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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

15 JUNE, 2015

The Subterranean River of Emotion: Cheryl Strayed on Writing, the Art of Living with Opposing Truths, and the Three Ancient Motifs in All Great Storytelling

By:

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder,” Cheryl Strayed told an aspiring writer in her no-nonsense advice on faith and humility. But there is an enthralling ease — or willingness, perhaps — with which Strayed herself digs into the impenetrable surfaces of things and mines the raw material with which to warm our souls, be it in her celebrated Dear Sugar advice column or in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (public library), her magnificent memoir of mourning and self-redemption in the wilderness, which rose to such levels of cultural resonance as to become a major movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.

On the fantastic Longform podcast — a belated but befitting addition to these favorite podcasts for a fuller life — Strayed dives into the depths of her writing process, her credos and how she channeled them as Sugar, and the singular and quite possibly unrepeatable-in-our-time experience that precipitated Wild. Her immensely vitalizing conversation with Longform founder Max Linsky emanates the very personhood from which Strayed’s enchanting prose springs.

A necessary note here: We live in a culture that expects us to cushion a conversation with a phenomenal person with the apologetic caveat that it’s two hours long but it’s brilliant and well worth it — a tragic symptom of our shortcuttism. As I’ve lamented elsewhere — incidentally, in a long conversation — real conversations (much like a good book, which requires the same investment and rewards with the same intimacy of insight) are among the few ways to invite meaningful ideas into our lives, for we don’t arrive at meaning via sound bites and status updates. Lest we forget, William James was right — conversation is how “bound energies are let loose.” True thinking — the kind of deliberate reflection that welcomes wisdom — takes time. Digging past the surface of things — getting to what Strayed herself calls “the subterranean river” of truth and meaning — takes time. Time alone may not be a sufficient condition, for the conquest of meaning also requires thought and wholeheartedness and resolute intentionality, but it’s an absolutely necessary one.

Which is all to say, let’s begin to reclaim our humanity by reclaiming our language, which both reflects and shapes our thought. Let’s revert to the lucid conjunction: When it comes to communing with a shimmering mind, the conversation is long and therefore it’s brilliant and well worth it. And so: This conversation with Strayed is indeed brilliant and deeply rewarding in its totality. Below, I’ve transcribed some of the most shimmering parts.

On the latent recognition of how our seemingly unremarkable experiences add up to our becoming, something Strayed addressed beautifully as Sugar:

Some of the most interesting experiences, maybe all of them … become more interesting in retrospect, in hindsight. You know everything that happened and how it came to be.

On good books being the product of processing life’s raw material at its rawest and how that transmutation of sorrow into story into solace fueled her Dear Sugar column:

All of my life has been a processing… Having to forgive and cry and understand mortality and love … you have to do this, I think, to write a book.

[…]

We can’t essentially escape who it is that we are, and I am — for better or worse — a writer who likes to go into that subterranean, emotional world and to talk about the mysterious and dark and beautiful places inside of us… I always felt that story was the greatest consolation in my own sorrow, so when I started to help people in their sorrows and their confusions, I had to tell stories.

[…]

[In Dear Sugar] I might have told a story about myself, but it was really about the letter-writer — it was really about how can that story illuminate a truth that is universal, not just for me, not just for letter-writer, but for [the readers]. That column was like doing therapy in the town square.

On the misconception that her Dear Sugar column was about giving answers to others, while it was really about showing up for the questions throbbing in her own self and, in doing so, providing the sort of assurance that brings others closer to their own answers:

Ultimately, the truth is that we have to help ourselves — we all benefit from people helping us, but we will never get anywhere if we don’t help ourselves… [There is a] universal truth that we are all are responsible for our lives — that we all suffer and we all need to find light in that darkness, strength in that weakness.

[…]

It’s not as if I’m some sort of font of wisdom and perfection — what I’m speaking to is my own struggle. I’m talking to myself, too — all the time, every day. It’s not as if I have the answer and I’m giving the answers. I’m, instead, really down there in the struggle, speaking to it, trying to speak as openly as possible about what it means to be human.

On how great art transcends its creator and speaks to our own lives in the universal voice:

When we see a painting that we love, we’re not standing there thinking about the artist who made it — we’re thinking about how that painting makes us feel, what that reflects to us about our lives and the world. And so I love when love exceeds … its creator, which is the whole goal of art…; when it becomes not about the person who created it, but about the people who consume it…

This is especially true in memoir, where you’re writing about yourself — it has this horrible, false reputation of being the narcissistic form, which I think is pure bullshit. No good memoir is really about the writer — and yet it’s deeply about the writer.

