Brain Pickings

Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: An Illustrated Field Guide to Keeping a Visual Diary and Cultivating the Capacity for Creative Observation

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How to master the infinitely rewarding art of “being present and seeing what’s there.”

“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary when she first began working on her little-known drawings. “The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time,” the great Milton Glaser observed in sharing his wisdom on life. “And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.”

Hardly anyone has explored this delicate relationship between drawing and looking, drawing and experiencing, drawing and thinking with more rigor, wit, and insight than Lynda Barry, one of the greatest visual artists of our time. In 2011, Barry joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin to teach a class titled “The Unthinkable Mind” — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing. Barry’s magnificently illustrated syllabus notes and class assignments, many of which she had released on her Tumblr throughout each semester, are now collected in Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (public library | IndieBound) — a slim but infinitely invigorating compendium of illustrated exercises, instructions, and meditations on everything from how to keep a diary (because, as we know, the creative benefits of doing so are vast) to memorizing things effectively to navigating the psychological phases of the creative process to why art exists in the first place.

Echoing Joan Didion’s unforgettable reflections on keeping a notebook, Barry traces her own journey and what is to be gained by those endeavoring to master this simple, powerful practice:

I began keeping a notebook in a serious way when I met my teacher Marilyn Frasca in 1975 at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

She showed me ways of using these simple things — our hands, a pen, and some paper — as both a navigation and expedition device, one that could reliably carry me into my past, deeper into my present, or farther into a place I have come to call “the image world” — a place we all know, even if we don’t notice this knowing until someone reminds us of its ever-present existence.

I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would not only still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work, but I’d also be showing others how to use it too, as a place to practice a physical activity — in this case writing and drawing by hand — with a certain state of mind.

This practice can result in … a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call “a work of art”; although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity.

What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

While Barry’s exercises are decidedly and refreshingly practical, they don’t shy away from the philosophical — she explores subjects like the eternal question of what makes good art and how drawing can change our already elastic perception of time. Along the way, she illuminates these questions by assigning readings as diverse as Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

All in all, Barry’s Syllabus makes not only tangible but also practically attainable the deep intuition that some of history’s greatest minds have articulated — the idea that keeping a notebook or a diary, whether visual or otherwise, is one of the most consciousness-expanding ways of bearing witness to our experience and our journey through this world.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Dostoyevsky on Why There Are No Bad People

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“A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.”

Legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) is best known as one of literary history’s titans, but he was also a brilliant entrepreneur and pioneer of self-publishing. Under the auspices of his enterprising wife Anna, Dostoyevsky overcame his ruinous gambling addiction to become Russia’s first self-published author. But it was the release of A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same collection of his nonfiction and fiction writings that gave us Dostoyevsky’s memorable recollection of how he discovered the meaning of life in a dream — that turned him into a national brand.

In February of 1876, reflecting on the unanimous acclaim with which the first volume of the journal had been received, 55-year-old Dostoyevsky contemplates the paradox of people-pleasing and writes in the very diary whose success he is pondering:

I am interested only in the question: is it, or is it not, good that I have pleased everybody?

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

From this, under the heading “On the Subject That We All Are Good Fellows,” he springboards into an exquisite discussion of our deepest goodness, emanating a deep faith in the human spirit and a conviction that we are inherently good despite the badness we sometimes put on like an ill-fitting suit to impress by imitating those we mistake for impressive. A century before Isaac Asimov’s memorable invitation to optimism over cynicism about the human spirit, Dostoyevsky writes:

We are all good fellows — except the bad ones, of course. Yet, I shall observe in passing that among us, perhaps, there are no bad people at all — maybe, only wretched ones. But we have not grown up to be bad. Don’t scoff at me, but consider: we have reached the point in the past where, because of the absence of bad people of our own (I repeat: despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches), we used to be ready, for instance, to value very highly various bad little fellows appearing among our literary characters, mostly borrowed from foreign sources. Not only did we value them, but we slavishly sought to imitate them in real life; we used to copy them, and in this respect we were ready to jump out of our skins.

