Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 31

How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”

How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

Recently, in listening to a dear and brilliant friend rationalize her choice to stay at a soul-sucking corporate job under the seemingly sensible pretext that it would eventually grant her the financial freedom to be a full-time writer, I was reminded of how one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.

In 1906, Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) left teaching and moved to New York City to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine — the most successful and prestigious periodical of the era, famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing trailblazing fiction by writers like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But its success was also driven by brutally ambitious corporate management that saw journalism as a profitable business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today. Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but when the majority of McClure’s staff — including the great Lincoln Steffens — left en masse over discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she was tasked with the onerous work of an intense investigative project, which became a sensation and exploded the magazine’s circulation. “Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” she wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.

Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)

Cather was excellent at the job, enjoyed being called an “executive,” and couldn’t deny the gratifications of the attractive pay. But she eventually came to feel that the hamster wheel of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, steering her further from her calling as a literary writer. And yet she remained unable to tear herself away, for all the complex and conflicted reasons that any of us stay in situations, relationships, and jobs that contract rather than magnifying our spirit.

Everything changed on December 13, 1908, when Cather received a remarkable letter of advice from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. Found in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — the marvelous tome that gave us Cather on writing through times of trouble and her only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — the letter was at once a hard shake of the shoulders and a warm embrace. It provided precisely the kind of prod Cather needed in order to awaken from her trance of corporate productivity and revive her creative energies as a writer.

Sarah Jewett
Sarah Jewett

Jewett wrote:

Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.

Cather was shaken, in the best possible way. Her reply to Jewett is masterwork of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:

My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;

Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.

At the heart of Cather’s lament is the acute sense of the tradeoff between productivity and creativity, calling to mind Parker Palmer’s incisive observation that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on.”

She writes to Jewett:

Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.

[…]

[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.

McClure, for his part, was a deft manipulator of the interior conditions that kept his staff from hopping off the corporate hamster wheel, feeding their confidence at the specific productivity he needed and fueling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. Cather writes:

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.

And yet Cather remained awake to the tradeoff, animated by unshakable restlessness about the sacrifice she was making in buying into this particular model of success at the expense of her creative satisfaction:

The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.

Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.

Her mind then performs the same acrobatics of rationalization we all engage in when we justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of a life:

I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.

willacather_stamp

Cather began working on her first novel shortly thereafter. Although it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s — by that point, she was one of the most powerful women in journalism — once she did, she never looked back. Her debut novel was published that year to critical acclaim and was followed by thirteen books over the next three decades, which earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize and established her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with Cather on happiness, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit, Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, and Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-draining day job to become a full-time writer.

BP

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

“In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Humboldt's 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature
Humboldt’s 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature

Given his attentiveness to this interconnectedness across all scales and dimensions of life, it is hardly surprising that Humboldt became the first scientist to admonish against the grave consequences of human-induced climate change after witnessing the environmental devastation of deforestation brought on by the spread of colonial plantations across South America in the 1800s.

Wulf writes:

Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes. Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on “future generations.”

[…]

We are shaped by the past. Nicolaus Copernicus showed us our place in the universe, Isaac Newton explained the laws of nature, Thomas Jefferson gave us some of our concepts of liberty and democracy, and Charles Darwin proved that all species descend from common ancestors. These ideas define our relationship to the world.

Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself. The irony is that Humboldt’s views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them. But there exists a direct line of connection through his ideas, and through the many people whom he inspired. Like a rope, Humboldt’s concept of nature connects us to him.

Wulf pulls on that rope with both hands:

There are many reasons why Humboldt remains fascinating and important: not only was his life colourful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.

Humboldt’s disciples, and their disciples in turn, carried his legacy forward — quietly, subtly and sometimes unintentionally. Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision — although many have never heard of him. Nonetheless, Humboldt is their founding father.

As scientists are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever. His beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today. His concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking.

[…]

It feels as if we’ve come full circle. Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.

The Invention of Nature is a riveting read in its entirety, bringing back to life the remarkable man who gave shape to life as we know it. Complement it with the equally enchanting story of Luke Howard — the young amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds and who, like his contemporary Humboldt, bewitched Goethe with his genius — then trace Humboldt’s legacy to our present-day understanding of how everything connects.

BP

Rilke on the Rewards of Reading and What Books Do for Our Inner Lives

“Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times.”

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exclaimed in reflecting on her fifty favorite books from a lifetime of reading.

A century earlier, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926), another poet for the ages, wrote with unparalleled lyrical grace about what books do for our inner lives in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — the source of Rilke’s abiding ideas on how to live the questions, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves.

rilke

In a 1903 letter to Franz Xaver Kappus, the nineteen-year-old recipient of these timeless words of wisdom, Rilke extols the rewards of reading:

A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

In another letter to his young friend, penned half a century before Susan Sontag’s beautiful meditation on rereading as rebirth, Rilke looks back on one of his favorite books — Danish poet, novelist, and scientist Jens Peter Jacobsen’s 1880 novel Niels Lyhne — and reflects on the universal rewards of rereading:

The oftener one reads it — there seems to be everything in it from life’s very faintest fragrance to the full big taste of its heaviest fruits. There is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, grasped, experienced and recognized in the tremulous after-ring of memory; no experience has been too slight, and the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others. You will experience the great happiness of reading this book for the first time, and will go through its countless surprises as in a new dream. But I can tell you that later too one goes through these books again and again with the same astonishment and that they lose none of the wonderful power and surrender none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one at a first reading.

Complement this particular portion of the fabulously rereadable Letters to a Young Poet with Kafka on what books do for the human spirit, Rebecca Solnit on why we read, and Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated