Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

05 JUNE, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s Letters to Her Mother on the Joy of Living and Writing as Salvation for the Soul

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“I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light…”

Whether because we are wired by our cognitive circuitry or conditioned by our culture of cynicism, we tend to be profoundly incapable of recognizing that contradictory emotions, beliefs, states, and dispositions can coexist within a single person, at different times and even at the same time, complementing and enriching one another rather than canceling each other out. Can a life be lived with wholehearted exuberance and end by heartbreaking despair, without the fact of the latter negating the truth of the former? Hardly anything poses this question more acutely than the short, exuberant, and tragic life of beloved poet Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963).

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize and before her journals were published, the world got its first glimpse of the turbulent and wildly creative inner landscape this troubled genius inhabited — Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library). Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

In the introduction, Plath’s mother speaks of the “psychic osmosis” she shared with young Sylvia and cites a journal entry — for the beloved poet was among history’s most dedicated diarists — in which her 17-year-old daughter writes:

Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.

In a sentiment calling to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” teenage Plath adds:

At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.

Illustration by Quentin Blake from Plath's 'The Bed Book,' a children's book written for her own kids. Click image for more.

Plath did get married and did have kids. To this, a necessary addendum: The hubristic assumption that her marriage was the cause of her tragedy — an assumption tragically common in our age of snap judgments and superficial impressions masquerading as informed opinions, with which people don’t hesitate to impale others whenever Plath and Hughes are mentioned — is a disservice to the seething cauldron of complexity that is a human life, to say nothing of the double complexity of human relationships; it is also an assumption that fails to account for the still barely understood neurochemistry of creativity and mental illness.

What is clear is that at seventeen, Plath is tussling with precisely those complexities that make a person, feeling out the boundaries of the self, that resident-alien of body and mind:

I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And yet, echoing Van Gogh — another complicated artist with a tragic end, who wrote to his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Plath wonders whether her reach for perfection will ever bear fruit and show on the outside:

Never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…

Facing the overwhelming crossroads of young adulthood, Plath marvels at this unrepeatable moment in time:

There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…

That cause became writing, a sense of purpose that came naturally to Plath as she let her life speak. She captures its pull beautifully in one of her earliest poems, written around the same time, which her mother includes in the introduction to the book:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

Plath soon headed to Smith College, where her dedication to writing grew so all-consuming that it was immortalized in a cartoon pinned to the College Hall Bulletin Board, which read under the caption “Teen-age Triumphs”:

BORN TO WRITE

Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at her writing… A national magazine has published two of her brain children! — the real test for being a writer.

For her part, Plath loved the opportunity to live up to the cartoon’s proclamation. She wrote in a letter to her mother:

Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy

And work, work, work she did — a few months later, she got that coveted Mademoiselle internship, which catapulted her into the world of professional writing. In a 1955 letter to her mother, which captures biographer Andrew Wilson’s apt assertion that Plath was “an addict of experience,” she writes:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

In July of 1956, Plath articulates her inescapable calling in another letter to her mother from a trip to Paris with her husband, Ted Hughes, whom she had met that February in their famous first encounter and had married by June. Twenty-three-year-old Plath writes:

Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…

Letters Home is a bottomless treasure chest of insight into this luminous spirit caught in a troubled mind. Complement it with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her beautiful reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and her unseeen drawings, collected by her own daughter.

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Midwifery of Creativity: Denise Levertov on How Great Works of Art Are Born

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“Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”

Few things gladden the heart, at least this heart, more than the immortal evidence of great friendships between artists — that mostly invisible scaffolding of goodwill and kinship of spirit upon which creative culture is built and without which the heavy lonesomeness of the creative life would crush the artist. An encouraging word from a friend or mentor can work, and has worked, wonders for the creative spirit — there is ample evidence in the epistolary friendship of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, young James Joyce’s correspondence with Ibsen, Mark Twain’s emboldening exchange with Helen Keller, Emerson’s career-making letter to Walt Whitman, and Frida Kahlo’s beam of compassion to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Among the most beautiful of these spiritually sustaining friendships is that between the poets Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919–February 3, 1988) and Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997). It began with a fan letter Duncan sent to Levertov in May of 1953 and continued for more than a quarter century, over the course of which they exchanged nearly 500 letters, now collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (public library) — a formidable 800-page tome containing these two literary titans’ views on life, love, poetry, politics, family, fame, and the intricate machinery of creativity.

In one of the longest and most revelatory letters in the volume, penned between October 25 and November 2 of 1971, 48-year-old Levertov articulates her most fundamental creative credos more directly than in any of her public writings.

She considers what lends a poem — and any great works of art — its power:

I have always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak (in whatever medium) of what deeply stirred him — whether in blame or in praise. I’d sooner read Dubliners than Finnegans Wake. Beckett bores me. Most of Gertrude Stein bores me — she’s nice for tea but I wouldn’t want her for my dinner. I love George Eliot…

I should qualify the “deep stirring” I mean: I prefer … works where need to speak (in whatever medium was theirs) arose from experiences not of a technical nature but of a kind which people unconnected with that medium also shared (potentially anyway).

Illustrating this with an example that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected,” Levertov writes:

A sculpture inspired by the potential of the piece of wood it is carved out of might move me by its beauty of proportion, texture, decorative qualities etc. but usually not as much as one behind which one can feel some other human experience, to which the artist-craftsman’s feeling for the wood contributes, so that the emerging inscape (the revealed inscape) is of the conjoining of some other life experience with the present experience of the wood, the material. Each grasped, revealed, by way of the other.

Elsewhere in the lengthy letter, she captures another aspect of this mutuality:

One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for six rare recordings of Levertov reading her poetry. Click image to see more and listen.

