Brain Pickings

Anne Truitt on Compassion, Humility, and How to Cure Our Chronic Self-Righteousness

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“Love … is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.”

Countless great minds have attested to the creative and psychological value of keeping a diary, but few have manifested that more beautifully than artist Anne Truitt — perhaps in large part because Truitt’s formal training as a psychologist before she turned to art gave her higher-order powers of introspection and self-awareness, which, coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation, produced a true masterwork of psychological insight.

In one particularly poignant sequence of diary entries Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the same soul-stretching collection of reflections on the creative life that gave us Truitt on the difference between doing art and being an artist — she examines the art of humility and the perils of self-righteousness as a gateway to true human connection, the elixir that makes possible what Adrienne Rich would so memorably describe mere months later as “an honorable human relationship.”

In early August of 1974, 53-year-old Truitt recalls a symbolic moment from her childhood and considers how we inadvertently engineer our own myths, and not always healthy ones, by letting others define us:

As I work to understand my life, its scale seems to diminish, as a tree I gaze up into flattens when I walk up a mountain and look down on it. Humility is really more natural than pride, which seems to me always to involve a lie.

I remember when this lie began for me. I was in my mother’s bedroom, standing in front of a gold-bordered pier glass. It was early afternoon. The light was sunny. It was warm. I had on a white batiste undergarment, all one piece with a drop seat. The neck and arms were edged with narrow lace, and the same lace was on the ruffles gathered by elastic around my legs. I was being dressed for a party. My dress lay on the bed behind me, a translucent white cloud. My mother and my nurse were paying a new kind of attention to me, the same flavor of attention now paid to me at the openings of my exhibits. They were arranging my thin whitish blond hair into a “roach” curl, which was to run from the back of my head along its crown to the center of my forehead. They brushed my hair up, used a little water to hold it, and brushed again. The curl was totally artificial and had to be forced into being. Admonished to stand still, puzzled by their excited determination (very unlike the usual matter-of-fact tenor of the household), I addressed my image in the mirror.

I had never, to my recollection, seen myself before. I looked all right to myself in general; my feeling for my body seemed pretty well matched by what I saw. In fact, I was interested and would have been glad to have been left alone to look. But the chirps about the curl went on and on, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Something was being added to me. They wanted me to be more, and the “more” was the curl. I began to want the curl too, and I remember the first sick feeling of anxiety as they worked to get it to stick there. My healthy self felt whole without it, and recognized quite clearly that I was being made a fool of. But I was fascinated by being praised. The whole room danced with how cute I was. I knew I had done nothing except to stand there. I hadn’t made the hair to begin with, much less the curl. But there it was; I began to want to please in order to get praise. I began to participate in the lie that I was something special, to take that role, to accept what I did not want and did not even think right for myself, in order to taste the sickly sweet flavor of praise.

I remember turning around from the mirror to the bed as they lifted the dress and held it out for me to step into. I held my head stiff with pride.

[...]

The roach curl is the earliest remembered strand of a web I wove to add on to what I was, what others wanted me to be. The idea that I must meet arbitrary requirements caught fire from my clear recognition that I was very small and powerless; and it coalesced into the fear that if I failed to meet these mysterious requirements I would be abandoned.

Truitt observes that we turn the same tendency outward, in how we relate to and assess others, indulging a dangerous and presumptuous compulsion to impose on their identity our own shoulds, adding to history’s most elegant definitions of love:

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

[...]

Compassion is one of the purest springs of love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' an unusual story about compassion and love. Click image for more.

Recounting another childhood memory, Truitt reflects on the cruelty of judgmental opinions, which seem to come to us almost automatically — something all the more palpably true half a century later, in our present age when people feel increasingly entitled to passing public judgment on others, in a culture where it’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. This tragic automation of the human psyche, Truitt suggests, is constantly conditioned by peer pressure — one that good-personhood requires we actively counter:

Why didn’t Miss Perry marry Mr. Lockhart, who sat in the sun outside his hardware store all day? And I could make people laugh by saying, “Because he’s too fat,” tickling myself with pleasure while feeling sick because I never passed him without feeling deep compassion, so short on his little stool, so round a cannonball of stomach resting on his patiently parted knees. Why doesn’t she marry him, I asked myself in a different part of myself, feeling the sere waste of their lives, his resignation to his lonely stool, hers to her sewing machine and to her stolid, passive mother.

The judgments I copied, then learned to make as I observed others make them, with just enough of myself in them to make them amusing or interesting contributions to conversation, began as fragments. It took time and effort to make them fit into cohesive plaques of personality that would be hailed with little cries of recognition and appreciation. It was a lot more difficult than the curl, but the effect was the same: I had to hold myself stiff, but I got the praise. And saved myself from being outcast.

In a diary entry two days later, Truitt revisits the subject of self-righteousness, distilling with piercing poignancy the essence of compassion and empathy:

I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.

Daybook is rich and revelational beyond words from cover to cover. Complement this particular excerpt with Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you and Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing.