While much of Dostoyevsky’s discussion of such misplaced imitation pertains to that specific point in Russia’s cultural history, embedded in it is a broader reminder that, to borrow Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorable words, “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” In a remark particularly poignant in the context of Russia’s troubled present-day civic climate, Dostoyevsky considers the allure of imitating such villains:

We used to value and respect these evil people … solely due to the fact that they appeared as men of solid hate in contradiction to us Russians, who, as is well known, are people of very fragile hate, and this trait of ours we have always particularly despised. Russians are unable to hate long and seriously, and not only men but even vices — the darkness of ignorance, despotism, obscurantism and all the rest of these retrograde things. At the very first opportunity we are quick and eager to make peace… Please consider: why should we be hating each other? For evil deeds? — But this is a very slippery, most ticklish and most unjust theme — in a word, a double-edged one… Fighting is fighting, but love is love… We are fighting primarily and solely because now it is no longer a time for theories, for journalistic skirmishes, but the time for work and practical decisions.

Noting that the Russian people must recover from “two centuries of lack of habit of work,” he articulates the more universal and rather lamentable human tendency to deflect insecurity by lashing out:

The more incompetent one feels, the more eager he is to fight.

And yet Dostoyevsky approaches the problem with deep compassion rather than harsh judgment:

What, I may ask you, is there bad about it? — Only, that this is touching — and nothing more. Look at children: they fight precisely at the age when they have not yet learned to express their thoughts — exactly as well. Well, in this there is absolutely nothing discouraging; on the contrary, this merely proves to a certain extent our freshness and, so to speak, our virginity.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies.' Click image for more.

He observes how this tendency plays out in his own craft — something undoubtedly amplified today, when criticism is not only professionalized but also sensationalized for profit by the commercial media industrial complex:

In literature, because of the absence of ideas, people scold each other, using all invectives at once; this is an impossible and naïve method observed only among primitive peoples; but, God knows, even in this there is something almost touching: exactly that inexperience, that childish incompetence even in scolding in a proper manner.

But underneath such defensive insecurity and cynicism, Dostoyevsky argues, lies a deeper, most earnest yearning for goodness:

I am by no means jesting; I am not jeering: among us there is a widespread, honest and serene expectation of good (this is so, no matter what one might say to the contrary); a longing for common work and common good, and this — ahead of any egoism; this is a most naïve longing, full of faith devoid of any exclusive or caste tinge, and even if it does appear in paltry and rare manifestations, it comes as something unnoticeable, which is despised by everybody… And why should we be looking for “solid hate”? — The honesty and sincerity of our society not only cannot be doubted, but they even spring up into one’s eyes. Look attentively and you will see that … first comes faith in an idea, in an ideal, while earthly goods come after.

It is our responsibility as human beings, Dostoyevsky suggests, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults:

A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.

He urges that such compassion be granted to the Russian people, but in his words there is to be found an enduring case for all disenfranchised groups and harshly judged communities:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy. Besides, the people are not composed of scoundrels only; there are also genuine saints — and what saints! They themselves are radiant and they illuminate the path for all of us!

More than a century before modern psychology exposed the creative mental gymnastics of how we rationalize our bad deeds, Dostoyevsky speaks to the perils of such rationalization:

Somehow, I am blindly convinced that there is no such villain or scoundrel among the Russian people who wouldn’t admit that he is villainous and abominable, whereas, among others, it does happen sometimes that a person commits a villainy and praises himself for it, elevating his villainy to the level of a principle, and claiming that l’ordre and the light of civilization are precisely expressed in that abomination; the unfortunate one ends by believing this sincerely, blindly and honestly.

With the wry caveat that he is “speaking only about serious and sincere people,” Dostoyevsky reiterates his appeal at the heart of his creed:

Judge [people] not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.

All of A Writer’s Diary is a trove of Dostoyevsky’s great sensitivity to the human experience and his enduring wisdom on literature and life. Complement it with Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known letters on why we hurt each other and Kierkegaard on why haters hate.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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How to Let Your Life Speak, Discern Your Purpose, and Define Your Own Success

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What it takes to learn to listen to the timid wild animal that is the soul.

