“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive.”
By Maria Popova
“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace,”Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” And yet, Zadie Smith admonished in her 10 rules of writing, it’s perilous to romanticize the “vocation of writing”: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”
Still, surely there must be more to it than that — whole worlds rise and fall, entire universes blossom and die daily in that enchanted space between the writer’s sensation of writing and the word’s destiny of being written on a page. For all that’s been mulled about the writing life and its perpetual osmosis of everyday triumphs and tragedies, its existential feats and failures, at its heart remains an immutable mystery — how can a calling be at once so transcendent and so soul-crushing, and what is it that enthralls so many souls into its paradoxical grip, into feeling compelled to write “not because they can but because they have to”? That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (public library) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing.
Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book:
Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.
Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully:
When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.
The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.
We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.
The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. … Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.
What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.
If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.
To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.
“Ellington [was] a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.”
By Maria Popova
Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz icon Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, consumed by his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.
Even though he surrounded himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:
That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.
His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:
Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.
Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:
He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.
Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:
For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.
And yet beneath the persona Ellington projected lay a person of swelling imperfection — he shamelessly “borrowed” creative material from his band musicians without sharing the royalties or accolades, and had ceaseless extramarital and extra-extramarital affairs, cheating on his wife Edna with his longterm lover Evie, on whom he cheated with countless other women. (So intense were the private passions around his publicly muzzled affairs that, at one point, Edna attacked him with a razor after finding out he had been sleeping with another woman, reportedly his Black and Tan co-star Fredi Washington. What Edna didn’t know was that Duke had a regular habit of checking into several hotels, handing out keys to different women, only later deciding which hotel room he wanted to ravage for the night.) Teachout puts it rather bluntly, but certainly not an unwarranted observation given the evidence of Ellington’s life:
Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art — and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.
Teachout cites the recollection of producer John Houseman, who worked with Ellington on his first Broadway show, Beggar’s Holiday:
At the time I worked with him the Duke had abandoned all attempts to organize his own life. Between late-night engagements with his band, concerts, recordings, interviews, composing and other activities he had turned over the scheduling of his days and nights to his wife, his manager and other associates. They woke him up when it was time, fed him, laid out the right clothes for him, transported and delivered him on time for whatever engagement he was committed to, picked him up, changed his clothes, delivered him once more, fed him again and finally put him to bed. In this way, he explained, by ceasing to concern himself with time and space, he was able to preserve his energy and his sanity.
And yet, Teachout argues, Houseman mistook Ellington’s meticulous manipulation of his people-machinery for mere passivity — instead, he was hard at work controlling every aspect of his life:
What Houseman did not see was that Ellington sought to exert the maximum possible amount of control over everyone in his life — by stealth. “What you need to do is wake up after two o’clock, make phone calls, but don’t move an inch,” he told [his son] Mercer Ellington. “Just lie flat on your back and phone, and tell everybody everything that has to be done, and lay all your plans without going out anywhere. . . . When you come downstairs you’ll have prepared your day, and you’ll be The Greatest!” After he died, Mercer found a handwritten note among his father’s papers in which Ellington summed himself up in three lapidary sentences: “No problem. I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”
His selfishness was unswerving, though it did not exclude benevolence, if only on his own terms.
Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:
He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.
Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:
Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.
He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.
In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.
In addition to crafting his public personality, he was equally meticulous about his appearance. Always clad in the latest fashion, he straightened his hair and even wore a corset. His sleek “conk” hair style, however, was particularly paradoxical and a visceral testament to both his cultural obliviousness to anything other than himself and his choice of personal vanity over the civil rights cause he alleged to stand for:
Ellington wore his hair in a “conk,” a style created with a hair-straightening process that made use of hot lye. Straight hair, or “good hair,” was as highly valued by middle-class blacks of his generation as was light skin, and they were willing to endure much for it. Black newspapers were full of ads for products that promised to rid the user of “kinky woolly hair. . . . All hipsters in Harlem are using superior hair straightener.” No amount of shame was too much to bear in the quest for good hair. Every jar of Kongolene, one of the most popular hair-processing products of the day, was decorated with a logo on which the initials KKK were, fantastic as it may sound, clearly visible. Most of the top black bandleaders of the period, including Ellington and Cab Calloway, wore conks (Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton were prominent exceptions) long after the style had been repudiated by a new generation of politically conscious musicians. “We were against kinky hair in those days,” recalled the jazz trumpeter Joe Wilder. “We didn’t have better sense. . . . You know there was no pride in nappy hair in those days. We all wanted straight hair—we wanted people to think we had good hair.”