On the three main narratives undergirding any good memoir — common threads of the universal language that illuminate the commonality between Strayed’s memoir, a form predicated on introspection, and her advice column, predicated on empathic outrospection:

If we go back to the ancients, those three narratives are there — they’re in the first writing that we have: It’s about sorrow, it’s about redemption, it’s about journey — the hero’s journey… When I teach writing, I always tell my students: “You might think you’re writing about your divorce, or your infertility, or whatever it is — remember the ancients, because nobody wants to read your book about your little tale.” Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story — insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…

That’s the writer’s work — it’s consciousness. It doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art — this is what we talk about when we talk about having to really apprentice yourself to the craft of writing.

[…]

When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.

On the great leap into the unknown that writing requires, the intuitive flow of which should still be tempered — as Ray Bradbury famously believed — by the intelligent discernment gained only through deliberate practice of the craft:

I’ve been a serious writer since I was nineteen or twenty, and I would say that the difference between being a writer now in my forties versus being a writer in my twenties is that I have just learned how to trust the mystery of the writing process… The most important thing that I’ve learned to trust is that I don’t know where I’m going to land, and it’s okay — but to follow the path where it leads me… I trust that there’s some intuitive place within me that’s driving me forward.

[…]

So you trust the intuition, but there is this point in the writing process where you damned well better know what you’re doing — you damned well better know the connection… The intuition falls away — you trust the intuition to get to that place you need to go as a writer, but then it’s not just, like, “Oh, I don’t know how it’s connected — I just know it is,” this kind of, “It sounds poetic, so it must mean something.” That never has worked for me — I’ve always had to eventually say, “No, this is the bridge.”

On the necessary capacity for duality, the complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the well-meaning but wholly misguided and infuriating cultural narrative that one should only “think positive” in order for positive outcomes to occur:

My mom was forty-five and she had a terminal diagnosis — she died seven weeks to the day after she was diagnosed… She wanted to live — and she didn’t. And she didn’t have any power over that… For a long time, I was very angry … at this very prevalent idea that we could conquer these terminal diseases with positive thinking — because, the fact of the matter is, sometimes people just get sick and die. And sometimes you just have to live with that fact, no matter what you want.

[…]

[And yet] you have to be a positive thinker — you really do have to control your mind in some way and think “I can” instead of “I can’t.” But I think that the danger of saying that is always [the question of] will this be misinterpreted [and] taken to its extreme [of believing that] you can actually reverse course on something like a terminal diagnosis with positive thinking…

If I had to say, in one fell swoop, what is Sugar, what is Sugar trying to espouse, it’s that two things can be true at once — even opposing truths. It could be true that you will suffer forever because you were sexually abused as a child — it can also be true that you can overcome that and not let that experience define your life. And you can hold those two truths in two hands, and walk forward.

I think it’s the same way with the positive thinking — you can’t necessarily think your way out of lung cancer, but you can have a happier life if you think positively in the face of profound sorrow.

On how she applied this dynamic duality to her own life when her memoir became a movie and she was played by the gorgeous Reese Witherspoon, which called for a real discipline in not succumbing to self-comparisons and resisting the tyranny* of perfectionism:

It can be, sometimes, really hard to rise at the most beautiful moments of our lives… I decided that I was going to try to shine, in a sort of Hollywood way — I was going to wear those pretty dresses and get my hair and makeup done and not feel out of place in that world, but I was also going to be who I am and be the size that I am and have the body I have and be the forty-six-year-old that I am, and not allow myself to feel bad about it.

So I did … this mind-control thing, where every single time I thought [something negative about myself], I said, “Don’t think that — you’re not allowed to think that.” And it’s amazing what that can do — when you actually don’t let yourself be mean to yourself… You’re saying, “There you are — I see you, I acknowledge your presence, and you will not rule me.”

And I think that is so essential to any kind of success. We’re all flawed, we’re going to fail, we’re all going to be afraid sometimes, we’re all going to feel terrible about ourselves sometimes, or regret what we did or said… But you have to say, “Well, who is going to be my ruler?” — almost on a moment-by-moment basis.

