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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

17 JUNE, 2013

Nabokov on Inspiration and the Six Short Stories Everyone Should Read

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“A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life.”

“Show up, show up, show up,” Isabel Allende advised, “and after a while the muse shows up, too.” “Inspiration is for amateurs,” Chuck Close famously proclaimed, “the rest of us just show up and get to work.” “When you work regularly,” Gretchen Rubin asserted, “inspiration strikes regularly.” But as prescriptive as we may get about the pursuit and attainment of inspiration, its very nature remains ever-elusive.

That’s precisely what Vladimir Nabokov addresses in an essay titled “Inspiration,” a fine addition to famous writers’ collected wisdom on writing, originally published in the Saturday Review on November 20, 1972, and found in Strong Opinions (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the author’s rare BBC interview on literature and life.

He begins with several dictionary definitions of the elusive grab-bag term:

Writing three decades after Rosamund Harding’s Anatomy of Inspiration and just eight years after Arthur Koetler’s cult-classic The Creative Act, Nabokov addresses the dismissive attitude many “serious” writers take toward the notion of inspiration — an attitude that E. B. White had expressed three years prior in his famous Paris Review interview, stating that “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” But Nabokov challenges the assumption at the heart of such convictions:

A special study, which I do not plan to conduct, would reveal, probably, that inspiration is seldom dwelt upon nowadays even by the worst reviewers of our best prose. I say “our” and I say “prose” because I am thinking of American works of fiction, including my own stuff. It would seem that this reticence is somehow linked up with a sense of decorum. Conformists suspect that to speak of “inspiration” is as tasteless and old-fashioned as to stand up for the Ivory Tower. Yet inspiration exists as do towers and tusks.

He goes on to delineate a few types of inspiration, akin to Malcolm Cowley’s four stages of the creative process, and writes:

One can distinguish several types of inspiration, which intergrade, as all things do in this fluid and interesting world of ours, while yielding gracefully to a semblance of classification. A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life. This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation. As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort — youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age. The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled. Presently all dissolves: the familiar worries are back and the eyebrow redescribes its arc
of pain; but the artist knows he is ready.

A few days elapse. The next stage of inspiration is something ardently anticipated — and no longer anonymous. The shape of the new impact is indeed so definite that I am forced to relinquish metaphors and resort to specific terms. The narrator forefeels what he is going to tell. The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words. The experienced writer immediately takes it down and, in the process of doing so, transforms what is little more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense, with epithets and sentence construction growing as clear and trim as they would be on the printed page.

He gives a reverse-engineered example from this own work, a beautiful passage he penned in 1965 that was the kernel for what would become his novel Ada, or Ardor. In describing it as the “first throb, the strange nucleus of the book that was to grow around it in the course of the next three years,” he argues that while the details and coloration may have changed, the “structural centrality” was preserved as the passage eventually made it into the novel. He then extrapolates:

[O]ne sees inspiration accompanying the author in his actual work on the new book. She accompanies him (for by now we are in the presence of a nubile muse) by means of successive flashes to which the writer may grow so accustomed that a sudden fizzle in the domestic illumination may strike him as an act of betrayal.

He goes on to tug at that quintessential writerly sanity-anchor, the daily routine or daily ritual:

One and the same person can compose parts of one and the same story or poem, either in his head or on paper, pencil or pen in hand (I am told there exist fantastic performers who actually type out their immediate product or, still more incredibly, dictate it, warm and bubbly, to a typist or to a machine!). Some prefer the bathtub to the study and the bed to the windy moor — the place does not matter much, it is the relationship between the brain and the hand that poses some odd problems.

