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Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence, and the Core of Creativity

“You can only go with loves in this life.”

Between 1973 and 1974, journalist James Day hosted the short-lived but wonderful public television interview series Day at Night. Among his guests was the inimitable Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — beloved writer, man of routine, tireless champion of space exploration, patron saint of public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy. Highlights from the interview, which has been kindly digitized by CUNY TV, are transcribed below.

On the misunderstood, and often dismissed, value of the fantasy genre:

The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive, and the ability to fantasize is the ability to grow.

On the scope-expanding quality of science fiction, something Isaac Asimov has attested to as well:

The great thing about growing up with science fiction is that you have an interest in everything.

On the formative influence of fairy tales and Greek myths

My aunt and my mother read to me when I was three from all the old Grimm fairy tales, Andersen fairy tales, and then all the Oz books as I was growing up… So by the time when I was ten or eleven, I was just full to the brim with these, and the Greek myths, and the Roman myths. And then, of course, I went to Sunday school, and then you take in the Christian myths, which are all fascinating in their own way… I guess I always tended to be a visual person, and myths are very visual, and I began to draw, and then I felt the urge to carry on these myths.

If I’m anything at all, I’m not really a science-fiction writer — I’m a writer of fairy tales and modern myths about technology.

Recounting how he got his foot in the door of a local radio station through the sheer force of persistence, Bradbury reflects on the broader role of doggedness in success:

I discovered very early on that if you wanted a thing, you went for it — and you got it. Most people never go anywhere, or want anything — so they never get anything.

On the supremacy of intuition over rationalization and the intellect’s propensity for immorality:

I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

On how the warping of that dynamic exposes the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, and why emotional excess is essential to creative work:

The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece.

But thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life. Living is supposed to be the center of our life, being is supposed to be the center — with correctives around, which hold us like the skin holds our blood and our flesh in. But our skin is not a way of life — the way of living is the blood pumping through our veins, the ability to sense and to feel and to know. And the intellect doesn’t help you very much there — you should get on with the business of living.

On how intuition and love, not intellectual understanding and rationalization, shape his poetry and prose, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art.

On the tremendous value of libraries in discovering ideas to fall in love with, embedded in which is a bittersweet reminder that in today’s search-driven culture, we’ve lost that magic of serendipitous discovery:

I use a library the same way I’ve been describing the creative process as a writer — I don’t go in with lists of things to read, I go in blindly and reach up on shelves and take down books and open them and fall in love immediately. And if I don’t fall in love that quickly, shut the book, back on the shelf, find another book, and fall in love with it. You can only go with loves in this life.

On why he turns to children’s books — something we share in common — for creative inspiration in his “serious” literary work:

I try to keep up with what’s being done in every field, and most children’s books are ten times more enjoyable than the average American novel right now.

He returns to the role of the emotional in anchoring all true art:

This is the emotional thing, you see — you must galvanize people, so they want to be completely alive and live forever, or the next thing to it. And out of that comes art, then, and survival through emotion.

On finding no conflict between religion and science because the mysterious is at the root of both and “ignorance” drives them — something Bradbury had previously explored in his unpublished poetry:

The processes we’re going through are two sides of the same coin, because everything ends in mystery — the scientists have theories, and the theologians have myths, and they are both the same thing, because we end up in ignorance. … We have to think about the unthinkable, which is what religion does and science does, too.

On finding your purpose and avoiding “work” by doing what you love:

[I love my work] intensely — I wouldn’t be in it if I ever stopped loving it, I would shift it and go over into something else. … I don’t think life is worth living unless you’re doing something you love completely, so that you get out of bed in the morning and want to rush to do it. If you’re doing something mediocre, if you’re doing something to fill in time, life really isn’t worth living. … I can’t understand people not living at the top of their emotions constantly, living with their enthusiasms, living with some sense of joy, some sense of creativity — I don’t care how small a level it is. … I don’t care what field it is though, and there’s gotta be a field for everyone, doesn’t there?

A resounding secular “Amen!” to that, Mr. Bradbury, and thank you for everything.

For more of Bradbury’s inimitable mind in conversation, see Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by his official biographer, Sam Weller. Complement with the wonderful 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer and the beloved author on space exploration, libraries, and the meaning of life in his lost Comic Con interview, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

BP

Pioneering 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Education and Women in Science

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”

“We are women studying together,” legendary astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell said to the senior class in astronomy when it entered upon its last year at Vassar College in 1876, where Mitchell had begun teaching after the Civil War as the only woman on the faculty. These seemingly simple and unremarkable words sprang from a remarkable determination that would come to pave the way for women in science. In fact, Mitchell’s strides towards equality in education are unparalleled by any other figure of the era. From Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the beloved astronomer’s timeless wisdom on science and life — comes a fascinating record of Mitchell’s witty, unrelenting spirit and the conviction with which she steered the wheel of science education.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

To get an idea of just how radical the notion of women’s education was in the era’s cultural context, here is an anecdote, equal parts amusing and appalling, that Mitchell relays about one particularly anxious mother who placed her daughter in the astronomer’s care at Vassar:

