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Scientists and Writers Answer Children’s Simple, Surprisingly Profound Questions About How Life Works

Why we cry, how we know we aren’t dreaming right now, where the universe ends, what books are for, and more answers to deceptively simple yet profound questions.

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Illusionist Derren Brown, who has previously weighed in on the psychology of gullibility, answers 5-year-old Evie’s question about how we can be sure that life isn’t just a dream, touching on the limits of our perception of “reality”:

Often we have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.

(Meanwhile, it’s been argued elsewhere that the probability that you are dreaming right this moment is 1 in 10.)

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

Nobel-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon makes a beautiful addition to history’s best definitions of science in answering 7-year-old Louise’s question about what “the whole point of science” is:

Science makes continuous advances in the quality of human life.

Brian Cox, who has a penchant for illuminating the mysteries of life and of the universe, articulating the poetics of science and championing its cultural value, answers six-year-old Josh’s question about whether the universe has an edge:

We don’t even know how big the Universe is! We can only see a small part of our Universe – the part that light has had the time to travel across to reach us during the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Anything further away can’t be seen, simply because the light from these distant places hasn’t reached us yet.

The part we can see is pretty large, however. It contains around 350 billion large galaxies, each containing anything up to a trillion suns. This part, which is known as the observable Universe, is just over 90 billion light years across. But we are sure that the Universe extends far beyond this. It may even be infinitely big, which is impossible to imagine!

When Honor, age 11, asks Noam Chomsky whether new technology is always good, he answers:

Technology is usually fairly neutral. It’s like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or to destroy someone’s home. The hammer doesn’t care. It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.

Mary Roach, who has a singular gift for making intensely interesting what mainstream culture considers “gross,” answers two little boys’ collective question about why sweetcorn comes out the other end looking just like it did when we ate it:

A kernel of corn has a tough, fibrous ‘seed coat’ that stands up to the acids and digestive juices in your stomach — much the way a leather jacket protects a motorcycle rider. Corn is famous for its ability to pass through the body intact, or at least in recognizable pieces. For this reason, it can be used as a ‘marker food’ to measure how long it takes food to travel all the way through you.

The next time your family eats corn on the cob, you can do an experiment. Make a note of the date and time when you eat the corn, and then again when you next catch sight of it. The number of hours in between is the ‘transit time’ for your own intestines. (Some people might object to looking into the toilet, but based on your question, you won’t have a problem. You have a healthy curiosity, and that’s great!)

If you chew your corn thoroughly and break open the seed coat, your body should be able to absorb the good nutrients inside. Birds don’t have molars to break open seeds, so they poop them out whole, and then the seeds sprout where they land. Plants don’t have legs or cars, so this is one way they get around. The pooping birds help the plants populate the far corners of the land.

The seeds of the baobab tree, on the African savannah, are so tough that chimps can’t chew them up. So they eat them twice. They pluck the undissolved (but softened) seeds out of their poop and run them through their digesting machinery again. The second time around, the seeds break apart. You’ll be happy to learn that when the chimps are done, they wipe their lips with tree bark.

Phonetics professor John Wells answers 6-year-old Angelina’s question about whether animals like sheep and cows have accents:

Unlike human beings, animals don’t have languages. They do produce “vocalizations” (dogs bark, cats meow, sheep bleat, cows moo, birds chirp), but these are not language, even though they are a means of communicating.

[…]

Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.

Scientists have found that whales in different oceans make different kinds of vocalization, and the calls of some species of birds vary from one location to another. So we could perhaps say that whales and birds can have local “accents” or “dialects.” But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? is absolutely wonderful in its entirety — a curiosity quencher for all ages and an especially enchanting primer bridging science and everyday life for young minds.

BP

Great Writers Reflect on the Divide Between Private Person and Public Persona in Hand-Drawn Self-Portraits

“Only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.”

“It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen… I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his famous essay “Borges and I,” eloquently exploring our shared human tendency to disintegrate into multiple personas as our public and private selves slip in and out of different worlds. In 1996, Daniel Halpern asked 56 of our era’s most celebrated writers to reflect on Borges’s memorable meditation and contribute their own thoughts on the relationship between the person writing and the fictional persona of the writer. The resulting short essays, alongside hand-drawn self-portraits from each author — a recurring theme today — are gathered in Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library), a priceless addition to this omnibus of famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft.