On growing up poor and being a struggling writer until only recently, then being plunged into a very different world after the staggering success of Wild and learning to reconcile her lifelong values with the realities of her new life as she raises her kids:

[My kids are] going to have to learn what my struggle taught me about the world — they’re going to have to learn that another way. And that’s the thing — I think you can… You can learn as much from your privilege as you can from our oppression, but only if you’re aware of it and only if you have consciousness.

On our mythology of success, which once again bespeaks our difficulty with holding duality:

Every day of my life since the crazy-ass shit happened with Wild, I am fully aware that this is crazy-ass shit. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think I worked my fucking hiney off to have that success — I did. I actually worked my ass off. I also know that it would be true that I worked my ass off if nobody read Wild… The hard work is what’s true — the crazy-ass shit is … just the luck of life, the great fortune of life.

The distinction I’m trying to make here is that there’s a long history of women saying, “Well, I just got lucky.” I didn’t just get lucky — I worked my fucking ass off, and then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky — so you have to do the work, you always have to do the work. And part of the work is about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning how to say, “Hello, fear, thank you for being here, because you are my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.”

On learning to dance with the fear and the inevitable self-doubt which, as John Steinbeck’s diary so grippingly attests, bedevils even the greatest of writers:

The way it feels to write a book is that you can’t write a book.

Complement with Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers and her reflections, by way of Adrienne Rich and Marie Curie, on what power really means.

You can — and should — subscribe to the Longform podcast here.

* No era was more tyrannical in its unwillingness to hold paradox than the Victorian, which arguably cemented not only our superficial beauty standards but also our inability to live with duality. A mere century and a half before Strayed, another woman genius was constantly tormented by the pressure to choose between poetry and mathematics. But it was ultimately the fusion of the two that made Ada Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Even so, she wasn’t spared the era’s tyrannical resistance to duality — Lovelace, unlike Strayed, didn’t engage with the era’s ideals of ladyhood, leading her contemporaries to describe her as “poetical in appearance,” which was euphemism for unkempt and badly dressed, and only one step removed from “writerly in appearance.”

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15 JUNE, 2015

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship

By:

The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

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15 JUNE, 2015

How to Be Extraordinary: William James on the Psychology of the Second Wind and How to Release Our Untapped Human Potential

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“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake… We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in contemplating what it really means to be awake, adding: “Only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.” Those rare individuals are the ones who lift themselves out of ordinary life’s mediocrity and, through the sheer force of their creative and intellectual wakefulness, rise to the level of the extraordinary. They are the people we come to celebrate as luminaries, those whose ideas endure for centuries. But what is this mysterious force that jolts a human being into such wakeful aliveness from which greatness blossoms?

That’s what legendary philosopher and founding father of modern psychology William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) addressed half a century after Thoreau’s famous words, in a superb speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University in December of 1906. It was published in the January 1907 issue of the journal Philosophical Review under the title “The Energies of Men” and was eventually included in the out-of-print 1967 compendium The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (public library), which remains the finest record of James’s mind to date.

James begins with the curious psychological phenomenon of the “second wind,” familiar to everyone from athletes to artists to entrepreneurs — a perplexity that had captivated his imagination for years:

Everyone knows what it is to start a piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale… And everybody knows what it is to “warm up” to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.” On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked “enough,” so we desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed… In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

James reflects on his longtime quest to find a psychological theory of the second wind and examines what carries us over this initial plateau of fatigue, toward ever-greater heights of productivity and excellence:

It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface.

[…]

Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

One reason we don’t push ourselves past those self-imposed limits, James argues, is that we fear the exertion might exhaust us beyond repair — we fear, in other words, burnout. (This phrase as a term for psychoemotional fatigue from sustained effort wouldn’t come into popular use until 1975, many decades after James so elegantly encapsulated it.) And yet such fears, he assures us, are ungrounded, for we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures:

The organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair.

I say the rate and not the time of repair. The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler… Anyone may be in vital equilibrium at very different rates of energizing [but] a man who energizes below his normal maximum fails by just so much to profit by his chance at life.

The question then becomes how to train people — individuals, communities, nations — “up to their most useful pitch of energy,” which James notes is “the general problem of education, formulated in slightly different terms.” Although this energy is a quantitative measure, he considers its crucial qualitative aspect:

In measuring the human energies of which I speak, qualities as well as quantities have to be taken into account. Everyone feels that his total power rises when he passes to a higher qualitative level of life.

