Brain Pickings

Special Delivery: A Mischievous Illustrated Reminder that Nothing Is Insurmountable in the Conveyance of a Loving Gesture

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A sweet story starring a heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll saw in it an invitation to be more civil to one another. There is, indeed, something deeply humanizing and civilizing not only about the act of setting contemplative thought down to paper for another mind to contemplate in turn, but also about the chain of human touch relaying that message, heart to hand to heart, from sender to receiver via postal worker. And yet we live in an age where such correspondence has fallen out of favor as we co-react with the click of a Send button — so much so, that the very prospect of sending a real letter seems like a gargantuan task that few care to undertake.

In Special Delivery (public library), Caldecott-winning author Philip C. Stead and illustrator Matthew Cordell wink at our relationship with correspondence by making that seemingly gargantuan task literally so. They tell the story of little Sadie — a brave, single-minded, will-do-whatever-it-takes heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart — who decides to mail her beloved Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, because Josephine “lives almost completely alone” and “could really use the company.”

When Sadie discovers that stuffing the elephant in a mailbox wouldn’t work, she heads to the post office to mail him as an oversized package.

“Please be gentle with him. So do not bend him, or drop him, or shake him much at all. He is fragile and very easily might break,” she instructs the postmaster, who proceeds to inform her that she’d need to buy an impossible number of stamps to mail such a large package.

Determined to get the elephant to her Great-Aunt, Sadie decides to borrow her neighbor Mary’s plane. (In a culture where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists, one can’t help but be heartened by Stead’s cast of courageous women.)

But the plan crashes as the plane does, and Sadie and her elephant land in the middle of the jungle.

Unperturbed, Sadie asks the Alligator for a ride down the river, promising to someday mail him a real letter with “a giant stick of bubble gum” inside, as a token of gratitude.

With her large friend in tow, Sadie hops on a train and imagines braving bandits.

A train will get us there quickly, and anyway it’s nice to see new things.

Finally, she gets a lift from the ice cream truck and makes it to Josephine, who awaits her surrounded by other mysterious packages and fanciful wild animals.

As the two embrace, Josephine offers her great-niece a cup of restorative hot chocolate, but Sadie insists on getting one urgent matter out of the way first. Squatting on the ground, with a box of gum by her side, she pens a “real letter” — a young woman of her word.

Special Delivery is an absolute delight, emanating Charlotte Zolotow’s quietly mischievous storytelling and Jules Feiffer’s expressive sensibility, and yet entirely original. Complement it with a very different but at least as touching tale of bravery and friendship starring alligators.

Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan; photographs my own

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How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work

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“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”

Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.

Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.

Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.

Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:

Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.

A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:

This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:

All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.

So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:

Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.

And in another:

When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.

Wall clock design by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:

If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.

And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:

If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.

On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:

For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.

This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.

Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:

For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.

He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:

I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.

Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:

Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.

Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:

This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.

Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:

I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:

Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.

Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:

Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.

Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:

Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.

That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:

I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.

As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:

Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.

A few days later, he paces himself again:

Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.

Illustration by Judith Clay from 'Thea's Tree.' Click image for more.

And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:

I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.

When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:

And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.

One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:

Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.

In another, he laments:

Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.

And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:

Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.

Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:

I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.

In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:

Must be sure not to drink too much.

And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:

Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.

But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:

Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful 'Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.' Click image for more.

In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:

Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.

Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:

Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?

But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:

I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.

In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:

Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.

Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:

I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.

But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:

After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.

But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:

It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.

In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:

Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.

Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:

This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.

Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:

So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.

He comes to use the diary the way David Lynch uses meditation — as a moral center and an anchor of creative purpose:

When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.

And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:

I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.

The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published on April 14, 1939, and sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone. And therein lies the very thing that makes Working Days a necessary creative scripture for anyone laboring in the arts — the journal’s deeply assuring testament to the fact that even those of exceptional genius are plagued by constant self-doubt, and that perhaps the most important quality setting the brilliant apart from the mediocre is their willingness to let the doubt happen but plow forward anyway, not to be shown up by it but to show up doggedly for the day’s task, however monumental its ask and however small its give.

The great payoff is not critical or commercial success, but the knowledge that one has simply done one’s best.

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89 Clouds: Miraculously Beautiful Poetry and Painting about Clouds and Everything They Mean

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“Clouds are thoughts without words…”

Scientists may now be able to tell us how a cloud keeps the weight of 100 elephants in the air and even to demonstrate the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearly, but there is something eternally elusive about the immaterial mesmerism of clouds — something, perhaps, which only the poet and the artist can access. (And, most of all, the ultimate poet-artist: Joni Mitchell.)

In 1999, Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, a man of enormous wisdom on the heartbeat of creative work, and artist Wendy Mark teamed up on a most unusual collaboration: a miracle of a book titled 89 Clouds (public library) — a single poem composed of eighty-nine numbered reflections on the atmospheric phenomena that have tickled the human imagination since the dawn of our species, alongside the artist’s subtle and breathtaking paintings of clouds.