Edward Albee
Cynthia Ozick
Diane Ackerman

Poet Diane Ackerman, whose timelessly beautiful cosmic poems never cease to stir, speaks to our multiple coexisting inner selves and the fluidity of human personality:

Selves will accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.

True to her essay’s title, “Diane Ackerman and I,” she playfully turns to the third person to further explore how this notion played out in her own life, while touching on a great many human universalities:

It was only in her middle years that she began to notice how her selves had been forming layer upon layer, translucent like skin; and, like skin, they were evolving a certain identifiable “fingerprint” — a weather system of highs and lows, loops and whirls.

[…]

Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field — a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source. Surely then she would begin to understand the huge spill of life, if she could perceive it from different view points, through simultaneous lives.

[…]

She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human — what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like — while working silently in a small room, filling blank sheets of paper. It is a solitary mania. But there are times when, all alone, she could be arrested for unlawful assembly.

Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin echoes the same sentiment:

When the Queen of England speaks in the first person plural, it sounds marvelously schizoid, and probably is for her a deep embarrassment. When an American politician has gone around the bend, he begins to refer to himself in the third person. All people feel that they are more than one. Even an Eskimo who returns from the ice to sit in the shadows inside an igloo must sometimes ask himself what the hunt has done to him, must wonder why his tenderness with his children takes so long to flood back after his sinews have been bent and frozen hard in the chase. It happens to everyone and to all of us, and only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.

And yet he has mastered that private integration that keeps his own multiple selves together:

However many of me there are, I have managed to fuse them into one. I cannot tell myself apart any more than the heavily breathing fox hiding under branches or in brush perceives in the mirror of his wide and alert eye a new dainty self or a different sad self or an admirably reflective self.

Margaret Atwood

In an essay titled “Me, She, and It,” Margaret Atwood — a woman of strong opinions about the problems of literature and its how-to’s — pokes at the common, flawed trope of the writerly persona as a separate, superior entity to the writer’s person:

Why do authors wish to pretend they don’t exist? It’s a way of skinning out, of avoiding truth and consequences. They’d like to deny the crime, although their fingerprints are allover the martini glasses, not to mention the hacksaw blade and the victim’s neck. Amnesia, they plead. Epilepsy. Sugar overdose. Demonic possession. How convenient to have an authorial twin, living in your body, looking out through your eyes, pushing pen down on paper or key down on keyboard, while you do what? File your nails?

Noting her own embodiment of this dichotomy, she admonishes:

A projection, a mass hallucination, a neurological disorder — call her what you will, but don’t confuse her with me.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles shares a similar sentiment in his essay titled “Bowles and It”:

What is this curious assumption, widely shared … that while writing, a writer can identify himself as one who is writing? The consciousness of oneself as oneself causes a short circuit, and the light goes out.

If I am writing fiction, I am being invented. I cannot retain any awareness of identity. The two states of being are antithetical. The author is not at a steering wheel: “I am driving this car. I command its movements. I can make it go wherever I please.” This assertion of identity is fatal; the writing at that point becomes meaningless.

Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart bleeds into the existential:

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.

He considers fiction as the mechanism of this perpetuum mobile of self-transformation:

Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

Paula Fox

In a short essay titled “Path,” Paula Fox rebels against this meta-awareness of the writer’s writing:

I cannot write of writing. To be at work, to write, must exclude thoughts about writing or about myself as a writer. To consider writing, to look at myself as a writer, holds for one sober moment, then plunges me into a tangle of misery that Cesare Pavese describes in his diary: “This terrible feeling that what you do is all wrong, so is what you think, what you are!”

It all suggests to me Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that you can either know where a thing is or how fast it is moving — but not both simultaneously. The warring self disappears into the self-less concentration of work. Imagination is conjunctive and unifying; the sour, habitual wars of the self are disjunctive and separating.

When I begin a story at my desk, the window to my back, the path is not there. As I start to walk, I make the path.