But this “deep stirring” quality of great art, Levertov cautions, doesn’t arise from the rational appeal of the work’s subject matter, or what it is currently fashionable to call its “content” — a term I’ve long despised for implying the vacant filler of an unfeeling form. Rather, she argues in one of the most beguiling descriptions of the creative impulse, it comes from the artist’s sincere and insurmountable desire — need, even — to externalize a mysteriously moving interior experience, a private event of the psyche, into a public work of art:

I do not at all have a sense of luring anyone into the poetic by catching hold of them through my subject matter. The idea appalls me in fact. Some events — whether a tree in a certain light, a Mexican family looking at the movie stills outside the cinema, a dream, my own condition of being in or out of love, of some epiphany relating to husband, child, friend, cat or dog, street or painting, cloud or stone, a book read, a story heard, a life thought about, a demonstration lived through, a situation, historical and/or topical, (that’s to say known in the moment of its passing into history) — it doesn’t matter, the list is endless, but some events (selected by some interior mysterious process out of all the other minutes and hours of my life) begin to form themselves in my understanding as phrases, images, rhythms of language, demand to be further formed, demand midwifery is one way to put it. Not all that one feels most strongly makes this verbal demand, even if one is a poet — by poet here I mean prose writer too — … but whatever experiences do demand it are always strongly felt ones. That is my testimony.

She seals the sentiment with one final stab at the vanity of vacant form:

I understand that for some people something like problem-solving is in itself a stimulus — e.g. the challenge of how to tell a story as a poem, not prose, without sounding archaic or stilted, might stimulate someone to make up a story to see if it could be done. But I myself would never be interested unless I first had a story to tell.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov with T.S. Eliot on the mystical quality of creativity and Jeanette Winterson on what grants great art its power, then revisit these wonderful archival recordings of Levertov reading her poetry.

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27 MAY, 2015

An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness

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The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.

[…]

I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

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27 MAY, 2015

The Art of Science Communication: William Zinsser on How to Write Well About Science

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How to master the inverse pyramid of transmuting information into wisdom.

I have always considered writing a way of organizing reality — of organizing one’s own mind and, in recording that process, decluttering the reader’s understanding of some subtle or staggering aspect of the world.

Few writers have articulated the philosophies and practicalities behind this artful organization with more clarity and conviction than William Zinsser (October 7, 1922–May 12, 2015) in his 1976 classic On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (public library) — a masterwork partway, in both time and tenor, between E.B. White’s vintage bible The Elements of Style and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s contemporary counterpart The Sense of Style.

William Zissner (Photograph: Damon Winter / The New York Times)

With the hindsight of three decades, Zinsser — who had written the book in the early 1970s with nothing but “a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket” — reflects in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition:

Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.

But Zinsser points out that while the job of the writer may have gotten easier as the computer became “an everyday tool for people who had never thought of themselves as writers,” the task of the writer — that ability to say something which “other people will want to read” — has gotten, in many ways, harder:

Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. But, as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

[…]

Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences—pruning and revising and reshaping — without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect?

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Even in the decade since the 30th anniversary edition, the technological barriers of entry for writing and publishing nonfiction online have gotten exponentially lower and the stakes of good writing and journalism exponentially higher — nowhere more so than in science, where bad writing is not only unpleasurable for the reader but also potentially dangerous.

Indeed, one of the most enduring and urgently important sections of Zinsser’s classic deals with the art of writing about science — something that often befuddles both writers and scientists. The most solid common ground between them, Zinsser playfully suggests, is built upon a shared panic at the prospect of writing — with the expectation of writing well — about science. He addresses this often irrational trepidation:

Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.

[…]

Scientific and technical material can be made accessible to the layman. It’s just a matter of putting one sentence after another. The “after,” however, is crucial. Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence. This is no place for fanciful leaps or implied truths. Fact and deduction are the ruling family.

To illustrate the importance of this sequential storytelling, Zinsser cites a science assignment he often gives to his writing students — the seemingly simple exercise of describing how something works: “how a sewing machine does what it does, or how a pump operates, or why an apple falls down, or how the eye tells the brain what it sees.” Reflecting on how this assignment plants the seed for good science writing, Zinsser touches on the essential function of writing as a tool for organizing reality:

Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you. I’ve found it to be a breakthrough for many students whose thinking was disorderly.

This principle of science writing, Zinsser points out, applies to all nonfiction writing, for it teaches the writer to lead the reader, step by step, from knowing nothing about a subject to understanding enough to grow enchanted with its broader significance.

Zinsser illustrates this approach by outlining an inverse Maslow-style pyramid of informational needs:

Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation — how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.

But as someone who thinks a great deal about the challenge of transmuting information into wisdom, I find myself inclined to push Zinsser’s model a step further and consider the importance of cultivating a layer of wisdom above the layer of “significance and speculation.” The difference might be subtle, but it’s an important one: After all, when one reads the very finest science writing — be it Oliver Sacks writing about the mind or Diane Ackerman about the senses or Stephen Jay Gould about lepidoptery or Robin Wall Kimmerer about moss — one walks away informed about the significance of these scientific phenomena, certainly, but more than that, one walks away elevated and enriched and illuminated with a new appreciation of our “strange and shimmering world.”

On Writing Well remains absolutely indispensable, exploring such essential aspects of the craft as the key to sophisticated simplicity, the core transaction between the writer and the reader, the art of the interview, and the most fruitful attitude for the writer. Complement it with Cheryl Strayed on the importance of faith and humility in writing, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, E.B. White on the two faces of discipline, and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the most important tool of writing, then revisit this ongoing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft.

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