Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

27 AUGUST, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman on the Secret of Genius

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“You don’t even know what the word ‘vacation’ means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation FROM that is anything BUT a vacation.”

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul,” Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson observed in his superb 1990 Kenyon College commencement address, “is a rare achievement.” Indeed, the search for meaning, the life of purpose, the quest to do what makes you come alive — those are the greatest human aspirations. And who better to weigh in on the essence of this grand pursuit than Neil deGrasse Tyson, modern-day philosopher and eloquent cosmic sage, and Neil Gaiman, dedicated writer and champion of answering the daunting call of the creative life? In this short excerpt from the 2012 Connecticut Forum, the Neils answer the question “What makes someone visionary and brilliant?” and remind us that the most important component of genius is, in fact, love and unrelenting cultivation.

Tyson knows that truly fulfilling work never feels like “work”:

If everyone had the luxury to pursue a life of exactly what they love, we would all be ranked as visionary and brilliant. … If you got to spend every day of your life doing what you love, you can’t help but be the best in the world at that. And you get to smile every day for doing so. And you’ll be working at it almost to the exclusion of personal hygiene, and your friends are knocking on your door, saying, “Don’t you need a vacation?!,” and you don’t even know what the word “vacation” means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation from that is anything but a vacation — that’s the state of mind of somebody who’s doing what others might call visionary and brilliant.

'Do what you love' by Andy J. Miller for the 'Advice to Sink in Slowly' project. Click image for details.

Gaiman echoes the sentiment with laconic self-awareness:

We get to look good because we get to do what we want.

Complement with this timeless anchor for how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on living the creative life.

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26 AUGUST, 2013

Michael Lewis on Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity

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“When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.”

The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) by Meredith Maran — which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean, Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public LibraryMichael Lewis, one of today’s finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.

Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:

I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.

True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive — in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:

There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.

[…]

I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

Still, Lewis admits to being stirred by the awareness that he can change minds and move hearts — a somewhat nobler version of Orwell’s “sheer egotism” motive:

The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.

That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:

Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.

And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:

Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.

After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.

That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.

Lewis adds to famous writers’ daily routines and seconds Maira Kalman’s faith in the power of deadlines:

When I was writing my first book, I was going from eleven at night till seven in the morning. I was very happy waking up at two in the afternoon. My body clock would naturally like to start writing around nine at night and finish at four in the morning, but I have a wife and kids and endless commitments. … My natural writing schedule doesn’t work with my family’s schedule. I actually do better when I have pressure, some mental deadline.

Aware that he is “mentally absent” from family life while immersed in a book project, Lewis considers himself lucky to be a “binge writer” who takes lots of time off between books … “which is why I still have a family,” he jokes. His immersion, in fact, is so complete that it changes his physical experience:

When I’m working on a book, I’m in a very agitated mental state. My sleep is disrupted. I only dream about the project. My sex drive goes up. My need for exercise, and the catharsis I get from exercise, is greater. When I’m in the middle of a project, whether I’m doing Bikram yoga or hiking up the hill or working out at the gym, I carry a blank pad and a pen. I’ll take eight hundred little notes right in the middle of a posture. It drives my yoga instructor crazy.

Like many of history’s great minds, from Henri Poincaré to T. S. Eliot, Lewis is a believer in the power of unconscious processing and creative pause, or the “mental mastication” period of which Lewis Carroll wrote:

At any given time I usually have eight new ideas. … I need time between projects. It’s like a tank filling up. I can’t just go from one to the other.

Lewis ends on a note of advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats with his three guidelines:

  1. It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
  2. I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
  3. A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do remains a must-read of the most highly recommended kind, featuring contributions from such celebrated authors as Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Rick Moody.

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23 AUGUST, 2013

How to Tell Love from Passion: A Timeless Litmus Test from E. B. White and James Thurber, 1929

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“By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner.”

In 1927, E. B. White pulled some strings at The New Yorker, where he had been working since shortly after the legendary magazine’s birth in 1925, and arranged for his friend James Thurber to be hired as an editor. Over the decades that followed, Thurber would go on to produce some of the magazine’s most beloved literature and art. But arguably most delightful of all is his collaboration with White himself: Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do (public library), originally released in 1929 as White’s very first prose publication, is an unspeakably wonderful joint collection of prose poking fun at the conventions of marriage, romance, and love, but not without channeling through the charms of wit some profound truths about the human heart.

Featuring forty-two lovely drawings by Thurber, reminiscent in both style and cultural progressiveness of Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite Danish guide to sexuality and secretly, systematically picked up from the floor beneath Thurber’s desk by White, the essays explore such subjects as feminine types, the sexual revolution, the perils of marital claustrophobia, and frigidity in men. But perhaps most notable is a chapter titled “How to Tell Love from Passion.” It begins:

At a certain point in every person’s amours, the question arises: “Am I in love, or am I merely inflamed by passion?”