Ward Just

Exploring his own inner duality, Ward Just indulges a play on his name:

The Just and the unJust inhabiting the same body, so close you can’t pry us apart, but we are not friends. He speaks, I edit. He plays, I work. He is famously convivial, I am a recluse. And at the end of the evening, when I’m exhausted and yearning for bed, knowing there’s an assignment to complete, he stays on, anything to keep me in the closet a little longer. And when the inevitable question comes, he answers it with aplomb, holding his glass —

Don’t mind if I do.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus, in an essay titled “The Fertile ‘We’ of One Chaste ‘I,'” considers the “inward, unsure, tender, professional empathizer” of the writer’s private self, in such stark contrast with his carefully constructed public persona:

What interests me about my own work and character is not the solid, admirable, good-nurse, self-motivated persona that I simulate toward Frans Hals warmth in scholarly talks, in photographs taken during charity banquets. That guy is about as real as his tweed jacket’s suede elbow patches and about that necessary. It’s Lint Man I’m a slave for. Poor dweeb hasn’t had a date since 1965; and hasn’t regretted that since January 1972.

He, the true writer, is the department store dummy at the very center of the whole establishment, the one left alone on display all night, a price tag stapled to every piece of clothing they’ve yanked onto him, binoculars and frog flippers included. He is the neutral, generic human form, the gray center who must always assume disguises — in order to be seen and, therefore, to feel himself.

And yet it’s “Lint Man” Gurganus relishes:

How lavish and how Godlike is Lint Man’s open-endedness. Lint Man’s specificity.

He ends on a somewhat solemn note:

The chances of achieving literary performance are, to the decimal point, the odds against becoming fully human.

That means one hundred and fifty million to one.

Which means one hundred and fifty million in one.

Ed Koren

Children’s book author and New Yorker cover artist Ed Koren offers his contribution in the medium of his forte:

Francine Prose

Francine Prose, who has taught us how to read like a writer, considers how to write like a writer in a meditation titled “She and I … and Someone Else”:

She never seems happier than when she is writing, when the work takes over, and the book (as she puts it, so unoriginally) seems to write itself. The characters are saying and doing things she hadn’t planned at all. What pleases her is that she isn’t there, she no longer feels herself present, and I…

Someone else is writing, and both she and I have vanished.

John Hawkes

John Hawkes writes:

Some time ago I discovered that I could no longer speak aloud or read aloud from a stage, even for the sake of hearing the effect that my writer’s voice produced on listeners. Now, curiously, the more I merely try to live, the more reclusive I become, the vainer I am. At last I am as vain as the one who instantly voices his silence inside me.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller considers the disconnect between the writer-person and the byline-persona:

I know Arthur Miller, but not “Arthur Miller” or Arthur Miller or “Miller.” About twenty-five years ago the Romanian government banned all “Miller” plays as pornographic. Privately I was very pleased, having admired Henry Miller’s work for a long time. Two theaters were in the midst of producing plays of mine and were forced to cancel them. Did this make me — slightly — Henry Miller? Or him — slightly — Arthur Miller?

He adds:

A book, a poem, a play — they start as fantasms but they end up as things, like a box of crackers or an automobile tire.

Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien offers a refreshing, poetic take on the old artist-muse relationship:

The other me, who did not mean to drown herself, went under the sea and remained there for a long time. Eventually she surfaced near Japan and people gave her gifts but she had been so long under the sea she did not recognize what they were. She is a sly one. Mostly at night we commune. Night. Harbinger of dream and nightmare and bearer of omens which defy the music of words. In the morning the fear of her going is very real and very alarming. It can make one tremble. Not that she cares. She is the muse. I am the messenger.

John Updike

John Updike, writing a decade before his death — a subject whose relationship with writing he once explored with such poignancy — considers the dissociation between the constructed Writer and the living person a sort of useful psychological buffer:

I created Updike out of the sticks and mud of my Pennsylvania boyhood, so I can scarcely resent it when people, mistaking me for him, stop me on the street and ask me for his autograph. I am always surprised that I resemble him so closely that we can be confused.

[…]

The distance between us is so great that the bad reviews he receives do not touch me, though I treasure his few prizes and mount them on the walls and shelves of my house, where they instantly yellow and tarnish.

[…]

Suppose, some day, he fails to show up? I would attempt to do his work, but no one would be fooled.

Max Apple
Elmore Leonard
Alice Hoffman
Frank Conroy
Henry Roth

Though Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits is, regrettably, out of print, used copies can — and should — be tracked down for guaranteed enjoyment. Complement it with an entirely different kind of self-portrait.

