lawyer proficient at gulling the public. — That I will not do, no I won’t; no I won’t — no, the Devil take the whole caboodle. I write the way I want to, and that’s the way it’s going to be; the rest can do what they like, they can stop buying, stop reading, stop reviewing, etc.

Reviewers, in fact, had a special place in Kierkegaard’s heart — if he viewed self-appointed critics with pity, he reserved only the utmost contempt for the professional kind:

I loathe a literary critic as much as an ambulant barber-journeyman who runs after me with his shaving-bowl, which he uses for the beards of all his clients, and then dabs my face all over with his wet fingers.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

But the greatest threat to the written word, Kierkegaard believed, were writers themselves. One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s listicles and content-farmed mediocrity as he bemoans the business of letters:

In our day and age book-writing has become so poor, and people write about matters which they have never given any real thought, let alone experienced.

[…]

Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications. Instead, writing trivia is particularly appreciated today, and whoever writes a big book almost invites ridicule. In former days people read big books, and if they did read pamphlets or periodicals they did not quite like to admit it. Now everyone feels duty bound to read what is printed in a periodical or a pamphlet, but is ashamed to have read a big book through to the end, and he fears he may be considered weak in the head.

He arrives at the only logical conclusion, resolving:

I therefore have decided to read only the writings of men who have been executed or have risked their lives in some way.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

In another diary entry from 1846, Kierkegaard finds himself once again appalled by the business of literature and returns to the subject with renewed dismay:

Today the fees even for authors of repute are very small, whereas the tips being dropped in the hats of literary hacks are very considerable. The more contemptible a man of letters is today, the more money he earns.

And yet for Kierkegaard — as for anyone as deeply bestirred by the commercial assault on the written word — the only antidote to this deplorable commodification of creativity is the “spiritual electricity” of creative work itself. In an other entry from 1846, he writes:

I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.

A year later, he revisits this insight with rekindled passion:

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in though and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

[…]

It is hard and depressing that as a result of all this toil one becomes the butt of the craven jealousy of the aristocracy and of the mockery of the populace! … [But] being an author … is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard remains a spectacular read, brimming with the Danish philosopher’s enduring ideas on writing, melancholy, anxiety, spirituality, science, and the creative experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the benefits of boredom, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

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01 MAY, 2015

E.B. White on Idea-Incubation and the Two Faces of Discipline

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How to ride the “wave of emotion” in creative work on a raft of conscientious revision.

“One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it … [but] another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the key to discipline in 1933. Indeed, fruitful creative work — especially writing — is predicated on this porous relationship between structure and spontaneity, discipline and imaginative freedom. That’s what E.B. White addresses in his contribution to the fantastic volume The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — a compendium of wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with literary legends like Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, and William Styron.

In the same superb 1969 conversation that gave us White’s wisdom on how to write for children and the writer’s responsibility to society, he considers the question of discipline in writing:

There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

But this discipline of discarding mediocrity in the editing process must be preceded by the appropriate gestational period for ideas, or what T.S. Eliot called “a long incubation.” White reflects on his own experience of “sneezing” Charlotte’s Web:

When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.

And yet even this “wave of emotion” — which the perhaps more coolly rational Virginia Woolf famously called “a wave in the mind” — must be ridden on the raft of revision:

I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not at all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer [but] I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment.

Complement with the cognitive science of the perfect writing routine and Anna Deavere Smith on what discipline means for an artist, then revisit this evolving library of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers and White’s warm letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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27 APRIL, 2015

The Workhorse and the Butterfly: Ann Patchett on Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art

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“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her lucid and luminous essay on where ideas come from and the “secret” of writing. “But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” And yet our cultural mythology continues to perpetuate the perilous notion that great art is the product of great ideas that occur in a flash to those endowed with the mysterious gift of genius.

In her magnificent memoir-of-sorts This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (public library), novelist Ann Patchett offers one of creative history’s finest and most convincing counterpoints to this myth.

Ann Patchett by Heidi Ross

She writes in the introduction:

The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.

Patchett, who knew she wanted to be a writer since her early childhood — “A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers,” she asserts in one of her many piercing asides — first set out to figure this out by taking a number of freelance assignments for various magazines, writing essays and other nonfiction while dreaming with crystalline determination about being a novelist. She reflects on a curious duality — on the one hand, the fundamental differences between writing fiction and writing nonfiction; on the other, the surprising ways in which the craft of the latter recompenses the art of the former:

In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. Writing a novel, even when it’s going smoothly, is hard for me, and writing an article, even a challenging one, is easy. I believe nonfiction is easy for me precisely because fiction is hard; I would always rather knock off an essay than face down the next chapter of my novel. But I’ve come to realize that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles … had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.

But of all the skills essential to the fiction writer that Patchett acquired while writing nonfiction — from having her ego tamed by the constant practice of seeing her sentences slaughtered by editors to mastering “the ability to fake authority” — perhaps most valuable was the unshakable understanding that the chief purpose of writing, whatever its nature or genre, is to serve for people as Neruda unforgettable “hand through the fence.” Patchett recounts:

In the years I made my living writing nonfiction, I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a life span that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room, but the essays kept resurfacing. People would bring them to book signings and show them to me. I read this when my grandmother died. Someone gave this to me when I got divorced. They told me my story was their story, and they wondered if there was more, something they might have missed… The job of these essays had been to support art, not to be art, but maybe that was what spared them from self-consciousness.

In one of the most illuminating pieces from the book, titled “The Getaway Car” and subtitled “A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” Patchett considers how this writerly self-consciousness dances with our cultural narrative about great ideas being all it takes to produce great art:

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.

[…]

If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.' Click image for more.

She illustrates the disconnect between myth and reality by recounting an exasperating, almost absurdist encounter with a woman — not a writer — who claimed that while not everyone has in them “one algebraic proof” or “one five-minute mile,” everyone has “one great novel” tucked into their inner life, waiting to be externalized in writing. Patchett — a writer, and thus a rightfully indignant unbeliever in this strangely selective assertion — voices her incredulity:

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.

Living up to the book’s central disclaimer that it isn’t “an instructional booklet” but a subjective record of what has worked for her, Patchett echoes Tchaikovsky’s account of the “immense bliss” of ideation and relays her own experience:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Photograph by Christopher Payne from 'North Brother Island.' Click image for more.

Only writers, Patchett argues, bend but don’t break under this crushing dissatisfaction with how the gossamer perfection of the idea withers as it metamorphoses into the reality of the execution — and that is what sets them apart from those other people who die with their One Great Novel unwritten:

The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

And yet that resilience isn’t something arbitrarily bestowed upon the lucky few by a fickle muse — rather, it is earned the only way any stamina is ever earned. (Annie Dillard, perhaps our most benevolent patron saint of writing, put it best: “You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”) In a sentiment that calls to mind the exquisite example of how John Steinbeck disciplined his way to a Pulitzer, Patchett observes:

It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

With an eye to the deep rewards of practicing itself, Patchett addresses the obvious caveat:

Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound; not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from 'Beastly Verse.' Click image for more.

Returning to the question of transmuting inspiration into writing — one also addressed by another celebrated writer whose own relationship to butterflies was far from metaphorical — Patchett adds:

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

In this practice lies Patchett’s most empowering yet most difficult piece of advice:

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

[…]

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Patchett’s commencement-address-turned-book, then explore this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Cheryl Strayed on faith, humility, and the art of motherfuckitude, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

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