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The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!”

The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the theologian Thomas Merton wrote to Rachel Carson in his letter of appreciation, commending her for diagnosing one of the most pernicious maladies of our civilization. “Otherwise,” he warned, “our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness.”

Few visionaries have diagnosed more societal ills, more accurately and more presciently, or devised and championed more effective treatments, than Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746–April 19, 1813).

Benjamin Rush (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1773-1776)

Half-orphaned at the age of five and raised by his widowed mother, Rush was thirty when he signed the Declaration of Independence. He had graduated from what is now Princeton sixteen years earlier and had been a practicing physician for seven years. He would go on to became George Washington’s Surgeon General and America’s preeminent physician and most influential public health champion. He would advocate for public schooling and for opening education to women, Africans (who, in an era of enslavement and complete political disenfranchisement, were yet to be African American), and immigrants who spoke no English. He would rail against racism and capital punishment, found the nation’s first rural college, and help black clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations. In the final stretch of his life, in his collection of pithy assessments of the founding fathers, he would encapsulate himself in only three words: “He aimed well.”

But Rush’s most profound contribution to progress was arguably something different, springing from this selfsame devotion to equality — the groundwork he laid for modern notions of and practices regarding mental health, or what we now know as psychiatry, clinical psychology, and addiction medicine, based on his then-countercultural insistence that mentally ill people are still, first and foremost, people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days at the Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were housed in rat-infested stables, habitually brutalized by guards, and chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush advocated for honoring their humanity and dignity in treatment, pioneering forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. At the heart of his ethos and its revolutionary enactment in medicine was a fiery rebellion against the Cartesian mind-body divide. A century before William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity”, a quarter millennium before scientists began understanding now our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma and that mental illnesses like anxiety are deeply embodied experiences, and with the birth of neuroscience still more than half a century away, Rush believed that physical, emotional, mental, moral, spiritual, and political health, as well as public and private health, were interleaved into one indivisible ecosystem of wellbeing.

This was a radical notion, and Rush was a radical man epochs ahead of his time. He knew it, and he was content to pay the price. Two centuries before Bertrand Russell exhorted in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Rush wrote:

The most acceptable men in practical society, have been those who have never shocked their contemporaries, by opposing popular or common opinions. Men of opposite characters, like objects placed too near the eye, are seldom seen distinctly by the age in which they live. They must content themselves with the prospect of being useful to the distant and more enlightened generations which are to follow them.

More than two centuries later, this extraordinary and underappreciated man is reinstated to his rightful place in the canon of civilizational advancement in Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (public library) by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I had the pleasure of being long ago, spending countless hours squinting at microfilm of 19th-century newspapers in exchange for two subway tokens a week and his immense wisdom on writing and scholarship.

Fried writes of Rush — a lean, tall, handsome, “promiscuously opinionated young fellow” with lively blue-gray eyes and a blond-brown ponytail trailing his noticeably large head — and the heart of his uncommon genius:

Unlike the pedigreed doctors who had trained him in America, Scotland, England, and France, Dr. Rush was a medical and political prodigy from a middle-class family on the humbler side of Philadelphia. He had lost his father, a gunsmith, at the age of five, leaving him and his five siblings to be raised by their mother, who opened a package goods store and tavern just down the street from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and post office. But because of young Rush’s astonishing mind — besides total recall, he had what he referred to as the “peculiar happiness” of being able to synthesize and humanize disparate ideas into searing rhetoric — he had finished school at thirteen, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) at fourteen, finished medical training in Edinburgh and London at twenty-two, and begun practicing and teaching medicine at twenty-three. He was still single in his late twenties because his family had convinced him it would be bad for his career to marry before thirty.

[…]

Rush seemed to understand people unusually well for a man so young, and his analysis moved easily from politics to religion to medicine to the calculus of liberty.

