Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

22 FEBRUARY, 2013

Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and How Writing by Hand Catalyzes Creativity

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“However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”

Every few years, a new anthology of essays on why writers write comes along. While most tend to be invariably excellent, one of the best presents I’ve ever received was a copy of the 2001 collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (public library). What made this particular tome special, besides the wonderful selection of essays by contemporary literary icons like Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, was that many of the essays were signed by their respective authors.

One of my favorite pieces in the volume comes from Mary Gordon, at the time in her early 50s, and is titled “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper.”

Gordon begins:

There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’

It’s a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the world’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involves notebooks and pens. I write by hand.

Like Anaïs Nin, who took great joy in making books manually, Gordon celebrates the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship:

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

In fact, the tool itself is a fanciful transporter, a gateway to a different sense of self:

My pen. It is a Waterman’s, black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon. Elizabeth Bowen, maybe, only French. Anna de Noialles, but played by Deborah Kerr. My pen is elegant, even if I’m wearing the terry robe whose frayed state suggests a fashion statement from a gulag. My ink is Waterman’s black. Once while traveling I could only find blue-black. I used it for a few weeks, but it made me feel like a punitive headmistress.

Gordon, who subscribes to Joan Didion’s cult of the notebook, goes on to describe her various notebooks, acquired during her travels and serving equally varied purposes — a small, soft-covered one from her last trip to Paris, several confectionary-colored ones from Orleans, a long, canary one for fiction and a square red one for journalism from Dublin, a hard turquoise one for literary criticism purchased across the street from the British Museum, a handful of Swedish ones in primary colors for her most uncensored journals. A fellow fan of diaries and letters, she then contributes to the daily routines of other famous writers a tour of her own:

So what do I do after I’ve played with my pen and notebooks like a time-killing kindergartner? Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

I listen to music, often string quartets or piano sonatas. … I enjoy the music and the rhythm of the mindless copying. Or not entirely mindless; I’m luxuriating in the movement of the words which are, blessedly, not mine. I’m taking pleasure in the slow and rapid movements of my pen, leaving its black marks on the whiteness of paper. … I can’t listen to music when reading poetry or fiction. Into the notebook I am using for the fiction I’m writing, I copy paragraphs whose heft and cadence I can learn from. And some days, if I’m lucky, the very movement of my hand, like a kind of dance, starts up another movement that allows me to forget the vanity, the folly, of what I am really about.

Nestled between the words of others, Gordon finds a certain comfort, soothing assurance that the road, while winding and often dark, has been traveled before and doesn’t lead into the abyss:

It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing, or of (as I do each morning) envying hod carriers, toxic waste inspectors, any of those practitioners of high and graceful callings that involve jobs it is possible to do.

(For a necessary antidote to this dystopian mindset of writing, take heart with Ray Bradbury, Amelia E. Barr, and Elizabeth Gilbert.)

Gordon concludes:

I don’t know what people who work on computers do to get themselves started. I hope never to learn firsthand.

We read Mary Gordon, then we use our hands and wrists in typing out her thoughts to catalyze our own.

For more wisdom on writing, see 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.

Mary Gordon portrait via Columbia University

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18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Order to the Chaos of Life: Isabel Allende on Writing

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“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Literary history is ripe with eloquent attempts to answer the ever-elusive question of why writers write. For George Orwell, it resulted from four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as precious access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), which also gave us Mary Karr’s poignant answer, celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende offers one of the most poetic yet practical responses to the grand question.

Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’s insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:

I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.

Like Mark Twain, who famously instructed a rival to “use the right word, not its second cousin,” Allende advocates for the precision of language as the ultimate resource:

It’s so important for me, finding the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. I’m very picky about that because it’s the only material we have: words. But they are free. No matter how many syllables they have: free! You can use as many as you want, forever.

In fact, her style is deeply reminiscent of beloved French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin’s — and Allende herself offers a beautiful hypothesis about a common thread:

I try to write beautifully, but accessibly. In the romance languages, Spanish, French, Italian, there’s a flowery way of saying things that does not exist in English. My husband says he can always tell when he gets a letter in Spanish: the envelope is heavy. In English a letter is a paragraph. You go straight to the point. In Spanish that’s impolite. Reading in English, living in English, has taught me to make language as beautiful as possible, but precise. Excessive adjectives, excessive description — skip it, it’s unnecessary. Speaking English has made my writing less cluttered. I try to read House of the Spirits now, and I can’t. Oh my God, so many adjectives! Why? Just use one good noun instead of three adjectives.

She reflects on the osmotic balance between intuition and rationality in the writing process:

Fiction happens in the womb. It doesn’t get processed in the mind until you do the editing.

Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed — because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Like Neil Gaiman, who famously advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Allende shares a cautionary observation:

I correct to the point of exhaustion, and then finally I say I give up. It’s never quite finished, and I suppose it could always be better, but I do the best I can. In time, I’ve learned to avoid overcorrecting. When I got my first computer and I realized how easy it was to change things ad infinitum, my style became very stiff.