Nabokov cites John Shade, the narrator in his 1962 novel Pale Fire:

“I am puzzled by the difference between two methods of composing: A, the kind which goes on solely in the poet’s mind, a testing of performing words, while he is soaping a third time one leg, and B, the other kind, much more decorous, when he’s in his study writing with a pen. In method B the hand supports the thought, the abstract battle is concretely fought. The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar a canceled sunset or restore a star, and thus it physically guides the phrase toward faint daylight through the inky maze. But method A is agony! The brain is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain. A muse in overalls directs the drill which grinds, and which no effort of the will can interrupt, while the automaton is taking off what he has just put on or walking briskly to the corner store to buy the paper he has read before. Why is it so? Is it, perhaps, because in penless work there is no pen-poised pause . . . Or is the process deeper, with no desk to prop the false and hoist the picturesque? For there are those mysterious moments when, too weary to delete, I drop my pen; I ambulate — and by some mute command the right word flutes and perches on my hand.”

He then affirms the notion that creativity is subtraction, echoing legendary French polymath Henri Poincare’s famous credo that “to invent is to choose and speaking to the essential role of editing, or filtering, inspiration:

This is, of course, where inspiration comes in. The words which on various occasions, during some fifty years of composing prose, I have put together and then canceled may have formed by now in the Realm of Rejection (a foggy but not quite unlikely land north of nowhere) a huge library of scrapped phrases, characterized and concorded only by their wanting the benison of inspiration.

This, he argues, is closely related to why great literature sings to us:

No wonder, then, that a writer who is not afraid to confess that he has known inspiration and can readily distinguish it from the froth of a fit, as well as from the humdrum comfort of the “right word,” should seek the bright trace of that thrill in the work of fellow authors. The bolt of inspiration strikes invariably: you observe the flash in this or that piece of great writing, be it a stretch of fine verse, or a passage in Joyce or Tolstoy, or a phrase in a short story, or a spurt of genius in the paper of a naturalist, of a scholar, or even in a book reviewer’s article. I have in view, naturally, not the hopeless hacks we all know — but people who are creative artists in their own right, such as, say, Trilling (with his critical opinions I am not concerned), or Thurber (e.g. in Voices of Revolution: “Art does not rush to the barricades”).

He goes on to reveal his personal system for categorizing and managing his reading diet — a system I, too, have been inadvertently and intuitively replicating for years in everything from the folders of my inbox to the labels of my RSS feed to the organization of my personal library:

Age is chary, but it is also forgetful, and in order to choose instantly what to reread on a night of Orphic thirst and what to reject for ever, I am careful to put an A, or a C, or a D-minus, against this or that item in the anthology. The profusion of high marks reconfirms me every time in the exhilarating belief that at the present time (say, for the last fifty years) the greatest short stories have been produced not in England, not in Russia, and certainly not in France, but in this country. Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge.

Nabokov concludes by offering six favorites from his A-list of stories (conspicuously authored by all-male authors) and “parenthesize[s] briefly the passage — or one of the passages — in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule”:

  1. John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)
  2. John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)
  3. J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle . . .” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)
  4. Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece; “Barbados turtles as large as children . . . crucified like thieves . . . the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)
  5. John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble in pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)
  6. Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (“. . . and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)

Strong Opinions is a treasure trove in its entirety, delivering precisely what it promises on the tin — a lively time-capsule of Nabokov’s convictions on life, literature, culture, creativity, and beyond. Pair it with Nabokov on what makes a good reader.

Thanks, Natascha

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17 JUNE, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

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“All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

There is hardly a greater cosmic sage of our age than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this sublime, characteristically eloquent short clip from BigThink, he echoes Ptolemy’s awe as he teases apart the misguided tension between our human ego and the immensity of the universe:

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Curiously, the same can be said of life in New York — that tired complaint about being a tiny fish in an immense pond, a nobody in a crowd of somebodies, speaks to that same ego and its stubborn unwillingness to bask in the greater glory of it all rather than wallow in its own smallness. What Anaïs Nin memorably perceived of the self in New York — “Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” — is, in turn, equally and immutably true of the self in the universe.

If you haven’t yet read Tyson’s fantastic Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier — one of the best science books of 2012 — do yourself an existential favor.

Swiss Miss

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14 JUNE, 2013

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers

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“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

In the early 1970s, revered interviewer Bill Moyers met reconstructionist Maya Angelou — beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and one of the most influential literary voices of our time — at a dinner party in New York. As the two began talking, they realized they had grown up only a hundred miles apart in the South — he, a white boy in “the gentle and neighborly white world that opened generously to ambition and luck”; she, a black girl “in the tight and hounded other world of the South, whose boundaries black children crossed only in their imagination, and even then at intolerable risk”; “two strangers from the same but different place.”