In time Malcolm X came to see the conk he had worn in his youth as an unnatural act of “self-degradation.” He wrote contemptuously of the practice in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taking care not to mention Ellington (whom he admired) by name: “You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called ‘upper class’ Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. . . . I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.” But Ellington would never stop straightening his hair, oblivious of the impression that it made on younger blacks for whom “good hair” was a badge of dishonor.
In another manifestation — perhaps the manifestation — of his paradoxical desire for wide public visibility and tightly controlled private invisibility, Ellington even wrote an autobiography, aptly titled Music Is My Mistress and released a year before his death. (How much of his decision was creative and how much commercial will remain a mystery, but Doubleday did pay him a $50,000 advance for it, equivalent to about $319,000 today.) But rather than using it as a final saving grace of honesty, Ellington used it to further conceal rather than reveal the truth of who he really was — perhaps, in a less cynical view, simply because it was a truth that eluded him more than anyone. Teachout finds the book’s intentional evasiveness especially frustrating:
He of all people should have left behind a frank memoir, one in which he told the story of how a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training managed to turn himself into a great composer — for that is what he was, and why he matters to us today.
And yet Teachout finds “at least one undeniable truth” revealed in the self-interview with which Ellington, this “improbably gaudy bird of paradise,” ends his autobiography:
Q. Can you keep from writing music? Do you write in spite of yourself?
A. I don’t know how strong the chains, cells, and bars are. I’ve never tried to escape.
But if an answer to Ellington’s elusive character is ever to be found, perhaps it offers itself up in the verse with which he closed Black, Brown and Beige, his multimovement piece about the black experience in America, which he spent a decade crafting — and more than a decade pitching for publicity, long before the piece was finished, or even started. The proclamation was intended as commentary on the question of race relations addressed by this particular piece and his general public persona, but it endures as one that ultimately reveals the agony of the private person who remained unseen, even by himself, beneath the public veneer of charisma and bravado:
And so, your song has stirred the souls
Of men in strange and distant places
The picture drawn by many hands
For many eyes of many races.
But did it ever speak to them
Of what you really are?
Still, it’s hard to judge Ellington’s tangle of paradoxes too harshly given it was merely a magnified — however exponentially — version of our shared humanity. As a 1944 New Yorker profile of him put it, he was a man who had “a stage self and a real self.” This is the thing: We all do — with those who live in the spotlight, the public persona and the private person are just much more easily delineated and discernible, the contrast between them thus starker. But all of us, especially today, are equally our own publicists as we craft our public personae with every Facebook status shared and every Instagram photo uploaded, using those increasingly as tools to conceal as much as to reveal. Fittingly, Rex Stewart remarked of Ellington that he had “apparently learned to give more of himself in public but less in private” — a tendency to which it’s all too easy to succumb as we too explore and manipulate our own boundaries of visibility and invisibility.
Dimensional, thoughtful, and rigorously researched, Duke is an enthralling read from cover to cover, revealing through the specificity of one conflicted life the universality of the human condition and our constant struggle for integration, for wholeness, for reining in our angels and our demons into a unity of self, both public and private.
