Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

14 OCTOBER, 2013

The Art of “Creative Sleep”: Stephen King on Writing and Wakeful Dreaming

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“In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

“Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” a wise woman once said. Indeed, we already know that dreaming regulates our negative emotions and “positive constructive daydreaming” enhances our creativity, while a misaligned sleep cycle is enormously mentally crippling. But can a sleep-like state in waking life, aside from lucid dreaming, actually enrich and empower our creative capacity? According to Stephen King, yes: In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), which also gave us his case against adverbs, the celebrated novelist explores the similarity between writing and dreaming. He considers the role of a daily routine — something many famous creators use to center themselves — in inducing a state of self-mesmerism that produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential, something King calls “creative sleep”:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

King likens the creative process to a kind of wakeful dream state. Just like sleep shapes our every waking moment, King argues this dozing of the waking mind shapes our creative capacity by releasing our repressed imagination:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Ultimately, this “creative sleep” is what allows us to cultivate our own worlds while writing — something stymied by the barrage of distractions that fill the spaces of everyday life. King offers some practical tips on warding those off in order to create the kind of still space necessary for wakeful dreaming:

The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world that you mean business. . . .

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. … When you write, you want to get rid of the world, don’t you? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

King’s advice, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt: As E. B. White poignantly put it, “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — a sentiment Charles Bukowski echoed in his fantastic poem “air and light and time and space,” titled after all the conditions whose presence or absence he thought irrelevant for the true writer, an excuse rather than a necessity.

Still, On Writing remains an indispensable trove of wisdom on the craft and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of famous writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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11 OCTOBER, 2013

2013 Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate Alice Munro on the Secret of a Great Story

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“A story … has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

The question of what makes a great story has occupied the minds of some of our most celebrated storytellers. Kurt Vonnegut had his eight tips and Barnaby Conrad his six, Ken Burns devised a formula, and John Steinbeck defied the very notion of such formulas. A good story, nonetheless, is hardly a relative notion: To use one of pop culture’s most tired yet most expressive similes, it’s like pornography — you know it when you read it. But what, then, makes a story great?

In the introduction to her 1996 anthology Selected Stories (public library), 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Alice Munro (b. 1931) adds to the collected wisdom of great writers and builds a beautiful metaphor for “the hermeneutical path taken up in the reading process”:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

In a 1994 Paris Review interview, she offers a curious counterpoint to the notion that the reading experience of a story is ever-evolving, by observing that so is its writing experience. Both challenging and affirming the notion of a story’s “sturdy sense of itself,” Munro notes that whenever she begins writing a story, she doesn’t fully know what it will be or where it will go — which is exactly as it should be:

Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.

And that, perhaps, is the gift of great literature: The invitation to continually discover and rediscover ourselves, both as readers and as writers, in the perpetually evolving experience of a good story.

Complement with Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, and see these shapes spring to life in Munro’s Selected Stories and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Portrait of Munro by Andrew Testa via The Guardian

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2013

In Pursuit of the Extraordinary: Anaïs Nin Reads from Her Famous Diaries

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“Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. … I want to be a writer who reminds others that these moments exist.”

I often say that the answer to every existential question can be found in the journals of Anaïs Nin, one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history — her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on love, literature, and human nature. In this rare recording from 1966, digitized thanks to a grant from National Endowment for the Arts and contributions by Pacifica Radio listeners, Nin reads from the first volume, though The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) remains the best in the series — the same gem that gave us Nin on the meaning of life, how our objects define us, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly.

Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous. I want to be a writer who reminds others that these moments exist; I want to prove that there is infinite space, infinite meaning, infinite dimension. But I am not always in what I call a state of grace. I have days of illuminations and fevers. I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living.

Complement with Nin on how keeping a diary enhances creativity.

Anaïs Nin's diaries, hand-lettered by Lisa Congdon. Click image for details and more illustrations

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