Brain Pickings

Joey and the Birthday Present: Wonderful Vintage Illustrations from Anne Sexton’s Little-Known 1971 Children’s Book

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Two Pulitzer-winning poets tell a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective.

I have a longstanding soft spot for celebrated authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — gems like Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain, Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig by Carson McCullers, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain by Virginia Woolf, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath, and To Do by Gertrude Stein, and The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine by Donald Barthelme.

Among their ranks was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who collaborated with poet and novelist Maxine Cumin, a Pulitzer recipient herself, on a series of four children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, a decade after their first collaboration, the duo wrote Joey and the Birthday Present (public library), featuring charming vintage illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Evaline Ness. It tells the story of Joey the brown field mouse, who lives with his large family in nests all over an abandoned farmhouse. After people move in for the summer, Joey is surprised to find a little white mouse named Prince in a cage in their son’s bedroom. The two become unlikely friends, learning about each other’s worlds.

There is wonderfully subtle humor, too. When Joey creeps into the boy’s bedroom, he is baffled to see Prince scurrying on the hamster wheel, “as though he were running away from an invisible cat.” Their first exchange is imbued with equal parts absurdism and indignation, perhaps the two most common mechanisms by which we keep ourselves on our own hamster wheel of approval and achievement:

“You poor thing,” Joey said. “Are you in trouble? What are you running away from?”

“In the first place, I’m not a thing,” said the white mouse.

It is a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective, but is also remarkably bittersweet in the context of Sexton’s reality: the book was published shortly before she took her own life a month before her 46th birthday.

But it is Ness’s enchanting four-color illustrations that make the book immeasurably wonderful its message one of optimism and hope, perhaps the kind Sexton tried so tirelessly to summon, by the very act of writing children’s books, despite her tragic pathology.

Complement Joey and the Birthday Present with Sexton’s letter of motherly advice, then revisit her inaugural collaboration with Kumin, the playful Eggs of Things.

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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Three Rules of Writing and Four Elements of Style: Timeless Advice from 1914

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“Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.”

Between 1913 and 1914, British writer, critic, and literary tastemaker Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known under the pseudonym Q, delivered a series of twelve lectures on writing at Cambridge University, where he had been appointed to the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature the previous year. (Fittingly, his rooms in the university’s First Court were known as the “Q-bicle.”) His inaugural lectures, spanning everything from style to ethics and concerned with making “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing” a hallmark of a worthy literary education, were eventually published as On the Art of Writing (public library) — a compendium of some of the most lucid and timeless advice on writing ever put into words, also available as a free ebook, and a fine addition to famous authors’ best advice on the craft.

Playing off a phrase from Francis Bacon’s famous essay on studies“reading maketh a full man” — Quiller-Couch begins by considering the value of reading to young minds:

Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even better than Bacon’s; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for which Heaven designed him. In this conviction, in this hope, public spirited men endow Chairs in our Universities, sure that Literature is a good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds.

Acknowledging that “some doubt does lurk in the public mind” as to whether writing and the art of literature “can, in any ordinary sense, be taught,” Quiller-Couch counters:

That the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged — this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb (Royal Institution of Cornwall)

He goes on to outline three guiding principles that make this quickening and enlargement of vision possible.

1. SURRENDER TO THE WORK ABSOLUTELY

In studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning … and the merest duty of politeness we owe to the great man addressing us. We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.

With a wink to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about education and knowledge, Quiller-Couch makes an aside of remarkable prescience in our present age of lazy and indignant quasi-opinions:

There is no surer sign of intellectual ill-breeding than to speak, even to feel, slightingly of any knowledge oneself does not happen to possess… That understanding of literature which we desire in our … gracefully-minded youth will include knowledge in varying degree, yet is itself something distinct from knowledge.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Returning to his first principle of absolute surrender to a work of art, Quiller-Couch cites Emerson’s famous remark that great writers make us “feel most at home” and, lamenting “the memorizing of much that passes for knowledge,” further considers the true value of a literary education:

As we dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows — men whose minds have, as it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over waste waters of the Ocean.

