Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 JANUARY, 2014

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions

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A lesson on the human condition from one of the biggest hearts in modern history.

History is peppered with famous resolution lists — take, for instance, those of Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie — though we know little about how aspiration translated into actuality. But one of the most wonderful New Year’s resolutions, so heartening and yet so human, comes from legendary mid-century children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964).

In a January 2, 1957, letter to children’s book author Mary Stolz, found in Leonard Marcus’s magnificent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — Nordstrom, irreverently witty as ever, pens this beautiful aspiration, arguably the greatest resolution a human being can make:

My New Year’s resolution is to be more loving. I don’t know how it will work out as I have been quite loving up to now with some disastrous, or at least misunderstood, results. Anyhow, I will try even more love and I will let you know what happens. So far not so good. But then it is only the second day.

Ten years later, a little over a week into January, Nordstrom articulates another universal human tendency: Our exasperation over broken resolutions as we find ourselves too trapped in our old habits of mind and too swept up in the momentum of familiar behavior to actually rewire our habit loops. Nordstrom bemoans this far too common frustration in a January 11, 1967 letter to Doris K. Stotz, editor of the American Library Association’s Top of the News journal:

Do please forgive me, Miss Stotz. My New Year’s resolution was that I was going to be calm, efficient, poised, but I am starting out 1967 the same old inefficient hectic way.

And yet Nordstrom was a living testament to how it’s possible to fill the world with kindness and light and wonderful things despite this perceived “hectic inefficiency.” Perhaps she was assuring herself as much as she was advising young Maurice Sendak when she wrote to him in 1961:

That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky.

For isn’t this the most we can ever aspire to do, whether as a formal resolution or as an everyday intention?

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02 JANUARY, 2014

How to Lower Your “Worryability”: Italo Calvino’s 1950 New Year’s Resolution

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“I would like this to signal the end of ‘wasted angst’ in my life.”

What does it mean to live well, live fully? For most of us, it’s an intricate balancing act that involves enough ambition to grow and enough equanimity to keep ourselves from worrying all the time, about everything. The latter is a mental fallibility especially detrimental amidst a culture entranced by constant worries about productivity and unable to find refuge in presence.

In a beautiful January 1950 letter to his friend Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America — the 26-year-old aspiring writer lays out this wonderfully timeless and universally resonant resolution for a better, more present and worry-free life:

I would like this to signal the end of “wasted angst” in my life: I’ve never regretted anything so much as having particular individual worries, in a certain sense anachronistic ones, whereas general worries, worries about our time (or at any rate those that can be reduced to such: like your problem in paying the rent, for instance) are so many and so vast and so much “my own” that I feel they are enough to fill all my “worryability” and even my interest and enjoyment in living. So from now on I want to dedicate myself entirely to these latter (worries) — but I am already aware of the traps in this question and that’s why for some time now my first need has been to “de-journalistize” myself, to get myself out of the stranglehold that has dominated these last few years of my life, reading books to review immediately, commenting on something even before having to time to form an opinion on it. I want to build a new kind of daily program for myself where I can finally get into something, something definitive (within the limits of historical possibility), something not dishonest or insincere (unlike the way today’s journalist always behaves, more or less). For that reason I make several plans for myself: … to maintain my contacts with reality and the world, but being careful, of course, not to get lost in unnecessary activities; and also to set up my own individual work not as a “journalist” any more but as a “scholar,” with systematic readings, notes, comments, notebooks, a load of things I’ve never done; and also, eventually, to write a novel.

That year, Calvino focused his efforts on The Cloven Viscount, which was published in 1952 — a fantasy novel Calvino remarked in another letter was “written to give [his] imagination a holiday after punishing it” with the ill-fated unpublished book that preceded it.

Complement Calvino’s meditation with this fantastic 1934 guide to the art of not worrying and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter about what to worry vs. not worry about in life, then revisit other famous New Year’s resolutions from Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie.

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19 DECEMBER, 2013

Jane Austen on Creative Integrity

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How to defend your creative vision against commercial pressure with graciousness, honor, and unflinching conviction.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in,” beloved Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson famously admonished in his speech on creative integrity. “Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

In December of 1815, Jane Austen released her novel Emma (free download), followed closely by a second edition of her controversial 1814 novel Mansfield Park (free download) — the last two novels published during her lifetime. The former sold well, but the latter was a commercial failure — so much so that it nearly absorbed all of Austen’s profits from Emma. In the spring of 1816, less than a year before her death, she received a letter from Mr. Clarke, chaplain and private English secretary to Prince Leopold and the librarian at His Royal Highness’s Coburg House, who had come to admire Austen’s talents but also wanted to steer them in a certain direction. He suggested that “a historical romance illustrative of the august House of Coburg would just now be very interesting” — essentially a request for a publicity puff piece that would be at once more commercially successful for her and politically beneficial for the Prince. (A proposition tragically prescient and familiar amidst our day and age of churnalism and clickbait vacant of substance.) But in a letter from April 1 that year, found in A Memoir of Jane Austen (public library; public domain), the celebrated author stands her ground with equal parts integrity and elegance, articulating the supremacy of the creative impulse over the allure of commercial success and capturing the very essence of why writers write:

My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work…. You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
  Your very much obliged,
    and very sincere friend,
  J. Austen.

During that time, Austen had begun to write her final novel, which she titled The Elliots. She completed the draft mere months after her letter to Clarke. But she never lived to see it published, succumbing to fatal illness in July of 1817. It was posthumously published under the title Persuasion (free download) six months later.

In 2013, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen would appear on its currency, making her only the third woman in history, after Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, to appear on a British banknote.

A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and originally published in 1869, is excellent in its entirety, offering an unprecedented, highly influential first-hand account of the elusive icon’s character and habits, and painting a dimensional portrait of the author whom Virginia Woolf called “the most perfect artist among women.”

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