But her most profound test of creative resilience came from deeply untethering personal tragedy:

My daughter, Paula, died on December 6, 1992. On January 7, 1993, my mother said, ‘Tomorrow is January eighth. If you don’t write, you’re going to die.’ She gave me the 180 letters I’d written to her while Paula was in a coma, and then she went to Macy’s. When my mother came back six hours later, I was in a pool of tears, but I’d written the first pages of Paula. Writing is always giving some sort of order to the chaos of life. It organizes life and memory. To this day, the responses of the readers help me to feel my daughter alive.

Turning an eye towards the future of storytelling, Allende advocates for medium-agnosticism, reminding us that a great story will always be a great story, wherever it lives — so long as it lives in the heart:

Storytelling and literature will exist always, but what shape will it take? Will we write novels to be performed? The story will exist, but how, I don’t know. The way my stories are told today is by being published in the form of a book. In the future, if that’s not the way to tell a story, I’ll adapt.

She ends with three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:

  • It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
  • When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
  • When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.

Allende’s moving 2007 TED talk will give you an even deeper appreciation for her singular approach to storytelling:

The rest of Why We Write features insights and advice on the craft from such contemporary icons as Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, and James Frey, among others. 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 The Paris Review

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15 FEBRUARY, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell on Originality, Plagiarism, Language, and Education

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“Our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others.”

When Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after the publication of her autobiography, The Story of My Life (public library), Mark Twain sent her a note of solidarity and support, assuring her that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Shortly thereafter, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone — wrote Annie Sullivan, Keller’s teacher, a letter with a similar sentiment. Bell argued that it is “difficult for us to trace the origin of our expressions” and “we are all of us … unconscious plagiarists, especially in childhood” — a notion neurologist Oliver Sacks has affirmed more than a century later with his recent insights on memory and plagiarism, and one the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has institutionalized with his class on “uncreative writing.”

April 2nd, 1903.

Miss Annie Sullivan

73 Dana Street,
Cambridge, Mass.

Dear Miss Sullivan:

I have read Helen’s book with interest and delight. . . .

Why in all the world did you not tell us about those letters to Mrs. Hopkins, when we were preparing the Volta Bureau souvenirs; they are of the greatest value and importance, and contain internal evidence of the fact that you were entirely wrong when you gave us the idea that you proceeded without method in the education of Helen, and only acted on the spur of the moment, in everything you did. These letters to Mrs. Hopkins will become a standard, the principles that guided you in the early education of Helen are of the greatest importance to all teachers. They are TRUE and the way in which you carried them out shows — what I have all along recognized that Helen’s progress was as much due to her teacher as to herself, and that your personality and the admirable methods you pursued were integral ingredients of Helen’s progress.

Now what I want to impress upon you is this: – That it is your duty to use your brilliant abilities as a teacher FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHER TEACHERS.

I don’t want to bother you with this thought too much at the present time; but, as soon as Helen has finished with Radcliffe College, I AM GOING FOR YOU.

You must be placed in a position to impress your ideas upon other teachers. YOU MUST TRAIN TEACHERS. . . . It is a fallacy to suppose that blindness is an ADVANTAGE to a deaf child — it is a fallacy to suppose that language can be intuitively acquired. Once we realize that language is acquired by imitation — it becomes obvious that language comes from without, not from within. The most startling demonstration of this fact was contained in the Frost King incident. We all do what Helen did. Our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others. The fact that the language presented to Helen was in the early days, so largely taken from books, has enabled us in many cases to trace the origin of her expressions but they are none the less original with Helen for all that. We do the very same thing. Our forms of expression are copied — verbatim et literatim — in our earlier years from the expressions of others which we have heard in childhood. It is difficult for us to trace the origin of our expressions because the language addressed to us in infancy has been given by word of mouth, and not permanently recorded in books so that investigators — being unable to examine printed records of the language addressed to us in childhood — are unable to charge us with plagiarism. We are all of us however, nevertheless unconscious plagiarists, especially in childhood. As we grow older and read books the language we absorb through the eye, unconsciously affects our style. Books however do not affect our language to the same extent that they affected Helen because our habits of language, have already been formed before we come to read books. Nevertheless our style IS affected, hence the very great importance of selecting with care, the kinds of books to be read by children.

It is ridiculous to expect that a deaf child – or a hearing child for that matter — shall talk or write good English, unless good English has been PREVIOUSLY presented to the child in spoken or written form — and in sufficient quantity to impress Good English expressions upon his mind. Then — and then only — will he spontaneously use good English in expressing his own thoughts. This thought lies at the ROOT of the instruction of the deaf. Once we clearly grasp this conception we can see the cause of the poor English used by the deaf. It makes one sad to see how this principle is persistently violated in all of our schools for the deaf — but you have pointed out the remedy and have clearly demonstrated the truth of your position by an illustrious example.

My best wishes go with you and Helen, and in conclusion allow me to repeat — what I began with — YOU MUST TRAIN TEACHERS.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander Graham Bell

Keller’s autobiography is now in the public domain and available as a free download in multiple formats.

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