Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews


“A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”

Jorge Luis Borges is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the name of Fernando Sorrentino, only thirty at the time, sat down with the beloved author for seven afternoons in a tiny, secluded room in the National Library and recorded their conversations — “low-key, casual chats, free from any bothersome adherence to a rigid format” — on tape. Published in 1974 as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library), the conversations, spanning everything from literature to politics, couldn’t be commercially distributed until the overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976 due to the author’s anti-establishment political convictions and the frankness with which he discussed them with Sorrentino.

Culled here from the seven lengthy and meandering conversations is Borges’s wisdom on writing — a fine addition to famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.

On why, as Joyce Carol Oates elegantly put it, it’s toxic to imagine an ideal reader, defying Michael Lewis’s assertion that the awareness of an audience’s existence exerts “invisible pressures” on the writer:

An absurd statement; how is a person going to write better or worse because he’s thinking about who’s going to read him?

On finding one’s purpose and trusting the “intuition pumps” of life, and the yin-yang of reading and writing:

Before I ever wrote a single line, I knew, in some mysterious and therefore unequivocal way, that I was destined for literature. What I didn’t realize at first is that besides being destined to be a reader, I was also destined to be a writer, and I don’t think one is less important than the other.

On literature as a gateway to the human condition:

I believe in psychological literature, and I think that all literature is fundamentally psychological.

On not mistaking anonymous authorship for lack of creative exertion, and why fairy tales exemplify the refinement of storytelling:

Each year a person hears four or five anecdotes that are very good, precisely because they’ve been worked on. Because it’s wrong to suppose that the fact that they’re anonymous means they haven’t been worked on. On the contrary, I think fairy tales, legends, even the offcolor jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome. So we could say that a folk tale is a much more refined product than a poem by Donne or by Góngora or by Lugones, for example, since in the second case the piece has been refined by a single person, and in the first case by hundreds.

On not getting lost in movements:

I no longer believe in literary schools now; I believe in the individual.

On the advantage of writing about history:

I believe that a writer should never attempt a contemporary theme or a very precise topography. Otherwise people are immediately going to find mistakes. Or if they don’t find them, they’re going to look for them, and if they look for them, they’ll find them. That’s why I prefer to have my stories take place in somewhat indeterminate places and many years ago.

On Shakespeare’s singular gift, echoing Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on craftsmanship, and the limitations of translation:

I think of Shakespeare above all as a craftsman of words. For example, I see him closer to Joyce than to the great novelists, where character is the most important thing. That’s the reason I’m skeptical about translations of Shakespeare, because since what is most essential and most precious in him is the verbal aspect, I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated.

On why free verse is more challenging to write than metered poetry, the former embodying Bukowski’s poetic admonition that the only worthwhile writing is the kind that “comes out of your soul like a rocket”:

I find it harder to write free verse. Because if there isn’t some kind of inner drive it can’t be done. On the other hand, using a regular meter is a matter of patience, of application . . . Once you’ve written one line, you’re forced to use certain rhymes, the number of rhymes is not infinite; the rhymes that can be used without incongruity are few in number . . . That is, when I have to fabricate something, I fabricate a sonnet, but I wouldn’t be able to fabricate a poem in free verse.

Touching on Italo Calvino’s meditation on what makes a classic, Borges defines what makes a book timeless:

A timeless book … would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.

On why the explicit pursuit of prestige warps the integrity of writing and how commercial pressures commodify literature:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

On trusting your inner compass for merit, in literature and in life:

I believe that whenever one does wrong, he knows he’s doing wrong. Still, he does it. I believe that no one thinks his own behavior is exemplary. And this holds true in literary matters as well.

On writing and aging:

To reach the point of writing in a more or less uncluttered manner, a more or less decorous manner, I’ve had to reach the age of seventy.

On the advice his father gave him about when not to take advice:

My father gave me that advice. He told me to write a lot, to discard a lot, and not to rush into print, so that the first book I had published, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was really my third book. My father told me that when I had written a book I judged to be not altogether unworthy of publication, he would pay for the printing of the book, but that it was each man for himself and I shouldn’t ask anyone for advice.

On the metric of literary merit:

A writer should always be judged by his or her best pages.