Rush would go on to churn his country’s revolution, political and social, by diagnosing the gravest ills of his culture — nowhere more astutely than in a landmark speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Society on February 27, 1786, just after his fortieth birthday. Titled “The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty,” the speech examined the physical basis of what we now call mental illness — a notion foreign in an era when all psychiatric disorders were considered a function of vice, moral weakness, and personal failure. Against the favor of his time, Rush insisted that “melancholy and madness, in all their variety of species, yield with more facility to medicine, than simply to polemical discourses, or to casuistical advice.”

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Rush begins with a necessary definition, distinguishing between morality and conscience — a distinction he likens to that between sensation and perception. He writes:

The moral faculty… is quick in its operations, and like the sensitive plant, acts without reflection, while conscience follows with deliberate steps, and measures all her actions by the unerring square of right and wrong.

[…]

As I consider virtue and vice to consist in action, and not in opinion, and as this action has its seat in the will, and not in the conscience, I shall confine my inquiries chiefly to the influence of physical causes upon that moral power of the mind, which is connected with volition, although many of these causes act likewise upon the conscience, as I shall show hereafter. The state of the moral faculty is visible in actions, which affect the well-being of society. The state of the conscience is invisible, and therefore removed beyond our investigation.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Noting that medicine has already identified a physical basis of such mental faculties as memory, judgment, and imagination, Rush argues that morality, too, has physical correlates. Aware of just how countercultural this proposition is at the time, he presages:

Men who have been educated in the mechanical habits of adopting popular or established opinions will revolt at the doctrine I am about to deliver, while men of sense and genius will hear my propositions with candour, and if they do not adopt them, will commend that boldness of inquiry, that prompted me to broach them.

Rush goes on to enumerate the effects of various physical conditions and habits — climate, weather, diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep — on mental states. Centuries before our understanding of the gut-brain connection and the advent of what we now call functional medicine, he illustrates his insight into the relationship between food and mood with a charming anecdote:

One of the worthiest men I ever knew, who made his breakfast his principal meal, was peevish and disagreeable to his friends and family, from the time he left his bed till he sat down to his morning repast; after which, cheerfulness sparkled in his countenance, and he became the delight of all around him.

But even more notable is his reach, perhaps inadvertent and intuitive, into the Eastern contemplative traditions of nondualism. Among the various physical habits and faculties he considers essential to moral development, he includes two rather Buddhist concepts: solitude and silence. Long before Hermann Hesse extolled solitude as the forge of destiny, Rush writes:

I hope I shall be excused in placing SOLITUDE among the physical causes which influence the moral faculty, when I add, that I confine its effects to persons who are irreclaimable by rational or moral remedies… Where the benefit of reflection, and instruction from books, can be added to solitude and confinement, their good effects are still more certain… Connected with solitude, as a mechanical means of promoting virtue, SILENCE deserves to be mentioned in this place.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He goes even further in his daring conception of holistic health. Centuries before Oliver Sacks revolutionized medicine by illuminating the powerful effects of music on neurologic function, Rush contributes to the canon of great minds extolling the power of music:

The effects of music, when simply mechanical, upon the passions, are powerful and extensive. But it remains yet to determine the degrees of moral ecstacy, that may be produced by an attack upon the ear, the reason, and the moral principle, at the same time, by the combined powers of music and eloquence.

Observing that in every culture, “the most accomplished orators have generally been the most successful reformers of mankind,” he adds the literary arts to the arsenal of morally beneficial human endeavors:

The language and imagery of a Shakespeare, upon moral and religious subjects, poured upon the passions and the senses, in all the beauty and variety of dramatic representation; who could resist, or describe their effects?

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Given this interplay of the physical and the psychic, Rush marvels at the intricately interconnected structure of the human mind and its incessant dialogue with the body:

From a review of our subject, we are led to contemplate with admiration, the curious structure of the human mind. How distinct are the number, and yet how united! How subordinate and yet how coequal are all its faculties! How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!

