Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

24 AUGUST, 2015

Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success

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“When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14 1986) is among humanity’s most beloved and influential writers. His work has inspired mathematical revelations, philosophical children’s books, and a universe of literature. After his death, Susan Sontag commemorated him in the most beautiful homage in the history of letters.

In 1972, in his seventies and already completely blind, Borges agreed to meet with a young Argentinian writer and passionate reader named Fernando Sorrentino for a series of conversations. On seven afternoons, the two men, separated by more than forty years and united by a profound love of literature, sat down in a secluded room at the National Library of Argentina and conversed candidly about literature and life. The record of these revelatory encounters, offering the most direct glimpse of the beloved author’s mind, was published as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) in 1974 — the same magnificent volume that gave us Borges’s enduring wisdom on writing.

In one of the most timeless yet intensely timely portions of the conversation, Borges examines the question of success and its true measures through the lens of his extraordinary artistic integrity and cultural insight. When asked whether he cares about the opinions of readers and spectators, he considers the difference between literature and other arts:

It’s possible that a book won’t attract any attention when it’s published; it may be discovered afterward. On the other hand, in the case of a film (and this makes everything more dramatic; the same thing happens, let’s say, with the dancer’s or performer’s art), the failure or success has to be immediate… I think the circumstance of a hall filled with people in itself creates a special atmosphere.

Literature and fine art seem to share this time-scale of success, quite different from that of the popular and performance arts. One wonders whether Borges thought of his younger sister, Norah, in contemplating this question of latent recognition — while she was an enormously prolific graphic artist during her life, it was only after her death that she came to be celebrated as a pioneer of modern art.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

With an eye to the psychology of crowds, he adds:

When people join in a group they react in a more exaggerated way; this is something you must have noticed very often. For instance, if someone tells a joke in a small group, people laugh, but they don’t laugh in the same way that five hundred or a thousand people laugh when they hear a joke in a play or a movie. That is, there’s a tendency to greater exaggeration, a tendency for everything to happen in a more emphatic manner. And it’s strange, the fact that people let themselves go more when they’re in a group. On the other hand, a solitary reader, a solitary spectator, seems to have less of a reaction or to react more modestly than when with other people.

[…]

The solitary reading of a work is best for its true evaluation. But at any rate, it’s a different kind of evaluation.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

Returning to the travesty of evaluation by popular opinion — something Kierkegaard lamented and Georgia O’Keeffe admonished against — Borges observes:

When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.

In a sentiment triply poignant today, nearly half a century of commercialism later, Borges considers how the commodification of literature has warped its metrics of success:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

This resonates with Borges’s earlier remark about the different time-scales of appreciation for literature versus more commercial arts like film and popular music. The notion of the “bestseller” shares cultural genes with the “blockbuster” and the “hit” — notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be — and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with more of the beloved writer’s wisdom on writing and a marvelous children’s book inspired by his ideas about memory, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

The Inner Light of Creativity: Vivian Gornick on How One Blossoms into Being an Artist

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“I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it.”

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: “Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Over the years, I’ve kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist — an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart — when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?

That’s what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).

'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)

Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:

I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.

That rectangle of air and light — an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote “baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for” — becomes Gornick’s recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, “a true beginning,” during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:

In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we’ve grown transfixed by a very different — and in many ways opposite — kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.

But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it — a space rife with the artist’s atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck’s diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:

I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.

Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.

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30 JULY, 2015

Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

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“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

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

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

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16 JULY, 2015

Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

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“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (b. January 5, 1932) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

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

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

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