Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

04 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

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“When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored my all-time favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download), this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

Illustration by Tove Jansson for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the beloved author’s thoughts on happiness, morality, religion, identity, and much more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then fortify this particular bit with the psychology of the perfect writing routine and more ideas on overcoming creative block from Brian Eno, Carole King, and some of today’s most exciting creators.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

How Ursula Nordstrom, the Greatest Patron Saint of Modern Childhood Stood, Up for Creativity Against Commercial Cowardice

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“Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults.”

Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious, imaginative children than legendary Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such multi-generational 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). Nordstrom was more than an editor to her authors and artists — she was often their therapist, confidante and friend, and always their creative guardian and greatest champion. Above all, Nordstrom was a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience, to which unimaginative grownups so often lay perilous claim, and of the artist’s creative integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures toward marketable conformity and safe, commodified, politely pedestrian storytelling. Modern childhood’s most benevolent patron saint turned out to be a childless gay woman living through the height of consumerism in America and yet managing to envision, publish, and defend children’s books that were not forgettable commodities but masterpieces that stood the test of time and enchanted generations.

Her deeply lovable spirit blossoms in the pages of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — an endlessly rewarding volume by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, which also gave us Nordstrom’s heartening New Year’s resolution, her feisty response to a conservative librarian who had tried to censor Maurice Sendak, and her witty, wise, and prescient lament about the state of publishing.

In July of 1966, twelve years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nordstrom corresponded with the author about his book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, which she was about to publish with illustrations by a young Maurice Sendak — an artist whom she nursed out of insecurity and into genius, perhaps more so than with any of the other now-legendary artists and authors who came of age under Nordstrom’s wing. She writes to Singer:

To see Zlateh the Goat taking shape, becoming a book children (and their parents) will read and love for generations has been a tremendous experience for me. I think your stories have inspired some of Maurice Sendak’s very finest work. All of us in the department love your book… I think it’s going to bring you a special sort of happiness too.

Half a century before Sendak, already a cultural icon, scoffed at the artificial divide between “children’s” and “adult” books in his final interview, Nordstrom adds:

You’ve wondered why Sendak didn’t do adult books. And once you asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an editor of adult books. But most adults are dead and beyond hope after the age of thirty, and I think with Zlateh you will find a new and marvelous audience. God knows too many children’s books are routine, cynically produced, coarsely promoted. But Zlateh is a complete success artistically.

But her most fierce and emboldening defense of creative integrity against commercial cowardice came more than a decade earlier, shortly after her famous lament that what children read, and thus what shapes their minds, is being decided by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” In February of 1954, Nordstrom received a letter from a Harper & Row West Coast salesman named Jim Blake, reporting of an unpleasant encounter with a “cross buyer” who had complained about How to Make an Earthquake — a sweet, irreverent faux-activity book by the uncommonly original Ruth Krauss, in the vein of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, featuring such how-to activity ideas as making a “tunnel of love for kittens without a mother” and balancing a peanut on your nose. The indignant buyer had found some of the activities inappropriate, betraying a profound inability to comprehend the subtle humor of Krauss’s book and her deep respect for the child’s imaginative freedom.

Nordstrom, a lifelong guardian of childhood’s imaginative inner world, replied to Blake with an exquisite defense of Krauss — an author whose magnificent collaborations with young Sendak are among my all-time favorite children’s books — and of the broader spirit the buyer had failed to understand, let alone appreciate. More than seven decades later, in an age when so many writers and artists are being squeezed out of their creative vision and vigor by “mediocre ladies in influential positions,” Nordstrom stands as our most heartening example of what it means to stand — and stand up — for all the right things.

She writes:

I am crushed to the ground and I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: “I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late for any changes and lateness aside, if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don’t know … and most grownups don’t know. As for “a little editing,” well, Ruth has written a lot of books for us and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience for me, as an editor, to watch her grow and grow and develop and go deeper and deeper. I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent — and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.

Of course — and this is both the great gift and the great tragedy of this letter — Nordstrom’s ability to recognize creative talent and stand behind it, wholeheartedly and resolutely, is itself a monumental talent of increasing rarity. Those who possess it are few and far between, but when books are born out of it, it shows and never fails to delight.

And yet Nordstrom, a woman of unrelenting compassion, recognizes that her West Coast colleague is just trying to do his job and “sell a few books,” so she offers:

Can’t you tell some of those rather limited and thoroughly grown up adults that it is about time THEY accepted and trusted Krauss? … What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t?

Nordstrom is especially adamant about not dulling Krauss’s creative edge by forcing her — or any of her authors — to conform to a template that has proven successful in the past:

She doesn’t do the same thing over and over and if she ever starts she won’t be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails … she won’t be the writer she is now.

Most of all, however, Nordstrom stands up for Krauss’s ability to bridge the child’s world and the adult’s:

Grown-ups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book… I don’t know how important adults and children feeling closer together is but I guess it wouldn’t do adults and children any harm not to feel far apart for a little while, just long enough to enjoy a Krauss book together.

Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers — which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, this is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered.

[…]

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.

Nordstrom’s point — like so much of the enormous warmth and wisdom collected in Dear Genius — transcends this particular incident and even the general question of creative integrity in children’s books, and reminds us that being bewitched by wonder in any of its permutations requires precisely such an admission of not having the answers to everything. Just ask an astrophysicist.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce

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“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.

This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.

Jung writes in his review:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:

If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…

But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.

Jung writes:

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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