In this yet-unmined relationship, Rush sees golden potential for improving human flourishing and moral development:

The extent of the moral powers and habits in man is unknown. It is not improbable, but the human mind contains principles of virtue, which have never yet been excited into action. We behold with surprise the versatility of the human body in the exploits of tumblers and rope-dancers… We feel a veneration bordering upon divine homage, in contemplating the stupendous understandings of Lord Verulam and Sir Isaac Newton; and our eyes grow dim, in attempting to pursue Shakespeare and Milton in their immeasurable flights of imagination. And if the history of mankind does not furnish similar instances of the versatility and perfection of our species in virtue, it is because the moral faculty has been the subject of less culture and fewer experiments than the body, and the intellectual powers of the mind.

Noting the advances of medicine in “mitigating the violence of incurable diseases” — from the alleviation of fevers to the proto-vaccination developed to curb smallpox, which had claimed more lives in the preceding century than all wars combined and which has since been completely eradicated — Rush argues that similar advances are to be made in alleviating psychic suffering through moral development:

A physical regimen should as necessarily accompany a moral precept, as directions with respect to the air — exercise — and diet, generally accompany prescriptions for the consumption and the gout… Medicine… has penetrated the deep and gloomy abyss of death, and acquired fresh honours in his cold embraces. — Witness the many hundred people who have lately been brought back to life, by the successful efforts of the humane societies, which are now established in many parts of Europe, and in some parts of America. Should the same industry and ingenuity, which have produced these triumphs of medicine over diseases and death, be applied to the moral science, it is highly probable, that most of those baneful vices, which deform the human breast, and convulse the nations of the earth, might be banished from the world. I am not so sanguine as to suppose, that it is possible for man to acquire so much perfection from science, religion, liberty and good government, as to cease to be mortal; but I am fully persuaded, that from the combined action of causes, which operate at once upon the reason, the moral faculty, the passions, the senses, the brain, the nerves, the blood and the heart, it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels — nay more, to the likeness of GOD himself.

Benjamin Rush. (Portrait by Thomas Sully circa 1812. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.)

Rush’s conviction that the mind is manageable and healable through the body would soon be elevated by the mightiest, most intimate motive fulcrum: personal experience. Two decades after delivering his visionary speech, he would watch his eldest child descend into mental illness — a devastation that would inspire him to compose the first American book on “diseases of the mind.” In his superb biography, Fried writes:

Through it all, Benjamin Rush contended openly and engagingly with the same challenge he had put to the new nation: how to be a man of science, a man of liberty, and a man of faith — all while striving to be a good friend, husband, and father of nine children. Rush was a medical pioneer and a political pathfinder, donating his time, his money, even, at times, his sanity for the causes he worried were beyond the reach of laws. His life and writings provide a guided tour through the most public and private moments of the Revolution and the creation of America, seen through the eyes — first awestruck, then frustrated, and finally worldly wise — of a physician and reformer who was, in every sense, revolutionary.

[…]

He also understood, as a physician and scientist, how many things he knew for certain would later be proved wrong; how many diseases, medical and social, could appear to be cured but later recur. In this was the “peculiar happiness” of cautious optimism, the comfort and discomfort of the truly long view.

Had I read Fried’s Rush before the year’s end, it would have crowned my favorite books of 2018. Mercifully, a chronicle of a 200-year past so masterly that it will endure for at least 200 years into the future is impervious to the time-strained omissions of any mortal.

BP

Being Against Becoming: Susan Sontag on Our Ambivalent Historical Conscience

“We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

“Time and reason are functions of each other,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her philosophical novel exploring why honoring the continuity of past and future is the wellspring of moral action. The human animal is indeed a temporal creature, our experience of time at the center of our psychology. Locating ourselves is therefore largely a matter of locating ourselves in the stream of time — diurnal, civilizational, and cosmic. It is hard enough to grapple with the micro end of the spectrum — to acknowledge, with Annie Dillard, that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” — and nearly impossible to fathom the macro, the incomprehensible scales of spacetime. And yet most of our suffering seems to reside in the middle of the spectrum — in our understanding of and orientation toward the selective collective memory we call history. In Figuring, I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. Whose judgment? one inevitably asks, and how much room for choice in a universe governed by chance — by randomness and chaos? What, then, do we make of history, and what does it make of us?

