Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

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Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.

[...]

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.

A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:

Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.

In her eternally moving The Diary of a Young Girl (public library), Anne Frank at first questioned the very act that immortalized her and touched the lives of millions:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.

Oscar Wilde, a man of strong opinions and even stronger passions, exercised his characteristic wit in The Importance of Being Earnest (public library):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag's lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.

A few years later, Sontag revisits the subject in an essay about Albert Camus’s notebooks, found in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (public library):

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

Sylvia Plath like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:

Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.

But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Hedgehog and the Fox: Italo Calvino on the Two Types of Writers

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“I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one.”

Ezra Pound outlined six types of literary personalities. Susan Sontag listed the four people a great writer must be. For Italo Calvino, every writer exhibited one of only two basic constitutions.

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, and his thoughts on America, how to assert oneself, and how to lower one’s “worryability” — comes the celebrated author’s clever classification of writerly temperaments.

Responding to literary critic Guido Almansi’s 1978 review of an essay collection by Isaiah Berlin titled after a line from Archilochus — “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” — 55-year-old Calvino writes:

The fox-hedgehog system would lead me to very different classifications from yours. If the hedgehog is the writer who has one unshakeable conceptual and stylistic unity, whereas the fox adapts his strategy to the circumstances, [the Italian novelist and journalist Alberto] Moravia is a hedgehog in that he is tenaciously consistent with himself whatever he writes, both in terms of poetics and of his vision of the world. Whereas I change my method and field of reference from book to book because I can never believe in the same thing two times running, therefore I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one. [The film director, writer, and poet Paolo] Pasolini is a fox, yes, because he adopts different strategies (worldly novels written in dialect, poems with the virtuoso effects of classical rhetoric) but he is also a hedgehog (and not a super-fox) because in all his incarnations his conceptual world is at its core compact and unchangeable. It seems to me that your classification tends to be polarized along the extrovert-introvert axis and in my view this is beside the point.

Noting that classifying poets is particularly challenging, Calvino adds that the fox-hedgehog system doesn’t work for all literary landscapes, especially for the Italian literature of the time:

I see that I am tempted to define as “hedgehogness” the limited means used (which can also be a strength, in that it is an immersion in one’s own nature) and to see experimentalism as “foxness” (which can be motivated by serious anxieties) but maybe that is not the way that Berlin’s move should be understood — his system works for the great classics and defines categories of greatness and not limits: the hedgehog must know “one big thing” and the fox must identify with the Shakespearean variety of the world.

Supplement Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985, an intimate glimpse of one of the most original minds in creative history, with Calvino’s poetic résumé, his witty and wise New Year’s resolution, and his 14 definitions of what makes a classic.

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25 AUGUST, 2014

The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

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How to sculpt an environment that optimizes creative flow and summons relevant knowledge from your long-term memory through the right retrieval cues.

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Kellogg reviews a vast body of research to extract a few notable findings. Among them is the role of background noise, which seems to fall on a bell curve of fecundity: High-intensity noise that exceeds 95 decibels disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks — noise tends to raise arousal level, which can be useful when trying to stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can agitate you out of creative flow when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. (The psychology of writing, after all, as Kellogg notes in the introduction, is a proxy for the psychology of thinking.) The correlation between skill level and task difficulty also plays a role — feeling like your skills are not up to par raises your level of anxiety, which in turn makes noise more bothersome.

These effects, of course, are relative to one’s psychological constitution — Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers — the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence — whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:

The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Turning an eye to research on the specific timing and duration of writing sessions, Kellogg points to several studies indicating that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity, not only for writers but also for athletes and professional musicians — a finding since repeated in more recent research. He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms — something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor — which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1958 interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Location and physical environment also play a role in maintaining a sustained and productive workflow. Bob Dylan, for instance, extolled the virtues of being able to “put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind.” Reviewing the research, Kellogg echoes Faulkner’s memorable assertion that “the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost” and notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although “during the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career, almost any environment is workable” — most likely a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxury of privacy is unaffordable.

But the key psychological function of such dedicated environments isn’t so much superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.

For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.

This strategy is rather similar to the one most often recommended for treating insomnia — instituting a regular bedtime and using the bedroom as a space dedicated solely to sleep, in order to optimize the brain’s ability to enter rest mode upon going to bed and cue that behavior each night just by entering that environment. (Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the most successful writers are also zealous in their sleep habits.)

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

In fact, Kellogg cites a 1990 treatment program, developed by research psychologist Bob Boice developed for educators and other professionals who must write for a living and who were struggling with writer’s block, which uses a similar approach:

A key component of [Boice's] program is the rearranging of the writing environment. He recommends that the writer “establish one or a few regular places in which you do all serious writing” and “nothing but serious writing; other writing (e.g., correspondence) would be carried out elsewhere.” Boice insists that magazines, novels, and other nonessential reading material be banned, social interactions minimized or eliminated, and cleaning and straightening up of the place delayed until a writing session is completed. By following these recommendations, the writer creates a space solely to think and write, avoiding extraneous activities. This space, therefore, becomes associated with all the mental products of creating meaning and can then serve as a unique retrieval cue for those products.

Note that these strategies were developed more than a decade before modern smartphones existed and long before social networks like Facebook and Twitter were moaning their constant 95-decibel siren calls for our attention. Today, Boice’s treatment program would no doubt also require the elimination of smartphones and any medium of social networking from the dedicated writing environment, among countless other “nonessential” forms of communication that the past, as is usually the case, could not have envisioned of the future.

Thomas Mann seems to have captured many of the principles Kellogg unveils in a single exquisite letter to the Austrian writer and journalist Viktor Polzer:

For writing I must have a roof over my head, and since I enjoy working by the sea better than anywhere else, I need a tent or a wicker beach chair. Much of my composition, as I have said, has been conceived on walks; I also regard movement in the open air as the best means of reviving my energy for work. For a longer book I usually have a heap of preliminary papers close at hand during the writing; scribbled notes, memory props, in part purely objective — external details, colorful odds and ends — or else psychological formulations, fragmentary inspirations, which I use in their proper place.

In the closing of the chapter, Kellogg considers what the wide variation of such routines and rituals reveals:

The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Indeed, despite all these fruitful strategies for optimizing creative flow, the bigger truth — something I wholeheartedly believe — remains: There is no ideal rotation of the chair or perfect position of the desk clock that guarantees a Pulitzer. What counts, ultimately, is putting your backside in the chair — or, if you happen to be Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, dragging your feet to your standing desk — and clocking in the hours, psychoemotional rain or shine. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

Complement The Psychology of Writing — which goes on to explore such cognitive crannies as the intricacies of symbol-creation, the role of personality in writing, and the impact of drugs and daydreams on the creative process — with Anna Deavere Smith on discipline, a guided tour of the daily rituals of famous writers, and some pointers on how to hone your creative routine.

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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.