Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

30 JANUARY, 2014

Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life

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“A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”

After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade’s worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd customs of literary greats, and inevitably remembered some I had missed in the visualization project. Among them was the immeasurably beautiful daily routine of Herman Melville found in the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing, on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau.

In a letter from December of 1850, mere months before the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville writes to his friend Evert Duyckinck, editor of The New York Literary Journal, and describes his life in the country, shortly after he left New York City and settled on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his new wife, Elizabeth Shaw. After a few facetious lines about having neglected to write to his friend for months, Melville paints this beautiful vignette imbued with his nautical obsession:

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

He then outlines his daily routine, emanating his equal passion for writing and life — and above all, perhaps, his profound understanding of how the two flow in and out of one another:

Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.

Melville ends with an endearing, tongue-in-cheek lament about the disconnect between his ambition and his productivity and the general creative paradox of writing:

Can you send me fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately — But … a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Complement with more daily routines from Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

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24 JANUARY, 2014

John Updike on Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know

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“In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

In 2004, shortly after winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, John Updike — who had also won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, among countless other accolades — gave an interview for the Academy of Achievement to discuss his views on writing, many of which he explored at greater depth in his superb 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness (public library), which gave us his timeless reflection on writing and death. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On his daily rhythm, adding to the stringent routines and offbeat rituals of famous writers:

Since I’ve gone through some trouble not to teach and not to have any employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch, so I work three or four hours in the morning. And it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases… I begin by answering a letter or two — there’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer, most people have junk in their lives — but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it steadily that you kind of forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it. . . . I’ve been maintaining this schedule since … 1957.

On doggedness:

It’s good to have a certain doggedness to your technique.

His advice to aspiring writers, including a sentiment about money that Michael Lewis would come to echo and which Muppeteer Jim Henson embodied:

Try to develop actual work habits and, even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say, or more a day to write. Very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So take it seriously, set a quota, try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. . . .

Don’t be contentious to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country and writing, as some would agree, is a capitalist enterprise… It’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience.

Read what excites you… and even if you don’t imitate it, you will learn from it. . . .

Don’t try to get rich. . . . If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or be a certain kind of lawyer. On the other hand, I like to think that in a country this large and a language even larger, that there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

Complement with more invaluable advice to aspiring writers from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Josh Green, then bookmark and revisit this continually updated archive of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft.

For more of Updike’s wisdom, see his meditation on why the world exists and his little-known, lovely children’s book.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 JANUARY, 2014

John Green’s Superb Advice to Aspiring Writers and Creators in the Digital Age

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A vital reminder of the only good reason to put something into the world.

Advice to aspiring authors from successful ones seems to be a special meta-genre of literature, with notable contributions from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and a running list of literary greats. But some of the best and timeliest advice ever given comes from prolific author John Green, whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, became TIME’s #1 fiction book of the year. In this erratic but infectiously charming video, Green reflects on why he loves the internet and offers some invaluable advice to aspiring writers, echoing Schopenhauer’s admonition about writing for money and recasting Faulkner’s famous contention that writers write “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before” in timely light:

Every single day, I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer, and here is the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.

Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see the collected advice of great authors, then revisit 2013′s best books on writing.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.