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The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

It’s hard not to love a good book trailer. Enter this fantastic new trailer for John Wilcock‘s The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol. (The second Warhol-related gem to drop this year.)

Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.

A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock

Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.

Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol is as wondefully written as it is beautifully art-directed, full of rare images that make it double as a priceless stand-alone photography book. See for yourself — you can preview it on the book’s website.

via Flavorpill

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on “Spare Time,” What It Means to Be a Working Artist, and the Vital Difference Between Being Busy with Doing and Being Occupied with Living

In praise of the mundane, unquantifiable, impractical activities that feed creative work and fill life with meaning.

Ursula K. Le Guin on “Spare Time,” What It Means to Be a Working Artist, and the Vital Difference Between Being Busy with Doing and Being Occupied with Living

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

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

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”

BP

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled.”

Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness (public library).

Oliver Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)

In his impressive handwritten notes on creativity and the brain, which became the basis of the essay, Sacks had enthused about — in two colors, underlined — the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of the mind engaged in creative work. But, contrary to the archetypal myth of the lone genius struck with a sudden Eureka! moment, this chaos doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it coalesces from a particulate cloud of influences and inspirations without which creativity — that is, birthing of something meaningful that hadn’t exist before — cannot come about.

With the illustrative example of Susan Sontag — herself a writer of abiding wisdom on the art of storytelling — Sacks traces the inevitable trajectory of creative development from imitation to originality:

Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled,

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.

[…]

I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.

Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation. He writes:

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

A page from Dr. Sacks’s wild and wondrous handwritten notes on creativity and the brain.

Curiously, Sacks points out, many creators don’t make the leap from mastery to such “major creativity” — something Schopenhauer considered in his incisive distinction between talent and genius. Often, creators — be they artists or scientists — content themselves with reaching a level of mastery, then remaining at that plateau for the rest of their careers, comfortably creating more of what they already know well how to create. Sacks examines what set those who soar apart from those who plateau:

Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind?

It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.

Much of the gamble, Sacks argues, is a kind of patient gestation at the unconscious level — something Einstein touched upon in explaining how his mind worked. Echoing T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the necessity of “a long incubation” in creative work, Sacks adds:

Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.

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

He illustrates the detrimental absence of such a gestational period with an example from his own experience:

Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed.

I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).

In a testament to his uncommon empathic might and his endearing generosity of interpretation in regarding others, Sacks reflects on the deeper phenomena at play:

I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.

The unfortunate playwright seems to have embodied the lamentation which poet Mary Oliver so beautifully articulated in her meditation on the creative life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Sacks points to three essential elements in a creative breakthrough, be it a great play or a deep mathematical insights: time, “forgetting,” and incubation. More than a century after Mark Twain declared that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Sacks — who had previously written at length about our unconscious borrowings — adds:

All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.

Complement this fathom of The River of Consciousness, thoroughly resplendent in its totality, with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, then revisit Bill Hayes’s loving remembrance of Oliver Sacks and Sacks himself on what the poet Thom Gunn taught him about creativity.

BP

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