Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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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12 MAY, 2014

How to Pitch Yourself: A Lesson from Young Eudora Welty’s Impossibly Charming Job Application to The New Yorker

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An exquisite yin-yang balance of erudition and irreverence, dignity and self-deprecation.

“Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, ‘Yes! I dare disturb the universe,'” Madeleine L’Engle riffed on T.S. Eliot in her magnificent meditation on creativity. But in the quest to find fulfilling work, we stand in our own way all too often by taking ourselves too seriously to dare “disturb the universe” in any meaningful way.

In March of 1933, shortly before her 24th birthday, Eudora Welty penned the polar-opposite counterpart, if there could be such an oxymoron, of Sherwood Anderson’s perfect resignation letter: She mailed to The New Yorker what’s possibly the loveliest job application of all time, offering her services with equal parts respect and irreverence, self-esteem and well-placed self-deprecation — an epitome of what it means to find your purpose and do what you love. From offering to step in for the great James Thurber “in case he goes off the deep end” to showcasing her affinity for E.E. Cummings with disarming unsubtleness, Welty’s missive — found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library), that wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life and E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity — is a timeless lesson in how to pitch yourself to your dream job.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Disappointingly, the editors at The New Yorker seemed too dainty and immune to Welty’s intelligent charisma — her letter produced no response. Only years later would the magazine obliquely recognize that initial failure by eventually publishing some of her short stories. Exactly four decades after her brilliant plea for employment, Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter — a title inadvertently poignant in the context of her New Yorker rejection — and seven years later, in 1980, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in literature.

Letters of Note is a treasure trove of heartening humanism in its entirety — highly recommended. Sample its soul-quenching goodness further here and here.

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08 MAY, 2014

Lynne Tillman on What to Say When People Ask You Why You Write or Make Art

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“Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write… but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature.”

What compels writers to write, to trek to the desk day in and day out under the self-elective mesmerism of their unrelenting routines? George Orwell attributed the impulse to four universal motives, and Mary Gaitskill listed six. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love. And yet there remains the unsettling sense that any answer is manufactured, the product of either overly self-conscious deliberation or the whims of a fleeting mood — the sense that no one quite knows.

Count on Lynne Tillman, one of the most fiercely fresh idea-jockeys of our time, to address this sidewise yet with profound precision in one of the twenty-nine fantastic essays in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — a collection of short meditations on art and literature, spanning everything from to New York to Kafka to the resounding silence of John Cage. In this particular essay, titled “Try Again,” Tillman recounts a question she received — a rather common question — after an event at NYU’s creative writing program: An aspiring writer asked her to impart the single most important learning from her writing career thus far. This invariably bleeds into the same old question of why a writer writes. Tillman reflects:

No one strong-arms you into becoming an artist or writer—most often you’re dissuaded—and volunteers who bemoan their chosen gig seem disingenuous. Visual artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to defend their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write, and many feel the pointlessness of their self-chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested.

Lynne Tillman (photograph by David Shankbone)

Tillman, who later invokes Samuel Beckett’s famous dictum — “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — speaks to the value of failure in creative work:

A comic gets rid of bad jokes, or is a bad comic, though failures might make it into the act, since they’re at the heart of funny. Comedy wouldn’t exist without failure, especially that of other people. Writers may publish idiocies and artists make dull objects, and some of this work may be celebrated as good writing or art. Some write more and more books, hoping to get it right, often digging a deeper hole to fall into. Success itself can be a rut, since, it’s said, it breeds success, so might condemn an artist to doing the same thing forever.

She circles back to the original inquiry:

To the question about my best lesson for younger writers, I answered: “Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.” I didn’t mention the inevitability of rejection, luck, money, nepotism, etc. Before my first novel appeared, I’d naively believed that being published would compensate for every bad thing. In those pre-publication days, my writing was for me, I was its only reader, and I could believe it was without sin.

At dinner with my artist friend, I told him I didn’t know if artists owed anyone an answer or what a writer’s responsibility to readers was, if there was one. The ethics of these peculiar relationships remain conundrums. Notions of service to the field may not matter, if the proof isn’t in the pudding. Anyway, writers and artists are not voted in or out by an electorate, though institutions — including collectors, gallerists, publishers, art magazines, critics — do vote but not in a transparent manner, not democratically. It’s insisted there is a public for art, but those who remark on it generally presume themselves separate from it.

Working with words and pictures engages artists and writers in a world they didn’t make, to which they may or may not contribute.

Ultimately, Tillman offers not an answer but an approach, a strategy for addressing the question — one borrowed from tactful avoidance tactics of the British, which she marveled at during her time living in London:

I didn’t understand the British use of “I don’t mind” to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe.” The phrase seemed to allow for ineffable negotiations between people, though. “I don’t mind,” I saw, opened a conversational door through which either party could leave, without embarrassment. But it was hard for a foreigner to use, because it’s part of a British dance whose subtle moves are learned from childhood. The British also sometimes avoided answering direct questions. I loved that, it was so un-American, and now I sometimes do it in New York, where people expect answers. I change the subject or pretend I haven’t heard the question, and watch surprise or chagrin appear on faces. It’s a liberation from others’ nosiness, a freedom I never expected. I recommend it, with reservations that will be different for each person, discerned only through trial and error.

What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a wonderfully enriching, comfort-zone-expanding read in its totality. As an important aside, I noticed that the book has fallen prey to a man best described as a professional Amazon troll, who has authored more than 400 mostly one-star reviews that have received a 90% unhelpfulness rating from the community. Because Amazon’s star-ratings are algorithmically enacted, unmoderated, and don’t even factor in the helpfulness quotient — which would, come to think of it, offer a rather simple fix — such trolls end up hurting writers and in turn hurting readers by warping and skewing the community’s ability to assess a book’s true merit. So if you find yourself reading and enjoying Tillman’s book as much as I did, do consider leaving a rating that offsets this mindless trolling.

Thanks, Craig

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