Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Perils of Plans: Why Creativity Requires Leaping into the Unknown

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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.”

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I offered in one of my 7 lessons from 7 years of Brain Pickings. Indeed, nothing stunts growth more powerfully than our attachment to the familiar, our blind adherence to predetermined plans, and our inability to, as Rilke famously put it, “live the questions.” Keats termed the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity “negative capability” and argued that it’s essential to the creative process; Anaïs Nin believed that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, and even psychologists confirm that embracing uncertainty is essential to creativity. And yet we cling so vigorously to our comfort zones, our plans, our knowns — why?

That’s the pattern Dani Shapiro seeks to decondition in Still Writing (public library) — her magnificent memoir, which previously gave us her wisdom on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. She writes:

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.

Shapiro offers both evidence and assurance in reflecting on her own career as a writer:

It might seem to you that all this has been the result of a methodically carried-out plan. Or any plan at all. But I planned none of it. Almost everything that has happened in my writing life has been the result of keeping my head down and doing the work. … I often tell my students — especially the ones who are impatient — that good work will find its way. When the work is ready, everything else will fall into place.

She cautions against the trendy preoccupation with “platforms,” particularly pathological in the age of social media and voracious self-promotion:

I’ll bet you that just about any contemporary writer you admire has never spent a single moment thinking about what their platform or hook might be.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that somewhat boring yet infinitely important notion that grit, not talent, is the secret of genius. Echoing Debbie Millman — who advised in her fantastic illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address on failure, courage, and the creative life, “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.” — Shapiro concludes with some wisdom at the intersection of the poetic and the pragmatic:

If you work hard — with focus, diligence, integrity, honesty, optimism, and courage — on your own tiny corner of the tapestry, you just might produce something good. And if you produce something good, other writers will help you. They’ll call their agents, their editors. They’ll write letters on your behalf. Your teacher will lift you up on her shoulders. She will hold you aloft so that you can catch hold, so you can have the same chance she’s had. Believe me. Nothing will make her happier.

If you haven’t yet read and relished Still Writing, do — your soul will be gladdened. Pair it with this perpetually updated omnibus of the collected wisdom of 50+ famous writers.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2013

Famous Authors’ Hand-Drawn Self-Portraits and Reflections on the Divide Between the Private Person and the Writerly Persona

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“Only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.”

“It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen… I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his famous essay “Borges and I,” eloquently exploring our shared human tendency to disintegrate into multiple personas as our public and private selves slip in and out of different worlds. In 1996, Daniel Halpern asked 56 of our era’s most celebrated writers to reflect on Borges’s memorable meditation and contribute their own thoughts on the relationship between the person writing and the fictional persona of the writer. The resulting short essays, alongside hand-drawn self-portraits from each author — a recurring theme today — are gathered in Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library), a priceless addition to this omnibus of famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft.

Edward Albee

Cynthia Ozick

Diane Ackerman

Poet Diane Ackerman, whose timelessly beautiful cosmic poems never cease to stir, speaks to our multiple coexisting inner selves and the fluidity of human personality:

Selves will accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.

True to her essay’s title, “Diane Ackerman and I,” she playfully turns to the third person to further explore how this notion played out in her own life, while touching on a great many human universalities:

It was only in her middle years that she began to notice how her selves had been forming layer upon layer, translucent like skin; and, like skin, they were evolving a certain identifiable “fingerprint” — a weather system of highs and lows, loops and whirls.

[…]

Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field — a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source. Surely then she would begin to understand the huge spill of life, if she could perceive it from different view points, through simultaneous lives.

[…]

She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human — what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like — while working silently in a small room, filling blank sheets of paper. It is a solitary mania. But there are times when, all alone, she could be arrested for unlawful assembly.

Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin echoes the same sentiment:

When the Queen of England speaks in the first person plural, it sounds marvelously schizoid, and probably is for her a deep embarrassment. When an American politician has gone around the bend, he begins to refer to himself in the third person. All people feel that they are more than one. Even an Eskimo who returns from the ice to sit in the shadows inside an igloo must sometimes ask himself what the hunt has done to him, must wonder why his tenderness with his children takes so long to flood back after his sinews have been bent and frozen hard in the chase. It happens to everyone and to all of us, and only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.

And yet he has mastered that private integration that keeps his own multiple selves together:

However many of me there are, I have managed to fuse them into one. I cannot tell myself apart any more than the heavily breathing fox hiding under branches or in brush perceives in the mirror of his wide and alert eye a new dainty self or a different sad self or an admirably reflective self.

