Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

31 JANUARY, 2013

Why We Write: Mary Karr on the Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word

By:

“Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? Literary history has given us some timeless answers from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and David Foster Wallace — but the question remains ever-open. That’s precisely what editor Meredith Maran sets out to address in the anthology Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library; UK), which features such literary all-stars as Jennifer Egan, James Fray, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis.

One of the volume’s sharpest contributions comes from memorist, essayist and poet Mary Karr, author of the humorous and harrowing memoir series The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009). With her signature blend of uncompromising honesty, wry wit, and exquisite self-awareness that somehow manages to keep from bleeding into the naggy self-consciousness chronic of writers, Karr faces the written word with equal parts faith and irreverence.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy:

I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity:

When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money:

I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine:

For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it:

Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

Karr ends with some synthesized wisdom for writers:

  • The quote I had tacked to my board while I was writing Lit is from Samuel Beckett, and it’s really helpful: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”
  • Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.

Why We Write is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, 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.

Photograph via Poetry Foundation

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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.

30 JANUARY, 2013

An Illustrated Chronicle of the Space Race

By:

Astronauts vs. cosmonauts, Apollo vs. Sputnik, and what Gagarin had to do with JFK.

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Ray Bradbury poignantly proclaimed in his 1971 discussion with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke on the future of space exploration, as the Space Age — the golden age of breakthroughs in space travel on both sides of the Iron Curtain between 1957 and 1975 — was approaching its nadir. And yet four decades later, we seem to have lost our zest for romance as the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance.

From London-based illustrator Tom Clohosy Cole and the fine folks at British indie press Nobrow, who brought us Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land, one of the best art books of 2012, comes Space Race (public library; UK) — a vibrantly illustrated chronicle of that bygone era of cosmic dreams. Cole’s vintage-inspired aesthetic, reminiscent of Charley Harper and The Provensens, pays homage to the era’s stylistic sensibilities while remaining refreshingly original.

Space Race comes from Nobrow’s wonderful Leporello series, which also includes Bicycle, inspired by the 2012 Olympics, and the forthcoming Worse Things Happen at Sea, inspired by the tales of doomed voyages passed down across generations of sailors.

Images courtesy Nobrow Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

30 JANUARY, 2013

Why Birds Sing

By:

Science vs. romance, or how evolutionary theory holds up against poetry and philosophy.

In How Music Works, David Byrne cites some scientifically controversial theories suggesting that music is a spontaneous rather than adaptive phenomenon and birds sing simply because they enjoy singing. At the front lines of the joy theory of bird song is new-age philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg, who argues that bird song has the formal properties of music and, just like human music, is motivated by pleasure — another manifestation of the emotional lives of animals. In the preface to his 2006 book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong (public library; UK), Rothenberg writes:

As a philosopher, I have long been wrapped in the question of what humanity must do to find a home in the natural world. The seemingly innocent topic of bird song shows us that we need a combination of many visions of nature to make sense of the whole. … I hope to inspire more scientists and musicians in engaged interaction with the natural world.

In 2007, BBC set out to pit the two leading explanations evolutionary biologists have of why birds sing — to attract mates and repel rivals — against Rothenberg’s theories of pleasure-driven bird song. The result is this fascinating documentary, available online in its entirety, with some delightful surprise-cameos by Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and other celebrated musicians, artists and poets.

Why shouldn’t they be singing for pleasure? Who are we to assume that this kind of animal doesn’t experience joy?

Whether or not your fully subscribe to Rothenberg’s theories, his book comes with a twelve-track music compilation, which alone is more than worth it — a mesmerizing mashup of natural birdsong and virtuosic instrumentation.

Animal Madness @wendymac

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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.