On his distaste for novels, a form Borges believed would eventually die out, and the advantage of short stories over them:

I never thought of writing novels. I think if I began to write a novel, I would realize that it’s nonsensical and that I wouldn’t follow through on it. Possibly this is an excuse dreamed up by my laziness.


The essential advantage I see in it is that the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there’s the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another. On the other hand, it’s possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or — shall we say — appear to be essential, in a short story. I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too. It’s true they’re not too short.

When Sorrentino pushes back against Borges’s self-alleged laziness — an incongruous notion given his prolific literary output — the author replies with a sublime affirmation that creative labor never feels like work and, to the extent that “laziness” is the avoidance of work, the best way to avoid work is by making a living out of what you love:

A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something . . . And then comes the actual writing, and that’s his trade. That is, I don’t think the two things are incompatible. Besides, I think that when one is writing something that’s more or less good, one doesn’t feel it to be a chore; one feels it to be a form of amusement. A form of amusement that doesn’t exclude the use of intelligence, just as chess doesn’t exclude it, and chess is a game I’m very fond of and would like to know how to play — I’ve always been a poor chess player.

Towards the end of the final interview, Borges offers his counterpart to H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers and shares his own bit of wisdom:

I would advise that imaginary young man to study the classics; let him not try to be modern, because he already is; let him not try to be a man of a different epoch, to be a classical writer, because, indubitably, he cannot be this, since he is irreparably a young man of the twentieth century.

His parting words reflect on creativity, aging, hope, and legacy:

I believe one must not lose hope after fifty years. Besides, one learns by hard knocks, isn’t that so? I think I’ve committed all the literary errors possible and that this fact will allow me to succeed some day.


The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a treasure trove of insight in its entirety, its magic best captured by Borges himself in the prologue, penned on July 13, 1972:

Paradoxically, the dialogues which take place between a writer and a journalist bear less resemblance to a question-and-answer session than to a kind of introspection. For the interviewer, they can be a chore which is not entirely free of fatigue and tedium; for the interviewee, they are like an adventure in which the hidden and the unforeseeable lie in wait. Fernando Sorrentino knows my work — let us use that term — much better than I do; this is due to the obvious fact that I have written it one single time and he has read it many times, a fact which makes it less mine than his. As I dictate these lines, I do not wish to slight his kindly perspicacity: how many afternoons, speaking face to face, has he guided me, as though it were unintentional, to the inevitable answers which later astonished me and which he, no doubt, had prepared.

Fernando Sorrentino is, in a word, one of my most generous inventors. I wish to take advantage of this page to tell him of my gratitude and the certainty of a friendship that will not be erased by the years.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg: Lovely Illustrated Children’s Adaptation of Thoreau’s Philosophy, Full of Universal Wisdom for All


An existential walk into what money can and can’t buy.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one’s day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture’s cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.

That’s precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) — an absolutely wonderful children’s story told through Johnson’s vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life — one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry’s friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors — including some of Thoreau’s equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less “efficient,” is the better way to get to Fitchburg — more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.

Johnson tells young readers:

Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.

As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear’s experience of life.

While Henry’s friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.

While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.

While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson’s study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.

While his friend cleans out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house for 10 cents, Henry takes delight in a bird’s nest he discovers in a swamp 12 miles from Fitchburg.

On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry’s friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.

In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson’s gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:

His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. “The train was faster,” he said.

Henry took a small pail from his pack. “I know,” he smiled. “I stopped for blackberries.”

More than a mere children’s primer on Thoreau’s philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

The Art of Thought: Graham Wallas on the Four Stages of Creativity, 1926


How to master the beautiful osmosis of conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary, deliberate and serendipitous.

In 1926, thirteen years before James Webb Young’s Technique for Producing Ideas and more than three decades before Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how creativity works, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas, sixty-eight at the time, penned The Art of Thought — an insightful theory outlining the four stages of the creative process, based both on his own empirical observations and on the accounts of famous inventors and polymaths. Though, sadly, the book is long out of print, with surviving copies sold for a fortune and available in a few public libraries, the gist of Wallas’s model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 treasure The Creativity Question (public library) — an invaluable selection of meditations on and approaches to creativity by some of history’s greatest minds, compiled by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg and philosopher Carl R. Hausman, reminiscent of the 1942 gem An Anatomy of Inspiration.

