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Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 FEBRUARY, 2015

E.B. White on How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Readers

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“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

The loving and attentive reader of children’s books knows that the best of them are not one-dimensional oversimplifications of life but stories that tackle with elegant simplicity such complexities as uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and the cycle of life. And anyone who sits with this awareness for a moment becomes suddenly skeptical of the very notion of a “children’s” book. Maurice Sendak certainly knew that when he scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Seven decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien had articulated the same sentiment, with more politeness and academic rigor, in his terrific essay on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” But one of the finest, most charming and most convincing renunciations of the myths about writing for children comes from E.B. White, nearly two decades after he sneezed Charlotte’s Web.

In a 1969 interview, included in the altogether unputdownable The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — which also features wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, William Styron and more — White turns his formidable amalgam of wit and wisdom to our culture’s limiting misconceptions about storytelling “for children.”

When the interviewer asks whether there is “any shifting of gears” in writing children’s books, as opposed to the grownup nonfiction for which he is best known, White responds with the rare combination of conviction and nuance:

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Echoing Ursula Nordstrom — the visionary editor and patron saint of childhood who brought to life not only Charlotte’s Web but also such classics as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Giving Tree, and who famously insisted that children never want a blunt creative edge — White adds:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process. Click image for more.

Long before psychologists knew that language is central to how human imagination evolves, White is especially adamant about the blunting of language:

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

Like C.S. Lewis, who contemplated what writing for children reveals about the key to authenticity in all writing, White extrapolates the writer’s responsibility to all audiences:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter… A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

[…]

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV is a treasure trove in its totality. Complement this particular gem with E.B. White on the future of reading, what makes a great city, his satirical take on the difference between love and passion, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in life.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt

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Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.

But hardly anyone has captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt — which is part of the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear — better than Virginia Woolf, she of enduring wisdom on creativity and consciousness and the challenge of writing about the soul.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 novel, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process, rendering in spectacular relief the particular granularity familiar to writers:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit this evolving library of great writers’ wisdom on writing.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mozart on Creativity and the Ideation Process

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“It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.”

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques Hadamard set out to explore how mathematicians invent ideas in what would become The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (public library) — an introspective inquiry into the process of discovery, using both his own experience and first-hand accounts by such celebrated scientists as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Albert Einstein. But what Hadamard uncovered in the process of writing his treatise were the general psychological pillars of all invention and the inner workings of the creative mind, whatever discipline it is applied to.

In staging the scene of his investigation, Hadamard quotes a letter from Mozart in which the legendary composer — who had plunged into the creative life at a young age — details his ideation and editing process, touching on some of the most universal principles of the creative experience long before contemporary psychology demonstrated them.

Applying to the question of creativity the same passion with which he imbued his love letters, Mozart considers the origin of his ideas:

When I feel well and in a good humor, or when I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me, I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so. Once I have my theme, another melody comes, linking itself to the first one, in accordance with the needs of the composition as a whole: the counterpoint, the part of each instrument, and all these melodic fragments at last produce the entire work.

More than two hundred years before poet Mark Strand would come to capture the electrifying flow of creative work and a century before Tchaikovsky would come to write of the “immeasurable bliss” of creativity, Mozart describes a similar experience:

Then my soul is on fire with inspiration, if however nothing occurs to distract my attention. The work grows; I keep expanding it, conceiving it more and more clearly until I have the entire composition finished in my head though it may be long… It does not come to me successively, with its various parts worked out in detail, as they will be later on, but it is in its entirety that my imagination lets me hear it.

Mozart then turns to the question of originality — a concept many creators have denounced as an illusion. (Most memorable of all denunciations is Mark Twain’s spectacular letter to Helen Keller, with Pete Seeger as a close second.) But for the great composer, originality — and thus the integrity of the creative impulse — is as indelible a part of our individuality as our fingerprints:

Now, how does it happen, that, while I am at work, my compositions assume the form or the style which characterize Mozart and are not like anybody else’s? Just as it happens that my nose is big and hooked, Mozart’s nose and not another man’s. I do not aim at originality and I should be much at a loss to describe my style. It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.

Complement The Mathematician’s Mind with the similarly spirited The Art of Scientific Investigation, an exploration of the ideation process published more than a decade later that builds on Hadamard’s work to stretch the inquiry even further into the frontiers of the creative mind, then see pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential elements of creativity.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: A Masterpiece from 1968 That Could Have Been Written Today

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“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Over and over, Joan Didion has emerged as an enchantress of nuance — a writer of deep and dimensional wisdom on such undying human issues as self-respect, grief, and the passage of time. Didion has a particular penchant for unraveling issues of social friction and discomfort to reveal that they are merely symptoms, rather than causes, of deeper societal pathologies.