One lady, who seemed to be a bright woman, got me by the button and held me a long time—she wanted this, that, and the other impracticable thing for the girl, and told me how honest her daughter was; then with a flood of tears she said, ‘But she is not a Christian. I know I put her into good hands when I put her here.’ (Then I was strongly tempted to avow my Unitarianism.) Miss W., who was standing by, said, ‘Miss Lyman will be an excellent spiritual adviser,’ and we both looked very serious; when the mother wiped her weeping eyes and said, ‘And, Miss Mitchell, will you ask Miss Lyman to insist that my daughter shall curl her hair? She looks very graceful when her hair is curled, and I want it insisted upon,’ I made a note of it with my pencil, and as I happened to glance at Miss W. the corners of her mouth were twitching, upon which I broke down and laughed. The mother bore it very good-naturedly, but went on. She wanted to know who would work some buttonholes in her daughter’s dress that was not quite finished, etc., and it all ended in her inviting me to make her a visit.

And yet Mitchell had extraordinary clarity of vision when it came to education in all its dimensions, one she eloquently — if sternly — articulated to her pupils:

You cannot study anything persistently for years without becoming learned, and although I would not hold reputation up to you as a very high object of ambition, it is a wayside flower which you are sure to have catch at your skirts.

Whatever apology other women may have for loose, ill-finished work, or work not finished at all, you will have none.

When you leave Vassar College, you leave it the best educated women in the world. Living a little outside of the college, beyond the reach of the little currents that go up and down the corridors, I think I am a fairer judge of your advantages than you can be yourselves; and when I say you will be the best educated women in the world, I do not mean the education of text-books, and class-rooms, and apparatus, only, but that broader education which you receive unconsciously, that higher teaching which comes to you, all unknown to the givers, from daily association with the noble-souled women who are around you.

Mitchell confronted the issue of women’s education head-on, writing in her diary on January 3, 1868:

Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in fifty years. He said one of the most conservative members of the faculty had said, within sixteen days, that it would come about in twenty years.* I asked him if I could go into one of Professor Peirce’s recitations. He said there was nothing to keep me out, and that he would let me know when they came.

At eleven A.M., the next Friday, I stood at Professor Peirce’s door. As the professor came in I went towards him, and asked him if I might attend his lecture. He said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Can you not say “I shall be happy to have you”?’ and he said ‘I shall be happy to have you,’ but he didn’t look happy!

[…]

The professor was polite enough to ask us into the senior class, but I had an engagement. I asked him if a young lady presented herself at the door he could keep her out, and he said ‘No, and I shouldn’t.’ I told him I would send some of my girls.

* Harvard founded Radcliffe College, its sister school for women, in 1879 — but female scholars remained segregated there until 1999, when the two schools finally merged and Harvard-Harvard began to “admit girls” more than a century after the professor’s prediction.

Upon visiting Glasgow during her European trip five years later, Mitchell notes the dismal state of women’s education there, emblematic of the era’s general disposition — even, most tragically, of the era’s women “in power” themselves:

‘The Glasgow College for Girls.’ Seeing a sign of this sort, I rang the door-bell of the house to which it was attached, entered, and was told the lady was at home. As I waited for her, I took up the ‘Prospectus,’ and it was enough, — ‘music, dancing, drawing, needlework, and English’ were the prominent features, and the pupils were children. All well enough, — but why call it a college?

When the lady superintendent came in, I told her that I had supposed it was for more advanced students, and she said, ‘Oh, it is for girls up to twenty; one supposes a girl is finished by twenty.’

I asked, as modestly as I could, ‘Have you any pupils in Latin and mathematics?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s for girls, you know. Dr. M. hopes we shall have some mathematics next year.’ ‘And,’ I asked, ‘some Latin?’ ‘Yes, Dr. M. hopes we shall have some Latin; but I confess I believe Latin and mathematics all bosh; give them modern languages and accomplishments. I suppose your school is for professional women.’

I told her no; that the daughters of our wealthiest people demand learning; that it would scarcely be considered ‘good society’ when the women had neither Latin nor mathematics.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘they get married here so soon.’

When I asked her if they had lady teachers, she said ‘Oh, no [as if that would ruin the institution]; nothing but first-class masters.’

It was clear that the women taught the needlework.

But the very faculties that suited women for needlework, Mitchell firmly believed, were also what primed them to be great scientists should they choose to pursue that. In another diary entry, she puts the issue in wonderfully poetic terms:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

It comes as unsurprising testament to Mitchell’s character, then, that shortly thereafter, she makes a resolution that would guide the rest of her life and encapsulate her greatest legacy:

Resolved, in case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary; if possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions, believing, as I do, that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them, and that what is good in this life is good in any life.

This undying faith in “the intellectual culture of women” comes most vibrantly ablaze in a diary entry from 1874:

For women there are, undoubtedly, great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome. First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?

Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power — your influence is incalculable; personal influence is always underrated by the person. We are all centers of spheres — we see the portions of the sphere above us, and we see how little we affect it. We forget the part of the sphere around and before us — it extends just as far every way.

