Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “Timeless Advice on writing from famous authors”

How to Make Your Own Luck

“All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge.”

“You are what you settle for,” Janis Joplin admonished in her final interview. “You are ONLY as much as you settle for.” In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (public library), which comes on the heels of their indispensable guide to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine, editor Jocelyn Glei and her team at Behance’s 99U pull together another package of practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs. Despite the somewhat self-helpy, SEO-skewing title, this compendium of advice is anything but contrived. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense, experience-tested, life-approved cookbook for creative intelligence, exploring everything from harnessing the power of habit to cultivating meaningful relationships that enrich your work to overcoming the fear of failure.

In the introduction, Glei affirms the idea that, in the age of make-your-own-success and build-your-own-education, the onus and thrill of finding fulfilling work falls squarely on us, not on the “system”:

If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.

Stressing the importance of staying open and alert in order to maximize your “luck quotient,” Glei cites Stanford’s Tina Seelig, who writes about the importance of cultivating awareness and embracing the unfamiliar in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20:

Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experiences. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.

But “luck,” it turns out, is a grab-bag term composed of many interrelated elements, each dissected in a different chapter. In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott H. Young echoes William James and recaps the science of rewiring your “habit loops”, reminding us how routines dictate our days:

If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.

Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.

Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.

We can’t, however, simply will ourselves into better habits. Since willpower is a limited resource, whenever we’ve overexerted our self-discipline in one domain, a concept known as “ego depletion” kicks in and renders us mindless automata in another. Instead, Young suggests, the key to changing a habit is to invest heavily in the early stages of habit-formation so that the behavior becomes automated and we later default into it rather than exhausting our willpower wrestling with it. Young also cautions that it’s a self-defeating strategy to try changing several habits at once. Rather, he advises, spend one month on each habit alone before moving on to the next — a method reminiscent of the cognitive strategy of “chunking” that allows our brains to commit more new information to memory.

As both a lover of notable diaries and the daily keeper of a very unnotable one, I was especially delighted to find an entire section dedicated to how a diary boosts your creativity — something Virginia Woolf famously championed, later echoed by Anaïs Nin’s case for the diary as a vital sandbox for writing and Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a notebook gives you better access to yourself.

Though the chapter, penned by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, co-authors of The Progress Principle, along with 13-year IDEO veteran Ela Ben-Ur, frames the primary benefit of a diary as a purely pragmatic record of your workday productivity and progress — while most dedicated diarists would counter that the core benefits are spiritual and psychoemotional — it does offer some valuable insight into the psychology of how journaling elevates our experience of everyday life:

This is one of the most important reasons to keep a diary: it can make you more aware of your own progress, thus becoming a wellspring of joy in your workday.

Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, the authors point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:

On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.

Even more importantly, however, they argue that a diary offers an invaluable feedback loop:

Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.

This, they suggest, can yield profound insights into the inner workings of your own mind — especially if you look for specific clues and patterns, trying to identify the richest sources of meaning in your work and the types of projects that truly make your heart sing. Once you understand what motivates you most powerfully, you’ll be able to prioritize this type of work in going forward. Just as important, however, is cultivating a gratitude practice and acknowledging your own accomplishments in the diary:

This is your life; savor it. Hold on to the threads across days that, when woven together, reveal the rich tapestry of what you are achieving and who you are becoming. The best part is that, seeing the story line appearing, you can actively create what it — and you — will become.

The lack of a straight story line, however, might also be a good thing. That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and creator of the wonderful Good Life Project, explores in another chapter:

Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Echoing John Keats’s assertion that “negative capability” is essential to the creative process Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s assertion that the role of great scientists is to remain uncertain, and Anaïs Nin’s insistence that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Fields reminds us of what Orson Welles so memorably termed “the gift of ignorance”:

Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.

All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas.

Fields argues that if we move along the Uncertainty Curve either too fast or too slowly, we risk either robbing the project of its creative potential and ending up in mediocrity. Instead, becoming mindful of the psychology of that process allows us to pace ourselves better and master that vital osmosis between freedom and constraint. He sums up both the promise and the peril of this delicate dance beautifully:

Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity , was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.

In another section, Stanford psychology Ph.D. candidate Michael Schwalbe turns to the intricate dance of risk-taking and the fear of failure. Citing the work of psychologists Daniel Gilbert, whose exploration of the art-science of happiness remains indispensable, and Timothy Wilson, whose work has revolutionized the way we think about psychological change, Schwalbe reminds us of the “impact bias” — our tendency to greatly overestimate the intensity and extent of our emotional reactions, which causes us to expect failures to be more painful than they actually are and thus to fear them more than we should. Schwalbe explains:

Gilbert and Wilson highlight two phenomena to explain this bias. The first is immune neglect. Just as we have a physical immune system to fight threats to our body, we have a psychological immune system to fight threats to our mental health. We identify silver linings, rationalize our actions, and find meaning in our setbacks. We don’t realize how effective this immune system is, however, because it operates largely beneath our conscious awareness. When we think about taking a risk, we rarely consider how good we will be at reframing a disappointing outcome. In short, we underestimate our resilience.

