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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

Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience

The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results.

On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.

A lifelong autodidact, Petit dedicates much of the book to the nature and conditions of learning, and how those relate to concepts like curiosity and discovery, including an emphasis on the role of serendipity in invention and creativity:

Why does problem solving bring me joy? Because it’s a game. The multitude and the diversity in shape and color of the building blocks, the solutions, found in my basket provide me with extensive and entertaining permutations — and the solutions keep multiplying: those lurking as shadows of existing ones; those not yet invented; those that hibernate, awaiting the spring of chance. Among the few things I retained from my brief high school attendance was, ‘Man’s greatest inventions were found by accident.’ At the time, I wondered if there were a point to staying indoors collecting knowledge.

Maybe I have an advantage over the classically educated. Often, students are encouraged to abandon the problem in the cold and to rush to warm themselves at the table of contents of thick books of knowledge. I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to unknot the problem (I’m tempted to say ‘the streetwise way’) as opposed to focusing on acquisition of the right answer — possibly one major flaw of what I would refer to as a ‘formal education.’ Are my street education, my autodidact beginnings, my Luddite inclinations and my disregard for rules what allow me to approach a problem and hear whenever it whispers its solution — which is most of the time? For instance, I delight in the types of quizzes that present a problem related to one element and which can be solved by that same element. Allow me to describe just one among a great variety of clever little bar challenges that are supposed to reward the perpetrator with a free drink: the well-known ‘How can you pick up three matches using only a fourth one?’ Here the problem has to do with fire (matches), and it is solved by fire. Set the three matches into a little tripod, red heads touching on top. Light the fourth match and bring the fire under the match heads, let it burn for a second, then gently blow. You can now lift the ‘welded’ tripod using only the fourth match because fire has fused the three heads together. Is it my unorthodox way of life that permits me, once I assemble a display of clever solutions, to know for sure that the best one is undoubtedly the most pleasing, the one exuding simplicity, elegance and poetry?

Petit echoes Mark Van Doren’s famous aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisted discovery” in this anecdote about the intellectual spark of his early education experience:

I was measuring myself by dint of rejections and invitations while my experiments, mostly foolish, forged my personality. From 6 to 16, the only teachers I listened to were those who hardly talked to me: once a week, the old lady at the Art Institute and the old man at the Horseback Riding Academy. I was the youngest student at both places, and both those masters were miserly with their words, although expert at opening doors — and keeping them ajar — for their students to venture in (I always felt I was sneaking in). These two teachers were masters of instructions by gestures — instead of a verbal compliment, they offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. They favored education to come from within; they wanted their pupils to be overcome by the excitement of discovering. I remember vividly my first class in both establishments.

He argues against the industrialized model of formal education and makes a case for the autodidactic way:

The knowledge I acquired through constant struggle was much more valuable to me than if it had been dispensed by a talkative, didactic professor intending to fill my head. Today’s education, with its crash courses, its CliffsNotes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness. I have the certitude that although the sum of my autodidactic discoveries took a long time to crystallize, I did not lose any time. In fact, I won; the result remains solidly anchored inside me, and it will fuel my creativity for the rest of my life.

(An ideal model for education would, of course, incorporate both, making room for “useful useless knowledge” and fostering a new culture of learning that borrows the best of both academia’s structured guidance and the curiosity-driven approach of the autodidact.)

Petit stresses the importance of integrating mind and body — an argument echoing sociologist Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, among which is the bodily-kinetic.

It is by entering the road that leads to perfection that I will amaze and inspire myself, then by extension, inspire others. When the path is steep, I instruct my mind, my soul to pull my body by the sleeve. How could I pursue intellectual challenges were I not to remain awake and working furiously? How can my arts profit from the physical discipline of constant practice if I am not on an intellectual lookout, every second, to understand the reason something escapes my control? I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions.

I’ve turned self-correction into an art.

Petit ties this intermeshing of body and mind to the additive nature of creative influence, something we’ve recently discussed:

Definitely, body and mind swim in concert. So when I ‘attack’ (here, by electing this term, I choose to feel how aggressive and harsh a first step can be), when I attack a white sheet of Vergé with graphite to render a rigging knot, I become the rope. I travel backward in time inside the rope’s core, through my own naively truncated history of art: I hold hands for an instant with the vermillion dancers of Henri Matisse; I startle Egon Schiele as he is about to begin the self-portrait with his head bent; I carefully step over the creaky oak floor being scraped, so as not to disturb Gustave Caillebotte; I hide with Georges de La Tour to observe in delight the intricate pickpocketing choreography of three daring Gypsy girls; I help the young assistant of Leonardo da Vinci to tidy up the atelier before the master returns from his study at the morgue, and prior to entering the Lascaux cave to marvel at the freshly painted bison, I always find myself on Easter Island, standing still at the base of a giant Moai rock-smiling at me with all his sacred 30 tons.

Ultimately, Petit’s message is one of self-empowerment:

I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!

Empowering, yes, but perhaps a bit extreme — then again, let’s not forget we’re taking advice from a man who walks on wire.

In a refreshing touch, each chapter of Cheating The Impossible — which you can get directly through TEDBooks for the full multimedia experience — is accompanied by Petit’s recommendation for a song and a work of literature that capture the essence of the section’s message — for the chapter titled “Where, why, when?,” for instance, Petit recommends Erik Satie’s Six Gnossiennes performed by pianist Evelyne Crochet and Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees, and for “In pursuit of the impossible,” he suggests a score of Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen’s Suite and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

Sample some of Petit’s singular brand of “holy madness” with his 2012 TED talk:

BP

Cargo Cult Science: Richard Feynman’s 1974 Caltech Graduation Address on Integrity

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself.”

