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Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop: The Celebrated Poet on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Prolonged Period of Solitude in Life

Wisdom on the rhythms of creativity from a lighthouse daydream.

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop: The Celebrated Poet on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Prolonged Period of Solitude in Life

“One can never be alone enough to write. To see better,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. In solitude, Wendell Berry observed in his magnificent meditation on stillness, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” For Keats, solitude was our greatest conduit to truth and beauty.

But too much solitude, surely, can isolate us and deaden the creative spirit, cutting us off from what Oliver Sacks has called, after David Hume, our essential “intercourse with the world.”

This delicate dance between solitude and communion is what the Pulitzer-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) explores in a letter found in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (public library) — the epistolary record of one of the most beautiful and enduring friendships in creative culture.

In a wink of a letter from July of 1948, Bishop suggests that solitude, like all good things, is only nourishing in moderation and can nauseate in excess:

Having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam-chowder I made for myself, I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. Or maybe it’s just too much solitude.

A few weeks later, she writes to Lowell:

I think you said a while ago that I’d “laugh you to scorn” over some conversation you & I had about how to protect oneself against solitude & ennui — but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of “suffering” I’m most at home with…

But as she grows older, she comes to appreciate the nourishment of solitude more and more — even of extended periods of solitude. Half a century before the trendy modern practice of the periodic sabbatical, 49-year-old Bishop writes to Lowell:

You ask if I have ever found “reading and writing curiously self-sufficient.” Well, both Lota [Bishop’s partner, the prominent Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares] and I read from 7 A.M. intermittently until 1 A.M. every day, and all sorts of things, good and bad, and once in a while I think — what if I should run out of things to read, in English, by the time I’m sixty and have to spend my old age reading French or Portuguese or even painfully taking up a new language? And then I’ve always had a day dream of being a light-house keeper, absolutely alone, with no one to interrupt my reading or just sitting, and although such dreams are sternly dismissed at 16 or so they always haunt one a bit, I suppose. I now see a wonderful cold rocky shore in the Falklands, or a house in Nova Scotia on the bay, exactly like my grandmother’s — idiotic as it is, and unbearable as the reality would be. But I think everyone should go, or should have gone, through a stretch of it… Perhaps it is a recurrent need.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly delicious Words in Air with Edward Abbey’s uncommonly beautiful vintage love letter to solitude, then revisit Bishop on how poetry pretends life into reality.

BP

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

Adding to the endlessly fascinating daily rhythms of great writers, which reflect the wide range of differences in the cognitive conditions of the ideal writing routine, Baldwin shares his work habits:

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

Complement The Writer’s Chapbook — a treasure so wisdom-packed that it is a tragedy to see it fall out of print — with Joseph Conrad on what makes a great writer, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and Jane Kenyon on what remains the finest ethos to write and live by, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society and his terrifically timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity.

BP

Happy Birthday, Mendeleev: How the Trailblazing Scientist Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

“Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

Happy Birthday, Mendeleev: How the Trailblazing Scientist Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

Trailblazing chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (February 8, 1834–February 2, 1907) came to scientific greatness via an unlikely path, overcoming towering odds to create the periodic table foundational to our understanding of chemistry. Born in Siberia as one of anywhere between 11 and 17 children — biographical accounts differ, as infant mortality rate in the era was devastatingly high — he was immersed in tragedy from an early age. His father was a professor of fine arts, philosophy, and politics, but grew blind and lost his teaching position. His mother became the sole breadwinner, working at a glass factory. When Dmitri was thirteen, his father died. Two years later, a fire destroyed the glass factory.

The following year, determined to ensure her son’s education, his mother took him across the country hoping to him into a good university. The University of Moscow rejected him. At last, they made it to Saint Petersburg, Russia’s then-capital. Saint Petersburg University — his father’s alma mater and, incidentally, both of my parents’ — admitted him and the family relocated there despite their poverty.

A promising scholar, Mendeleev — also spelled Mendeleyev in English — published papers by the time he was 20 and attended the world’s first chemistry conference at 26. By his mid-thirties, he was intensely preoccupied with classifying the 56 elements known by that point. He struggled to find an underlying principle that would organize them according to sets of similar properties and eventually reaped the benefits of the pattern-recognition that fuels creativity.

mendeleev

But rather than by willful effort, he arrived at his creative breakthrough by the unconscious product of what T.S. Eliot called idea-incubation — one February evening, after a wearying day of work, Mendeleev envisioned his periodic table in a dream.

In Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements (public library), novelist Paul Strathern reconstructs the landmark moment from the scientist’s letters and diaries, and reimagines it with a dose of satisfying literary flourishing:

As Mendeleyev’s eyes ran once more along the line of ascending atomic weights, he suddenly noticed something that quickened his pulse. Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements, at what appeared to be regular numerical intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out. Despite this, Mendeleyev soon became convinced that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. There was a definite pattern there somewhere, but he just couldn’t quite grasp it… Momentarily overcome by exhaustion, Mendeleyev leaned forward, resting his shaggy head on his arms. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and had a dream.

The dream, of course, was just a function of what the human brain normally does during sleep — organizing and consolidating the ideas, images, and bits of information that occupy our waking hours. And what Mendeleev’s waking mind was so vigorously occupied with was the quest for a classification system that would order the elements. “It’s all formed in my head,” he lamented, “but I can’t express it.” It was only when he reentered his own head under the spell of sleep’s uninhibited state that the disjointed bits fell into a pattern and the larger idea expressed itself.

Mendeleev himself would recount in his diary:

I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.

Mendeleev's 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table
Mendeleev’s 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table

Complement Mendeleyev’s Dream with Margaret Mead’s existentially revelatory dream about the meaning of life and John Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how the commercial media are killing creative culture, then revisit the science of what the brain actually does while we sleep.

BP

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