Margaret Atwood

In an essay titled “Me, She, and It,” Margaret Atwood — a woman of strong opinions about the problems of literature and its how-to’s — pokes at the common, flawed trope of the writerly persona as a separate, superior entity to the writer’s person:

Why do authors wish to pretend they don’t exist? It’s a way of skinning out, of avoiding truth and consequences. They’d like to deny the crime, although their fingerprints are allover the martini glasses, not to mention the hacksaw blade and the victim’s neck. Amnesia, they plead. Epilepsy. Sugar overdose. Demonic possession. How convenient to have an authorial twin, living in your body, looking out through your eyes, pushing pen down on paper or key down on keyboard, while you do what? File your nails?

Noting her own embodiment of this dichotomy, she admonishes:

A projection, a mass hallucination, a neurological disorder — call her what you will, but don’t confuse her with me.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles shares a similar sentiment in his essay titled “Bowles and It”:

What is this curious assumption, widely shared … that while writing, a writer can identify himself as one who is writing? The consciousness of oneself as oneself causes a short circuit, and the light goes out.

If I am writing fiction, I am being invented. I cannot retain any awareness of identity. The two states of being are antithetical. The author is not at a steering wheel: “I am driving this car. I command its movements. I can make it go wherever I please.” This assertion of identity is fatal; the writing at that point becomes meaningless.

Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart bleeds into the existential:

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.

He considers fiction as the mechanism of this perpetuum mobile of self-transformation:

Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

Paula Fox

In a short essay titled “Path,” Paula Fox rebels against this meta-awareness of the writer’s writing:

I cannot write of writing. To be at work, to write, must exclude thoughts about writing or about myself as a writer. To consider writing, to look at myself as a writer, holds for one sober moment, then plunges me into a tangle of misery that Cesare Pavese describes in his diary: “This terrible feeling that what you do is all wrong, so is what you think, what you are!”

It all suggests to me Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that you can either know where a thing is or how fast it is moving — but not both simultaneously. The warring self disappears into the self-less concentration of work. Imagination is conjunctive and unifying; the sour, habitual wars of the self are disjunctive and separating.

When I begin a story at my desk, the window to my back, the path is not there. As I start to walk, I make the path.

Ward Just

Exploring his own inner duality, Ward Just indulges a play on his name:

The Just and the unJust inhabiting the same body, so close you can’t pry us apart, but we are not friends. He speaks, I edit. He plays, I work. He is famously convivial, I am a recluse. And at the end of the evening, when I’m exhausted and yearning for bed, knowing there’s an assignment to complete, he stays on, anything to keep me in the closet a little longer. And when the inevitable question comes, he answers it with aplomb, holding his glass —

Don’t mind if I do.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus, in an essay titled “The Fertile ‘We’ of One Chaste ‘I,’” considers the “inward, unsure, tender, professional empathizer” of the writer’s private self, in such stark contrast with his carefully constructed public persona:

What interests me about my own work and character is not the solid, admirable, good-nurse, self-motivated persona that I simulate toward Frans Hals warmth in scholarly talks, in photographs taken during charity banquets. That guy is about as real as his tweed jacket’s suede elbow patches and about that necessary. It’s Lint Man I’m a slave for. Poor dweeb hasn’t had a date since 1965; and hasn’t regretted that since January 1972.

He, the true writer, is the department store dummy at the very center of the whole establishment, the one left alone on display all night, a price tag stapled to every piece of clothing they’ve yanked onto him, binoculars and frog flippers included. He is the neutral, generic human form, the gray center who must always assume disguises — in order to be seen and, therefore, to feel himself.

And yet it’s “Lint Man” Gurganus relishes:

How lavish and how Godlike is Lint Man’s open-endedness. Lint Man’s specificity.

He ends on a somewhat solemn note:

The chances of achieving literary performance are, to the decimal point, the odds against becoming fully human.

That means one hundred and fifty million to one.

Which means one hundred and fifty million in one.

Ed Koren

Children’s book author and New Yorker cover artist Ed Koren offers his contribution in the medium of his forte:

Francine Prose

Francine Prose, who has taught us how to read like a writer, considers how to write like a writer in a meditation titled “She and I … and Someone Else”:

She never seems happier than when she is writing, when the work takes over, and the book (as she puts it, so unoriginally) seems to write itself. The characters are saying and doing things she hadn’t planned at all. What pleases her is that she isn’t there, she no longer feels herself present, and I…

Someone else is writing, and both she and I have vanished.

