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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

01 MAY, 2014

Letters to a Young Artist: Anna Deavere Smith on Confidence and What Self-Esteem Really Means

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“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.”

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless meditation on self-respect. But how can character be cultivated in such a way as to foster that prized form of personal dignity, along with its sibling qualities of confidence and self-esteem?

That’s what celebrated artist, actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith explores in a section of the altogether fantastic Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — a compendium of counsel addressed to an imaginary young artist, titled after the famous Rilke tome, in which Smith addresses with equal parts pragmatic idealism and opinionated optimism those of us seeking change and championing social change, as well as those who see themselves as “one of the guardians of the human spirit.” She introduces the premise, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

Art should take what is complex and render it simply. It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that. It takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls “wide-awakeness” to do that. I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.

[…]

I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.

For artists and creative spirits alike, Smith argues, the issue of confidence is as important as it is messy — and it’s also often a placeholder term for something far more crucial in the dogged pursuit of mastery that defines any successful creative endeavor. She writes:

Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.

Equally important, and arguably even trickier to navigate, is the question of self-esteem — that elusive quality so vital to our spiritual flourishing yet, due to our human fallibility, so fragile amidst the world’s constant and mostly unsolicited feedback and input. Smith reminds us that, not unlike the false validation of prestige, to peg our measure of self-worth on external validation is to commit ourselves to a never-ending cycle of disappointment — a seemingly simple observation that feels increasingly hard to internalize in our culture of “likes” and everyone’s-a-critic commentary. Smith puts it elegantly:

In the arts, value … is like a yo-yo. You can’t base your self-esteem on how well your work is selling or on how well it’s received.

Instead, she considers the essence of what self-esteem actually means and why it matters:

Self-esteem is that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right — that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.

More than a form of self-soothing, however, self-esteem is also a powerful conduit for effecting change in the world:

Some people seem to be able to organize themselves around big ideas, and others cannot. This has to do with self-esteem. Self-esteem for creative people is important inasmuch as it is a part of what helps you organize yourself and others around an idea, so that it can come to fruition. Ideas are a dime a dozen; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is a foundation.

While acknowledging, as modern psychology does, that the foundations of self-esteem itself are laid down during childhood, through our upbringing and our early experiences, Smith admonishes against relinquishing personal responsibility in the architecture of character and self-esteem, and reminds us that we are the sole custodians of our own center and worth:

Self-esteem cannot really be built from the outside. You begin to see the real evidence that you can, in fact, affect the things around you. These experiences ultimately integrate themselves inside — if that foundation is there. Self-esteem does not come from surrounding yourself with people and things that seem to increase your value. Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.

It’s about your worth. Your self-worth… You — and only you — can ultimately put the price tag on that. Your tag reveals not only how you value yourself, but how imaginative and original you are about valuing others. In my experience, happier people are people who have not only a high price tag on themselves, but a high price tag on the people around them — and the tags don’t necessarily have to do with market value. They have to do with all the sense that adds up to human value.

Letters to a Young Artist is magnificent in its entirety, a precious invitation to communion with one of the most expansive and original creative spirits of our time. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, John Steinbeck on the creative spirit and the meaning of life, and Robert Henri on how the spirit of art binds us together.

Thanks, Wendy

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01 MAY, 2014

How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal Like Charlotte Brontë

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A bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.

“There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage,” George Bernard Shaw asserted in his 1908 meditation on the subject. “We look for communion, and are turned away,” Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “The Ache of Marriage.” Bridging the thinking of dangerous nonsense and the turning away is the marriage proposal — and its considered refusal.

From Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) — Anna Holmes’s magnificent collection spanning centuries of missives, which also gave us Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite breakup letter and this moving breakup moment from the Vietnam War — comes an outstanding contribution to the genre from none other than Charlotte Brontë.

On the last day of February in 1839, eight years before Jane Eyre was published, Brontë received a letter of marriage proposal from Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate whose sister Ellen was one of her close friends. Brontë’s reply, written on March 5, 1839, is nothing short of brilliant — assertive yet generous, unambiguous yet kind, and a masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model. She essentially spells out why she would make a terrible mate by the era’s standards for what a good wife means — “her character should not be too marked, ardent and original” — channeling with equal parts humility and dignity her quiet confidence in being the antithesis of these qualities.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric — you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

Brontë remained unwedded until a year before her death, when she married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, who had been in love with her for years. (“Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she had used to secure unbiased consideration of her works with publishers, was based on Nichols’s middle name.) One has to wonder whether Jane Eyre would’ve ever come to life, and gone on to inspire generations, had Brontë succumbed to the era’s oppressive standards of female domesticity.