If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr Johnson defines it) ‘he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with a great increase of sensibility‘; or even if, though the message be unfamiliar, it suggests to us, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to ‘feel that we are greater than we know,’ I submit that we respond to it less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet’s pitch; so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that ‘something,’ a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse.

2. BREAK FREE OF LIMITING RULES AND DOGMAS

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo decades later in the disclaimer to his six rules of writing, Quiller-Couch turns to the second of his three principles — the idea that even though style, “that curiously personal thing,” can’t be “readily brought to rule-of-thumb tests,” we ought to study the elements of its most sublime manifestations without subscribing to any dogmatic rules about those elements. He writes:

[Even though style may be] so easily be suspected of evading all tests, of being mere dilettantism… I rebuke this suspicion by constantly aiming at the concrete, at the study of such definite beauties as we can see presented in print under our eyes; always seeking the author’s intention, but eschewing, for the present at any rate, all general definitions and theories, through the sieve of which the particular achievement of genius is so apt to slip… Definitions, formulae (some would add, creeds) have their use in any society in that they restrain the ordinary unintellectual man from making himself a public nuisance with his private opinions. But they go a very little way in helping the man who has a real sense of prose or verse. In other words, they are good discipline for some thyrsus-bearers, but the initiated have little use for them.

With this, he arrives at the heart of literature:

Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive.

3. HONOR THE ALIVENESS OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE

Quiller-Couch’s third and final principle builds on the second. Admonishing against the human tendency to “treat all innovation as suspect” — a fear frequently channeled through dogmatic rules about right and wrong, and certainly something central to the techno-alarmism to which every age is prone — points to “the courage of the young” as the hopeful antidote to this tendency and writes:

As Literature is an Art and … not to be pondered only, but practiced, so ours is a living language and therefore to be kept alive, supple, active in all honorable use.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment particularly prescient in the context of today’s seemingly unending death tolls for the novel, he adds:

I would warn you against despising any form of art which is alive and pliant in the hands of men… You may or may not deplore the forms that literature is choosing now-a-days; but there is no gainsaying that it is still very much alive… Believe, and be glad that Literature and the English tongue are both alive.

The celebration and preservation of that aliveness, he argues, is our shared responsibility:

Carlyle, in his explosive way, once demanded of his countrymen, ‘Shakespeare or India? If you had to surrender one to retain the other, which would you choose?’ … In English Literature, which, like India, is still in the making, you have at once an Empire and an Emprise. In that alone you have inherited something greater than Sparta. Let us strive, each in his little way, to adorn it.

[...]

English Literature being (as we agreed) an Art, with a living and therefore improvable language for its medium or vehicle, a part — and no small part — of our business is to practice it.

In another lecture, Quiller-Couch considers the best practices of this living art:

The perfection of style is variety in unity, freedom, ease, clearness, the power of saying anything, and of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety… Your gamut needs not to be very wide, to begin with. The point is that within it you learn to play becomingly.

Returning to his original ideal of “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing,” he points out that the desire for Appropriateness is so obvious that it warrants no explanation and turns to the other three epithets, beginning with Perspicuity:

I shall waste no words on the need of this: since the first aim of speech is to be understood. The more clearly you write the more easily and surely you will be understood… Further … the more clearly you write the more clearly you will understand yourself.

He writes of Accuracy:

After all, what are the chief differentiae between man and the brute creation but that he clothes himself, that he cooks his food, that he uses articulate speech? Let us cherish and improve all these distinctions.

By perusing “these twin questions of perspicuity and accuracy,” Quiller-Couch argues, “we may almost reach the philosophic kernel of good writing.” And yet his final ideal, Persuasiveness, is also the one that binds the parts together into the potent totality of great writing:

Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.

But persuasion, Quiller-Couch suggests, is an art rather than an act and it cannot be mastered before coming to terms with its very artness:

Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.

The sense of beauty he speaks of, however, is a disposition of the spirit rather than a concern with superficial ornamentation. In fact, in his final lecture — the source of the oft-cited “murder your darlings” aphorism, often misattributed to William Faulkner — Quiller-Couch admonishes against mistaking the beauty of style for mere decoration:

Style … is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament… If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

A century later, all twelve lectures in On the Art of Writing remain absolutely indispensable. Complement them with this evolving library of notable wisdom on the craft, including George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style.

