Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

09 JANUARY, 2013

Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son, 1927

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“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s most moving and timeless letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (UK; public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,

Dad.

The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

[…]

The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

[…]

You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

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09 JANUARY, 2013

Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students from Grade School to Grad School

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“The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.”

In 2006, Larry Smith presented a challenge to his community at SMITH Magazine: How would you tell your life’s story if you could only use six words? The question, inspired by the legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write an entire novel in just six words, spurred a flurry of responses — funny, heartbreaking, moving, somewhere between PostSecret and Félix Fénéon’s three-word reports. The small experiment soon became a global phenomenon, producing a series of books and inspiring millions of people to contemplate the deepest complexities of existence through the simplicity of short-form minimalism. The latest addition to the series, Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students Making Sense of the World, comes from TEDBooks and collects dozens of visual six-word autobiographies from students between the ages of 8 and 35.

In the introduction, Smith speaks to the liberating quality of constraints:

As an autobiographical challenge, the six-word limitation forces us to pinpoint who we are and what matters most — at least in the moment. The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.

The micro-memoirs are divided into four sections — grade school, high school, college, and graduate school — and touch, with equal parts wit and disarming candor, on everything from teenagers’ internal clocks to the escapism of Alice in Wonderland.

Charlotte 'Charley' Berkenbile, 8, is in third grade at Florence Elementary School in Keller, Texas.

Sonia Rose Menken, 10, attends Charles H. Bullock School in Montclair, N.J., where she is in fifth grade.

Kenn Doan, 12, is in sixth grade at West Stanly Middle School in Locust, N.C.

Shawn Budlong, 13, is in seventh grade at the Thurgood Marshall School in Rockford, Ill.

Rehana Ottalah, 13, is in eighth grade at J.D. Meisler Middle School in Metairie, La.

Courtney Drude, 16, attends Marriotts Ridge High School in Ellicott City, Md., where she is a junior.

Yoona Chun, 17, is a senior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, N.Y.

Liz Pendragon, 17, attends Union High School in Union, Mo., where she is a senior.

Devin White, 19, attends Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., where he is a freshman.

Georgia Chouteau, 19, is a sophomore at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Melanie Jeanne Plank, 21, is a senior at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.

Minhee Bae, 21, is a senior at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario.

Elizabeth Kay Oh, 23, recently completed her bachelor’s at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City.

Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated comes on the heels of TED’s The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope and offers an inadvertent yin to its yang.

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08 JANUARY, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing

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“Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

What is the secret of great writing? For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. For Henry Miller, about discovery. Susan Sontag saw it as self-exploration. Many literary greats anchored it to their daily routines. And yet, the answer remains elusive and ever-changing.

In the fall of 1938, Radcliffe College sophomore Frances Turnbull sent her latest short story to family friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. His response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (UK; public library) — the same volume that gave us Fitzgerald’s heartwarming fatherly advice and his brilliantly acerbic response to hate mail — echoes Anaïs Nin’s insistence upon the importance of emotional investment in writing and offers some uncompromisingly honest advice on essence of great writing:

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Two years prior, in another letter to his fifteen-year-old daughter Scottie upon her enrollment in high school, Fitzgerald offered more wisdom on the promise and perils of writing:

Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

[…]

Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

[…]

Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.

Scott

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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