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Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”

Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt — another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit — observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?

That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — Bechdel’s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted father’s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother — which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion — Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live.

I pause here to note that this is one of very few books I’ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing — so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.

Although she sets out to write a book about her mother’s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdel’s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Stein’s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wife’s). Her mother’s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:

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(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir: “Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”)

In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:

You can’t live and write at the same time.

And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdel’s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary: “What a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.”

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“My mother composed me as I now compose her,” Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and I’m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderful phrase “composing a life” — for isn’t every life, after all, a composition?

Bechdel writes:

For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary.”

Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.

Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed — in Bechdel’s life, as in any life. One such moment: her mother’s unease about the publication of Bechdel’s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdel’s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:

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The book is a kind of modern-day florilegium composed of Bechdel’s marginalia on books she is consumed with — above all, the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, alongside cultural classics like Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (“that endlessly consoling ode to sensitive children everywhere”), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich (who sent a personal rejection, uncushioned yet somehow mobilizing, to Bechdel’s first submission to a major literary journal).

It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting — in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of “hypertext” references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicott’s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalyst’s name.

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No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”

The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy — at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are.

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Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the “sleeping counterpart” who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living.

Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spider’s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two?

Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds — a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives.

At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:

I would argue that for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.

areyoumymother_bechdel11

Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdel’s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:

I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.

BP

The Universe in Verse

A charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry. Highlights from the show can be seen here.

APRIL 25, 2020 (WORLDWIDE)

Since 2017, The Universe in Verse has been celebrating the natural world — the science, the splendor, the mystery of it — through poetry, that lovely backdoor to consciousness, bypassing our habitual barricades of thought and feeling to reveal reality afresh. And now here we are — “survivors of immeasurable events,” in the words of the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, “small, wet miracles without instruction, only the imperative of change” — suddenly scattered six feet apart across a changed world, blinking with disorientation, disbelief, and no small measure of heartache. All around us, nature stands as a selective laboratory log of only the successes in the series of experiments we call evolution — every creature alive today, from the blooming magnolias to the pathogen-carrying bat, is alive because its progenitors have survived myriad cataclysms, adapted to myriad unforeseen challenges, learned to live in unimagined worlds.

The 2020 Universe in Verse is an adaptation, an experiment, a Promethean campfire for the collective imagination.

Originally, this year’s edition was migrating to a majestic outdoor amphitheater in the redwoods of California, exploring the question What Is Life? Four days later, I was to host another event across the landmass — a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and Rachel Carson’s legacy — on the steps of the New York Public Library, where the inaugural Earth Day took place in 1970. Both were colossal labors of love many months in the making, with many remarkable humans involved. Both were cancelled out of necessary regard for the resilience of life as we face its fragility together — a world of hostages to a submicroscopic assailant, a world of refugees from ordinary life, struggling for safety, sanity, and survival of body and soul.

Adapting to this extra-ordinary shared circumstance, The Universe in Verse is taking a virtual leap to serve what it has always aspired to serve — a broadening of perspective: cosmic, creaturely, temporal, scientific, humanistic — all the more vital as we find the aperture of our attention and anxiety so contracted by the acute suffering of this shared present. I have once again joined forces with my friends at Pioneer Works, the birthplace of The Universe in Verse — that improbable brick-and-mortar spaceship of possibility, where we have been quietly building New York City’s first-ever public observatory to offer precisely such a portal to cosmic and creaturely perspective, a place devoted to education and enchantment, democratizing the science and the poetics of the universe, and making, in Walt Whitman’s words, “all spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets” available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different.”

The 2020 Universe in Verse is broadcasting from Pioneer Works at 4:30PM EST on Saturday, April 25.