The “great gain,” she writes, would be freedom of thought:

Women, more than men, are bound by tradition and authority. What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtingly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their investigations, when doubt leads them to discovery, the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.

Mitchell bemoaned the disconnect between academic honors, which reward rote memorization, and actual learning — a challenge that remains unsolved even today.

The whole system is demoralizing and foolish. Girls study for prizes, and not for learning, when ‘honors’ are at the end. The unscholarly motive is wearing. If they studied for sound learning, the cheer which would come with every day’s gain would be health-preserving.

Though Mitchell opposed standardized testing and believed in more dimensional conceptions of intelligence long before it was fashionable to do so — “You cannot mark a human mind, because there is no intellectual unit,” she remarked — she was a fierce champion of the value of reading, particularly of the meticulous “mastication” of intellectual food:

My students used to say that my way of teaching was like that of the man who said to his son, ‘There are the letters of the English alphabet — go into that corner and learn them.’

It is not exactly my way, but I do think, as a general rule, that teachers talk too much! A book is a very good institution! To read a book, to think it over, and to write out notes is a useful exercise; a book which will not repay some hard thought is not worth publishing. The fashion of lecturing is becoming a rage; the teacher shows herself off, and she does not try enough to develop her pupils.

The greatest object in educating is to give a right habit of study….

She was also a proponent of intellectual and creative well-roundedness, the very wide interests that mark most successful scientists:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true,—that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was an enormous champion of endowment, both financial and intellectual, and noted the brokenness of education funding more than a century before today’s student debt crisis:

A genius should wait some years to prove her genius.

Endow the already established institution with money. Endow the woman who shows genius with time.

[…]

When you aid a teacher, you improve the education of your children. It is a wonder that teachers work as well as they do. I never look at a group of them without using, mentally, the expression, ‘The noble army of martyrs’!

The chemist should have had a laboratory, and the observatory should have had an astronomer; but we are too apt to bestow money where there is no man, and to find a man where there is no money.

When she visits Russia, Mitchell remarks upon the divergent cultural attitudes towards supporting education:

St. Petersburg is about the size of Philadelphia [but] there are thousands of women studying science in St. Petersburg. How many thousand women do you suppose are studying science in the whole State of New York? I doubt if there are five hundred.

Then again, as to language. It is rare, even among the common people, to meet one who speaks one language only. If you can speak no Russian, try your poor French, your poor German, or your good English. You may be sure that the shopkeeper will answer in one or another, and even the drosky-driver picks up a little of some one of them.

Of late, the Russian government has founded a medical school for women, giving them advantages which are given to men, and the same rank when they graduate; the czar himself contributed largely to the fund.

One wonders, in a country so rich as ours, that so few men and women gratify their tastes by founding scholarships and aids for the tuition of girls — it must be such a pleasant way of spending money.

Her impression is further confirmed when she shares a train ride with a Russian mother and her daughters on a trip across the country. Mitchell’s conversation with the young girls is profoundly telling, at once tragic and hopeful:

‘Are you interested in questions of government?’ They replied, ‘All Russian women are interested in questions of that sort.’ How many American women are interested in questions concerning government?

These young girls knew exactly what questions to ask about Vassar College, — the course of study, the diploma, the number of graduates, etc. The eldest said: ‘We are at once excited when we hear of women studying; we have longed for opportunities to study all our lives. Our father was the engineer of the first Russian railroad, and he spent two years in America.’

I confess to a feeling of mortification when one of these girls asked me, ‘Did you ever read the translation of a Russian book?’ and I was obliged to answer ‘No.’ This girl had read American books in the original. They were talking Russian, French, German, and English, and yet mourning over their need of education; and in general education, especially in that of women, I think we must be in advance of them.

One of these sisters, forgetting my ignorance, said something to me in Russian. The other laughed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked. The eldest replied, ‘She asked you to take her back with you, and educate her.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘you read and speak your languages — the learning of the world is open to you — found your own college!’ And the young girl leaned back on the cushions, drew her mantle around her, and said, ‘We have not the energy of the American girl!’

The energy of the American girl! The rich inheritance which has come down to her from men and women who sought, in the New World, a better and higher life.

When the American girl carries her energy into the great questions of humanity, into the practical problems of life; when she takes home to her heart the interests of education, of government, and of religion, what may we not hope for our country!

Above all, however, Mitchell championed the idea of challenging convention and never ceasing to question:

There is this great danger in student life. Now, we rest all upon what Socrates said, or what Copernicus taught; how can we dispute authority which has come down to us, all established, for ages?

We must at least question it; we cannot accept anything as granted, beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else.

But perhaps most telling of all was her students’ heartfelt gratitude. In May of 1889, shortly after Mitchell announced her reluctant retirement from Vassar as her health was rapidly declining, one student wrote to her, speaking for all whose lives the great astronomer and educator had touched, both directly and through her landmark cultural legacy:

In all the great wonder of life, you have given me more of what I have wanted than any other creature ever gave me. I hoped I should amount to something for your sake.

Complement Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s Berkeley commencement address on science and stereotypes a century after Mitchell’s heyday, when both so much and so little has changed, then revisit Mitchell’s Reconstructionists profile.

BP

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

BP

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