As an aficionado of exceptional commencement speeches and of Richard Feynman — Nobel-winning physics icon, curiosity champion, graphic novel hero, bongo drummer, wager-maker, no ordinary genius, “The Great Explainer” — I was delighted to find out, via a passing mention in Dan Ariely’s new book on dishonesty, that Feynman addressed the graduating class at Caltech in 1974.

Titled The Cargo Cult Science, his exquisite speech uses the Cargo cult religious practices of Melanesian and Micronesian societies — an anthropological curiosity wherein, after WWII, pre-industrial native tribes would simulate and imitate the objects and behaviors they had observed in American and Japanese soldiers, in hopes of bringing back the material wealth soldiers had brought to them during the war — as a metaphor to make an articulate case for integrity over righteousness and sensationalism, a message all the timelier today as the fear of being wrong has swelled into an epidemic and media sensationalism continues to peddle pseudoscience to laymen ill-equipped or unwilling to apply the necessary critical thinking.

Though the talk was never recorded, you can read it in full here and hear it narrated below:

Feynman laments that the kind of integrity he talks about isn’t baked into the science education system — which hardly comes as a surprise, given it’s largely a system premised on certitude at all costs and not on the very admission of ignorance that fuels science:

This long history of learning how not to fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

Feynman concludes beautifully, with his penchant for focusing the anecdotes of the specific into a masterful beam of the universal:

I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Feynman, of course, can attest to the pride in a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

BP

The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

The poet John Keats once described the ideal state of the psyche as negative capability — the ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” “The truth of life is its mystery,” echoed Joyce Carol Oates. This comfort with mystery and the unknown, indeed, is at the heart not only of poetic existence but also of the most rational of human intellectual endeavors, as many of history’s greatest scientific minds have attested. And yet, caught between the opinion culture we live in and our deathly fear of being wrong, we long desperately for absolutism, certitude, and perfect truth.

Originally published in 1993, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (public library) explores what’s arguably the most important dimension of what it means to be human — our inherent imperfection — and the many ways in which we violate it daily, delivering a constellation of wisdom and practical insight on how to live in a way that enables, rather than disempowers, our humanity.

Authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham describe the spirituality of imperfection as “a spirituality of not having all the answers, stories convey the mystery and the miracle — the adventure — of being alive.” Though much of the focus falls on the Alcoholics Anonymous program — hailed by many as one of the most important organized movements of the 20th century and criticized by some for its own imperfections — the book, which passes the skepticism radar even of someone as non-religious as myself, is really about cultivating our capacity for uncertainty, for mystery, for having the right questions rather than the right answers.

The problem with organized religions, Bill Wilson once complained, ‘is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are.’ The spirituality of imperfection … makes no claim to be ‘right.’ It is a spirituality more interested in questions than in answers, more a journey toward humility than a struggle for perfection.

The spirituality of imperfection begins with the recognition that trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake.

Adding to the ongoing discussion of the psychology and philosophy of spirituality, Kurtz and Ketcham observe:

We are not ‘everything,’ but neither are we ‘nothing.’ Spirituality is discovered in that space between paradox’s extremes, for there we confront our helplessness and powerlessness, our woundedness. In seeking to understand our limitations, we seek not only an easing of our pain but an understanding of what it means to hurt and what it means to be healed. Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is: There is no one to ‘blame’ for our errors — neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else. Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing. Spirituality accepts that ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’

Further:

This is not a spirituality for the saints or the gods, but for people who suffer from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called ‘torn-to-pieces- hood’ (his trenchant translation of the German Zerrissenheit). We have all known that experience, for to be human is to feel at times divided, fractured, pulled in a dozen directions … and to yearn for serenity, for some healing of our ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’

Much has been written — and debated — about the science of storytelling in recent weeks, so this excerpt on spirituality and story is of particular note:

Without imperfection’s ‘gap between intentions and results,’ there would be no story.

[…]

Listening to stories and telling them helped our ancestors to live humanly — to be human. But somewhere along the way our ability to tell (and to listen to) stories was lost. As life speeded up, as the possibility of both communication and annihilation became ever more instantaneous, people came to have less tolerance for that which comes only over time. The demand for perfection and the craving for ever more control over a world that paradoxically seemed ever more out of control eventually bred impatience with story. As time went by, the art of storytelling fell by the wayside, and those who went before us gradually lost part of what had been the human heritage— the ability to ask the most basic questions, the spiritual questions.

It all circles back to our discomfort with the mysterious and the unanswered, highlighting the urgency of relaxing into rather than tensing against it:

We modern people are problem-solvers, but the demand for answers crowds out patience — and perhaps, especially, patience with mystery, with that which we cannot control. Intolerant of ambiguity, we deny our own ambivalences, searching for answers to our most anguished questions in technique, hoping to find an ultimate healing in technology. But feelings of dislocation, isolation, and off-centeredness persist, as they always have.

If The Spirituality of Imperfection reminds you of Brené Brown’s excellent The Gifts of Imperfection, it’s for good reason — both go to the heart of our deepest conditioning, the kind of personal and cultural narratives we’ve come of age believing yet ones that keep us from fully inhabiting our own selves.

Thanks, Kirstin

BP

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