The poem stretches between the poignant and the playful, the cryptic and the profound, the meditative and the mirthful. It projects onto clouds, once the screen of children’s simple fantasies, the complex preoccupations of an adult reality — our anxieties, our loves and losses, our longing for grace, our restless pursuit of self-transcendence. In Strand’s carefully crafted words one finds, if one is looking, beautiful and poignant metaphors for the human experience — for relationships, for self-doubt, for the maps of our interior worlds, for the fleeting flash of existence we call a life.

Strand — who started out as a visual artist and studied under the great Josef Albers — writes mesmeric lines like:

1. A cloud is never a mirror

2. Words about clouds are clouds themselves

3. If snow falls inside a cloud, only the cloud knows

Some seem at first silly, but like Gertrude Stein’s love letters to language and meaning, become more and more beautiful, more and more sapient, with each reading:

5. A cloud dreams only of triangles

20. Clouds are thoughts without words

Some weave alternative mythologies, the fanciful stories with which ancient folklore explained the unfathomable facets of the natural world:

12. If a parrot is lost in a cloud, it turns into a rainbow

13. Clouds are drawn by invisible birds

In some, Strand’s elegant precision cuts straight to heart of love and longing, and simply takes the breath away:

13. Clouds are in love with horizons

18. The cloud that was gone would never come back

35. Every lake desires a cloud

Some are ingenious play with language:

25. A cloud without you is only a clod

Clouds are also spaces for experience:

52. A cloud is a cathedral without belief

54. A cloud is mansion without corners

55. A cloud lit from within is somebody’s study

Some are pleasurably mischievous and lyrical at once:

67. Clouds cannot see what we do under the umbrella

80. A poet looks at a cloud the way a man looks at a shrub

89 Clouds is the kind of book so deeply rewarding to hold and behold, to read and reread — a “calming object, held in the hand,” to borrow Maira Kalman’s perfect phrase — that no pixel or prose can do it justice. Although it is long out of print, surviving copies are findable and more than worth the search.

For more of Mark Strand’s subtle and electrifying genius, see his moving reflection on the artist’s task of bearing witness to the universe.

Thanks, Liz

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The Faith in the Soul: Young James Joyce’s Magnificent Letter to Lady Gregory

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“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light.”

In his infinitely wise letter of advice to his son, Charles Dickens extolled the vitality of persevering “in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it.” In one of the very few interviews legendary painter Agnes Martin gave, she observed that “you’re permanently derailed” and that you arrive at the art you end up making “through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure.” This message of dogged determination fortified by failure has become a chorus line of pop psychology so oversung that we tune it out. And yet the history of creative endeavor is strewn with living testaments to this uncomfortable, overpreached, and yet essential truth. But hardly anyone embodies it more vibrantly, nor speaks to it more eloquently, than James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941) — a man who proved, to himself and the world, that it pays to imagine immensities.

In 1902, shortly after graduating from University College Dublin with concentrations in English, French, and Italian, twenty-year-old Joyce decided to remain at the university and study medicine, which he saw as a stable career path for supporting himself. But he soon began to struggle academically and was unable to earn a scholarship to help cover the steep tuition, which he couldn’t afford on his own. He decided to move to France and study medicine at the University of Paris, supporting himself by teaching English — but he knew nobody in Paris, nor did he have the means to rent an apartment on his own. Exasperated, he reached out to fellow Irish literary legend Lady Gregory, three decades his senior, asking for help.

In a letter from November of 1902, found in the altogether revelatory Joyce: Selected Letters (public library), young Joyce writes:

I have broken off my medical studies here and I am going to trouble you with a history. I have a degree of B.A. from the Royal University, and I had made plans to study medicine here. But the college authorities are determined I shall not do so, wishing I dare say to prevent me from securing any position of ease from which I might speak out my heart.

After admitting that he doesn’t have the means to pay his medical school tuition and that the university refuses to give him financial aid on grounds of inability, even though they offer it to students who failed exams he passed, young Joyce declares:

I want to get a degree in medicine, for then I can build up my work securely. I want to achieve myself — little or great as I may be — for I know that there is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to my church as a human being, and accordingly I am going to Paris.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

With the peculiar blend of pride, despair, and determination familiar to all those who have had to reconcile their boundless ambition with their limiting circumstances, Joyce beseeches Lady Gregory:

I am going alone and friendless … into another country, and I am writing to you to know can you help me in any way. I do not know what will happen to me in Paris but my case can hardly be worse than it is here.

But he is quick to assure her, and perhaps most of all himself, of the solid spiritual center bolstering his ambition:

I am not despondent however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.

Faithfully yours,

James Joyce

Medicine, of course, is not the mount of achievement on which Joyce ultimately staked his pole. But even as he surrendered to literature as a full-time writer, he brought the same faith and determination to the pursuit, plowing through perceived failure — take, for instance, Carl Jung’s eviscerating review of Ulysses — to bequeath us with some of the greatest books of all time.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, the hefty totality of which is full of the author’s emergent ideas on literature and life, with Joyce’s little-known children’s book, his most revealing interview (conducted by Djuna Barnes, no less), and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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