Brain Pickings

The Definitive Manifesto for Handling Haters: Anne Lamott on Priorities and How We Keep Ourselves Small by People-Pleasing

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“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”

What makes Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) so timelessly rewarding and one of the greatest books on writing of all time is that besides her wisdom on the craft, Lamott extends enormous sensitivity to and consolation for the general pathologies of the human condition — our insecurities, our social anxieties, our inner turmoils. Among her most powerful and memorable meditations in the book is that on how our perfectionism kills the creative spirit — something she revisited recently in a short essay on her Facebook page, spurred by a surge in negative comments and vicious troll attacks.

Lamott’s words, once again, shine with warm and luminous wisdom. Alluding to the chapter on perfectionism, she writes:

There’s a whole chapter on perfectionism in Bird by Bird, because it is the great enemy of the writer, and of life, our sweet messy beautiful screwed up human lives. It is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.

[…]

Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to “help” and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.

Look, I struggle with this. I hate to be criticized. I am just the tiniest bit more sensitive than the average bear. And yet, I’m a writer, so I periodically put my work out there, and sometimes like all writers, I get terrible reviews, so personal in nature that they leave me panting. Even with a Facebook post … do you have any idea what it’s like to get 500-plus negative attacks, on my character, from truly bizarre strangers.

Really, it’s not ideal.

Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That’s why I’m alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I’ve said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

She reminds us that we don’t find time for what matters, we make time — and the priorities we set define our destiny:

Is it okay with you that you blow off your writing, or whatever your creative/spiritual calling, because your priority is to go to the gym or do yoga five days a week? Would you give us one of those days back, to play or study poetry? To have an awakening? Have you asked yourself lately, “How alive am I willing to be?” It’s all going very quickly. It’s mid-May, for God’s sake. Who knew. I thought it was late February.

It’s time to get serious about joy and fulfillment, work on our books, songs, dances, gardens. But perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great, and that you may never get published. (Wait, forget the prowling satanic lion — your parents, living or dead, almost just as loudly either way, and your aunt Beth, and your passive-aggressive friends, whom we all think you should ditch, are going to ask, “Oh, you’re writing again? That’s nice. Do you have an agent?”)

She reminds us, too, of something that Debbie Millman articulated beautifully in her 2013 commencement address, advising aspiring creators: “Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.” Lamott echoes this sentiment with exquisite, poetic rawness:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.

Echoing Neil Gaiman, who counseled young artists to “make glorious, amazing mistakes,” Lamott concludes with a recipe for an antidote — the only real antidote — to perfectionism:

Here’s how to break through the perfectionism: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes — these are where the goods are. Put something on the calendar that you know you’ll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp. Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing. Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too. Now; today. One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mike,and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god-awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed’s feelings if he read it, which he isn’t going to.

Change his name and hair color — he won’t even recognize himself.

At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?

(Or, as I wrote some time ago in reflecting on my learnings from seven years of doing this: “When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.”)

Lamott is truly a mystic of the written word and of the human soul. Treat yourself to Bird by Bird for closer communion with her singular spirit, then revisit Benjamin Franklin’s trick for handling haters, Vi Hart on how to tame the trolls, and Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.

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Artist Matt Freedman’s Courageous Visual Diary of Cancer

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A graphic chronicle emanating honesty and humor — our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Graphic nonfiction is becoming an increasingly compelling medium for using comics to tackle serious subjects. Meanwhile, the visual arts are being enlisted in exploring the most private nooks of mental health, with projects like Bobby Baker’s visual diary of depression and children’s drawings of living with autism. Now comes Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal (public library) — a remarkable visual chronicle by New York-based artist, writer, and curator Matt Freedman, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cystic carcinoma in the fall of 2012, an aggressive cancer that had already spread from his tongue to his throat and lungs by the time it was detected. Before beginning the grueling treatment, Freedman, who teaches in the Visual Studies program at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, received a blank sketchbook as a gift from his colleagues and students. Over the course of his reality-rupturing experience, he proceeded to fill it up with simple sketches that emanate incredible honesty and humor — perhaps our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Freedman writes in the preface:

I was facing about seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. If I completed just four pages a day, I would fill the entire 240-page book by the time I was done. That looked like a good trade: a notebook filled with words and pictures in exchange for simply living through an unavoidable ordeal…

Completing the process and completing the book took much the same underwhelming commitment: day-to-day incremental progress that led to final results that were impossible to imagine at the beginning.

From trying to figure out what might have caused the cancer (was it the mouthguard he had made, which “sort of worked, but not really, and not for long” and which his dog licked every chance she got?) to grappling with the inevitable why me anger (“I believe I am average and that only average things can happen to me.”) to surrendering to the anguishing anxiety of the uncertain outcome, Freedman rigorously recorded the psychoemotional roller-coaster of his two-month radiation therapy.

He began each of his daily sketches like he did his treatment: with no guarantees, not knowing where things would go. Fittingly, the unpolished rawness of his sketchbook style mirrors the reality of his experience — sometimes frantic, sometimes uneventful, sometimes dark, sometimes hopeful, often messy, always imbued with the courage of simply showing up for life and its unforgiving curveballs. What emerges is not a grand philosophical epiphany but a tapestry of details, reminding us that life often happens in the small moments between the big news, the diagnoses, the traumas and the triumphs.

