Brain Pickings

Vanessa Redgrave Reads Joan Didion’s Harrowing ‘Blue Nights’

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“Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934) wrote in her remarkable memoir of the year following her husband’s death after forty years of marriage. John Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, as the couple’s only child, their daughter Quintana, lay comatose in a hospital ICU with complications from pneumonia. On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing her memoir and spent 88 days on the manuscript, completing it on New Year’s Eve. Midway through the author’s book tour and shortly before she received the National Book Award, Quintana died. She was thirty-nine.

It takes a rare person to retain the capacity — the desire — to be wise, let alone wry, in the face of such tragedy. And yet that is what Didion did in embarking on a second memoir, the spectacular Blue Nights (public library | IndieBound), rising above the uncommonly cruel cards life had dealt her to write with exceptional candor and grace about grieving her daughter, mourning her mistakes as a parent, and confronting her own mortality.

Few things could elevate Didion’s already exalted art of bearing witness to life and death. But one cold November night not too long ago, as I sat on a heavy wooden chair at St. John the Divine — the iconic New York cathedral where Quintana had spoken her wedding vows eleven years earlier — and awaited Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights to the accompaniment of legendary jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, I knew something unrepeatable was about to take place, something transformational and transcendent.

Redgrave and Didion have more than their decades-long friendship in common. Four years after Quintana’s death, the great English actor lost her own daughter Natasha, a childhood friend of Quintana’s, to brain injury after a skiing accident. Two years earlier, Redgrave had played Didion in a Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. But the grimly uncanny parallel of maternal loss brought a far deeper dimension of mutuality to Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights. As her graceful, coolly expressive voice spills from the altar into the nave and echoes, godlike, across the cathedral, one can’t help feeling — at least I couldn’t help feeling — a brush at once chilling and beautiful with the unanswerable questions that line the vaulted ceiling between life and death.

Time passes.

Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

In the introduction to Blue Nights, Didion explains the book’s title:

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming — in fact not at all a warming — yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Complement with Didion on self-respect, why she writes, and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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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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The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

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“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration — so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (public library | IndieBound).

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

Complement A Muse and a Maze with this evolving archive of advice on the craft from famous writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and more.

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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The Knot in the Rosary: Rilke on How Private Struggle Fuels Great Art and Why Feedback Poisons It

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“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

Shortly before he began writing what would become the legendary Letters to a Young Poet, 26-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) moved to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Rodin, but soon sank into profound spiritual anguish. Once he discovered modernism, Rilke found himself elevated by the art, invigorated by the vitality with which modernist artists approached their work. Chief among these pivotal encounters was the painter Paul Cézanne, whom Rilke would come to cite as his greatest creative influence. He was especially enchanted by the artist’s relationship with his art: “Only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work,” Rilke wrote.

In 1907, months after Cézanne’s death, Rilke saw and was deeply moved by a retrospective on the artist’s work. Every day, he would return to the gallery and contemplate these paintings that he found so bewitching, so beseeching of his own creative response. In a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, Rilke began recording and examining his reverence for the painter. His missives to Clara — a woman he saw not only as an equal but also as someone at least as deeply invested in the project of art — were later published as the wholly addictive 1985 tome Letters on Cézanne (public library | IndieBound).

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke's brother-in-law

In one particularly radiant letter from June of 1907, Rilke echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of hardship and Van Gogh’s eloquently channeled belief in the creative power of suffering. Decades before Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable proclamation that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Rilke writes:

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of the singularity… Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it — that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless, existing merely as necessity, as reality, as existence—.

So we are most definitely called upon to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also bound to keep silence regarding this utmost, to beware of sharing it, of parting with it in communication so long as we have not entered the work of art: for the utmost represent nothing other than the singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the works as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.

With an eye to this deeply private nature of the utmost and its expression in art, Rilke makes an especially fiery admonition against feedback throughout the creative process:

There are two liberties of communication, and these seem to me to be the utmost possible ones: the one that occurs face-to-face with the accomplished thing, and the one that takes place within actual daily life, in showing one another what one has become through one’s work and thereby supporting and helping and (in the humble sense of the word) admiring one another. But in either case one must show results, and it is not lack of trust or withdrawal or rejection if one doesn’t present to another the tools of one’s progress, which have so much about them that is confusing and tortuous, and whose only value lies in the personal use one makes of them. I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.

Rainer Maria Rilke with Clara Rilke Westhoff, 1903

In a letter written two days later, Rilke adds a remark that comes as an especially appropriate summation of the question of private suffering versus tangible results, in both art and life:

Basically it’s none of our business how somebody manages to grow, if only he does grow, if only we’re on the trail of the law of our own growth…

Letters on Cézanne is an altogether entrancing glimpse of Rilke’s mind at its sharpest and most creatively stimulated. Complement it with Rilke on living the questions, the relationship between body and soul, and his youthful love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian-born intellectual who had previously bewitched Nietzsche, then revisit Jeanette Winterson’s sublime meditation on art.

Donating = Loving

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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.