That is what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in a 1967 essay about the work of the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran, found in Styles of Radical Will (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sontag on art as a form of spirituality and the paradoxical role of silence in creative culture.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag writes:

We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life history; an individual life history appears unintelligible apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of “preceding conditions.” Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and supersession. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.

Half a century before Rebecca Solnit — a Sontag of our own time — insisted that we must know our history in order to rewrite its broken stories, that “you need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent,” Sontag frames the presentism bias with which we live:

The best of the intellectual and creative speculation carried on in the West over the past hundred and fifty years seems incontestably the most energetic, dense, subtle, sheerly interesting, and true in the entire lifetime of man. And yet the equally incontestable result of all this genius is our sense of standing in the ruins of thought and on the verge of the ruins of history and of man himself. (Cogito ergo boom.) More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse. The time of new collective visions may well be over: by now both the brightest and the gloomiest, the most foolish and the wisest, have been set down. But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute.

Arguing that the rise of this historical consciousness was expedited by the collapse of “the venerable enterprise of philosophical system-building,” Sontag writes:

At the point that history usurped nature as the decisive framework for human experience, man began to think historically about his experience, and the traditional ahistorical categories of philosophy became hollowed out… The leading words of philosophy came to seem excessively overdetermined. Or, what amounts to the same thing, they seem undernourished, emptied of meaning.

Susan Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton

It strikes me that, today, we see ourselves just as falsely separate from history as we feel ourselves falsely separate from nature. We have artificially islanded ourselves both in the river of time and in the river of being, perhaps because we would rather have illusory stability than bob about helplessly with the unbearable ambiguity and uncertainty that froth the rapids of existence.

Sontag intuits as much in quoting Cioran — a writer she celebrates as both powerful and delicate, one for whom “nuance, irony, and refinement are the essence of his thinking” — and his condemnation of our grasping for such illusory certitudes. Cioran eviscerates history as “man’s aggression against himself” in one essay and writes in another:

Men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb. The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety.

After noting Cioran’s debt to Nietzsche — particularly the German philosopher’s skepticism of historical (which is to say human-made) truth and his notion of the eternal return — Sontag points to the trailblazing composer John Cage, patron saint of silence as an aesthetic response, as “the only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s.” Having opened her essay with an epigraph by Cage — “Every now and then it is possible           to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing.” — Sontag concludes:

Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers like Cage who — whether from spiritual strength or from spiritual insensitivity is a secondary issue — are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of Western thought, but offer us no relief from them beyond the considerable satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much — a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.

Novalis wrote that “philosophy is properly home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” If the human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local “European” pride and something else — that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic — must be allowed in. “All that is necessary,” says Cage with his own devastating irony, “is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.”

Couple with Cage himself on human nature, then revisit Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.

BP

Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny

“Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.”

Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the young Nietzsche wrote as he contemplated what it takes to find oneself. Somehow, this man of stark contradiction, cycling between nihilistic despondency and electric buoyancy along the rim of madness, has managed to inspire some of humanity’s most surefooted spirits — among them, the great German poet, novelist, painter, and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), who drew from Nietzsche’s philosophy the most humanistic ideas, then magnified them with his own transcendent humanity.

Some of Hesse’s most emboldening ideas about our human responsibility to ourselves and the world unfold in his “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 and later included in his 1946 anthology If the War Goes On… (public library), published the year he received the Nobel Prize — the same stirring piece that gave us Hesse on hope, the difficult art of taking responsibility, and the wisdom of the inner voice.

Hermann Hesse

Decades before E.E. Cummings asserted that “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” Hesse writes:

You must unlearn the habit of being someone else or nothing at all, of imitating the voices of others and mistaking the faces of others for your own.

[…]

One thing is given to man which makes him into a god, which reminds him that he is a god: to know destiny.

