Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

17 JUNE, 2014

Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother

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“The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”

How does one keep going when the going gets really, really tough? From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — which also gave us Cather’s only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — comes a magnificent letter 43-year-old Cather wrote to her younger brother on July 8, 1916. It was a trying time in Cather’s personal life — the heartbreaking end of an era: The great love of her life, the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, had left her for a man she married, extinguishing the possibility of their companionship and romantic involvement that Cather so longed for. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, had just died, which only contributed to Cather’s anguishing sense of having lost a home. Meanwhile, she had grown increasingly disappointed with her own family’s crusade “to get mixed up with kings and move in the highest society,” while facing the force of their disapproval of her life as a writer and a queer woman.

In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles — for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen, 1926

Cather writes:

My Dear Douglass…

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living—or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories — one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.

However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year — I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right — and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…

Time is good for violent people.

Yours with much love

Willie

She did write something “worthwhile” again, of course — worthwhile enough to earn her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with a dive into the Brain Pickings letters archive.

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11 JUNE, 2014

William Styron on Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers

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“For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most beloved writers of the past century, in large part due to his confident idealism and dogged determination about writing. It was a spirit he cultivated early on, unwilling to accept the standard industrial model of a formal education in literature as the only path to a successful career as a writer. From the altogether wonderful Selected Letters of William Styron (public library), edited by Rose Styron — a fine addition to my lifelong love affair with writers’ and artists’ letters — comes a missive 20-year-old Bill sent to his father on October 21, 1946, during his senior year at Duke University.

After discussing the bureaucratic logistics of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, the requirements for which included two references who could attest to his “character, sobriety, virtue, and that sort of thing,” he launches into a spirited dissent against the limitations of higher education. Among other things, he argues that reading philosophy, particularly Montaigne, is not only a better teacher of writing than literature but also better at helping us learn how to live, which is in turn essential for great writing.

William Styron as a college student

Dear Pop …

I’m fed up, disgusted, and totally out of sorts with Duke University and formal education in general, for that matter, and I hardly see why I’m taking a crack at this Rhodes scholarship when I’m such an execrable student. Only the fact that this is my last semester keeps me from packing up and leaving.

I’ve come to the stage when I know what I want to do with my future. I want to write, and that’s all, and I need no study of such quaint American writers as Cotton Mather or Philip Freneau — both of whom we are studying in American Lit — to increase my perception or outlook on literature and life. For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year. By that time he knows that further wisdom comes from reading men like Plato and Montaigne — not Cotton Mather — and from getting out in the world and living. All of the rest of the scholarship in English literature is for pallid, prim and vapid young men who will end up teaching and devoting 30 years of their sterile lives in investigating some miserably obscure facet of the life of some minor Renaissance poet. Sure, scholarship is necessary, but its [sic] not for me. I’m going to write, and I’ll spend the rest of my days on a cattle-boat or jerking sodas before I teach.

Styron lived up to his determination. After graduation, he took an editing job at a major New York publishing house, which he hated so much that he intentionally got himself fired. He spent the next three years toiling away on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, under the New York equivalent of a cattle-boat lifestyle, scrapping together just enough money to get by. It paid off — when the book was published in 1951, it was received with wide acclaim and earned Styron the prestigious Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

William Styron in 1979

He never did teach in the formal sense, though his monumentally influential 1985 memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, provided unparalleled insight into the disease and informed much of our modern discourse about it.

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02 JUNE, 2014

Dani Shapiro on Vulnerability, the Creative Impulse, the Writing Life, and How to Live with Presence

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“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it.”

Dani Shapiro is the author of the magnificent memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy and, most recently, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (public library) — one of 2013’s best books on writing and creativity. She is also one of the most enchanting nonfiction writers of our time, capable of revealing through the harrowing honesty of the personal the profound resonance of the universal — those deepest yearnings and fears that unite us in our humanity whenever, in a moment of courage or despair, we plunge beneath the surface illusion of our separateness.

On an altogether fantastic recent episode of Design Matters, Debbie Millman sits down with Shapiro to talk about writing, vulnerability, spirituality, genesis of creative ideation, and how to live with presence. The wonderfully wide-ranging interview concludes with a double delight — Millman’s reading of one of the most beautiful and poignant passages from Still Writing:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

The full conversation is simply spectacular — hear it below, with transcribed highlights:

On the singular demands of the memoir genre and autobiographical nonfiction:

When you bring out a memoir, the feeling is of the life being reviewed — not the book being reviewed.

Ultimately, my memoirs are crafted — there’s much that I didn’t write about… To me, memoir and essay and the kind of nonfiction writing that I’ve done … is the act of crafting a story — it’s actually tremendously controlled. It’s the act of exerting my own shape on what is otherwise chaotic… I’ve chosen exactly what to reveal, and how to reveal it, and I’ve recognized the story in my life.

It’s not all interesting … and it’s not, [as] I say to my students, “the kitchen-sink approach to memoir” — just because it happened, does not make it compelling and does not make it a story.

On the lengths to which we go to craft our own stories and control our image in the eyes of others — especially as social media sharing is continuing to “turn up the volume on what it means to live out loud”:

Is there anything less revealing of Self than a selfie?

On the unexpected outpour of humanity in the letters of readers from all walks of life, in response to her spiritual memoir, Devotion:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

On why Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of time as a cathedral was so influential in Shapiro’s journey of writing and living Devotion:

I loved that so much when I came across it — I felt like it was speaking so completely to what that existential crisis was for me, which was, “How do we live in the moment?” How do we actually be right here, right now — not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past — and how difficult it is… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not.

How many times have we had the experience of driving a car down the road and suddenly realizing, “Twenty minutes have gone by and I’ve arrived at my destination, and I have no idea how I got here or what just happened…”

That was so powerful to me, that feeling. I wanted to freeze time — freeze the moment that I was in as I was in it, which is the opposite of being in the moment and sort of just staying there. That felt to me like a real spiritual pursuit — to try to understand that and think about that, and in a meditation practice, how to be aware of when my mind was wandering and simply shepherding it back.

On Shapiro’s belief that “traces that live within us often lead us to our stories,” something Joan Didion called “a shimmer around the edges” — a concept that speaks to the “slow churn” of creativity and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our experience:

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes… it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

The full interview is enormously stimulating and soul-stretching, as are Shapiro’s books. Sample Still Writing here and here.

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