Expect readings of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, June Jordan, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, and other titans of poetic perspective, performed by a largehearted cast of scientists and artists, astronauts and poets, Nobel laureates and Grammy winners: Physicists Janna Levin, Kip Thorne, and Brian Greene, musicians Rosanne Cash, Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Zoë Keating, Morley, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, poets Jane Hirshfield, Ross Gay, Marie Howe, and Natalie Diaz, astronomers Natalie Batalha and Jill Tarter, authors Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Masha Gessen, Roxane Gay, Robert Macfarlane, and Neil Gaiman, astronaut Leland Melvin, playwright and activist V (formerly Eve Ensler), actor Natascha McElhone, entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, artists Debbie Millman, Dustin Yellin, and Lia Halloran, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, radio-enchanters Krista Tippett and Jad Abumrad, and composer Paola Prestini with the Young People’s Chorus. As always, there are some thrilling surprises in wait.

Every golden human thread weaving this global lifeline is donating their time and talent (and oh how much time this has taken!), diverting from their own work and livelihood, to offer this generous gift to the world. We’ve made this just because it feels important that it exist, that it serve some measure of consolation by calibration of perspective, perhaps even some joy. The Universe in Verse is ordinarily a ticketed charitable event, with all proceeds benefiting a chosen ecological or scientific-humanistic nonprofit each year. We offer this year’s livestream freely, but making the show exist and beaming it to you had significant costs, paid out of (shallow, personal, non-profit) pocket. If you are so moved and able, please support this colossal labor with a donation to Pioneer Works, whose doors are now physically closed to the public but whose hearts remain open to the world as they pirouette to find new ways of serving art, science, and perspective. Your donation is tax-deductible and appreciation-additive. There would be no Universe in Verse without Pioneer Works.

DONATE TO PIONEER WORKS

Infinite, wholehearted thanks to my friends at m ss ng p eces, who valiantly donated innumerable hours stitching this whole symphony of segments together. They’ve launched a wonderful kindred project titled TOGETHER — a series of conversations with inspired and inspiring humans about how we live through these disorienting times. Check it out.

NOTE: For various artistic, legal, and technical reasons, the livestream will not be available in its entirety for later viewing — just as a physical gathering only exists for as long as we are gathered — but individual readings will be released incrementally on Brain Pickings. (Sign up for the newsletter to ensure you don’t miss them.) As the biology of life is challenging us to bend limitation into possibility as never before, may this meta-limitation also serve as an invitation — to be fully present, together across the space that divides us, for a beautiful and unrepeatable experience that animates a shared moment in time, all the more precious for being unrepeatable. “As if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” in the words of the poet Lisel Mueller.

April 23, 2019

The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry I host at Pioneer Works — returns with a very special edition: This year’s show, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.

Join us for an evening of poems and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, On Being host Krista Tippett, and the inimitable Neil Gaiman reading an original poem generously composed for the occasion.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  3. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
  4. “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
  5. “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
  6. Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
  7. “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chick Nice
  8. “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
  9. “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
  10. Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
  11. “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
  12. “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
  13. “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
  14. “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
  15. “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
  16. “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
  17. “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
  18. “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
  19. Musical finale: Emily Wells
April 28, 2018

In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.

Rachel Carson (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — will read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
  3. “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
  4. “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
  5. “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
  6. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
  7. “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
  8. “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
  9. “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
  10. “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
  11. “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  12. “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
  13. “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  14. “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
  15. “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
  16. FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
April 24, 2017

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy famously wrote. Half a century later, with art, science, and the humanities under assault from the government, this intersection of science and poetry, truth and beauty, is an uncommon kind of protest and a singularly fertile frontier of resistance.

On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Readings by: Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, and Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York.

Poems about: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Euclid, black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, and more.

Poems by: Adrienne Rich, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Campbell McGrath, Diane Ackerman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Updike.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
  2. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
  3. “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
  4. “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  5. “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
  6. “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  7. “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
  8. “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
  9. “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
  10. “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
  11. “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
  12. “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
  13. “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
  14. “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
October 26, 2019 (MINIATURE EDITION)

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman wrote a century before we split the atom and fragmented humanity into maddening divisiveness. Two hundred years after his birth, he continues to enchant and console with his symphonic verses — an eternal harmonizer of the cosmic and the earthly, equalizer of man and woman and beast. When Leaves of Grass first stunned the world, the great naturalist John Burroughs exulted that Whitman’s improbable self-published masterpiece is “the outgrowth of science and modern ideas, just as truly as Dante is the outgrowth of mediæval ideas and superstitions.” Whitman cherished the universe in its every detail, from the slenderest blade of grass to the vastest galaxy. “To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” he wrote in his daybook as the golden age of American astronomy unfolded around him.