Wallas outlines four stages of the creative process — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification — dancing in a delicate osmosis of conscious and unconscious work. These phases, which literary legend Michael Cowley would come to parallel in his 1958 model of the four stages of writing, go as follows:


During the preparation stage, the problem is “investigated in all directions” as the thinker readies the mental soil for the sowing of the seeds. It’s the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which to construct the new ideas. It is fully conscious and entails part research, part planning, part entering the right frame of mind and attention. Wallas writes:

The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.


Next comes a period of unconscious processing, during which no direct effort is exerted upon the problem at hand — this is where the “combinatory play” that marked Einstein’s thought takes place. Wallas notes that the stage has two divergent elements — the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary (or, as he terms it, “foreconscious” and “forevoluntary”) mental events taking place. He writes:

Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.

T. S. Eliot would come to echo the value of incubation seven years later in his own meditation on the role of idea-incubation in the creative process, as would many other great minds: Alexander Graham Bell, for all his deliberate dedication, spoke of the power of “unconscious cerebration” and Lewis Carroll advocated for the importance of mental “mastication.”

Wallas proposes a technique for optimizing the fruits of the Incubation stage — something our modern-day psychology of productivity would come to confirm — by deliberately building interruptions of concentrated effort into our workflow:

We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.


Following Incubation is the Illumination stage, which Wallas based on French polymath Henri Poincaré’s concept of “sudden illumination” — that flash of insight that the conscious self can’t will and the subliminal self can only welcome once all elements gathered during the Preparation stage have floated freely around during Incubation and are now ready to click into an illuminating new formation. It is the moment beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likens to the winning alignment of a slot machine, the same kind of “chance-opportunism” masquerading as serendipity that fuels much of scientific discovery.

But, Wallas admonishes, this Illumination can’t be forced:

If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous “flash,” it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final “flash,” or “click” … is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.


Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous.

Decades later, the great science communicator and MacArthur “genius” Stephen Jay Gould would come to concur that such “trains of association” — connections between the seemingly unconnected — are the secret of genius.


The last stage, unlike the second and the third, shares with the first a conscious and deliberate effort in the way of testing the validity of the idea and reducing the idea itself to an exact form. Once again borrowing from Poincaré’s pioneering theories, Wallas cites the French polymath:

It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules. … All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. … They demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.

But perhaps most important of all is the interplay of the stages and the fact that none of them exists in isolation from the rest, for the mechanism of creativity is a complex machine of innumerable, perpetually moving parts. Wallas notes:

In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.

The Creativity Question is altogether indispensable and enormously enriching in its entirety, the kind of book you return to again and again. Complement it with this 1939 creative catalyst and its modern-day counterpart.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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28 AUGUST, 2013

The Shape of Spectacular Speech: An Infographic Analysis of What Made MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Great


The poetics of presenting, or why beautiful metaphors are better than beautiful slides.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000 civil rights supporters. It would go on to reverberate through the nation, reaching millions more, and through history, inspiring generations and forever changing the course of culture. But how can sixteen minutes of human speech have the power to move millions and steer history?

That’s exactly what presentation design guru Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (public library), probes as she analyzes the shape of Dr. King’s speech and what made it so monumentally impactful — a modern-day, infographic-powered version of Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic lecture on the shapes of stories exploring oration rather than narrative.

Duarte notes the Dr. King spoke in short bursts more reminiscent of poetry than of long-winded lecture-speak and highlights his most powerful rhetorical devices — repetition, metaphors, visual words, references to political documents, citations from sacred texts and spiritual songs — in a fascinating visualization of the speech, demonstrating how it embodies the core principles of her book.

Duarte followed up Resonate with Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, offering more specific strategies for honing the power of presentation, where she places special emphasis on the far-reaching power of metaphor and writes:

Metaphors are a powerful literary device. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, about 20% of what he said was metaphorical. For example, he likened his lack of freedom to a bad check that America has given the Negro people … a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” King introduced his metaphor three minutes into his 16-minute talk, and it was the first time the audience roared and clapped.

Pair with five things every presenter should know about people and some timeless advice on how to give a great presentation.

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