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Freud on Creative Writing and Daydreaming

“The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.”

“Writing is a little door,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) — a key figure in the making of consumer culture, deft architect of his own myth, modern plaything — set out to peek through that door after completing his influential work the psychology of dreams. In 1908, Freud turned to the intersection of fantasies and creativity, and penned a short essay titled “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” eventually republished in the anthology The Freud Reader (public library). Although his theories have been the subject of much controversy and subsequent revision, they remain a fascinating formative framework for much of the modern understanding of the psyche.

Predictably, Freud begins by tracing the subject matter to its roots in childhood, stressing, as Anaïs Nin eloquently did — herself trained in psychoanalysis — the importance of emotional investment in creative writing:

Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood? The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s ‘play’ from ‘phantasying.’

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.

He then considers, as Henry Miller did in his famous creative routine three decades later, the time scales of the creative process:

The relation of phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it ware, between three times — the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From here it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus, past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.

‘Calypso’ by Lynda Barry
Original watercolor from my personal collection

He synthesizes the parallel between creative writing and play:

A piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

He goes on to explore the secretive nature of our daydreams, suggesting that an element of shame keeps us from sharing them with others — perhaps what Jack Kerouac meant when he listed the unspeakable visions of the individual as one of his iconic beliefs and techniques for prose — and considers how the creative writer transcends that to achieve pleasure in the disclosure of these fantasies:

How the writer accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others. We can guess two of the methods used by this technique. The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal — that is, aesthetic — yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies. We give the name of an incentive bonus, or a fore-pleasure, to a yield of pleasure such as this, which is offered to us so as to make possible the release of still greater pleasure arising from deeper psychical sources. In my opinion, all the aesthetic pleasure which a creative writer affords us has the character of a fore-pleasure of this kind, and our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.

For more famous insights on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s six pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity

“Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”

The third volume of Anaïs Nin’s diaries has been on heavy rotation in recent weeks, yielding Nin’s thoughtful and timeless meditations on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, what makes a great city, and the joy of handicraft.

The subsequent installment, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) is an equally rich treasure trove of wisdom on everything from life to love to the art of writing. In fact, Nin’s gift shines most powerfully when she addresses all of these subjects and more in just a few ripe sentences.

Anais Nin

Such is the case with the following exquisite letter of advice she sent to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author by the name of Leonard W., whom she had taken under her wing as creative mentor. Nin writes:

I like to live always at the beginnings of life, not at their end. We all lose some of our faith under the oppression of mad leaders, insane history, pathologic cruelties of daily life. I am by nature always beginning and believing and so I find your company more fruitful than that of, say, Edmund Wilson, who asserts his opinions, beliefs, and knowledge as the ultimate verity. Older people fall into rigid patterns. Curiosity, risk, exploration are forgotten by them. You have not yet discovered that you have a lot to give, and that the more you give the more riches you will find in yourself. It amazed me that you felt that each time you write a story you gave away one of your dreams and you felt the poorer for it. But then you have not thought that this dream is planted in others, others begin to live it too, it is shared, it is the beginning of friendship and love.

[…]

You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them. If it seems to you that I move in a world of certitudes, you, par contre, must benefit from the great privilege of youth, which is that you move in a world of mysteries. But both must be ruled by faith.

The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4 is brimming with such poetic yet practical sagacity on the creative life and is a beautiful addition to other famous advice on writing like Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-nonsense tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Susan Sontag on Writing

“There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”

The newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag’s thoughtful meditations on censorship and aphorisms came, is an absolute treasure trove of rare insight into one of the greatest minds in modern history. Among the tome’s greatest gifts are Sontag’s thoughts on the art, craft, and ideology of writing.

Unlike more prescriptive takes, like previously examined advice by Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and David Ogilvy, Sontag’s reflections are rather meditative — sometimes turned inward, with introspective curiosity, and other times outward, with a lens on the broader literary landscape — yet remarkably rich in cultural observation and universal wisdom on the writing process, somewhere between Henry Miller’s creative routine, Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques, George Orwell’s four motives for writing, and E. B. White’s vision for the responsibility of the writer.

Gathered here are the most compelling and profound of Sontag’s thoughts on writing, arranged chronologically and each marked with the date of the respective diary entry.

I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
(8/8/64)

Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. > All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.

A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
(8/20/64)

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
(8/30/64)

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
(11/1/64)

Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
(11/1/64)

Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
(1/25/65)

I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
(3/5/70)

‘Writing is only a substitute [sic] for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
(12/18/70)

French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
(6/21/72)

A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
(7/5/72)

In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
(3/15/73)

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart

[…]

The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
(6/27/73)

I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés [‘booby-trapped packages‘] to the world.
(7/31/73)

The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
(7/31/73)

Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
(8/14/73)

To be a great writer:

know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
(2/6/74)

‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.

‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.

Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.

What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
(7/25/74)

Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
(6/14/76)

Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.

By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
(6/19/76)

The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)

Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
(11/5/76)

‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th c[entury] cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at w[ith] awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)

One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
(7/19/77)

Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
(12/4/77)

Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
(12/4/77)

When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.

So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
(12/7/77)

Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
(5/27/78)

Language as a found object
(2/1/79)

Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was [Aldous] Huxley

One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (soc[iological], historical, philosophical)

Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.

Don’t be afraid to be concise!
(3/10/79)

A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.

If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.

Then something else will happen. It always does.

I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.

I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
(7/19/79)

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
(3/10/80)

Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
(3/15/80)

The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
(4/26/80)

Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.

I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
(4/30/80)

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a revelatory read in its entirety, full of Sontag’s abiding insight into literature, love, and life. Complement this particular aspect with her advice to aspiring writers.

BP

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