Illustrating this with a qualitative hierarchy — at some of which Thoreau may have scoffed — James writes:

Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding “no” higher than deciding “yes”—at least the man who passes from one of these activities to another will usually say that each later one involves a greater element of inner work than the earlier ones, even though the total heat given out or the foot-pounds expended by the organism, may be less… We need a particular spur or effort to start us upon inner work; it tires us to sustain it; and when long sustained, we know how easily we lapse.

A century before our increasingly urgent quest for stillness, James cautions that this inner work requires not the “maximum of locomotion” propelling our cult of outer productivity, our habitual “hurrying and jumping about in incoordinated ways,” but the very opposite:

Inner work, though it so often reinforces outer work, quite as often means its arrest. To relax, to say to ourselves … “Peace! be still!” is sometimes a great achievement of inner work.

Illustration by Judith Clay from 'Thea's Tree.' Click image for more.

He considers the osmosis of inner and outer work in the grand metabolic machinery energizing the human spirit:

When I speak of human energizing in general, the reader must therefore understand that sum-total of activities, some outer and some inner, some muscular, some emotional, some moral, some spiritual, of whose waxing and waning in himself he is at all times so well aware. How to keep it at an appreciable maximum? How not to let the level lapse? That is the great problem.

To account for the wide variability in our walks of life, James divides this problem into two sub-problems:

  1. What are the limits of human faculty in various directions?
  2. By what diversity of means, in the differing types of human beings, may the faculties be stimulated to their best results?

He articulates beautifully the all too relatable daily ebb-and-flow of our psychic and physical energy:

Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

In a necessary caveat, James offers an early and incredibly succinct diagnostic definition of depression half a century before the first edition of the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible — was published:

In some persons this sense of being cut off from their rightful resources is extreme, and we then get the formidable neurasthenic and psychasthenic conditions with life grown into one tissue of impossibilities, that so many medical books describe.

Returning to the question of our untapped potential and underused energies, he points to habit as the mechanism by which we lull ourselves into the mindless trance of the daily grind — something doubly poignant today, amid a culture that frames life as a series of tasks to be accomplished, urging us to show up for these tasks with compulsive productivity while being absent from our own lives and passive in the real act of living. Two millennia after Seneca’s memorable admonition against this habitual trance, James writes:

As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions.

[…]

The human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in co-ordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject — but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit — the habit of inferiority to our full self — that is bad.

[…]

We are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit-neurosis. We have to admit the wider potential range and the habitually narrow actual use. We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

James, of course, was well aware that habit — like any technology of thought — is a coin with two sides, one mindless and one mindful: Half a decade earlier he had penned his timeless treatise on harnessing the positive power of habit.

Indeed, he argues that cultivating fruitful habits of mind is what separates those who attain their highest possible selves from those who live their lives short of their full potential. Habit, James argues, is how we transmute difficulty into opportunity for growth — it is the key to our resilience and adaptability, the very mechanism of how we stretch ourselves.

He illustrates this with the example of how a simple villager adapts, despite his paralyzing initial shock, to life in the big city — an example far more metaphorical today than James intended a century ago, for we are now all bewildered villagers trying to steady ourselves amid the disorienting and ever-accelerating stimulation of modern life. He writes:

The rapid rate of life, the number of decisions in an hour, the many things to keep account of, in a busy city man’s or woman’s life, seem monstrous to a country brother. He doesn’t see how we live at all. A day in New York or Chicago fills him with terror. The danger and noise make it appear like a permanent earthquake. But settle him there, and in a year or two he will have caught the pulse-beat. He will vibrate to the city’s rhythms; and if he only succeeds in his avocation, whatever that may be, he will find a joy in all the hurry and the tension, he will keep the pace as well as any of us, and get as much out of himself in any week as he ever did in ten weeks in the country.

The stimuli of those who successfully spend and undergo the transformation here, are duty, the example of others, and crowd-pressure and contagion. The transformation, moreover, is a chronic one: the new level of energy becomes permanent. The duties of new offices of trust are constantly producing this effect on the human beings appointed to them.

What a beautiful notion this is, “new offices of trust” — how else do we stretch ourselves beyond what we believed ourselves to be capable of if not by being ordained into such a new office of trust, be it by love or leadership or new parenthood? James adds:

A new position of responsibility will usually show a man to be a far stronger creature than was supposed.

