Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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) — 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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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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