Take Hollywood’s diversity problem, of which the world becomes palpably aware every year as the Academy Awards roll around. (Awards are, after all, a vehicle for rewarding the echelons of a system’s values, and the paucity of people of color among nominees and winners speaks volumes about how much that system values diversity — something that renders hardly surprising a recent Los Angeles Times survey, which found that the Oscar-dispensing academy is primarily male and 94% white.) Nearly half a century before today’s crescendoing public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue with unparalleled intellectual elegance.

In an essay titled “Good Citizens,” written between 1968 and 1970 and found in the altogether indispensable The White Album (public library) — which also gave us Didion on driving as a transcendent experience — she turns her perceptive and prescient gaze to Hollywood’s diversity problem and the vacant pretensions that both beget and obscure it.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Didion writes:

Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.

And because this is Didion — a writer of extraordinary subtlety and piercing precision, who often tells half the story in the telling itself — she paints a backdrop of chronic superficiality as she builds up to the overt point:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” someone said to me at dinner not long ago, and before we had finished our fraises des bois he had advised me as well that “no man is an island.” As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. “What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,” I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.

She recounts one event particularly painful to watch — a staged debate between the writer William Styron and the actor Ossie Davis. Davis had asserted that Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the black protagonist falls in love with a white woman, had encouraged racism. With her characteristic clarity bordering on wryness, Didion notes: “It was Mr. Styron’s contention that it had not.” She sums up the evening with one famous spectator’s response:

James Baldwin sat between them, his eyes closed and his head thrown back in understandable but rather theatrical agony.

Didion reflects on what that particular event revealed — and still reveals — about Hollywood’s general vacancy of any real commitment to social justice:

[The evening’s] curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.

The unwelcome presence of doubt is, of course, the fatal diagnosis of all systems that warp reality and flatten its complexities by leaving no room for nuance — systems like the Hollywood of that era, which has hardly changed in ours, and the mainstream media of today, who tend to depict the world by the same “dramatic convention” of clickbait and sensationalism adding nothing to the actual conquest of meaning.

Reflecting on Hollywood’s “vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals,” Didion recounts the particular pretensions she observed at a national convention of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycees — a leadership and civic engagement training organization for young people — held at LA’s Miramar Hotel:

In any imaginative sense Santa Monica seemed an eccentric place for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce to be holding a national congress, but there they were, a thousand delegates and wives, gathered in the Miramar Hotel for a relentless succession of keynote banquets and award luncheons and prayer breakfasts and outstanding-young-men forums… I was watching the pretty young wife of one delegate pick sullenly at her lunch. “Let someone else eat this slop,” she said suddenly, her voice cutting through not only the high generalities of the occasion but The New Generation’s George M. Cohan medley as well.

It bears noting that this took place a decade and a half before the Jaycees began accepting women as members, so any female presence at the convention was invariably allotted to such pretty young wives — including this one, whom Didion proceeded to see “sobbing into a pink napkin.”

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

But what makes Didion’s essay doubly poignant is the way in which she gets at — obliquely, unambiguously — how Hollywood’s chronic biases permeate the rest of society. Having gone to the Jaycees national convention “in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America,'” she found instead a mirroring of Hollywood’s superficial and performative approaches to social justice issues. Didion writes:

At first I thought I had walked out of the rain and into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.

Nearly half a century later, one can’t help but feel pulled into the very same time warp — Didion could have written this today:

They knew that this was a brave new world and [the Jaycees] said so. It was time to “put brotherhood into action,” to “open our neighborhoods to those of all colors.” It was time to “turn attention to the cities,” to think about youth centers and clinics and the example set by a black policeman-preacher in Philadelphia who was organizing a decency rally patterned after Miami’s. It was time to “decry apathy.”

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time enough for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and the steam rise off the heated pool outside and listening to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest and whether the “solution” might not lie in on-campus Jaycee groups. I thought about this astonishing notion for a long time. It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.

Reading Didion’s astute observations many decades later, at a time when so many of us feel just as “personally betrayed by recent history,” reaffirms the The White Album as absolutely essential reading for modern life — not merely because its title is all the more uncomfortably perfect in light of this particular essay, but because every single essay in it directs the same unflinching perceptiveness at some timeless and timely aspect of our world.

Complement it with Didion’s reading list of all-time favorite books and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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