Thanks, Kaye!

BP

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

“I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan.”

“I was in love with New York,” Joan Didion wrote in her cult-classic essay “Goodbye to All That,” titled after the famous Robert Graves autobiography and found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem — the same indispensable 1967 collection that gave us Didion on self-respect and keeping a notebook; she quickly qualified the statement: “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” More than half a century later, 28 of today’s most extraordinary, diverse, uniformly interesting women writers revisit the eternal story of devotion and departure in a new anthology titled after Didion’s iconic essay: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (public library), envisioned and edited by Sari Botton, tells tales — funny, poignant, irreverent, deeply human — that ring immutably familiar to anyone who’s ever called Gotham home or dreamt of being able to, yet, like the city itself, always infuse our expectations with subtle surprise. Though the stories differ enormously in both style and substance, one thing unites them: Like Didion’s original meditation, they bespeak a level of intimacy with the city that takes on the language of romance, of sex, of infatuation — a persistent pattern that transforms these personal, autobiographical accounts into stirring universal letters of love, and loss, into paeans of lyrical, conflicted nostalgia for the imperfect lover whom you chose to leave yet whose loss you still secretly grieve.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

The magnificent Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed — one of the finest hearts, minds, and keyboards of our time, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is an existential must and was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — had a rude awakening to NYC. On the warm September afternoon of her twenty-fourth birthday, she saw a man get stabbed in the West Village. He didn’t die, but the shock of it — and the shock of the general bystander-indifference as a waiter assuringly said to her, “I wouldn’t worry about it,” while pouring her another cup of coffee on the sunny sidelines — planted the seed of slow-growing, poisonous worry about the greater It of it. Strayed writes:

I couldn’t keep myself from thinking everything in New York was superior to every other place I’d ever been, which hadn’t been all that many places. I was stunned by New York. Its grand parks and museums. Its cozy cobbled streets and dazzlingly bright thoroughfares. Its alternately efficient and appalling subway system. Its endlessly gorgeous women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats.

And yet something happened on my way to falling head over heels in love with the place. Maybe it was the man getting stabbed that no one worried about. Or maybe it was bigger than that. The abruptness, the gruffness, the avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways and streets felt as foreign to me as Japan or Cameroon, as alien to me as Mars. Even the couple who owned the bodega below our apartment greeted my husband and me each day as if we were complete strangers, which is to say they didn’t greet us at all, no matter how many times we came in to buy toilet paper or soup, cat food or pasta. They merely took our money and returned our change with gestures so automatic and faces so expressionless they might as well have been robots. … This tiny thing … grew to feel like the greatest New York City crime of all, to be denied the universal silent acknowledgment of familiarity, the faintest smile, the hint of a nod.

That realization was the beginning of the end. On a cold February afternoon, Strayed and her husband began packing their New York lives into a double-parked pickup truck. They were done after dark, long after they had anticipated — for living in New York is the art of transmuting a shoebox into a bottomless pit of stuff, only to have it unravel into a black hole of time-space that swallows you whole each time you move shoeboxes — and all that remained was that odd morning-after emptiness of feeling, which Strayed captures with her characteristic blunt elegance:

I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. I went willing to live there forever, to become one of the women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats. I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair too: because, much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

Yoko Ono’s hand-drawn contribution to ‘Mapping Manhattan.’ Click image for details.

Dani Shapiro, author of the freshly released and wonderful Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — had a rather different experience:

The city, was what people from New Jersey called it. The city, as if there were no other. If you were a suburban Jewish girl in the late 1970s, aching to burst out of the tepid swamp of your adolescence (synagogue! field hockey! cigarettes!), the magnetic pull of the city from across the water was irresistible. Between you and the city were the smokestacks of Newark, the stench of oil refineries, the soaring Budweiser eagle, its lit-up wings flapping high above the manufacturing plant. That eagle — if you were a certain kind of girl, you wanted to leap on its neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips into the city, you’d watch from the backseat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.