“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,” young Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter as he floundered to find his purpose. For the century and a half since, and undoubtedly the many centuries before, the question of how to kindle that soul-warming fire by finding one’s purpose and making a living out of meaningful work has continued to frustrate not only the young, not only aspiring artists, but people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life. How to navigate that existential maze with grace is what Parker J. Palmer — founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and a man of great insight into the elusive art of inner wholeness — explores with compassionate warmth and wisdom in his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (public library | IndieBound).

In his own youth, Palmer had come to know intimately the soul-splitting rift between being good at one’s work and being fulfilled in one’s purpose. As an aspiring “ad man” in the Mad Men era, lured by “the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood” — something supplanted today, perhaps, by the startup-lifestyle fetishism afflicting many young people — he awoke one day to a distinct and chilling realization:

The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.

Speaking to the notion that a large part of success is defining it for ourselves, and defining it in terms as close to Thoreau’s as possible, Palmer reflects on his youth:

I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque… I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.

[…]

My youthful understanding of “Let your life speak” led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them whether they were mine or not. If that sounds like what we are supposed to do with values, it is because that is what we are too often taught. There is a simplistic brand of moralism among us that wants to reduce the ethical life to making a list, checking it twice — against the index in some best-selling book of virtues, perhaps — and then trying very hard to be not naughty but nice.

There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing. But something is very wrong if such moments recur often in adulthood. Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail — and may even do great damage.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Thirty years later, he arrives at a deeper, more ennobling, hard-earned interpretation of the old Quaker phrase after which the book is titled:

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

To be sure, this way of relating to life isn’t about passivity or resignation or an illusory belief in fatedness, but about deconditioning our tendency to try to bend the world to our will and instead hear the quieter, deeper voices that speak to us from behind the ego’s proclamations of will. In fact, the disposition Palmer advocates is something akin to Jeanette Winterson’s notion of “active surrender” — the same paradoxical state we need to attain in order to experience the transformational power of art appears to be the one needed in discerning our true vocation. Palmer writes:

If the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves — violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth. Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Listening, Palmer suggests, is a matter of shaking off the tyranny of “should” — whether socially imposed or self-inflicted. He offers a beautiful definition of what vocation really means and what it stands to give:

Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Thoreau’s famous lament about borrowed opinions and one particularly poignant in our culture of confusing repetition and regurgitation for reflection and integration, Palmer adds:

We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.

And yet, Palmer cautions, what we hear might not always be a mellifluous serenade by our highest selves — but giving voice to the parts of ourselves we least like is essential to the process:

My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.

Let’s take a necessary pause here to acknowledge that few words in our culture elicit more cynicism when mentioned publicly and more profound longing when contemplated privately than “soul.” We wince at soul-speak as the stuff of misguided mystics or, worse yet, motivational speakers. And yet hardly anyone with even the slightest semblance of aspiration toward happiness can deny the existence of this delicately sensitive, stubbornly resilient core of our humanity. What makes Palmer’s writing — Palmer’s mind — especially enchanting is the tenderness with which he holds both sides of this cultural duality, yet remains unflinchingly on the side of the soul:

In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.

The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

With gentle compassion for our tendency to begin twenty years too late, Palmer writes:

What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.

He issues an especially passionate admonition against buying into the myth that a vocation is something bestowed upon us by an external force, some booming voice outside ourselves that does the “calling.” Instead, echoing Picasso’s proclamation that “one must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation,” he dismisses such misleading models of externalizing the quest for a calling:

That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “self-ish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.

Today I understand vocation quite differently — not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.

And yet, Palmer is careful to acknowledge, accepting that innermost gift “turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else” — overwhelmed by its demands, we often hide or flee from it, bury it in busywork, or simply ignore it. But, reflecting on his granddaughter’s distinct personality even as a baby, he assures that this gift is in each of us awaiting discovery:

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then — if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss — we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

Let Your Life Speak remains an indispensable read. Complement it with philosopher Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work and some thoughts on making a living of doing what you love, then revisit Palmer on the art of inner wholeness.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.