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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

31 JANUARY, 2013

Why We Write: Mary Karr on the Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word

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“Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? Literary history has given us some timeless answers from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and David Foster Wallace — but the question remains ever-open. That’s precisely what editor Meredith Maran sets out to address in the anthology Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library; UK), which features such literary all-stars as Jennifer Egan, James Fray, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis.

One of the volume’s sharpest contributions comes from memorist, essayist and poet Mary Karr, author of the humorous and harrowing memoir series The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009). With her signature blend of uncompromising honesty, wry wit, and exquisite self-awareness that somehow manages to keep from bleeding into the naggy self-consciousness chronic of writers, Karr faces the written word with equal parts faith and irreverence.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy:

I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity:

When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money:

I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine:

For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it:

Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

Karr ends with some synthesized wisdom for writers:

  • The quote I had tacked to my board while I was writing Lit is from Samuel Beckett, and it’s really helpful: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”
  • Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.

Why We Write is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph via Poetry Foundation

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31 JANUARY, 2013

Love in the Age of Data: How One Woman Hacked Her Way to Happily Ever After

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Reverse-engineering the algorithms of romance, one picky data point at a time.

The question of how love works has bedeviled writers and scientists for centuries. But how do the dynamics of romance differ in the age of online dating? In Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match (public library; UK), digital strategist and journalist Amy Webb — one of the smartest people I know — takes us on her unexpected journey to true love, in which she sets out to “game the system, using math, data, and loopholes” to find the man of her dreams. If it sounds predictable and contrived, rest assured it’s anything but.

Amy writes in the introduction:

I realized that we’ve all been going about finding our matches the wrong way. Whether we’re dating in the real world or online, we’re relying too much now on hope and happenstance. And these days, algorithms, too. We don’t allow ourselves to think about what we really want in a partner, an then we don’t sell ourselves in order to get it.

After a series of bad dates following a major heartbreak, mathematically-driven Amy decided to take a quantitative approach to the playing field and started systematically recording various data points about her dates, revealing some important correlations. After one particularly bad date, she decided to formalize the exercise and wrote down everything that was important to her in a mate — from intellectual overlap to acceptable amount of body hair — eventually coming up with 72 attributes that she was going to demand in any future date. She then broke down these attributes into two tiers and developed a scoring system, assigning specific points to each. For 700 out of a maximum possible 1800, she’d agree to have an email exchange; for 900, she’d go on a date; for 1,500, she’d consider a long-term relationship.

But this, she soon realized, was only half the equation — it only illuminated what she was looking for in a mate. So Amy took the obvious data-driven next step: She set up 10 fake dating profiles, posing as 10 men with high scores on her rating system, and set about using the site as each of these different archetypes. She interacted with a total of 96 women, systematically noting their behaviors and responses, from the way they constructed their profiles to the language they used in interactions to how long they took in responding to messages, reverse-engineering what makes a successful, popular female profile that attracts the very kind of man Amy was looking for.

This allowed her to create a “super profile,” her very own custom “algorithm” of love. Once she looked at her data and set up a real profile for herself, it was a matter of time until she met Brian, fell in love, got married, and started a family — your ordinary happily-ever-after fairy tale ending, with an extraordinary side of quantitative and qualitative magic.

Amy writes:

Think about the way you’ve set up your Facebook profile. And if you don’t use Facebook, instead think about how you’ve described yourself to new people you’ve met recently. You list your favorite foods, bands, books. You talk about cities you want to visit. These aren’t meaningful data points; they’re stylized nuggets of information meant to personify ourselves in a formulaic way to others. A Facebook profile is in many ways an outfit we wear and the accessories and cologne we put with it: we’re hoping to project a particular image in order to socialize with (or avoid, in some cases) a particular group of people.

Dating sites and the algorithms they advertise purport to sort through our personalities, wants, and desires in order to connect us with our best possible matches. Which means that we’ve outsourced not just an introduction , but the consideration of whether or not that man or woman is really our ideal. We’re putting our blind trust in a system that’s meant to do the heavy lifting or figuring out what it is that we really want out of a mate, and what will truly make us happy. This job is being processed using information that we, ourselves, have entered into a computer system. Bad data in equals bad data out. Algorithms that dating sites have spent millions of dollars to refine aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just not as good as we want them to be, because they’re computing our half-truths and aspirational wishes.

One of the possible reasons for this imperfection, Amy points out, is a misalignment of motives. Dating sites make their money either through advertising or through subscriptions, and in either case they benefit from your coming back to the site again and again, spending as much time as possible looking for — but not finding — a mate. (If this sounds cynical, it isn’t any more so than the fundamental reality of the internet itself — it’s the same misalignment of publishers’ financial motives and the audience’s best interest that’s responsible for the web’s infestation of slideshows, pagination, and other vacant content aimed at maximizing pageviews while minimizing your reading experience and enjoyment of the content.)

Though some of the findings are dishearteningly prehistoric, reinforcing gender stereotypes and sexual archetypes — men prefer blondes and are turned off by powerful women, curly women are better off straightening their hair, and using light language bordering on the inane helps women attract more dates — the overall experiment offers some fascinating, and often counterintuitive, modern-day anthropological insights.

In the appendix, Amy shares some of the findings she arrived at in analyzing what makes a successful profile:

  • Use aspirational language; keep it positive and optimistic.
  • Sounding “writerly” doesn’t work in your favor.
  • Don’t recycle your resume on your dating profile.
  • Lead with your hobbies and activities.
  • Stay away from foreign words.
  • Keep your profile pithy, between 90 and 100 words — or about three sentences.
  • Use humor, but beware that sarcasm doesn’t translate well online and tends to come off as anger or aloofness.
  • Don’t talk about your job, especially if what you do is difficult to explain.

Sample Data, A Love Story with Amy’s entertaining, enlightening, infinitely heartening TEDx talk:

Ultimately, the point of Data, A Love Story isn’t to colonize romance by validating the rites of a Universal System where, in order to attain some regressive ideal of love, women dumb themselves down; rather, it is to demonstrate that it’s possible, with the right amount of intelligence, both technical, in reverse-engineering the system’s inner workings, and emotional, in being unafraid to want what one wants, to hack the system — any system — to serve one’s own ideal of love.

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29 JANUARY, 2013

Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People

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“In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent.”

What does it mean to be “cultured”? Is it about being a good reader, or knowing how to talk about books you haven’t read, or having a general disposition of intellectual elegance? That’s precisely the question beloved Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) considers in a letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. The missive, written when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28 and found in Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends (public domain; public library), dispenses a hearty dose of tough love and outlines the eight qualities of cultured people — including honesty, altruism, and good habits:

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator's Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.

A. P. Chekhov (left) with Nikolai Chekhov (right), 1882; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

For more epistolary notes on the building of character, complement with history’s finest letters of fatherly advice.

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