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13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

More fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. It was then, and continues to be, a labor of love and ledger of curiosity, although the mind and heart from which it sprang have changed — have grown, I hope — tremendously. At the end of the first decade, I told its improbable origin story and drew from its evolution the ten most important things this all-consuming daily endeavor taught me about writing and living — largely notes to myself, perhaps best thought of as resolutions in reverse, that may or may not be useful to others.

Now, as Brain Pickings turns thirteen — the age at which, at least in the Germanic languages, childhood tips to adolescence; the age at which I first competed in the European Math Olympics; the legal marriage age in my homeland; the number of British colonies that germinated the United States; the number of moons revolving around Neptune; a handsome prime number — I feel compelled to add three more learnings from the past three years, which have been in some ways the most difficult and in some ways the most beautiful of my life; the years in which I made the things of which I am proudest: created The Universe in Verse, composed Figuring, and finally published, after eight years of labor, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

Here are the initial ten learnings, as published in 2016, which I continue to stand and live by:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
  8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.
  10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

And here are the three new additions, which refine some of the subtler ideas and ideals contemplated above:

  1. A reflection originally offered on the cusp of Year 11, by way of a wonderful poem about pi: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
  2. Because Year 12 is the year in which I finished writing Figuring (though it emanates from my entire life), and because the sentiment, which appears in the prelude, is the guiding credo to which the rest of the book is a 576-page footnote, I will leave it as it stands: There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
  3. In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

And since Brain Pickings is the public record of what I privately think and feel and worry and wonder about daily, here is a time machine of thought and feeling via thirteen of the pieces I have most enjoyed writing these past thirteen years:

  1. The More Loving One


  2. Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us


  3. How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life


  4. The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage


  5. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen


  6. Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair


  7. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation


  8. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power


  9. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers


  10. Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert


  11. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss


  12. Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


  13. A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan


BP

The Great Czech Playwright Turned Dissident Turned President Václav Havel on Hope

“Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson exhorted the young in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” she told the next generation, two generations before Rebecca Solnit insisted in her magnificent manifesto for resilience that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”

I too have long contemplated the question of hope — how it serves as a life-affirming antidote to the cowardice of cynicism, how its active and actionable nature differs from the laziness of passive optimism. Born into a communist dictatorship, one of my earliest memories is sitting atop my father’s shoulders, holding a candle into the night air alongside thousands of others gathered at the plaza before the Bulgarian Parliament in the protests that eventually brought down the dictatorship.

Months after I was born, a handful of longitude degrees north, the great Czech playwright turned dissident (turned, some years later, president) Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed the vital role of hope in steering destiny in a series of interviews conducted shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four years for composing an anti-communist manifesto in response to the imprisonment of the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Eventually published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, his timeless insights into the inner life and civic purpose of hope were excerpted a quarter century later in Paul Loeb’s lucid and life-buoying posy of hope-strands, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (public library).

Václav Havel

Imprisoned multiple times for upholding his ideals of justice and humanism, for his insistence on anti-consumerism and environmental responsibility, Havel, like Viktor Frankl, knew the value of hope with visceral intimacy, not as an intellectual pretension or a spiritual delusion but as a lifeline of sanity and survival, for the individual as well as for the constellation of individuals we call society. He writes:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

A century after Walt Whitman, having lived and served and continued writing hope-giving, life-salving verses through a gruesome war, held up optimism as a mighty force of resistance, Havel adds:

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

Art from Trees at Night by the dissident political cartoonist Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

But what is this “elsewhere” and where does it reside? In the hearts of citizens, Havel argues — the individual hearts that harmonize into the symphonic pulse-beat of culture. Writing from the other side of unspeakable atrocities and terrors and oppressions, as the communist regime was beginning to topple after a decades-long rein, he examines the nature of power as a bidirectional valve, flowing not only top-down but bottom-up:

All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over… No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.

