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Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

On the lifelong pleasure of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

“One of the most powerful men in the United States is a dark-haired young bachelor with a mobile face, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928.” So wrote Brian O’Doherty in his 1963 New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak, a storyteller whose work “springs from his earliest self, from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.” (Beautifully true as the rest may be, one claim was an ugliness of the era’s pre-DOMA bigotry: Sendak wasn’t a bachelor at all — by that point, he already lived with Dr. Eugene Glynn, who would be his spouse for the remaining half-century of Glynn’s life.)

But the most timeless truth about Sendak’s genius lies in how his books granted and continue to grant validity to children’s imagination — not only in its boundless light but in its deepest darkness, too. For the latter he offered solace not through escapism but through solidarity: Yes, he seems to say, life is difficult and scary — but if we spend half of it in darkness, we might as well find rays of hope in the shadows and befriend the monsters lurking there as indelible companions in our conquest of the luminous half.

Illustration from Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s deeply philosophical first book

In 1970, 42-year-old Sendak sat down with Pulitzer-winning oral historian and interviewer extraordinaire Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) for a wide-ranging conversation about his creative evolution as a storyteller; about his influences and the inspiration behind his most celebrated books; about starting out as an illustrator of other writers’ stories — most notably, his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss — and then becoming a writer himself with the 1957 publication of his first solo book, the forgotten and wonderfully philosophical gem Kenny’s Window. “If you’re an illustrator,” he tells Terkel, “you’re almost a writer — or you want to be a writer. You sort of hug words when you illustrate a book, and eventually do think you’re going to be a writer — and then, hopefully, you become a writer.”

The conversation became the sincerest and most creatively revealing interview Sendak ever gave.

Nearly half a century later, the Studs Terkel Radio Archive — a wonderful cultural preservation initiative by Terkel’s home radio station, Chicago’s WFMT — is enlisting the help of the public in transcribing and digitizing a thousand of his most notable interviews, including this one, which they have kindly offered as a Brain Pickings exclusive.

Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On why William Blake became his great lifelong influence:

I love … Blake’s adoration of the child self as being the best part of the human self. How sad that as adults, we just drop it along the way — or are embarrassed by it, often. There are so many adults who enjoy a book for children but are vaguely embarrassed at enjoying it, as though only their children should enjoy it and there’s something strange about them enjoying it — which is such an odd twisting and distortion of the pleasure of having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence

On how ideas are born:

It’s an emotional quality — and they come up, they really well up, like when I wrote In the Night Kitchen… As the book grew, you’re just never so happy… You’re living two lives — you’re a 42-year-old man, and you’re a four-year-old boy. And it’s a little confusing, but it’s memorable. It’s a stupendous feeling — it’s the greatest joy in the world. And you know the validity of it because it comes pouring into your head.

On the artificiality of designating something as a “children’s book,” against which Tolkien too admonished and which Sendak repeated in his last on-camera interview shortly before his death:

I don’t set out to write for children. I don’t consciously set out to write a book for some imaginary child. I just write the book because I have to… I don’t have any audience in mind except my own pleasure.

One of Sendak’s 1973 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

On the secret to illustration as a storytelling medium and the relationship between text and image:

What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book.

[…]

That’s the beauty of book writing and illustrating. There’s nothing so dull as translating books that are beautifully written into a picture — the author’s already done that, so you as an illustrator must contribute something else: adorn the word, or go inside the word, or go around the word, but extend it in some marvelous way to make it a beautiful thing. And that’s the great fun.

On the fragmentary nature of creativity, which David Lynch echoed decades later, and the incubation period of ideas, which T.S. Eliot extolled decades earlier:

There are always ideas that sit in your head… A stray sentence from ’58 sits in my head, a stray sentence from ’62 sits in my head; I have a title for the past eight years now, which I just love, but I don’t have the story to go with it; I even have a subtitle, but don’t have a story to go with it… You get these little hunks of fragments [and] you just wait, and you’ve got to be very patient. Eventually, if they’re good enough, they come together. If they stink, they fall away.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and reading

On honoring children’s inherent Baloney Detection Kit:

Be as foolish and as silly and whatever as you want, but you tell the truth in some way… Kids know instantly when you’re not, and how awful to not tell the truth — what’s the point, really?

Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world, then join me in supporting the Studs Terkel Radio Archive digital conservation initiative.

BP

Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

“It is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation.”

Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist’s longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer. This forceful yet delicate dynamic was at the heart of Patti Smith’s beautiful childhood anecdote of the swan, but no artist has captured it more powerfully than the visionary mid-century sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) — a woman of enduring insight into the creative experience and the human spirit, which her training as a clinical psychologist allowed her to articulate with uncommon elegance and lucidity.

Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966
Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966

In a 1982 diary entry from the altogether magnificent Turn: The Journal of an Artist (public library), Truitt recounts the unexpected and electrifying revelation that overcame her as she faced her own work in a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art — a deeply personal experience that, like so much of her writing, captures a profound universality about being an artist:

When I entered the gallery in which my sculptures are installed, I fell back — actually stepped back — before the force of my own feelings distilled into forms rendering visible their own beings. Tears rose to my eyes and from that freshest of feeling the unchangeable and unchanging truth: I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.

The greatest point of vulnerability for the artist is that all private integrity is always subject to public misunderstanding, that the impulse toward the former must necessarily concede the possibility — the likelihood — of the latter. Truitt laments the inevitability of this Catch-22 of creativity:

The world can make no meet response to art. Praise can miss the point as much as a casual remark such as I overheard last night: an impeccably turned-out gentleman bounding up the stairs to the gallery exclaimed over his shoulder, “And now to see the minimalist — or maximalist!” He had all the relish of a casually greedy person with a tasty tidbit in view; he was on his way to gulp down my life with as little consideration as he would an artichoke heart.

Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973
Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973

And yet the blessing and burden of the artist, Truitt reminds us, is that she has no choice but to incur the risk of being so misunderstood and commodified — for that is the price of integrity. “Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” she had written a decade earlier. And now, facing this major showcase of her work, she revisits the point from another angle:

Do I wish, can I afford, in my own limitations, to continue to make work that has such a high psychic cost and stands in jeopardy of being so met? Do I have a choice? I do not know. Neither whether I can further endure, nor whether I can stop. The work is preemptory. My life has led me to an impasse.

What sustains the creative spirit through this uncertainty, Truitt suggests, isn’t the awareness of standing on the shoulders of giants — of all the artists whose lives are a testament to the burden being bearable and even transcendent — but of standing alongside those giants, shoulder to shoulder:

In the course of wandering the museum until I could decently leave, I confronted a Cézanne and felt as if a muscular hand had taken mine and Cézanne stood beside me, grubby with clotted paint, silent in his own life, impelled by its force to record it.

While it is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation, there is a freemasonry among us. We stand shoulder to shoulder, generation to generation.

To read Truitt’s Turn a generation later is to take her hand and be guided in sublime solidarity toward an assuring awareness of just how intimately entwined the trials and triumphs of the creative life really are. Complement it with Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist, then revisit Teresita Fernández’s extraordinary commencement address on what it really takes to be an artist.

BP

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.”

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“Stories,” Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What, in other words, makes a great story?

That’s what the great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), who revolutionized cognitive psychology and pioneered the modern study of creativity in the 1960s, explores in his 1986 essay collection Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library).

Jerome Bruner

In an immensely insightful piece titled “Two Modes of Thought,” Bruner writes:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.

[…]

A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Bruner notes that the Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning — a dichotomy Hannah Arendt addressed brilliantly more than a decade earlier in her 1973 Gifford Lecture on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning. One could go even further and argue, after Walter Benjamin, that the product of the analytical mode is information, whereas the product of storytelling is wisdom.

Bruner calls these two contrasting modes the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation, and the narrative. Each, he argues, is animated by a different kind of imagination:

The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis. But paradigmatic “imagination” (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.

[…]

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a “story grammar.” The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:

Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.

[…]

We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must “be” to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.

But this matter of intention remains forever mediated by the reader’s interpretation. What young Sylvia Plath observed of poetry — “Once a poem is made available to the public,” she told her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” — is true of all art and storytelling, whatever the medium. Bruner considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:

It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader’s interpretation “maps” on an actual story, does justice to the writer’s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory. So “great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination. One cannot hope to “explain” the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist “explains” what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it… All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader’s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

This essential “subjunctivity” is the act of designating a mood for the story. “To be in the subjunctive mode,” Bruner explains, means “to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties.” Out of this drive toward unsettled possibilities arises the ultimate question of “how a reader makes a strange text his own,” a question of “assimilating strange tales into the familiar dramas of our own lives, even more than transmuting our own dramas in the process” — something Bruner illustrates brilliantly with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan from Italo Calvino’s masterwork Invisible Cities, which takes place after Marco Polo describes a bridge stone by stone:

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Bruner extracts from this an allegory of the key to great storytelling:

But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up. So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.

As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.

Bruner concurs with Barthes’s conviction that the writer’s greatest gift to the reader is to help her become a writer, then revises it to clarify and amplify its ambition:

The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a remarkable read in its totality, exploring the psychological realities of language, thought and emotion, and the self. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on the task of storytelling, Oliver Sacks on its curious psychology, and Martha Nussbaum on how it remaps our interior lives, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.

BP

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