John Hawkes

John Hawkes writes:

Some time ago I discovered that I could no longer speak aloud or read aloud from a stage, even for the sake of hearing the effect that my writer’s voice produced on listeners. Now, curiously, the more I merely try to live, the more reclusive I become, the vainer I am. At last I am as vain as the one who instantly voices his silence inside me.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller considers the disconnect between the writer-person and the byline-persona:

I know Arthur Miller, but not “Arthur Miller” or Arthur Miller or “Miller.” About twenty-five years ago the Romanian government banned all “Miller” plays as pornographic. Privately I was very pleased, having admired Henry Miller’s work for a long time. Two theaters were in the midst of producing plays of mine and were forced to cancel them. Did this make me — slightly — Henry Miller? Or him — slightly — Arthur Miller?

He adds:

A book, a poem, a play — they start as fantasms but they end up as things, like a box of crackers or an automobile tire.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien offers a refreshing, poetic take on the old artist-muse relationship:

The other me, who did not mean to drown herself, went under the sea and remained there for a long time. Eventually she surfaced near Japan and people gave her gifts but she had been so long under the sea she did not recognize what they were. She is a sly one. Mostly at night we commune. Night. Harbinger of dream and nightmare and bearer of omens which defy the music of words. In the morning the fear of her going is very real and very alarming. It can make one tremble. Not that she cares. She is the muse. I am the messenger.

John Updike

John Updike, writing a decade before his death — a subject whose relationship with writing he once explored with such poignancy — considers the dissociation between the constructed Writer and the living person a sort of useful psychological buffer:

I created Updike out of the sticks and mud of my Pennsylvania boyhood, so I can scarcely resent it when people, mistaking me for him, stop me on the street and ask me for his autograph. I am always surprised that I resemble him so closely that we can be confused.

[…]

The distance between us is so great that the bad reviews he receives do not touch me, though I treasure his few prizes and mount them on the walls and shelves of my house, where they instantly yellow and tarnish.

[…]

Suppose, some day, he fails to show up? I would attempt to do his work, but no one would be fooled.

Max Apple

Elmore Leonard

Alice Hoffman

Frank Conroy

Henry Roth

Though Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits is, regrettably, out of print, used copies can — and should — be tracked down for guaranteed enjoyment. Complement it with an entirely different kind of self-portrait.

Thanks, Kaye!

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04 NOVEMBER, 2013

Jeanette Winterson on Adoption, Belonging, and How We Use Storytelling to Save Ourselves

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“When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

The yearning to belong is one of the greatest human longings, just as the fractures of belonging are among our most profound trauma. But English writer and modern-day queer literary icon Jeanette Winterson — who also brought us that infinitely poetic answer to a child’s question about how we fall in love — finds in these very fractures a gateway to wholeness. In her exquisite and harrowing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (public library), Winterson plunges into the depths of her psyche to extract profound insight, at once intensely personal and poignantly universal, into how we use stories to find and save ourselves.

Adopted into an unhappy family and raised by a depressed, abusive mother, Winterson was violently flung into the depths of self-exploration, where she contemplated — had no choice but to contemplate — the essence of adoption as a formative force in human identity. Though her own experience was negative, she steps beyond it to consider the broader mechanisms of self-salvation we all confront in our quest for wholeness and belonging, which we set into motion through the stories we tell ourselves and others:

Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.

That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.

She later adds:

Whatever adoption is, it isn’t an instant family — not with the adoptive parents, and not with the rediscovered parents. … Adoption is so many things at once. And it is everything and nothing.

In this missingness Winterson finds her own answer to the eternal question of why writers write:

It’s why I am a writer — I don’t say ‘decided’ to be, or ‘became’. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of [my mother's] story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.

Winterson, whose mother used to punish her by locking her out of the house and leaving her sitting outside on the doorstep overnight until the milkman came, reflects on how the sense of non-belonging reverberated through her own ability to relate to others. She writes with heartbreaking — and heartbroken — wryness:

I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likeable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn’t encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.

But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong . . .

If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.

Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.

Winterson’s present wisdom on love was hard-earned:

It has taken me a long time to learn how to love — both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea. I thought that love was loss.

She returns to how this formative experience of grappling with belonging and love shaped her as a writer by teaching her that, much like the therapeutic quality of art, the therapeutic quality of storytelling is found as much in what is told as in what is left out of the story:

Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. … There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.

When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

[…]

I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words. … I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is an unspeakably fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Maya Angelou on home and belonging.

Jeanette Winterson portrait by Peter Peitsch

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