She moved to the alive side at nineteen, to live with a boyfriend she soon married, only to find herself divorced at twenty. (“How many people can claim that?,” Shapiro asks clearly rhetorically — and, clearly, she’d be surprised.) Now, thirty years later, she has a Dear Me moment as she looks back:

I wish I could reach back through time and shake some sense into that lost little girl. I wish I could tell her to wait, to hold on. That becoming a grown-up is not something that happens overnight, or on paper. That rings and certificates and apartments and meals have nothing to do with it. That everything we do matters. Wait, I want to say — but she is impatient, racing ahead of me.

And though she became a writer — a Writer in the City — Shapiro found herself strangely, subtly, yet palpably unfitted for the kind of life the city required:

I could lecture on metaphor; I could teach graduate students; I could locate and deconstruct the animal imagery in Madame Bovary. But I could not squash a water bug by myself. The practicalities of life eluded me. The city — which I knew with the intimacy of a lover — made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of a building, a hydrant, a tree.

Writing now from her small study in scenic Connecticut, two hours north of the city, she reflects on her choice to leave after — and despite — having attained her teenage dream:

My city broke its promise to me, and I to it. I fell out of love, and then I fell back in — with my small town, its winding country roads, and the ladies at the post office who know my name. I did my best to become the airbrushed girl on its billboards, but even airbrushed girls grow up. We soften over time, or maybe harden. One way or another, life will have its way with us.

Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York,’ 1935–1939. Click image for details.

Roxane Gay, author of the beautiful Ayiti, recalls her first impressions of New York as a child in Queens — its city-street grit, its Broadway glitter, its daily human tragedies and triumphs unfolding on every corner. Above all, however, the city sang its siren song of unlimited diversity and unconditional acceptance to her — a young black girl with an artistic bend — as she became obsessed with attending college there:

If I went to school in New York, surely all my problems would be solved. I would learn how to be chic and glamorous. I would learn how to walk fast and wear all black without looking like I was attending a funeral. In adolescence, I was becoming a different kind of stranger in a strange land. I was a theater geek and troubled and angry and hell-bent on forgetting the worst parts of myself. In New York, I told myself, I would no longer be the only freak in the room because the city was full of freaks.

But despite being admitted into NYU — her most dreamsome fulfillment of idyllic fantasy — her parents had their doubts about the city’s dangers and distractions, so they sent her to a prestigious school a few hours away. And yet Gay continued to fuel the fantasy of New York’s make-or-break magic wand of success — a fantasy especially entertained by aspiring writers:

New York City is the center of the writing world, or so we’re told. New York is where all the action happens because the city is where the most important publishers and agents and writers are. New York is where the fancy book parties happen and where the literati rub elbows and everyone knows (or pretends to know) everything about everyone else’s writing career. At some point, New York stopped being the city of my dreams because it stopped being merely an idea I longed to be a part of. New York was very real and very complicated. New York had become an intimidating giant of a place, but still I worried. If I wasn’t there as a writer, was I a writer anywhere?

And yet she did became a writer — a great one — even though she left the fairy Gotham godmother for a tiny Midwestern town, where she now teaches, writes, and revels in the unconditional unfanciness and comforting underwhelmingness of it all. After a recent visit to the city to meet with her agent — for though a Real Writer may live anywhere, a Real Writer’s agent invariably lives in New York — she reflects:

New York was a strange land, and I was still a stranger and would always be one. Overall, that visit was fun. The city was good to me and I looked forward to returning and soon. But. There was nothing for me to say goodbye to in New York because I never truly said hello. I became a writer without all the glamorous or anti-glamorous trappings of New York life I thought I needed.

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York is an exquisite read in its entirety and a wonderful addition to these 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC. For an antidote, complement it with some cartographic love letters to the city from those who decided to stay and the mixed experiences of those who came and went.

BP

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman’s Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman’s philosophy on writing and his advice to aspiring writers — a fine addition to celebrated authors’ collected wisdom on the craft. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously scoffed that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and like Chuck Close, who declared that “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” and like Tchaikovsky, who admonished that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Gaiman argues that the true muse of writing lies not in divine inspiration but in unrelenting persistence of effort and force of will:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

On the exhilarating joy of writing and the stalwart showing up that makes it possible:

The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.

On grit as the driving force of creative growth, reiterating the third of his 8 rules of writing:

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

On why true creativity requires eclectic influences, wide interests, and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

Gaiman’s most important piece of advice, for the writer who has mastered basic technique and is ready to begin writing, echoes the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

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