On October 26, I team up with Pioneer Works to present The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in New York, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works across the East River, which the poet himself traversed daily aboard the ferries he cherished as “great living poems.”

In Our Lady Star of the Sea — a deconsecrated white chapel transformed into a stunning sanctuary for contemplation by artist Shantell Martin — we will celebrate science through Whitman’s poetry with performances by astrophysicist Janna Levin, poets Diane Ackerman and Sarah Kay, Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton, author Nicole Krauss, musicians Morley and Meshell Ndegeocello, designer Neri Oxman, and the artist herself, who will share a special behind-the-scenes glimpse of her creative process in bringing this uncommon chamber of loveliness to life. Punctuating the readings will be live music and some thrilling surprises.

Before and after the ceremony, join us at the nearby Pioneer Works house (Governors Island Nolan Park 8B) to “soothe and spiritualize” with telescopic solar viewing, screenings of past Universe in Verse performances, free daguerreotype portraits, and limited-edition Universe in Verse patches by artist Andrea Lauer.

Donations most welcome — everyone involved in this labor-of-love celebration of art, science, and community is donating their time and talent, and all donations go toward Pioneer Works’ observatory-building endeavor.

WHEN: October 26, 2PM–3:30PM (Doors: 1:45PM)
WHERE: The May Room on Governors Island (map)
Governors Island is accessible via ferry only — there is one service operating from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and another operating from Manhattan.

IMPORTANT: Entrance to this free event is first-come-first-served — the chapel is an intimate space that holds less than one tenth of the regular Universe in Verse, so be prepared to arrive early as we anticipate many more atoms than the physical space can accommodate. If you journey to the island but don’t make it into the chapel before it reaches capacity, it won’t be a wasted adventure — we’ll have ample astronomical and poetic illuminations at the Pioneer Works house. Because the chapel is a technology-free sanctuary without electricity or wifi, we are unable to offer the usual livestream for this performance.

BP

live events

THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE 2020 (APRIL 25, WORLDWIDE)

Since 2017, The Universe in Verse has been celebrating the natural world — the science, the splendor, the mystery of it — through poetry, that lovely backdoor to consciousness, bypassing our habitual barricades of thought and feeling to reveal reality afresh. And now here we are — “survivors of immeasurable events,” in the words of the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, “small, wet miracles without instruction, only the imperative of change” — suddenly scattered six feet apart across a changed world, blinking with disorientation, disbelief, and no small measure of heartache. All around us, nature stands as a selective laboratory log of only the successes in the series of experiments we call evolution — every creature alive today, from the blooming magnolias to the pathogen-carrying bat, is alive because its progenitors have survived myriad cataclysms, adapted to myriad unforeseen challenges, learned to live in unimagined worlds.

The 2020 Universe in Verse is an adaptation, an experiment, a Promethean campfire for the collective imagination.

Originally, this year’s edition was migrating to a majestic outdoor amphitheater in the redwoods of California, exploring the question What Is Life. Four days later, I was to host another event across the landmass — a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and Rachel Carson’s legacy — on the steps of the New York Public Library, where the inaugural Earth Day took place in 1970. Both were colossal labors of love many months in the making, with many remarkable humans involved. Both were cancelled out of necessary regard for the resilience of life as we face its fragility together — a world of hostages to a submicroscopic assailant, a world of refugees from ordinary life, struggling for safety, sanity, and survival of body and soul.