Hell Hath No Fury is an enchanting read in its totality, featuring letters from both ordinary lovers across the ages and such cultural icons as Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Queen Elizabeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Boleyn, and Virginia Woolf. Ten years later, Holmes followed it up with the equally, if very differently, delightful The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

For more meditations on marriage, see Charles Darwin’s endearing list of its pros and cons and Susan Sontag’s youthful rant.

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24 APRIL, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Being Gay and Her Timeless Advice to Parents

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Warm wisdom from the beloved author to console on one of life’s deepest sources of isolation.

“Dear Judy, please send me the facts of life, in numbered order.” So requested 9-year-old Fern in one of the many gems collected in Letters to Judy (public library) — an infinitely endearing compendium of the missives beloved author Judy Blume received from children, whose classic capacity for asking questions at once simple and profound shines here with soul-expanding luminosity.

Because her young-adult novels have tackled such timelessly tricky subjects as teenage sex (Forever…), sibling rivalry (The Pain and the Great One), divorce (It’s Not the End of the World), masturbation (Deenie), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), and bullying (Blubber), Blume shares a special bond of emotional intimacy with her young readers, generations of whom have seen in her — and continue to see — a private confidante who approaches with nonjudgmental understanding what no one else seems to understand and everyone else seems to judge.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always earnest, these letters cover everything from the innocent joys of first love to the despairing anguish of loneliness and loss to the general psychoemotional turbulence of puberty. But one of the most moving sections deals with children’s inquiries about same-sex crushes and homosexuality, following which are Blume’s own wise words on the subject — doubly so for writing in 1985, decades before marriage equality reclaimed the dignity of love.

In one such letter, 13-year-old Margo shares her story, post-scripted with the heartbreaking self-doubt and alienation achingly familiar to those of us who have spent our teenage years with a profound sense of being different:

Dear Judy,

I am a girl in seventh grade and I have a funny feeling about one of my teachers. I am afraid I might be in love with her or something. My friend says she feels that way about her cousin. I’ll bet a lot of girls — and boys — feel this way. Could you please write a book about it?

Thank you.

P.S. You don’t have to. Maybe it is only me who feels this way.

In another, 11-year-old Polly writes with endearing earnestness:

Dear Judy,

I like boys but I think I am gay! Please don’t think I am just thinking that. I do believe I am gay.

Often, too, kids don’t even have the proper vocabulary to articulate their sense of difference or are too timid to try, but get their point across obliquely. Longing for an answer to their inner turmoil, they seek the answer in a book — after all, what is a book for if not, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, to decrease our sense of isolation? Here is 14-year-old Ned, writing with palpable and disarming desperation:

Dear Judy,

I am close to my mother but not my father. However, sex is not an open subject with us. Would you do me a favor and consider writing a book about how homosexuality becomes involved in good friends in grades four through eight. It isn’t something that will stick but it does happen. Thanks.

But one of the most stirring letters comes from a once-child, a now-adult named Joanne, who writes:

Dear Judy,

When I was about twelve I noticed that I was feeling toward girls the way most girls begin feeling about boys. I had no label to put on it and certainly no one to talk to about it. It was tormenting, horrible, and I kept trying to cover it up and hoping one day I would miraculously find a boy I could feel the same way about. I was desperate to find The Boy who would change me and save me from this awful thing. Of course, I never did.

Anyway, for the sake of a lot of young kids out there who think they’re the only ones in the whole world, would you consider writing a book about this.

Blume addresses the central concern that unifies these intimate cries for help with her signature warm wisdom:

Like Joanne, other adults have written sharing their experiences and urging me to write a book about a young person who is gay. A man in his thirties wrote that when he was young, he felt “despairingly lonely.” There was no one he could talk to about his feelings. He searched bookstores, hoping to find a book that would let him know he was all right. Another man wrote poignantly about having denied himself the joy of young romance. He still does not know how to tell his family he is gay. He is afraid they will reject him.

Because I tend to write out of my own experience and feelings I don’t know if I will ever write that book. But others have written about being gay and will again. I hope parents will remember that early same-sex crushes, sexual play and experimentation do not necessarily mean that a person is homosexual. What is most important is to prevent young people from feeling judged or condemned for their feelings and to encourage them to feel good about themselves, no matter what their sexual preference.

Letters to Judy is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with this compendium of contemporary writers’ answers to kids’ questions about how life works, including one from yours truly, as well as kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, then treat yourself to this lovely musical homage to Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer and see more children’s correspondence with C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein.

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