Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

30 OCTOBER, 2014

The Hand Through the Fence: Pablo Neruda on What a Childhood Encounter Taught Him About Writing and Why We Make Art

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“To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know … widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Since our cave-dwelling days, the question of why we make art and why we enjoy it has haunted us as a perennial specter of the human experience. For Leo Tolstoy, it was about the transference of “emotional infectiousness”; for Jeanette Winterson, about “active surrender”; for Oscar Wilde, about cultivating a “temperament of receptivity.”

That question is what beloved Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda answers with unparalleled elegance in a short essay from the early 1950s titled “Childhood and Poetry,” found in the altogether enchanting collection Neruda and Vallejo (public library).

Pablo Neruda at age 10, 1924

Neruda relays an anecdote from his childhood that profoundly influenced not only his poetry but also his understanding of art and of life itself:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

He never saw the hand nor the boy it belonged to again. The lamb toy perished in a fire years later. But that boyhood encounter, with the simplicity of its symbolism, impressed upon him a lifelong learning — the second he grasped that faded-wool lamb he grasped a deep truth about the longing for mutuality that impels us to make art:

To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together…

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

Also included in the volume is a 1966 interview by Bly under the title “The Lamb and the Pine Cone,” in which Neruda revisits the formative incident and how it shaped his understanding of the creative experience:

This exchange of gifts — mysterious — settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.

Neruda and Vallejo is a joy in its entirety. Complement it with Tom O’Bedlam’s beautiful reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book” and Robert Henri on how art binds us together.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

A Wave in the Mind: Virginia Woolf on Writing and Consciousness

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“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

“A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “are among life’s greatest pleasures.” A century and a half earlier, Schopenhauer proclaimed that “style is the physiognomy of the mind.” Undoubtedly one of humanity’s most beautiful minds and greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language is Virginia Woolf — a mastery that unfolded with equal enchantment in her public writings as well as her private, as both sprang from the same source of passion and perspicacity. But nowhere was Woolf’s intensity of heart, mind, and style more palpable than in the writing she did for and to her longtime lover and lifelong friend, Vita Sackville-West — from her novel Orlando, based on Sackville-West and celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” to the actual missives between the two women, which remain among the most bewitching queer love letters ever written.

In March of 1926, a year before her famous love letter to Vita, Virginia wrote to her lover about the very thing that brought them together, that invisible, immutable force which animated Woolf more than any other — her love of language. (Celebrated writers have a way of fleshing out their professional convictions about the craft in their most intimate correspondence — Nietzsche set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to his lover.)

The beautiful phrase at the heart of Woolf’s meditation, found in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three (public library), is also what inspired the title of Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular collection of essays — Le Guin being, of course, the closest thing we have to a Woolf today.

Woolf writes:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional intensity is essential to creativity.

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

Are Writers Born or Made? Jack Kerouac on the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

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“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work. Mark Twain put it much less mildly in his lively letter of solidarity to Helen Keller: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we as a culture are allergic to originality.

But count on Jack Kerouac to offer a provocative counterpoint in a 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?,” later included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity.”

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo

Kerouac begins with bombast:

Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.

He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:

[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.

Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:

Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.

In a sentiment that Joni Mitchell would later come to echo in asserting that “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Kerouac adds:

Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward… Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that unescapable sorrowful depth that shines through — originality.

But because originality, by definition, requires breaking out of the common canon, “geniuses” — as Kierkegaard so eloquently lamented — are often subjected to ridicule and rejection before they come to be revered. Kerouac returns to Joyce, who endured his share of derogatory attacks:

Joyce was insulted all his life by practically all of Ireland and the world for being a genius. Some Celtic Twilight idiots even conceded he had some talent. What else were they going to say, since they were all going to start imitating him? But five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: he was simply born to do it.

[...]

When the question is therefore asked, “Are writers born or made?” one should first ask, “Do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?” Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just “talents.”

Half a century later, in our age of bringing “genius” to the psychology lab and quantifying the cultivation of talent, Kerouac’s concluding words ring with double poignancy:

The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar…

The main thing to remember is that talent imitates genius, because there’s nothing else to imitate. Since talent can’t originate, it has to imitate, or interpret…

Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night sky can never be seen again… Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.

Speaking to the jealousy behind all mockery, Kerouac signs off with a remark particularly prescient in our age of quick, loud, widely trumpeted judgments, riffing on Sy Oliver and James Young’s famous 1950s jazz tune “Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It)”:

Oftentimes the originator of new language forms is called “pretentious” by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

More of Kerouac’s enduring opinionation can be found in The Portable Jack Kerouac. For a modern-day counterpoint to Kerouac’s counterpoint, see Steven Pinker on how and why great writers can be made, then revisit this growing library of acclaimed writers’ advice on the craft.

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