Adapting to this extra-ordinary shared circumstance, The Universe in Verse is taking a virtual leap to serve what it has always aspired to serve — a broadening of perspective: cosmic, creaturely, temporal, scientific, humanistic — all the more vital as we find the aperture of our attention and anxiety so contracted by the acute suffering of this shared present. I have once again joined forces with my friends at Pioneer Works, the birthplace of The Universe in Verse — that improbable brick-and-mortar spaceship of possibility, where we have been quietly building New York City’s first-ever public observatory to offer precisely such a portal to cosmic and creaturely perspective, a place devoted to education and enchantment, democratizing the science and the poetics of the universe, and making, in Walt Whitman’s words, “all spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets” available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different.”

The 2020 Universe in Verse is broadcasting from Pioneer Works at 4:30PM EST on Saturday, April 25.

Expect readings of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, June Jordan, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, and other titans of poetic perspective, performed by a largehearted cast of scientists and artists, astronauts and poets, Nobel laureates and Grammy winners: Physicists Janna Levin, Kip Thorne, and Brian Greene, musicians Rosanne Cash, Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Zoë Keating, Morley, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, poets Jane Hirshfield, Ross Gay, Marie Howe, and Natalie Diaz, astronomers Natalie Batalha and Jill Tarter, authors Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Masha Gessen, Roxane Gay, Robert Macfarlane, and Neil Gaiman, astronaut Leland Melvin, playwright and activist Eve Ensler, actor Natascha McElhone, entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, artists Debbie Millman, Dustin Yellin, and Lia Halloran, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, radio-enchanters Krista Tippett and Jad Abumrad, and composer Paola Prestini with the Young People’s Chorus. As always, there are some thrilling surprises in wait.

Every golden human thread weaving this global lifeline is donating their time and talent (and oh how much time this has taken!), diverting from their own work and livelihood, to offer this generous gift to the world. We’ve made this just because it feels important that it exist, that it serve some measure of consolation by calibration of perspective, perhaps even some joy. The Universe in Verse is ordinarily a ticketed charitable event, with all proceeds benefiting a chosen ecological or scientific-humanistic nonprofit each year. We offer this year’s livestream freely, but making the show exist and beaming it to you had significant costs, paid out of (shallow, personal, non-profit) pocket. If you are so moved and able, please support this colossal labor with a donation to Pioneer Works, whose doors are now physically closed to the public but whose hearts remain open to the world as they pirouette to find new ways of serving art, science, and perspective. Your donation is tax-deductible and appreciation-additive. There would be no Universe in Verse without Pioneer Works.

DONATE TO PIONEER WORKS


NOTE: For various artistic, legal, and technical reasons, the livestream will not be available in its entirety for later viewing — just as a physical gathering only exists for as long as we are gathered — but individual readings will be released incrementally on Brain Pickings. (Sign up for the newsletter to ensure you don’t miss them.) As the biology of life is challenging us to bend limitation into possibility as never before, may this meta-limitation also serve as an invitation — to be fully present, together across the space that divides us, for a beautiful and unrepeatable experience that animates a shared moment in time, all the more precious for being unrepeatable. “As if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” in the words of the poet Lisel Mueller.

RECORDINGS OF PAST EVENTS

CELEBRATING “A VELOCITY OF BEING” (December 15, 2018)

After eight years of labor, I was thrilled to birth A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, published in collaboration with my good friend Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books — a collection of original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books shape our character by 121 of the most interesting people in our world, including contributions by Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Shonda Rhimes, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and other remarkable humans living inspired and inspiring lives. (More about the book here, including a peek at the art by some of the most beloved children’s books illustrators of our time.)

On December 15, 2018, several of the contributors joined me to read their letters (and play some music) alongside art from the book in a special evening at The New York Public Library — our only live event for the book, at the most fitting venue for this many-peopled endeavor of goodwill, for we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to our local public library system in New York.

Readings by Adam Gopnik, Janna Levin, Jad Abumrad, Amanda Stern, Alexander Chee, Sarah Kay, Paola Antonelli, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Mohammed Fairouz, William Powers, Naomi Wolf, Paul Holdengräber, Sophie Blackall (reading Neil Gaiman’s letter), and Helen Fagin, and music by Dawn Landes and Morley, who also read their letters from the book.

THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 28, 2018)

In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.

Rachel Carson (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — will read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
  3. “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
  4. “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
  5. “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
  6. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
  7. “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
  8. “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
  9. “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
  10. “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
  11. “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  12. “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
  13. “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  14. “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
  15. “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
  16. FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)

THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 24, 2017)

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy famously wrote. Half a century later, with art, science, and the humanities under assault from the government, this intersection of science and poetry, truth and beauty, is an uncommon kind of protest and a singularly fertile frontier of resistance.

On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Readings by: Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, and Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York.

Poems about: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Euclid, black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, and more.

Poems by: Adrienne Rich, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Campbell McGrath, Diane Ackerman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Updike.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
  2. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
  3. “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
  4. “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  5. “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
  6. “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  7. “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
  8. “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
  9. “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
  10. “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
  11. “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
  12. “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
  13. “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
  14. “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
BP

Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”

Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. How to inhabit that pleasurable, perilous place of uncertainty is what George Saunders explores throughout his conversation with Deborah Eisenberg, found in Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library) — that marvelous record of public encounters between literary titans at the Rare Book Room of New York’s iconic Strand bookstore, which gave us Junot Díaz on our limiting mythos of success and which features such celebrated writers as Alison Bechdel, A.M. Homes, Renata Adler, Wendy Lesser, and Mark Strand (who is not related to the famed bookstore but is, via paternity, to the volume’s editor, Jessica Strand).

georgesaunders

Two generations after William Faulkner asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that the role of the writer is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Saunders shares a reflection wonderfully countercultural amid our era of marketable tragedy and rampant cynicism:

When I was younger, I was for some stupid reason really taken aback by the realization that capitalism could be harsh. It had never occurred to me before. So my work tended to be a little preoccupied with that notion, maybe. My wife and I fell head over heels, and had our daughters pretty quickly. Now we’ve been married for twenty-six years and our daughters are grown up and wonderful. So lately my feeling is there ought to be a place for some fictional corollary of the fact that sometimes things actually work… An artist can sometimes represent the idea that things can be wonderful.

Responding to the observation that a line from a short story of his — “Can goodness win?” — encapsulates an undergirding concern across all of his work, Saunders adds:

Why not? Yes, it can win. But it can also lose — can get humiliated. It can also cause other people problems, by morphing into self-righteousness. I think what a fiction writer does is represent different viewpoints vividly. And without necessarily seeming to prefer one over the other. “Can goodness win?” “Yes, it does all the time.” “No, it cannot: it loses all the time.” Both true.

[…]

See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s notion of the midwifery of creative work, Saunders suggests that even if one were to inhabit that opposition, one can’t forcibly wrest out of it the sort of aliveness that makes art. Rather than trying to will it, one ought to be willing to let it come into a life of its own. He reflects on having this pivotal realization when he was starting out as a writer and finding his own voice:

I found out that the same minute I had an idea about what I wanted to write, life would go out of it. I’m a Bear of Little Brain, as Winnie the Pooh would say. My challenge is to try to keep the themes out of what I’m writing as long as possible… Einstein said it better: “No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” … It’s got more integrity if it comes in of its own accord.

At the end of the event, in answering a reader’s question, Saunders returns to the inherent duality of life and the notion that although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives. Echoing Parker Palmer’s ennobling assertion that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” Saunders observes:

At any given moment you’re failing to see the way things actually are. The manifestation is that you’re failing to be kind. You’re anxious. You’re neurotic. I don’t think it’s so much about external things. I think you could be a very happy, high-functioning person and still note the moment-to-moment failures.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Upstairs at the Strand — a trove of unscripted wisdom on literature and life from some of the greatest writers of our time — with George Saunders’s moving commencement address about the power of kindness, then revisit this evolving library of notable wisdom on writing, including Hemingway’s advice to young writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.

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