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Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 FEBRUARY, 2013

What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett

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“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”

In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history’s most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a small and lovely hardcover book titled What Now? (public library) and designed by none other than the great Chip Kidd — a fate not entirely uncommon, also shared by David Foster Wallace’s celebrated This Is Water commencement-address-turned-book.

Patchett opens:

If all fairy tales begin ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now.’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.

Having once sat in those very chairs herself, Patchett offers a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the elasticity of time:

Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.

Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point — this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchet writes:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

Borrowing in part from great scientists and in part from great poets, Patchett advocates for embracing uncertainty as a positive force:

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

Patchett goes on to offer a treasure trove of insight on the craft of writing, from honing your daily routine to dealing with rejection. Complement What Now? with more fantastic advice for graduates — or for anyone turning a new leaf of any variety — from Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Photograph courtesy Ann Patchett

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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

February 25, 1956: Sylvia Plath Meets Ted Hughes in One of Literary History’s Steamiest Encounters

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“He ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears.”

On February 25, 1956, young Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience” — walked into a crowded literary party and was instantly drawn to the man with whom she’d come to enter into a tumultuous marriage, the man who years after Plath’s suicide would write an exquisite letter of life advice to the couple’s son, the man who’d become the controversial executor of Plath’s literary estate: Ted Hughes.

The encounter, which Andrew Wilson describes in the ambitious recent biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library), is the stuff of literary legend:

On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.

On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).

By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.

Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.

Photographs via The Times and London Evening Standard

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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich on Art vs. Design and the Joy of Losing Yourself in Purposeful Work

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“Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy.”

In a recent episode of the inimitable Design Matters — which has previously given us exhilarating conversations with Paula Scher on creativity, Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, Sophie Blackall on storytelling, and Chris Ware on the architecture of being humanDebbie Millman sits down with designer and typography maestro Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich. His innumerable accomplishments and accolades aside, I — a hopeless lover of beautiful and quirky alphabet books — was instantly smitten with the lovely specimen he created for his daughter’s first Christmas in 2000, inspired by the challenges of instilling an equal love of language in a bilingual child. Titled Bembo’s Zoo: An Animal ABC Book (public library), it features 26 different animals, one for each letter of the alphabet, constructed entirely out of the typeface Bembo. The story of the book’s genesis is as creatively invigorating as it is heart-warming:

In his most recent book, Men of Letters and People of Substance (public library) — a gallery of famous portraits created entirely out of letters and objects, with an introduction by none other than Francine Prose — de Vicq de Cumptich writes:

Design is not Art, since Art exists as an answer to a question posed by an individual artist, while Design exists as an answer to a question posed by the marketplace. Design must have an audience to come into being, while Art seeks an audience, sometimes, luckily, finding it, sometimes not. Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy. Design needs an economic system, while Art does not. Art may become a product, but it’s not the reason why it was created, but how our society transforms it into a commodity.

In fact, this distinction between art and design seems to be a central concern: Echoing Chuck Close’s conception of artists as problem-finders rather than problem-solvers, de Vicq de Cumptich offers a succinct yet poetic definition of the difference between the two:

I like design because [in] design you have a problem and you have a solution … and you have a problem that existed outside of yourself. Art is different: [In art], you have to pose the problem.

Diving deeper into the distinction, de Vicq de Cumptich uses motive — creative impulse vs. commercial gain — as the differentiator, a proposition similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s contrast between “amateurs” and professional journalists:

Adding to history’s great fatherly advice, de Vicq de Cumptich articulates the existential urgency — and joy — of finding your purpose and doing what you love:

One of the things about work that is great is the idea of losing yourself into the work. … You have joy … to play with type, to play with image, to find similarities, to find patterns, to create ideas, to transform… So you lose yourself into the work. And that’s one of the things that I tell to my daughter: Try to find something that you’re so passionate [about] that you lose yourself in it.

De Vicq de Cumptich makes an interesting point about the role of typography as design’s lone singular agent:

The only thing that is specific about graphic design is typography. Everything else you borrow from the other arts — you borrow the image from photography, from painting — but the only thing that is specific material for graphic design is typography. So you have to know type, and you have to learn the history of type, and you have to be willing to play with type.

De Vicq de Cumptich is also the author of Love Quotes (public library), published more than fifteen years ago — a simple, elegant selection of history’s most profound words on love, rendered in exquisite typography alongside expressive photographs by Pedro Lobo.

In a meditation on the creative process, de Vicq de Cumptich ponders where ideas come from and champions the value of managing time purposefully:

Time is also essential. You have to manage your time. Your ideas have to be when you are taking a shower, not when you are in front of a computer.

De Vicq de Cumptich stresses the role of humor in making the audience feel intelligent, a core responsibility of great design also championed by Massimo Vignelli:

Listen to the interview in its entirety and be sure to subscribe to the free Design Matters iTunes podcast for a steady stream of stimulating conversations at the intersection of design, culture, and creativity.

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