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Allen Ginsberg on the Tyranny of the Closet, Coming Out to His Loved Ones, and How Buddhist Meditation Helped Him Stop Seeking Approval

“Wanting approval … is a kind of aggression.”

Legendary Beat poet and LGBT icon Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926–April 5, 1997) endures as one of the most visible and vocal spokespeople for the queer community. Out since before Stonewall, he referred to the lifelong love he shared with his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky, as their “marriage” half a century before marriage equality entered the global human rights agenda. So it is both strange and strangely assuring to learn that even Ginsberg was once in the closet, struggled with the fear of ridicule and intolerance, and had to undertake the painful, transcendent process of coming out to his loved ones as he came into himself.

In this excerpt from a 1978 interview from the program Stonewall Nation on Buffalo’s public radio station WBFO-FM, preserved by the terrific PennSound archive at my alma mater — which also gave us Adrienne Rich on love, loss, and public vs. private happiness and Gertrude Stein on understanding and joy — the beloved Beat discusses his experiences of coming out to his friends and family, and how his Buddhist meditation practice helped him recognize the artificiality of outside approval and rejection in inhabiting one’s inner reality:

Wanting credentials, wanting confirmation, wanting approval … is a kind of aggression.

In another excerpt from the same show, Ginsberg recounts his experience of being in the closet as a young gay man and timorously coming out to Jack Kerouac, on whom he had a crush and who welcomed the uncomfortable revelation with great graciousness and friendliness:

Complement with Ginsberg’s performance of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” and his favorite borscht recipe, then revisit the greatest queer love letters and these archival photographs of the world’s first Pride parades.

BP

Thoreau on the Difference Between an Artisan, an Artist, and a Genius

“The bird of paradise is obliged constantly to fly against the wind.”

Thoreau on the Difference Between an Artisan, an Artist, and a Genius

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin admonished in his advice to aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius: “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” Two decades before that, in pondering whether great artists are born or made, Jack Kerouac proclaimed: “Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

More than a century earlier, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — one of humanity’s greatest artists, in the most expansive sense of the word — brought his formidable intellect and spiritual genius to this question in his 1849 masterwork A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library).

Right around the time he was contemplating the myth of productivity and the true measure of meaningful work, Thoreau writes:

The Man of Genius may at the same time be, indeed is commonly, an Artist, but the two are not to be confounded. The Man of Genius, referred to mankind, is an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored. The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected. There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius.

Thoreau — who wrote beautifully about the dignity of defining one’s own success — argues that true genius is often met with resistance; that the test and mark of genius is how well one is able to stay one’s course amid external pressures to conform to the beaten path:

To the rarest genius it is the most expensive to succumb and conform to the ways of the world. Genius is the worst of lumber, if the poet would float upon the breeze of popularity. The bird of paradise is obliged constantly to fly against the wind, lest its gay trappings, pressing close to its body, impede its free movements.

He is the best sailor who can steer within the fewest points of the wind, and extract a motive power out of the greatest obstacles. Most begin to veer and tack as soon as the wind changes from aft, and as within the tropics it does not blow from all points of the compass, there are some harbors which they can never reach.

Not unlike we use the word “artist” today, Thoreau uses the word “poet” in more than its literal sense, connoting not just writers of poetry but creators who enlarge our poetic appreciation of beauty and truth through their work, whatever its nature. He writes:

It is the worshippers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.

The poet will prevail to be popular in spite of his faults, and in spite of his beauties too. He will hit the nail on the head, and we shall not know the shape of his hammer.

To the artists whose genius goes unrecognized in their lifetime, Thoreau offers the consolation of a vaster perspective:

The poet … will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position, and expect the time when a vision as broad shall overlook the same field as freely.

Complement the immensely rewarding A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with Thoreau on the sanctity of libraries, the art of walking, how silence ennobles speech, the value of useful ignorance, and what it really means to be awake, then revisit this lovely children’s book about his life and legacy.

BP

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin writing

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

Adding to the endlessly fascinating daily rhythms of great writers, which reflect the wide range of differences in the cognitive conditions of the ideal writing routine, Baldwin shares his work habits:

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

Complement The Writer’s Chapbook — a treasure so wisdom-packed that it is a tragedy to see it fall out of print — with Joseph Conrad on what makes a great writer, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and Jane Kenyon on what remains the finest ethos to write and live by, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society and his terrifically timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity.

BP

Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.

Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:

You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.

Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:

You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:

The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.

Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:

Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.

Lars Norén on letting your life speak:

If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.

[…]

You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.

Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:

My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.

Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:

Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.

BP

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