[…]

When destiny comes to a man from outside, it lays him low, just as an arrow lays a deer low. When destiny comes to a man from within, from his innermost being, it makes him strong, it makes him into a god… A man who has recognized his destiny never tries to change it. The endeavor to change destiny is a childish pursuit that makes men quarrel and kill one another… All sorrow, poison, and death are alien, imposed destiny. But every true act, everything that is good and joyful and fruitful on earth, is lived destiny, destiny that has become self.

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Hesse exhorts the young to treat their suffering with respect and curiosity, and adds:

Might your bitter pain not be the voice of destiny, might that voice not become sweet once you understand it?

[…]

Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life. Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.

In the same way, my friends, man suffers destiny. Destiny is earth, it is rain and growth. Destiny hurts.

Long before Simone Weil contemplated how to make use of our suffering, Hesse holds up hardship as “the forge of destiny” and adds:

It is hard to learn to suffer. Women succeed more often and more nobly than men. Learn from them! Learn to listen when the voice of life speaks! Learn to look when the sun of destiny plays with your shadows! Learn to respect life! Learn to respect yourselves! From suffering springs strength…

Writing fifteen years after he made his exquisite case for breaking the trance of busyness, Hesse returns to the sandbox of selfhood — solitude:

True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer.

[…]

Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait… Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Learning to be nourished by solitude rather than defeated by it, Hesse argues, is a prerequisite for taking charge of our destiny:

Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves. And when a solitary man crosses their path, they fear him and hate him like the plague; they fling stones at him and find no peace until they are far away from him. The air around him smells of stars, of cold stellar spaces; he lacks the soft warm fragrance of the home and hatchery.

[…]

A man must be indifferent to the possibility of falling, if he wants to taste of solitude and to face up to his own destiny. It is easier and sweeter to walk with a people, with a multitude — even through misery. It is easier and more comforting to devote oneself to the “tasks” of the day, the tasks meted out by the collectivity.

In a sentiment the poet May Sarton would echo in her stunning ode to solitude two decades later, Hesse adds:

Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Two millennia after Seneca admonished that “all your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Hesse exults:

Blessed be he who has found his solitude, not the solitude pictured in painting or poetry, but his own, unique, predestined solitude. Blessed be he who knows how to suffer! Blessed be he who bears the magic stone in his heart. To him comes destiny, from him comes authentic action.

In consonance with Seamus Heaney’s lyrical insight that “the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true… to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge,” Hesse addresses the young:

You were made to be yourselves. You were made to enrich the world with a sound, a tone, a shadow.

[…]

In each one of you there is a hidden being, still in the deep sleep of childhood. Bring it to life! In each one of you there is a call, a will, an impulse of nature, an impulse toward the future, the new, the higher. Let it mature, let it resound, nurture it! Your future is not this or that; it is not money or power, it is not wisdom or success at your trade — your future, your hard dangerous path is this: to mature and to find God in yourselves.

A century later, the entire piece remains a spectacular and deeply insightful read, as does the whole of Hesse’s If the War Goes On…. Complement this particular fragment with Ursula K. Le Guin on suffering and the other side of pain, Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life, then revisit Hesse on the discipline of savoring life’s little joys, why books will survive all future technology, the three types of readers, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.

BP

Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”

Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too,” the poet Mary Oliver reflected in her lovely autobiographical essay on how literature saved her life. But what does it take to write such buoyant literature — be it poetry or prose — that lends itself as a lifeboat to those far from the shore of being?

A decade after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and three years after receiving the National Book Award, Oliver distilled her wisdom on writing into a short prose poem titled “Sand Dabs, One,” found in her 1995 book Blue Pastures (public library) — just a few lines, largehearted and limber, each saturated with meaning and illustrating the principle it espouses in a clever meta-manifestation of that principle embedded in the language itself.

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by her partner, Molly Malone Cook, from Our World by Mary Oliver.)

Oliver writes:

Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.

To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.

Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.

Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.

The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.

Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.

Complement with this extensive collection of advice on writing from some of the finest writers in the English language, then revisit Oliver on love, the two building blocks of creativity, what attention really means, and how to live with maximal aliveness.

BP

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