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Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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“Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a compendium of answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, and Julia Child.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most wonderful answers come from 69-year-old Joan Didion — a woman who has endured more personal tragedy than most and has written about it with great dignity and grace, extracting from her experience wisdom on such subtle and monumental aspects of existence as grief, self-respect, keeping a notebook.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

Didion’s answers are particularly poignant for their timing — she answered The Proust Questionnaire in October of 2003, several weeks before her husband died of a heart attack while her only daughter lay comatose in the ICU; though Didion’s daughter did recover from the coma, acute pancreatitis took her life eighteen months later.

What is your greatest fear?

I have an irrational fear of snakes. When my husband and I moved to a part of Los Angeles County with many rattlesnakes, I tried to desensitize myself by driving every day to a place called Hermosa Reptile Import-Export and forcing myself to watch the anacondas. This seemed to work, but a few yeas later, when we were living in Malibu and I had a Corvette, a king snake (a “good” snake, not poisonous, by no means anaconda-like) dropped from a garage rafter into my car. My daughter, then four, brought it to show me. I am ashamed to say I ran away. I still think about what would have happened had I driven to the market and noticed my passenger, the snake, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I find “speaking one’s mind” pretty overrated, in that it usually turns out to be a way of aggrandizing the speaker at the expense of the helpless listener.

What is your favorite journey?

A long time ago, before they showed movies on airplanes and decided to make you close the blinds, I used to love flying west and watching the country open up, the checkerboarded farms of the Midwest giving way to the vast stretches of nothing. I also loved flying over the Pole from Europe to Los Angeles during the day, when you could see ice floes and islands s in the sea change almost imperceptibly to lakes in the land. This shift in perception was very thrilling to me.

On what occasion do you lie?

I probably lie constantly, if the definition of lying includes white lies, social lies, lies to ease a situation or make someone feel better. My mother was incapable of lying. I remember her driving into a blinding storm to vote for an acquaintance in an S.P.C.A. election. “I told Dorothy I would,” she said when I tried to dissuade her. “How will Dorothy know?” I asked. “That’s not the point,” my mother said. I’m sorry to report that this was amazing to me.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

For a while there I disliked being short, but I got used to it. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to be five-ten and get sent clothes by designers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Most people who write find themselves overusing certain words or constructions (if they worked once, they get hardwired), so much so that a real part of the exercise is getting those repetitions out.

When and where were you happiest?

Once, in a novel, Democracy, I had the main character, Inez Victor, consider this very question, which was hard for her. She drinks her coffee, she smokes a cigarette, she thinks it over, she comes to a conclusion: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch. She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pré Catelan in the rain.” These lunches and borrowed houses didn’t come from nowhere.

What talent would you most like to have?

I long to be fluent in languages other than English. I am resigned to the fact that this will not happen. A lot of things get in the way, not least a stubborn fear of losing my only real asset since childhood, the ability to put English sentences together.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m afraid that “one thing” would just lead to another thing, making this a question only the truly greedy would try to answer.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure things my daughter has given me, for example (I think of this because it is always on my desk), a picture book called Baby Animals and Their Mothers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.

Where would you like to live?

I want to live somewhere else every month or so. Right now I would like to be living on Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu. Around November, I’m quite sure I will want to be living in Paris, preferably in the Hotel Bristol. I like hotels a lot. When we were living in houses in Los Angeles I used to make charts showing how we could save money by living in a bungalow in Bel-Air, but my husband never bought it.

What is your favorite occupation?

I like making gumbo. I like gardening. I like writing, at least when it’s going well, maybe because it seems to be exactly as tactile a thing to do as making gumbo or gardening.

What is your most marked characteristic?

If I listened to other people, I would think my most marked characteristic was being thin. What strikes me about myself, however, is no t my thinness but a certain remoteness. I tune out a lot.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.

Sample Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire further with answers from Jane Goodall and David Bowie, complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited compendium of wisdom from cultural icons The Meaning of Life, then revisit Didion’s remarkable meditation on grief.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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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