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Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

“­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing originally published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today’s most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here comes Margaret Atwood with her denary decree:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see this evolving compendium of notable advice, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph courtesy of Random House

BP

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her commandments. After Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, here come 8 from the one and only Neil Gaiman:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Image by Kimberly Butler

BP

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.

The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley

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Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.

Solnit writes in the introduction:

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.

[…]

Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.

With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:

Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.

[…]

A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.

Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:

The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.

It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.

[…]

New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.

Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority

Solnit writes in the essay accompanying this “map of recovery and possibility”:

Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City. Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered… A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city int he western world. Their names are on the streets, the buildings, the parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and they are the figures on the monuments.

[…]

We tried on what it would look like to live in such power by paying homage to some of the great and significant women of New York City in the places where they lived, worked, competed, went to school, danced, painted, wrote, rebelled, organized, philosophized, taught, and made names for themselves… Many women were never allowed to be someone; many heroes of any gender live quiet lives. But some rose up; some became visible; and here they are by the hundreds. This map is their memorial and their celebration.

Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)

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Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon

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What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)

Cartography: Molly Roy
Cartography: Molly Roy

Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:

Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.

Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)

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Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:

What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?

The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.

Reflecting on a world where gentrification has inverted Langston Hughes’s lament about white flight, Solnit adds:

The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.

[…]

Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.

Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew

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And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.

Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:

Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.

By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.

Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:

A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…

A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.

We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…

In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.

Undergirding the project is a certain countercultural quality in calling on paper maps to nurture us with richer meaning in an age when digital maps feed us mere information. In a sentiment that harkens back to her beautiful meditation on how modern technology is changing our experience of time and place, Solnit writes:

Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.

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In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Nonstop Metropolis, Solnit, Shapiro, and their venerable stable of writers go on to celebrate “the complexity, the layers and tangles, the cross-pollinations and conflicts, the hidden and overlooked, the ugly and beautiful” aspects of the city. Complement it with pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott’s stunning black-and-white portraits of New York’s changing face and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how Muybridge shaped visual culture.

Maps courtesy of University of California Press; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

A Classical Guitarist’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

“When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth.”

In her sublime memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro wrote: “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.” But the sharpening-and-honing itself rarely feels like a joy when you are mid-leap into the unknown, with no guarantee of whether your daily act of showing up — of practice and perseverance — will ever amount to the development of greatness. After all, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that “only mediocrities develop.” And yet here we are a century later, heeding psychologists’ growing body of evidence that “grit” is far more important than “talent” and that practice with a feedback loop is the surest road to success. Even so, the cult of inborn talent endures — after all, it is hard-baked into our cultural mythology of genius — and continues to oppress aspiring artists. “In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor,” writes Glenn Kurtz in Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (public library) — his spectacular memoir of creative homecoming, brimming with vital and poetically articulated wisdom on the artist’s life, deeply resonant for every field of creative endeavor.

Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.”

Illustration from ‘About Time’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Kurtz writes:

Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.

That anguishing personal emptiness was only compounded by New York’s merciless collective cult of self-actualization, which left Kurtz even more crestfallen about the trajectory of his life:

There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.

[…]

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.

[…]

Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.

Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar:

Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

Illustration from ‘Herman and Rosie’ by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Kurtz captures beautifully the enchanting absorption and tactile immediacy of this creative flow:

I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.

[…]

I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Virginia Woolf’s memorable meditation on the bodily ecstasy of music, he adds:

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.

[…]

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself.

Practicing in such a way, Kurtz points out, is an embodied experience rather than one that takes place in the mind’s maze of abstraction — it makes the “whole body alive with aspiration.” Indeed, these two modalities are often in conflict — in one of his many insightful asides, Kurtz issues an admonition that, like the book itself, applies with equal precision to all creative endeavors:

It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.

And in the playing — as in the writing, or the painting, or the knitting — is where we find the gateway to mastery:

Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.

The daily showing up and reaching out is, indeed, where the crucial difference between success and mastery lies, as does Lewis Hyde’s essential dichotomy between work and creative labor. Kurtz captures this elegantly:

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

[…]

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Illustration from ‘The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau,’ the heartening story of how the iconic painter attained creative success in his later years, after a lifetime of hard work and rejection. Click image for more.

Quoting harpsichordist Wanda Landowska — “If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!” — Kurtz writes:

Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.

[…]

From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

Indeed, this fundamental story of practicing is what lies beneath our culture’s fascination with daily routines, which always harbor the question of what propels the impulse to show up day after day after day in the service of one’s private creative enterprise. Kurtz offers a compelling answer:

Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.

[…]

Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.

[…]

When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.

Unflinching belief in that master-story is also what allows us to transcend the daily rebellions of our bodies and minds, and to go on practicing:

Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.

And therein lies Kurtz’s most assuring wisdom:

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

[…]

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.

Practicing is an infinitely rewarding and ennobling read in its totality. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Debbie Millman on the courage to choose the uncertain what-if.

BP

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