With an eye to the groundswells of hope and resistance he had begun witnessing — the very groundswells that would, before the decade’s end, topple the dictatorship — he writes in a passage of astounding prescience for his own time and vibrant resonance to ours:

New islands of self-awareness and self-liberation are appearing, and the connections between them, which were once so brutally disrupted, are multiplying… Something is happening in the social awareness, though it is still an undercurrent as yet, rather than something visible… And all of this brings subtle pressure to bear on the powers that govern society. I’m not thinking now of the obvious pressure of public criticism coming from dissidents, but of the invisible kinds of pressure brought on by this general state of mind and its various forms of expression, to which power unintentionally adapts, even in the act of opposing it.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

Pointing to “the unstoppable development of independent culture” and the moral awakening of youth as the two greatest motive forces for the coming change, he writes:

[Young people are beginning] to seek, among the diffuse and fragmented world of frenzied consumerism…, for a point that will hold firm — all this awakens in them a longing for a genuine moral “vanishing point,” for something purer and more authentic. These people simply long to step outside the general automatic operations of society and rediscover their natural world and discover hope for this world.

I thought of Havel as I cycled across the Manhattan Bridge to join the breathtaking gathering of young people at the 2019 Climate Strike, the largest environmental protest in history — a magnificent mass of resistance to greed, to consumerism, to the capitalist exploitation of our irreplaceable planet’s oceans and rivers and rainforests and wildlife, whose preservation and administration, as Rachel Carson admonished in 1953 to unheeding ears, “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s poems. (Available as a print.)

The future, Havel reminds us, is a mosaic built of these seemingly small yet combinatorially enormous acts of courage and resistance:

Isn’t the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have “come out” if there had not been this great hope “within,” this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the “hopeless enterprise” which stands at the beginning of most good things?

[…]

People who are used to seeing society only “from above” tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything.

Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity… History is not something that takes place “elsewhere”; it takes place here; we all contribute to making it.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting The Impossible Will Take a Little While — which also gave us Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about loneliness and resilience — with Zadie Smith on optimism and despair and Iris Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, then revisit Havel’s stirring 1995 Harvard commencement address.

BP

William Godwin’s Stunning 1794 Advice to a Young Activist on How to Confront the Status Quo with Self-Possession, Dignity, and Persuasive Conviction

“Above all… abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective… Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment. It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear.”

William Godwin’s Stunning 1794 Advice to a Young Activist on How to Confront the Status Quo with Self-Possession, Dignity, and Persuasive Conviction

In the autumn of 1793, the thirty-year-old West Indian political reformer Joseph Gerrald set out for Edinburgh as a delegate for a convention of British reformers gathering there to advance the then-radical causes of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. During the trip, he toured the Scottish countryside to promote the ideals of the reform movement and soon published a fiery pamphlet addressed to the people of England, unambiguously titled A Convention, the Only Means of Saving Us from Ruin.

Although the aims of the convention were rather moderate, they were still deemed incendiary against the backdrop of the era’s extreme conservatism. Gerrald and his collaborators were arrested on charges for sedition. A trial was scheduled for March 10, 1794.

On January 23, Gerrald received an extraordinary letter of solidarity, moral support, and astute advice on how to handle himself in court from the English political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836), who was yet to forge the original union of equals with the great Mary Wollstonecraft and father Frankenstein author Mary Shelley with her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

The letter, posthumously published in William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (public library | public domain), stands as a timeless document of dignity, reason, and resistance, advising the young idealist — any young idealist, in any era, along any axis of social change — on how to stand up to the status quo with unfaltering self-possession, dignity, and persuasive conviction.

Nearly two centuries before Audre Lorde issued her sobering exhortation that “your silence will not protect you,” Godwin frames the trial hearings as “the means of converting thousands, and, progressively, millions, to the cause of reason and public justice,” urging Gerrald to use his voice and visibility, even under assault, as a platform for advancing the reform movement:

You have a great stake, you place your fortune, your youth, your liberty, and your talents on a single throw. If you must suffer, do not, I conjure you, suffer without making use of this opportunity of telling a tale upon which the happiness of nations depends. Spare none of the resources of your powerful mind.