The second reason is focalism. When we contemplate failure from afar, according to Gilbert and Wilson, we tend to overemphasize the focal event (i.e., failure) and overlook all the other episodic details of daily life that help us move on and feel better. The threat of failure is so vivid that it consumes our attention. This happens in part because the areas of the brain we use to perceive the present are the same ones we employ to imagine the future. When we feel afraid of failing at a new business or anxious about the shame of letting investors down and what our peers will think, it’s hard to also imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and the other everyday activities that are a necessary and enjoyable part of life.

And yet Schwalbe reminds us that social science has invariably recorded that what people regret the most as they look back on their lives isn’t what they attempted and failed at, but what they never tried in the first place:

Of the many regrets people describe, regrets of inaction outnumber those of action by nearly two to one. … We are left with a paradox of inaction. On one hand we instinctively tend to stick with the default, or go with the herd. Researchers call it the status quo bias. We feel safe in our comfort zones, where we can avoid the sting of regret. And yet, at the same time, we regret most those actions and risks we did not take.

The solution, as a wise woman poignantly put it, seems to be: “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

Complement Maximize Your Potential with its equally insightful prequel, Manage Your Day-to-Day — but don’t let yourself forget that the good life, the meaningful life, the truly fulfilling life, is the life of presence, not of productivity.

BP

Vintage Catalog Cards for Literary Classics from the Semi-Secret Archive of the Library of Congress

An affectionate reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting time, space, and sensibility.

When Melville Dewey devised his revolutionary decimal system in the late 19th century, he imposed order on the chaos of the library by creating a taxonomy of book placement. Suddenly, librarians were no longer needed — at least not as literal book-retrievers, which had been their task for centuries. Instead, they found a new role as intellectual guides who helped patrons decide what to read and scholars find the books best suited for their research. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the mechanism by which librarians performed their magic — the holy catalog card.

That magic springs to life anew in Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress (public library) — a delicious collection of vintage cards, both handwritten and manually typeset, from the little-known trove of the Library of Congress. At once bittersweet mementos of a bygone era and timeless testaments to the staying power of literature’s greatest works, the cards — neatly stacked in a box with tabbed dividers — catalog such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf (who had particularly strong opinions about how one should read a book), Ernest Hemingway (who famously believed that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life” but would’ve had to concede that reading is the life of company), Aldous Huxley (though not indexing his little-known, only children’s book), and James Joyce (who would’ve been delighted to add this card to his list of personal legends). More than mere ephemera of literary fetishism, however, the cards are a reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting countless eras, geographies, and sensibilities by the inextricable common thread that is the joy of reading.

Most of the cards are purely descriptive, yet somehow lovingly so:

Some, however, are downright poetic: The one on Emerson’s Self-Reliance — the timeless treatise that shaped the ideal in America, greatly influenced Thoreau’s famous case for the simple life, and permeated Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom — cites the title page of a 1902 edition:

So this then is the essay on Self-reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, wherein is told how, although we can never be independent, yet through the mental habit of self-reliance is the highest physical, mental and spiritual attainment secured: and as all individual life is a manifestation of self-reliance, a cheerful and noble self-reliance is the best service we can render our Maker, and. . . .

Others are subtly ironic in the context of history’s hindsight. Salinger, for instance, may have found the “DO NOT DISCARD” stamp a particular affront to is efforts to engineer the myth of his own disappearance as he spent the last half-century of his life crafting the public image of an author who simply wanted to be left alone.

Mostly, however, the cards remind us that however the written word may morph in medium and however many sensationalistic death tolls we may hear — for the novel, for handwriting, for the public intellectual — the spirit of literature will endure. Along with it, our impulse to organize beloved books — much like our impulse to order the cosmos and map time — will remain an immutable part of the human story.

Complement Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress with the unquiet history of libraries and famous writers’ collected wisdom on literature.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

BP

Italo Calvino’s Poetic Résumé

“Prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.”

Our cultural cult of the diaries, personal correspondence, and daily routines of famous authors, despite the practical insights on the craft of writing often found in those, seems to be largely an exercise in unabashed creative voyeurism. But might there be more to it, some kernel of magic that reveals itself to those willing to look?

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved author’s timeless wisdom on writing and his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life — comes a timeless reflection on our fascination with famous authors’ lives, wrapped in a poetic meta-manifestation:

In a 1967 letter to a class of schoolchildren who had been assigned to study one of Calvino’s anthologies, Calvino corrects a biographical inaccuracy about his place of birth and offers a broader reflection on the “facts” of an author’s life:

In a writer’s life it is only important to know facts that are relevant to the writer’s works, in other words what is usually called his “creative world.”

[…]

As for the anthology that says I was born in Santiago in Chile, that is clearly a mistake. The authors of that anthology will have read somewhere that I was born in “Santiago” and will have immediately thought of the Chilean capital rather than of an unknown village on the island of Cuba like Santiago de las Vegas. So that is how this mystery is explained. This helps to show one thing: what is written in books can be true up to a point and mistaken up to a point. One must never trust books totally, instead one must check what is right and wrong in them, as you have rightly done. I congratulate you and your teacher on this and send my warmest greetings and best wishes.

And yet, this being Calvino, two years later he revisits the subject of what is essential to know about a writer’s life. In a letter from the fall of 1969, he sends Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci his wonderfully poetic “CV”:

HERE IS MY CV.

I was born in 1923 under a sky in which the radiant Sun and melancholy Saturn were housed in harmonious Libra. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in what was in those days a still verdant San Remo, which contained cosmopolitan eccentrics amidst the surly isolation of its rural, practical folk; I was marked for life by both these aspects of the place. Then I moved to industrious and rational Turin, where the risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere (as Nietzsche found out). I arrived at a time when the streets opened out deserted and endless, so few were the cars; to shorten my journeys on foot I would cross the rectilinear streets on long obliques from one angle to the other—a procedure that today is not just impossible but unthinkable—and in this way I would advance marking out invisible hypotenuses between grey right-angled sides. I got to know only barely other famous metropolises, on the Atlantic and Pacific, falling in love with all of them at first sight: I deluded myself into believing that I had understood and possessed some of them, while others remained forever ungraspable and foreign to me. For many years I suffered from a geographical neurosis: I was unable to stay three consecutive days in one city or place. In the end I chose definitive wife and dwelling in Paris, a city which is surrounded by forests and hornbeams and birches, where I walk with my daughter Abigail, and which in turn surrounds the Bibliothèque Nationale, where I go to consult rare books, using my Reader’s Ticket no. 2516. In this way, prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old. That’s all.

Four years later, Ricci would go on to publish Calvino’s novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

It is impossible to overstate just how sublime and richly insightful Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is in its entirety.

BP

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius

“That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.”

The great Maurice Sendak endures as one of the most beloved authors of literature for children the world has ever known, and yet without the care and support of legendary mid-century children’s book editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), he may have always remained the insecure young artist he once was. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing — comes this remarkably heart-warming letter Nordstrom sent young Sendak, who had written her full of self-doubt as he was setting out to illustrate a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood by Tolstoy. Amidst the toxic mythology of the self-publishing era, the missive illustrates the life-changing role of an extraordinary editor who transcends her professional role to be part friend, part psychotherapist, part sage, and wholly the kind of extraordinary celebrator amplifying the author’s talent and lifting his spirit that made Nordstrom who she was and who any great editor ought to be.

She begins by reminding young Sendak that there are many kinds of genius and an artist could benefit from a more dimensional definition:

August 21, 1961

Dear Maurice,

[…]

Your cabin by the lake, and your own boat, sound fine. Please remember that the moon will be full on Friday, the 25th, and take a look at it. It should be beautiful over Lake Champlain.

I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.

Nikolenka’s Childhood by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)

In assuaging Sendak’s anxiety about self-absorption, Nordstrom adds to history’s most memorable meditations on art in a sentiment philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to echo in her admonition against despising one’s inner world, and offers an amusingly accurate micro-critique of Moby-Dick:

I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly — with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me… All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments — just facts.

The great Russians and Melville and Balzac etc. wrote in another time, in leisure, to be read in leisure. I know what you mean about those long detailed rich novels — my god the authors knew all about war, and agriculture, and politics. But that is one type of writing, for a more leisurely time than ours. You have your own note to sound, and you are sounding it with greater power and beauty all the time. Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out? Does that offend you, coming from a presumptuous editor? I remember lines of the most piercing beauty (after he made a friend there was something beautiful about “no more would my splintered hand and shattered heart be turned against the wolfish world.”) But there are many passages which could have been cut. But I wander…

In a beautiful passage that eloquently captures what we already know about genius — that without discipline and work ethic, creativity is a hapless muse, but also that emotional excess is critical for creativity — Nordstrom assures Sendak that the best cure for his creative block is simply showing up, again and again:

You wrote “my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling.” Well feeling (emotion) combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE. You also wrote “Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work” — a true statement, and also very well put. But it would include self knowledge for some as well as knowledge of facts for others. (Is this English I’m writing? I need an editor.)

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.

Like beloved novelist Isabel Allende, who famously asserted that what moves her to write is the desire to bring a sense of order to the chaos of life, Nordstrom reminds Sendak that this longing is the greatest blessing — even when it feels like a curse — of the creative artist:

You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

After wishing young Maurice a wonderful vacation and signing, Nordstrom ends the letter with an infinitely heartening postscript:

You know one of these days you’ll go back to Old Potato*, or a version of that situation, and it will have “cohesion and purpose” and will have so many universal emotions within its relatively simple framework. Love, fear, acceptance, rejection, re-assurance, and growth. No more for now.

Two years later, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for which he remains best-known and which Nordstrom edited, was published.

Dear Genius, which brims with Nordstrom’s legendary heart and wit, features much more of her correspondence with Sendak — who, fittingly, drew Nordstrom’s portrait on the cover of the book. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints, this illustrated adaptation of Terry Gross’s moving conversation with the author, and the very last interview with him — by Colbert, no less.

* Sendak’s uncompleted manuscript for a novel set in Brooklyn about the friendship between a little boy nicknamed “Old Potato” and a gentle solitary man who lived in the neighborhood.

Painting by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.