Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

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“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace took the podium at Kenyon College and delivered the now-legendary This Is Water, one of history’s greatest commencement addresses — his timeless meditation on the meaning of life and the grueling work required in order to stay awake to the world rather than enslaved by one’s own self-consuming intellect. It included this admonition:

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Three years later, on September 12, 2008, Wallace murdered his own terrible master — not by firearms, but by hanging himself. Several months prior, frustrated with the disorienting side effects of the antidepressant he had been taking to alleviate his 20-year struggle with depression, he had attempted to wean himself off the medication. His personal tragedy was soon inscribed into the modern-day literary canon, turning him into a kind of public patron-saint of the Tortured Genius archetype.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace (public library) — an essential, the essential, collection of 22 interviews and profiles of the beloved author — reveals with empathic granularity Wallace’s conflicted relationship with life and death, and its slow, subtly menacing evolution.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, 31-year-old Wallace appears already remarkably aware of the mortality paradox, the exorcism of which he sees as the highest achievement of fiction:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

This dark whimsy is what lends literature its mesmerism, and in it Wallace sees both redemption and remedy for our existential dance with anxiety:

If you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche — the writer’s, or some character’s, etc. — and you’re also trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated — “re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me — by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.

Later in the conversation, Wallace considers, with his typical sharp self-consciousness and meta-awareness, the terrifying joy and vulnerability that great art necessitates and the courage creativity calls for:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

How wistful to consider that, fifteen years later, Wallace took his young self’s advice all too seriously, too literally, too extremely — for isn’t suicide the ultimate, most tragic, and most permanent denial of the ego?

But perhaps most prescient of all — most heartbreaking, most humbling, most harrowing — is something Wallace said to one interviewer particularly preoccupied with the root of the author’s genius:

That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is revelational in its entirety. Complement it with his timeless wisdom on why writers write, the original audio of that mythic Kenyon commencement speech, and Wallace’s animated advice on ambition.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

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“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman’s Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman’s philosophy on writing and his advice to aspiring writers — a fine addition to celebrated authors’ collected wisdom on the craft. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously scoffed that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and like Chuck Close, who declared that “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” and like Tchaikovsky, who admonished that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Gaiman argues that the true muse of writing lies not in divine inspiration but in unrelenting persistence of effort and force of will:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

On the exhilarating joy of writing and the stalwart showing up that makes it possible:

The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.

On grit as the driving force of creative growth, reiterating the third of his 8 rules of writing:

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

On why true creativity requires eclectic influences, wide interests, and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

Gaiman’s most important piece of advice, for the writer who has mastered basic technique and is ready to begin writing, echoes the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, 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, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

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“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

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