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Zadie Smith on the Psychology of the Two Types of Writers

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“It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”

On March 24, 2008, two years before she penned her oft-cited ten rules of writing, the immeasurably brilliant Zadie Smith delivered a lecture at Columbia University’s Writing Program under the brief “to speak about some aspect of your craft.” Appropriately titled “That Crafty Feeling” and included in Smith’s altogether enchanting collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (public library), the lecture outlines the ten psychological stages of writing a novel.

While invariably subjective, as all advice is, and rooted in Smith’s own experience — by that point, “twelve years and three novels” — her insights undoubtedly belong with history’s most enduring wisdom on writing.

Smith begins by proposing the two psychological profiles into which all writers fall — a dichotomy reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s hedgehog-versus-fox classification system of writerly personalities. Smith writes:

I want to offer you a pair of ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.

You will recognize a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent — for me, unthinkable — radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

Noting her intolerance for that approach — “not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying” — Smith professes to being a Micro Manager herself:

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line.

[...]

Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pileup of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed.

But this inherent open-endedness also leaves the Micro Manager vulnerable to what Smith calls obsessive perspective disorder, or OPD — “a kind of existential drama” that unfolds over the course of the novel’s first twenty pages, possessing the writer to compulsively attempt answering the question of what kind of novel is being written. And yet, Smith marvels, despite how disorienting OPD is, it isn’t paralyzing — the writing continues throughout this straining state. In that regard, OPD appears to be, rather assuringly, mere garden-variety anxiety — the same psychic malady that tormented Darwin as he was producing his most influential work, the very state Kierkegaard believed powers creative work rather than hindering it, which psychologists have also found to be the crux of the link between creativity and mental illness. Smith writes:

That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

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

She considers, with a lyrical personal testament, the key blessing of her type:

There is one great advantage to being a Micro Manager rather than a Macro Planner: The last day of your novel truly is the last day. If you edit as you go along, there are no first, second, third drafts. There is only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done. Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the confidence trick, Smith considers what transmutes that obsessive worrying into that final moment of absolute elation and relief:

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.

Smith goes on to sketch out another psychological dichotomy of writerly temperaments — those who “won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own” and, if you err to recommend to them a good novel at that stage, “give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife”; and those who read voraciously, perhaps aware that the myth of originality is a limiting illusion anyway and that all writers, as Pete Seeger memorably put it, are but links in a creative chain. Smith illustrates this with a beautiful metaphor:

Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra — they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even.

It seems, then, that what is true of the optimal physical environment for writing — the finding that some writers are vitalized by background noise, while others woefully distracted by it — also applies to the optimal intellectual and creative environment of the writer. Noting that it’s “a matter of temperament,” Smith admits to being among the latter — a writer whose desk is “covered in open novels” and who finds enormous creative nourishment in the Kafkas and Nabokovs and Dostoyevskys, a writer who thrives on that peculiar “feeling of apprenticeship” one experiences in absorbing the work of a master in one’s own craft, a product of what Oscar Wilde once described as “the temperament of receptivity.” She writes:

To [the former] way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even if it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber E. M. Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

For me, that echo chamber was essential. I was fourteen when I heard John Keats in there and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class — though how archaic that must sound, here in America. Keats was not working-class, exactly, nor black — but in rough outline his situation seemed closer to mine than the other writers you came across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked “Apprentices Welcome Here.”

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

Smith dubs the fourth stage of novel-writing “middle-of-the-novel magical thinking,” which she describes in a passage that tickled my affection for punctuation and its emotive power:

By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind.

Smith is essentially describing a state of creative flow. But, more than anything else, the phenomenon she describes — that immersive, elated intimacy with the work — parallels what we experience when we’re in love, a resonance she doesn’t explicitly tease out but one her language very much implies:

Magical thinking makes you crazy — and renders everything possible.

Illustration by Tove Jansson for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

How similar this is to Stendhal’s notion of “crystallization” from his 1822 meditation on the stages of love — the transcendently delusional moment when the lover begins to “overrate wildly” his beloved, to “endow her with a thousand perfections.” Stendhal likens this mental trickery that “draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one” to the covering of an ordinary twig with magical ice crystals that wholly obscure its true nature — the same process Smith describes when a writer reaches that pivotal point of falling in love with her unfinished novel as a proxy for the fantasy of her finished novel.

This state, she observes, makes you marvel at “how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now” as you begin to feel that every experience you have, everything you encounter in the world, has direct and almost fated relevance to your novel. Indeed, who, while in love, hasn’t had the experience of suddenly feeling like every poem, every song, every book has been written, as if by some grand act of cosmic blessing, for that particular love? Who hasn’t been stunned by the recognition of some mundane coincidence — your lover’s aunt once visited the foreign city where you were born — and taken it as confirmation of fatedness? We are remarkable machines for spiritual pattern-recognition, in love and in creative work. Both the peril and the promise of being human is that we can manufacture nonexistent patterns by the sheer force of our state of mind, so hungry for psychic alignment between our soul and that of the beloved, between our work and the needs of the world.