This is what Moyers recalls as he sits down with Angelou on November 21, 1973 and proceeds to shepherd one of his legendary interviews, found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library).

After Moyers, a true celebrator of his guests, enumerates Angelou’s many accomplishments and accolades in a short biographical introduction, he smoothly glides into the uncomfortable but necessary, asking the author about the parallel struggles of being both black and female “in a society that doesn’t know who you are.” Her answer comes as a vital reminder that “identity is something that you are constantly earning … a process that you must be active in”:

Well, one works at it, certainly. Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one’s freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good jew or a good Moslem or a good Zen Buddhist. You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again.

President Barack Obama awards Dr. Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on February 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (AP photo via NPR)

She addresses the laziness of stereotypes:

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie, that’s a nigger, that’s a kike, that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it.

When Moyers asks Angelou whether she sees the women’s liberation movement, reaching its most critical zenith at the time, as “a white woman’s fantasy,” she replies with a meditation on sociocultural history:

No, certainly not a fantasy. … A necessity. … They definitely need it. … [But it says] very little [to black women], I’m afraid. You see, white women have been made to feel in this society that they are superfluous. A white man can run his society.

[…]

The white American man makes the white American woman maybe not superfluous but just a little kind of decoration. Not really important to the turning around of the wheels.

Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history in the United States has been able to feel that he didn’t need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder — in that cotton field, on the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is an integral if not a most important part of the family unit. There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet. And I believe that we have to thank black women not only for keeping the black family alive but the white family.

Later in the conversation, Angelou makes the curious assertion that Watergate is “the most positive thing that is happening in this country” (and it’s interesting to revisit her rationale four decades later, with a movement like Occupy), explaining:

I believe so. Because white Americans — you see, there was a period when white Americans were marching in Selma and marching to Washington, for the blacks they thought, you see. But the struggle due to Watergate is for the whites. It’s for their morality, for their integrity. It’s the first time since the early part of the nineteenth century that a great mass of whites have really been concerned about their own morality. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were whites who became Abolitionists and supported the Underground railroad, not because they loved blacks but because they loved truth. And not since that time — I mean all the World War II business, where we all got together and balled up string, and so forth, was for somebody else. It was for the Jews and Europe.

But suddenly — not so suddenly — in the United States the people are concerned about their own morality, their own continuation. … And that, I believe, will reflect in turn and in time on the black American struggle.

Presaging her timeless wisdom on home and belonging penned 35 years later, Angelou once again returns to the subject of freedom:

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

When Moyers asks Angelou what wisdom she’d share with a hypothetical young daughter — a question that would sprout the wonderful Letter to My Daughter more than three decades later — she offers:

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

Moyers asks Angelou how, despite the devastating events of her life, she managed to “stay open to the world, open to hope,” and she reflects:

Well, I think you get to a place where you realize you have nothing to lose. Nothing at all. Then you have no reason to bind yourself. I had no reason to hold on. I found it stupid to hold on, to close myself up and hold within me nothing. So I decided to try everything, to keep myself wide open to human beings, all human beings — seeing them as I understand them to be, not as they wish they were, but as I understand them to be. Very truthfully — not idealistically, but realistically. And seeing that if this person knew better he would do better. That doesn’t mean that I don’t protect myself from his actions, you know.

(Exactly twenty years later, Angelou would come to capture this ethos in her wonderful children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by the great Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The interview closes by coming full-circle to the question of freedom, on which Angelou offers one final, poignant, counterintuitive but profound meditation:

Being free is being able to accept people for what they are, and not try to understand all they are or be what they are. … I think one of the most dangerous statements made in the United States, or descriptive phrases, is that it’s a melting pot. And look at the goo it’s produced.

Find more of Angelou’s enduring wisdom in the rest of Conversations with Maya Angelou, which features thirty-one more remarkable and revealing interviews with the celebrated author and modern sage.

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