It is a disturbing question. Usually it arises at some inopportune moment: at the start of a letter, in the middle of an embrace, at the end of a day in the country. If the person could supply a direct, simple, positive answer — if he could say convincingly, “I am in love,” or, “This is not love, this is passion” — he would spare himself many hours of mental discomfort. Almost nobody can arrive at so simple a reply. The conclusion a man commonly arrives at, after tossing the argument about, is something after this fashion: “I am in love, all right, but just the same I don’t like the way I looked at Miriam last night.”

Largely to blame for the problem, White argues, is the fact that love seems to defy definition — which, granted, hasn’t precluded some of literary history’s greatest minds from having famously tried.

Even after one has experienced love, one finds difficulty defining it. Likewise, one may define it and then have all kinds of trouble experiencing it, because, once having defined it, one is in too pompous a frame of mind ever again to submit to its sweet illusion. By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner. The same holds true of passion. Understanding the principles of passion is like knowing how to drive a car; once mastered, all is smoothed out; no more does one experience the feeling of perilous adventure, the misgivings, the diverting little hesitancies, the wrong turns, the false starts, the glorious insecurity. All is smoothed out, and all, so to speak, is lost.

Despite the loosely defined catch-all readers and writers have mutually agreed upon when using the l-word, Thurber and White venture their very own definition, which they self-derisively call a “usual hazy interpretation” but which is nonetheless rather wonderful:

The strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person … the pleasant confusion which we know exists.

So how, then, does one identify true love when it presents itself? We return once again to the opening example of the letter-writing moment of doubt — dispelled, to the delight of the literarily inclined, by the tell-tale quality of punctuation choice:

Let us say you have sat down to write a letter to your lady. There has been a normal amount of preparation for the ordeal, such as clearing a space on the desk … and the normal amount of false alarms, such as sitting down and discovering that you have no cigarettes. (Note: if you think you can write the letter without cigarettes, it is not love, it is passion.) Finally you get settled and you write the words; “Anne darling.” If you like commas, you put a comma after “darling”; if you like colons, a colon; if dashes, a dash. If you don’t care what punctuation mark you put after “darling,” the chances are you are in love — although you may just be uneducated, who knows?

A literary inclination, however, turns out to be more of a disadvantage than advantage in matters of recognizing true love:

This vexing disbelief in one’s own illusion of love is experienced most alarmingly by persons of literary inclinations. Yet with them the reaction comes in quite the opposite manner. Writing is a form of sexual expression (Zaner goes further: he says writing is sex), and it takes just as much out of a person. Thus, a person with a bent for creative literature approaches the task of writing a love letter with an excitation of the spirit surpassing anything in the realm of pure eroticism. He anticipates it for hours, mulling over in his mind the possible material, enlarging on anecdotes, rounding off pledges of affection, sharpening similes, sharpening pencils; he comes to the writing of it with immense zeal and a rather nice control of lyrical prose; he ends on a splendidly poised and correctly balanced note of tenderness and faith and love; and then, having signed, sealed, and posted the missive, is suddenly overcome by the realization that by the very act of composition he has annulled the allure of the subject herself — cares no more about her, for the moment, than he does for an old piece of butcher’s twine, which, all in all, is so alarming a discovery that he usually gets a little bit sick thinking about it, and has to go out somewhere and hear some music.

And yet, as history’s famous epistolary couples can attest — just look at the love letters of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas — literature and love do go hand in hand. White, however, finds this literary love suspect:

I have seldom met an individual of literary tastes or propensities in whom the writing of love was not directly attributable to the love of writing.

A person of this sort falls terribly in love, but in the end it turns out that he is more bemused by a sheet of white paper than a sheet of white bed linen. He would rather leap into print with his lady than leap into bed with her. (This first pleases the lady and then annoys her. She wants him to do both, and with virtually the same impulse.)

Still, culture’s common cynicisms about love aren’t spared the snark:

The medical profession recognizes two distinct types of men: first, the type that believes that to love a woman is not to desire her; second, the type that believes that to desire a woman is not to love her. The medical profession rests.

White ends on a note of irreverent reflection on the very premise of the essay:

The fact of the matter is, it’s very difficult to tell love from passion. My advice to anyone who doesn’t feel sure of the difference between them is either to give them both up or quit trying to split hairs.

Months after Is Sex Necessary? was published, White would fall in love and marry his first and only wife, the literary agent Katharine Angell who had gotten him the New Yorker gig, to whom he would write many wonderful love letters until death did them part.

For a contemporary complement of no lesser charm, see Alain de Botton on how to think more — meaning, better — about sex and revisit Vonnegut’s vintage sexology of choice.

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