Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

26 MARCH, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Mastering the Muse and How This Side of Paradise Was Born

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“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.”

On March 26, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published, a tale of love gone awry in the grip of greed and status-seeking as a young man, whose story parallels Fitzgerald’s own life, undergoes a harrowing sexual and intellectual awakening.

The publication of the novel carried a special kind of urgency for Fitzgerald. The previous summer, Zelda Sayre, whom the 22-year-old author had spent several years courting, had broken up with him on the grounds that he couldn’t maintain the life she wanted for herself. Determined to win her back, Fitzgerald set out to become a successful novelist. He built upon an earlier unpublished novel entitled The Romantic Egotist and sent the new manuscript to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. In this letter from the excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, dated July 26th, 1919, a young, hopeful, and full of earnest aplomb Fitzgerald articulates a broader truth about how creativity works:

This is in no sense a revision of the ill-fated Romantic Egotist but it contains some of the former material improved and worked over and bears a strong family resemblance besides.

But while the other was a tedious, disconnected casserole this is [sic] definate attempt at a big novel and I really believe I have hit it, as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.

(Cue in Elizabeth Gilbert on genius and mesmerizing the muse and Jonah Lehrer on the importance of letting go before arriving at a solution.)

In another letter to Perkins, dated August 16th, 1919, Fitzgerald explains his title choice:

The title has been changed to
This Side of Paradise
from those lines of Rupert Brookes
…Well, this side of paradise
There’s little comfort in the wise.

In the same letter, Fitzgerald does the math on the book:

Book One contains about 35,000 words
The Interlude ” ” 4,000 words
Book Two ” ” 47,000 words
Total ” ” 86,000 words

Then, later in the letter, a more meditative take on the math:

The book contains a little over ninety thousand words. I certainly think the hero gets somewhere.

I await anxiously your verdict.

Sincerely
F Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise was published to great critical success. Zelda, whom Fitzgerald dubbed “the first American flapper,” soon agreed to marry him and they embarked upon a tempestuous relationship, riddled with the author’s alcoholism, Zelda’s schizophrenia diagnosis, and the couple’s general inability to cope with celebrity at such a young age.

Bonus: Last October, This Side of Paradise was released as a beautifully minimalist Penguin Classics hardcover designed by the inimitable Coralie Bickford-Smith, who captures the elegance and glamor of the Art Deco era in her signature style of subdued yet infinitely expressive patterns.

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26 MARCH, 2012

The Importance of Frustration in the Creative Process, Animated

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“Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment.”

Last week, Jonah Lehrer took us inside “the seething cauldron of ideas” with Imagine: How Creativity Works, his long-awaited (by me, at least) new book. Now, from Flash Rosenberg — Guggenheim Fellow, NYPL artist-in-residence, live-illustrator extraordinaire, and Brain Pickings darling — comes this wonderful hand-drawn teaser for the book, distilling one of Lehrer’s key ideas in Rosenberg’s signature style of simple yet visually eloquent line drawings.

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.

For a related treat, see Rosenberg’s live-illustration of John Lithgow reading Mark Twin at the New York Public Library.

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23 MARCH, 2012

Advice on Advice from Literary Greats

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Cultivating the wisdom to know when to ignore wisdom.

There’s indisputable value in turning to our greatest heroes for wisdom on everything from how to find our purpose to the balance of rationality and intuition to the key to happiness to the secret of life. But blindly following advice, even from the greatest of minds, is a recipe for disappointment since, after all, every human experience is different from every other. Gathered here are five pieces of anti-advice from literary greats — mostly on writing, but also applicable to life at large — reminding us that, sometimes, the best advice is to ignore advice.

JOHN STEINBECK

Even though he issued six timeless tips on writing, John Steinbeck followed them with a sort of caveat cautioning against relying too heavily on such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

GEORGE ORWELL

In 1946, George Orwell issued a similar list of six rules for writers, the last of which is a disclaimer to the rest of the list:

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

STEPHEN KING

While feedback and input are a critical form of advice, they too can warp our own ideals. Stephen King puts it best:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

JACK KEROUAC

Popular opinion is, of course, a form of feedback and, as such, implicit peer advice. Jack Kerouac — whose 30 tips on writing and life are among the most follow-worthy advice there is — cautions against it, echoing Paul Graham’s thoughts on prestige:

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

An essential part of advice is, in fact, knowing when to ignore it. The excellent Advice to Writers recounts the story of Charlotte Brontë, who in 1845 wrote to the British poet Robert Southey to ask whether to be a successful writer. He replied with “cool admonition”:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.”

Brontë, of course, chose to ignore his advice and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, produced a wealth of poetry under male pseudonyms before publishing Jane Eyre the following year.

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