Relatively Indolent But Relentless is stirring and beautiful in its entirety, and draws as close to delightful as its subject allows. It comes from indie publisher Seven Stories Press, who also gave us graphic artists’ reimaginings of the literary canon.

via Steve Heller

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Muriel Rukeyser on the Root of Our Resistance to Poetry, What It Shares with Science, and How It Expands our Lives

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“However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.”

One sweltering New York afternoon some years ago, I was sitting across from a dear friend several decades my senior as I mentioned, with the matter-of-factly, arrogant naiveté of someone who does that sort of thing, that I didn’t care for poetry. Without missing a beat, she began reciting e.e. cummings in the middle of that bustling Manhattan café. And just like that, everything changed — this was the beginning.

But even though Joseph Brodsky believed that poetry is the key to developing our taste in culture and James Dickey wrote that it “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” my reaction that summer Tuesday was far from uncommon — as a society, we seem to harbor a strange resistance to poetry, a stubborn refusal to recognize that it contains what Wordsworth called “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

It’s a resistance that “has the qualities of fear.” So argues the magnificent Muriel Rukeyser in the 1949 treasure The Life of Poetry (public library) — a wise and wonderful exploration of all the ways in which we keep ourselves from the gift of an art so elemental yet so transcendent, so infinitely soul-stretching, so capable of Truth.

Rukeyser writes in the foreword:

A way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities. . . . There is an art which gives us that way; and it is, in our society, an outcast art.

In this book, I have tried to track down the resistances to poetry, with every kind of “boredom” and “impatience,” the name-calling which says that poetry is “intellectual and obscure and confused and sexually suspect.” How much of this is true, and how much can be traced to the corruption of consciousness? We can see what these attitudes mean, in impoverishment of the imagination, to audience and to artist, both of whom are deeply affected.

In seeking to “go behind the resistances,” Rukeyser considers the parallels between poetry and science:

The relations of poetry are … very close to the relations of science. It is not a matter of using the results of science, but of seeing that there is a meeting-place between all the kinds of imagination. Poetry can provide that meeting-place…

A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions… To accept poetry in these meanings would make it possible for people to use it as an “exercise,” an enjoyment of the possibility of dealing with the meanings in the world and in their lives.

It is curious — and curiously assuring — to note that all the reasons Rukeyser considered poetry timely in 1949 ring with double urgency in the context of today:

In this moment we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.

Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has — the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge — infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

She returns to poetry’s singular role in relation to science and the other arts:

Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.

She offers a necessary definition of the nature and purpose of poetry in a sentiment that Alain de Botton would come to echo more than half a century later in asserting that “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.” Rukeyser writes:

Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth?

[…]

However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

And yet of all the arts, Rukeyser argues, poetry has been made “the least acceptable” — in large part due to our chronic perplexity in the face of emotions and our clinging to the false divide between emotion and the intellect. In examining the root of our resistance to poetry, a fear that “presents the symptoms of a psychic problem,” Rukeyser writes:

A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better that that: a poem invites a total response.

This response it total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually — that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too — but the way is through emotion, thorough what we call feeling.

(To grasp this roundabout rousing of the intellect via emotion, one need only consider the original 1943 review of The Little Prince — a children’s classic immeasurably poetic in spirit — which captured this beautifully: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”)

In returning to the various reactionaries who denounce poetry, Rukeyser considers “the roots of communication” in defining poetry:

Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.

And yet we are cut off from the source early in life. In a sentiment that seems to paraphrase Picasso’s famous assertion that “every child is an artist,” Rukeyser argues that every child is a poet:

The fear that cuts off poetry is profound: it plunges us deep, far back to the edge of childhood. Beyond that it does not go.

Little children do not have this fear, they trust their emotions. But on the threshold of adolescence the walls are built.

[…]

In adults, you know those who put poetry far behind them; not naturally, like children outgrowing toys who forget them (or beat them to pieces), but with a painful shocked awareness that here was something outside their reach.

The same adults, no doubt, sit in cafés and proclaim their disdain for poetry. And that disdain is planted in us as soon as the natural inclination for the poetic is schooled out of us, quite literally — Rukeyser echoes Buckminster Fuller’s lament about the specialization of education and revisits the parallels between poetry and science:

Our education is one of specialization. We become experts in some narrow “field.” That expertness allows us to deal with the limited problems presented to us; it allows us to face emotional reality, symbolic reality, very little… A first-rate scientist, or a fine prose writer, is able to say “How can I know a good poem? I can tell an honest piece of work in my own field from a phony piece of work, but how can I tell a fine poem from a phony poem?” And what has to be said to such a question is that these are people who cannot trust their emotional reactions, their total reactions.

Our mistrust of the emotions, she argues, is a special kind of insecurity — and yet until we are able to embrace the interconnectedness of all pieces of ourselves, to integrate them with grace, we will remain ruptured by our inner incompleteness. The promise of poetry is ultimately one of integration:

This gathering-together of elements so that they move together according to a newly visible system is becoming evident in all our sciences, and it is natural that it should be present in our writing. Wherever it exists, it gives us a clue as to a possible kind of imagination with which to meet the world. It gives us a clue that may lead to a way to deal with any unity which depends on many elements, all inter-dependent.

The Life of Poetry is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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