Zadie Smith by Edwina White from personal collection

Smith proceeds to offer her “only absolutely twenty-four-karat-gold-plated piece of advice,” a strategy that serves, in a way, as deliberate melting of the crystals so that one may prune the twig:

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[...]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Elsewhere in the lecture, Smith touches on this psychological distancing in observing the writer’s tendency to think, from book to book, “My God, I was a different person!” But we are, in fact, profoundly different people throughout life — such is the greatest perplexity of the human self and the reason why we so pathologically hinder the happiness of our future selves. Even more than being a “professional observer” of the world, as Susan Sontag once described the project of the writer, she has no choice but to become a professional observer of her inner world — something impossible without this very distancing that allows the writer to gasp with precisely such disbelief at her own otherness in hindsight. To edit one’s own work, Smith seems to suggest, is to not only reluctantly recognize but actively inhabit one’s own transmutation over time. She captures this wryly:

When people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa.

Changing My Mind is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. For more advice on the craft, see this ongoing archive of wisdom on writing, including Nietzsche’s ten rules for writers, Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, and Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing.

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Jeff Buckley on Music and Life: A Rare Interview with One of Creative History’s Most Tragic Heroes

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“Be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside.”

In 1995, while working for an Italian radio station, journalist Luisa Cotardo conducted what would become the most candid, soulful, and profound conversation with legendary musician Jeff Buckley. His only studio album, the now-iconic Grace — which includes Buckley’s extraordinary cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the song for which he remains best-loved — had been released a few months earlier and Buckley had just performed in the town of Correggio in Northern Italy as part of his European tour. Less than two years later, at the age of thirty, he would drown by accident while swimming in Tennessee’s Wolf River during a tour, becoming one of creative history’s most tragic heroes — doubly so because Buckley’s critical acclaim only crescendoed after his death. Rolling Stone eventually proclaimed him one of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Cotardo has kindly shared with me her recording of this rare and remarkably rich interview, in which Buckley discusses with great openness and grace his philosophy on music and life. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he chose not to include lyrics in the album booklet, a deliberate effort to honor music as a deeply personal experience interpreted and inhabited differently by each listener:

So that instead of people being compelled to read through the blueprint of the songs — instead of them looking at the dance steps ahead of time, they would just go through the dance. So that they would let the songs happen to them. Later on, they will find out what the meaning is, but for now — I mean, you know, we’re just meeting for the first time and it’s better… It’s better to grab your own reality from it right now instead of like, you know, read.

On what he seeks to communicate with his music, echoing composer Aaron Copland’s conviction about the interplay of emotion and intellect in great music:

[What I want to communicate] doesn’t have a language with which I can communicate it. The things that I want to communicate are simply self-evident, emotional things. And the gifts of those things are that they bring both intellectual and emotional gifts — understanding. But I don’t really have a major message that I want to bring to the world through my music. The music can tell people everything they need to know about being human beings. It’s not my information, it’s not mine. I didn’t make it. I just discovered it.

On the problem with Western charity efforts like LiveAid:

I would like for the starvation and oppression to end in Africa. I like for money from concerned people to go there, you know, to go to Africa, to aid. But … the real solution will come from Africa ruling Africa and not Britain ruling Africa, not America ruling Africa — it’s the only real key. If Africa rules Africa, that’s the only way that pattern of oppression from the outside can be stopped — not money, not only money. Money is a tool and it can be, I don’t know, I really don’t… It’s great that Mandela came out and took office in Africa. I think that’s the real revolution.

On place and what constitutes home and belonging for a global nomad like himself:

I don’t know what belonging means… I can only use my brain and intellectualize. I really wouldn’t able to tell you from the heart what belonging means… My memories of that place are my link to the place — memories of your experience in a place is your link… All people belong to the world. There is no exclusivity in that… The soil from America can differ from the soil in Malaysia, but its soil, it’s still the same. And the color of people’s skin can differ from place to place but it’s still skin. And, in that regard, there is no difference. People must belong to the earth and a traveller must belong to world somehow and the world must belong to her or him somehow. But, you know, then there’s the social level — that’s just the archetypal level, people usually live in the social level.

Echoing what Jackson Pollock’s father so poetically told his son in 1928, Buckley parlays this into his humble yet wonderfully wise advice on being in the world:

I have no advice for anybody except to, you know, be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside, even in places you hate.

On one’s journey of self-actualization and the organic letting go of dreams that no longer fit that journey:

It’s part of maturity, to project upon your life goals and project upon your life realized dreams and a result that you want. It’s part of becoming whole … just like a childish game. It’s honest — it’s an honest game, because … you want your life to hold hope and possibility.

It’s just that, when you get to the real meat of life, is that life has its own rhythm and you cannot impose your own structure upon it — you have to listen to what it tells you, and you have to listen to what your path tells you. It’s not earth that you move with a tractor — life is not like that. Life is more like earth that you learn about and plant seeds in… It’s something you have to have a relationship with in order to experience — you can’t mold it — you can’t control it…

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