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Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Nothing keeps us from changing more than our tendency — our willingness — to remain locked into versions of ourselves, into personae and identities barred in by heavy leaden rods of self-righteousness. Too often, we’d rather be right than understand — ourselves or others or the world — but it is only understanding, which only grows by leaps and bounds of wrong guesses and failed theories, that firms our grasp of reality.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Lamott addresses this tragic self-limitation in the opening essay, titled “Puzzles.” With an eye to “the fleecy cloak we’ve made for ourselves, the finery of being right,” she writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

Half a century after Joan Didion reflected on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, Lamott adds:

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

My hand-drawn map based on Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Utopia”

The problem, of course, is that truth remains slippery, making our entire existence a giant slipping slide into what the poet Wisława Szymborska called “unfathomable life.” Still, somehow, we slip and slide and get by. We swim through the world, fragile and disoriented, buoyed only by love, transformed only by love.

Nearly a century and a half after Nietzsche considered truth and lies in a nonmoral sense, Lamott writes:

Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell. Maybe someday the stars will reabsorb me. Maybe, as fundamentalist Christians have shared with me, I will rot in hell for all eternity, which I would hate, because I am very sensitive. Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger.

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s beautiful and discomfiting assertion that “to be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” Lamott adds:

How can we celebrate paradox, let alone manage at all, knowing how scary the future may be — that the baby brother will grow, and ignore you or hurt you or break your heart? Or that we may die, after an unattractive decline, or bomb North Korea later today? We remember that because truth is paradox, something beautiful is also going on. So while trusting that and waiting for revelation, we do the next right thing. We tell the truth. We march, make dinner, have rummage sales to raise relief funds. Whoever arranges such things keeps distracting us and shifting things around so we don’t get stuck in hopelessness: we can take one loud, sucking, disengaging step back into hope. We remember mustard seeds, that the littlest things will have great results. We do the smallest, realest, most human things. We water that which is dry.

Almost Everything is a buoyant read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and Zadie Smith on optimism and despair, then revisit Lamott on forgiveness as the root of self-respect, how we find meaning in a crazy-making world, the greatest gift of friendship, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her superb manifesto for handling haters.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her superb antidote to our ahistorical worldview. So much of our suffering, both personal and political, stems from our inability — or, rather, unwillingness — to take a telescopic perspective of time; to look past the immediacy of symptoms and instead trace the long arc between cause and effect. Only along such an arc can we propel our moral development — again, both personal and political — toward its highest potentiality: justice, dignity, existential fulfillment.

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout her 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — an extension of her classic short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, published a year earlier, which remains one of the most powerful and pause-giving thought experiments in literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

Speaking through her protagonist — the mathematician Shevek, modeled on the Nobel-winning physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of her parents’ — Le Guin writes:

Our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin’s protagonist revisits the subject of time in a passage that stands as the prose counterpart to her splendid “Hymn to Time”:

Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

In a sentiment which Sarah Manguso would echo in her poignant assertion that “perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” Le Guin adds:

The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

This tenet applies not only to the sequential record of life we call history, but to life itself, even — or perhaps especially — in its most immediate manifestations. Just as we lose perspective when we fragment history into isolated moments, we lose sight of the whole — of its beauty and of its inherent truth — whenever we fragment any element of life into its constituent parts. Elsewhere in the novel, Le Guin shines a sidewise gleam on this equivalence:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Dispossessed with the psychology of temporality and Jorge Luis Borges’s landmark meditation on time, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.

Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” Kurt Vonnegut offered in the first of his 8 tips for writing a good story. “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds,” the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner observed in his essay on what makes a great story. “Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.” What, then, makes for maximally convincing lifelikeness in a story that leaves the reader grateful for the time spent reading it?

That is what Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) examined in a letter to his brother Alexander, included in the 1973 volume Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries (public library),

Anton Chekhov (Portrait by Osip Braz, 1898)

Writing on May 10, 1888, Chekhov lays out his six tenets of a great story:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

Embedded in the complementarity rather than contradiction of the second and the sixth — total objectivity and compassion — is the recognition that no depiction of reality is realistic unless it include an empathic account of all perspectives, which might be the defining characteristic not only of Chekhov as a writer but of any great storyteller.

Chekhov had put his own principles to fine use — that year, his short story collection At Dusk won him the prestigious Pushkin Prize, named after his famed compatriot Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (June 6, 1799–February 10, 1837), who had articulated a remarkably similar philosophy of storytelling half a century earlier.

In a fragment from 1830, Pushkin considers what makes a great dramatist — the most esteemed species of storyteller in the era’s ecosystem of literature — and lists the following necessary qualities:

A philosophy, impartiality, the political acumen of a historian, insight, a lively imagination. No prejudices or preconceived ideas. Freedom.

Complement with Chekhov — a lover of lists — on the 8 qualities of cultured people, then revisit other abiding advice on the craft from great writers: Susan Sontag on the art of storytelling, Jeanette Winterson’s 10 rules of writing and another 10 from Zadie Smith, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 guideposts, Jack Kerouac’s 30 “beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, James Baldwin’s advice to writers, and Ernest Hemingway’s reading list of essential books for every aspiring writer to read.

BP

Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing

“Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s classic 10 Rules of Writing published nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian invited some of the world’s most celebrated living authors to share their own dicta of the craft. “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in the last of her ten. Midway through her list, Margaret Atwood grounded the psychological dimensions of the craft in the pragmatic and the physical: “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Neil Gaiman thought eight rather than ten tenets would be sufficient — a meta-testament to his sixth: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

Among the contributors was Jeanette Winterson — a writer of exquisite prose and keen insight into the deepest strata of the human experience: time and language, our elemental need for belonging, the power of art, how storytelling transforms us.

Jeanette Winterson (Photograph: Polly Borland)

Winterson offers:

  1. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
  2. Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
  3. Love what you do.
  4. Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.
  5. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
  6. Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
  7. Take no notice of anyone with a ­gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.
  8. Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
  9. Trust your creativity.
  10. Enjoy this work!

For more hard-earned guidance on the writing process from other titans of literature, see Henry Miller’s eleven commandments of writing, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, and T.S. Eliot’s warm, wry letter of advice to a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to be a writer.

BP

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