A decade before women won the right to vote and more than half a century before the dawn of modern feminism as we know it, James argues that women are better than men at rising to such “new offices of trust”:

John Stuart Mill somewhere says that women excel men in the power of keeping up sustained moral excitement. Every case of illness nursed by wife or mother is a proof of this; and where can one find greater examples of sustained endurance than in those thousands of poor homes, where the woman successfully holds the family together and keeps it going by taking all the thought and doing all the work — nursing, teaching, cooking, washing, sewing, scrubbing, saving, helping neighbors, “choring” outside — where does the catalogue end?

Like an Oliver Sacks of his day, James illustrates his point with a patient case study:

Jeanne Chaix, eldest of six children; mother insane, father chronically ill. Jeanne, with no money but her wages at a pasteboard-box factory, directs the household, brings up the children, and successfully maintains the family of eight, which thus subsists, morally as well as materially, by the sole force of her valiant will… Human nature, responding to the call of duty, appears nowhere sublimer than in the person of these humble heroines of family life.

Illustration by Amrita Das from 'Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit,' a semi-autobiographical Indian children's book celebrating women's freedom and mobility. Click image for more.

A century before Neil Gaiman memorably asserted that good ideas come from desperation and deadlines, James considers what uncorks “human nature’s reserves of power”:

The stimuli that carry us over the usually effective dam are most often the classic emotional ones, love, anger, crowd-contagion or despair. Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart.

A decade later, legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton attested to this notion. And, indeed, James’s most crucial point is that challenges, far from breaking us, reanimate us and push to transcend what we thought our limits were — something that calls to mind Nietzsche’s famous case for why a full life requires embracing rather than avoiding difficulty. But reaping these self-transcendent benefits requires mastering the uncomfortable art of changing our mind, the chronic reluctance to which psychologists have since termed “the backfire effect” — our evolving ideas, James argues, are what stretch us and carry us over our plateaus of personal growth:

Ideas [are] dynamogenic agents, or stimuli for unlocking what would otherwise be unused reservoirs of individual power.

One thing that ideas do is to contradict other ideas and keep us from believing them. An idea that thus negates a first idea may itself in turn be negated by a third idea, and the first idea may thus regain its natural influence over our belief and determine our behavior. Our philosophic and religious development proceeds thus by credulities, negations, and the negating of negations.

But whether for arousing or for stopping belief, ideas may fail to be efficacious, just as a wire, at one time alive with electricity, may at another time be dead. Here our insight into causes fails us, and we can only note results in general terms. In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself… Not every one can use [the same] ideas with the same success.

But despite our wide variability in soil, as it were, there are some conditions that are universally fertile in planting good seeds of character:

As certain objects naturally awaken love, anger, or cupidity, so certain ideas naturally awaken the energies of loyalty, courage, endurance, or devotion. When these ideas are effective in an individual’s life, their effect is often very great indeed. They may transfigure it, unlocking innumerable powers which, but for the idea, would never have come into play. “Fatherland,” “the Flag,” “the Union,” “Holy Church,” “the Monroe Doctrine,” “Truth,” “Science,” “Liberty,” Garibaldi’s phrase, “Rome or Death,” etc., are so many examples of energy-releasing ideas. The social nature of such phrases is an essential factor of their dynamic power. They are forces of detent in situations in which no other force produces equivalent effects, and each is a force of detent only in a specific group of [people].

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

James speaks to the importance of idea-incubation and makes an implicit case against the epiphany as a sudden and independent event:

A belief that thus settles upon an individual always acts as a challenge to his will. But, for the particular challenge to operate, he must be the right challengee… The idea may be in the mind of the challengee for years before it exerts effects; and why it should do so then is often so far from obvious that the event is taken for a miracle of grace, and not a natural occurrence.

In a sentiment somewhat bittersweet in our age of dwindling appetite for real conversations in which two minds behold one another with thoughtfulness over an ample period of time, James adds:

Conversions, whether they be political, scientific, philosophic, or religious, form another way in which bound energies are let loose. They unify us, and put a stop to ancient mental interferences. The result is freedom, and often a great enlargement of power.

“The Energies of Men” is in the public domain and is available as a free digital text from The Internet Archive. Find more of James’s timeless wisdom in the indispensable The Writings of William James, then revisit his timelessly insightful exploration of the psychology of habit and the elevating story of how he chose the life of purpose over the life of profit.

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12 JUNE, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

By:

“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

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