Coleridge’s plagiarisms began innocently enough: In his youth, he found himself enthralled by an obscure German book of spiritual meditations by Jean-Paul Richter, given to him by his friend Crabb Robinson, and began integrating Richter’s ideas into his own reflections as he was translating the German text. Holmes writes:
He drew comfort from Jean-Paul’s aphorisms and meditations in a particular way. He did not merely read and reflect on them, but incorporated them into his own Notebooks in various forms of translation, imitation, and reworked versions. … This method of privately translating and anthologizing Jean-Paul throws some light on the psychology of Coleridge’s later plagiarism. He had consciously used adapted translations in some of his earlier poetry. . . . But his prose translations from Jean-Paul suggest a less deliberate, more internalized process at work in his private Notebooks. It was almost as if, in “the long, long nights” of his study-bedroom at Hammersmith, he was holding a silent conversation with his confrère or brother-spirit in Leipzig.
In fact, this silent conversation — much akin to the marginalia that bond reader and writer — was for Coleridge a throbbing dialogue, which did include heavy borrowing, but also intellectual discourse and even dissent. In one instance, he called into question Jean-Paul’s overly sentimental analogies, writing to Robinson: “You admire, not the things combined, but the act of combination.” With this in mind, Holmes posits a caveat:
It would be absurd to describe Coleridge’s [private notebook] entries as any kind of plagiarism. But at the same time it is easy to see how, in other circumstances, use of such “adapted” material could open him up to such a charge. Coleridge was soon to find other German authors — notably A. W. Schlegel and Schelling — with whom he developed the same brotherly or symbiotic relationship. He read, translated, refined and expanded in his own way. But when he left the privacy of his study and published or lectured on the resulting text (without acknowledging his source) he inevitably opened himself up to the charge of plagiarism.
And open him up it did: This early practice of fusing his influences into his own private work — to the extent that any of our ideas are “our own” at all — congealed into a habit of mind that would render Coleridge chronically susceptible to plagiarism, whether conscious or not, in his public work. He was especially heavily influenced by Schelling, whose ideas permeated Coleridge’s magnum opus, his Biographia Literaria — at times with verbatim translations which Coleridge left unappropriated. Curiously, it was Crabb Robinson, a German scholar himself, who both acquainted Coleridge with his sources and first recognized the problem of plagiarism. And yet, rather than casting Coleridge’s borrowing in a black-and-white framework of morality, Robinson was able to see the grayscale of its psychological mechanisms. Holmes writes:
Significantly, [Robinson] did not consider it plagiarism, being fully aware of Coleridge’s vast background reading in German and British philosophy and criticism, and the originality of his particular interpretations. Moreover Coleridge was almost never dominated by his sources. Except in the particular case of Schelling, he never stole slavishly. His disagreements with German thought … produced his great originality of emphasis, those sudden developments of psychological insight, and vivid metaphorical explanation. He was always inspired to outdo his originals, to speculate further, to enquire more closely.
And yet the charges of plagiarism would become both more urgent and more inescapable by the time his Biographia was published in 1817. In it, Coleridge lifted entire passages from Schelling, word for word, without a sliver of attribution. But Holmes argues this was less a deliberate exercise in creative deception than a byproduct of Coleridge’s deteriorating mental health and weakening psychoemotional capacities. He had become addicted to opium, his addiction not only painfully blocking his bowels but also instilling in him crippling guilt and shame, and he had a falling out with William Wordsworth, his closest professional peer and likemind, as well as a dear friend and confidante. Holmes writes:
It cannot be a coincidence that this period corresponds to the worst time of his opium addiction, the extreme sense of his loss of Wordsworth, and the severest lack of professional self-confidence and feelings of almost paralyzing failure. At one level, then, plagiarism was a response to the profound, almost disabling anxiety and intellectual self-doubts. His German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.
This, perhaps, is the moral of Coleridge’s questionable relationship with originality — while creativity is all about connecting things, and we are, as Austin Kleon put it, a mashup of what we let into our lives, and all ideas are, as Mark Twain observed, substantially second-hand, the line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft is often fine, but learning to walk it both consciously and conscientiously is where true creative integrity lies.
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