Reflecting on the value of the convention and of activists gathering around shared ideals of progress, he adds a rhetorical aside of astounding timeliness today:

Will the present overbearing and exasperating conduct of government lead to tranquillity and harmony? Will new wars and new taxes, the incessant persecution, ruin, and punishment of every man that dares to oppose them heal the dissensions of mankind? No! Nothing can save us but moderation, prudence and timely reform. Men must be permitted to confer together upon their common interests, unprovoked by insult, counteracting treachery, and arbitrary decrees.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Bolstering the young man’s self-assurance with words of electric encouragement, Godwin goes on to delineate the optimal psychological framework of persuasion:

Never forget that juries are men, and that men are made of penetrable stuff: probe all the recesses of their souls. Do not spend your strength in vain defiance and empty vaunting. Let every syllable you utter be fraught with persuasion. What an event would it be for England and mankind if you could gain an acquittal! Is not such an event worth striving for? It is in man, I am sure it is, to effect that event. Gerrald, you are that man. Fertile in genius, strong in moral feeling, prepared with every accomplishment that literature and reflection can give. Stand up to the situation — be wholly yourself.

[…]

It is the nature of the human mind to be great in proportion as it is acted upon by great incitements. Remember this. Now is your day. Never, perhaps never, in the revolution of human affairs, will your mind be the same illustrious and irresistible mind as it will be on this day.

Godwin ends his letter with a passage of uncommon insight into the art of debate, replete with timeless wisdom on holding one’s ground with dignity — wisdom so timely in our own age of highly combustible opinion-weaponry:

Do not fritter away your defence by anxiety about little things; do not perplex the jury by dividing their attention. Depend upon it, that if you can establish to their full conviction the one great point… you will obtain a verdict.

[…]

Above all, let me entreat you to abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective. Show that you are not terrible but kind, and anxious for the good of all. Truth will lose nothing by this. Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment. It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear. It is by calm and recollected boldness that we can shake the pillars of the vault of heaven. How great will you appear if you show that all the injustice with which you are treated cannot move you: that you are too great to be wounded by their arrows; that you still hold the steadfast course that becomes the friend of man, and that while you expose their rottenness you harbour no revenge. The public want men of this unaltered spirit, whom no persecution can embitter. The jury, the world will feel your value, if you show yourself such a man: let no human ferment mix in the sacred work.

Farewell; my whole soul goes with you. You represent us all.

W. Godwin.

Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a visionary far ahead of her time — would later recount that despite Gerrald’s eloquent defense, the judge interrupted him with the astounding assertion that he was even more dangerous to society because his motives were pure rather than criminal. He was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to fifteen years of penal transportation — a verdict Shelley considered equivalent to a death sentence, for Gerrald was already ill with tuberculosis and could not be expected to survive a long journey to a faraway colony.

After a yearlong imprisonment in London, he was put on a cargo vessel named Sovereign — one final jab of irony — and shipped off to New South Wales, where he died four months later, shortly after his thirty-third birthday. But his example ignited in generations of reformers the passion for justice and human rights — a bittersweet reminder that, in Zadie Smith’s beautiful words, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Complement with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel and Albert Einstein’s wonderful letter of solidarity and advice to Marie Curie when she — yes, even she — was besieged by detractors, then revisit Godwin’s soul-stirring love letters to and from Mary Wollstonecraft.

BP

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.

In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.

In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:

No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.

A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:

To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.

He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:

There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.

In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead.(Photograph: Maria Popova)

For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.

On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:

I felt
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived

And then Dickinson added:

The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.

Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Art by Maira Kalman. (The New Yorker)

But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.

Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.

The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.

That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:

It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —

     How dreary to be somebody
     How public, like a frog
     To tell your name the livelong day
     To an admiring bog.

For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.

BP

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