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T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer

“Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.”

T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson advised a blind girl aspiring to be a writer, “you will interest other people.” Six years earlier, around Valentine’s Day of 1952, a sixteen-year-old self-described “aspiring Young Writer” by the name of Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) — by that point one of the most famous writers in the world — hoping he might answer several questions about the creative process, what it takes to be a writer, and how he himself developed his creative faculties.

T.S. Eliot

Unlike Carson and unlike Albert Einstein, who also frequently replied to fan letters, particularly those from young people, Eliot rarely did. But something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His response — thoroughly warm and just the right amount of wry, full of simply worded wisdom — may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — that wonderful, forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Provided by his Eliot’s, Valerie, his response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.

“Q” by David Hockney from Hockney’s Alphabet.

Nearly four decades after he stunned the world with his masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and four years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Eliot writes to the young aspiring writer:

Dear Miss Alice Quinn,

I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter, and I am glad that you are at a Catholic school.

I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.

In consonance with Carson, Eliot adds:

My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.

Alice apparently asked Eliot about some of the criticism aimed at his poetry and his person — the perennial lazy accusation that anything sophisticated is automatically elitist — for he reflects:

I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.

He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:

One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics, and the essentials of the Christian Faith, that is the right beginning.

I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.

With best wishes,

T.S. Eliot

Complement this particular portion Hockney’s Alphabet, which is out of print but well worth the hunt, with T.S. Eliot on the nature of time, Lewis Carroll’s advice to a young woman on how to overcome creative block, and Beethoven’s touching letter of advice on being an artist, sent in reply to a fan letter from a little girl, then revisit other timeless advice on writing from Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Umberto Eco, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

BP

An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

“…nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity to continue.”

I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, about how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite, or even do both at once. Eleven years ago today, Brain Pickings began — birthed by what feels like another self, one that was once myself but no longer is and never again will be, and yet tethered to who I am today by some invisible thread of personal sensibility woven by and of time. As I look back on my most important learnings from the first decade, I am thinking of Simone de Beauvoir and her meditation on how chance and choice make us who we are. I am thinking of Borges and his sublime refutation of time. But, above all, I am thinking of a poem by one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), about my favorite number, pi — an ode to the most precise language of the universe, mathematics, in the most precise language on Earth, poetry.

When I read the poem at The Universe in Verse, I prefaced it with a few words about my lifelong love of pi as both an anchor of reality and a counterpoint to certainty. In pi resides a reminder that despite the rigor and devotion with which we may map reality, our maps are still maps — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.

PI
by Wisława Szymborska

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief — a mouse tail, a pigtail — is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers
a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

“Pi” appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her masterpieces “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.” Complement it with Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, why we read, and the importance of being scared.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Elizabeth Alexander’s stunning cautionary poem about the misuses of science — or watch the complete show for a two-hour serenade to science and the transformative power of poetry.

BP

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer

An ode to humanity’s unheralded originators of the scientific method.

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)

The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)

Amanda Palmer

In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.

And the poem by itself:

THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS

Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets

For more from The Universe in Verse, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and playwright and actor Sarah Jones’s astonishing chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, based on a poem by Campbell McGrath.

For more of the gorgeous poetry performances I mention in introducing Amanda to the stage, hear her readings of “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, then join me in supporting the wonderful nonprofit artists’ space Pioneer Works so that they may continue to open their doors to such elevating events.

BP

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

“What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science… Stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.”

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

In a recent MoMA talk about the lacuna between truth and meaning, I proposed that, just like there is a limit to the speed of light arising from the fundamental laws of physics that govern the universe, there might be a fundamental cognitive limit that keeps human consciousness from ever fully comprehending itself. After all, the moment a system becomes self-referential, it becomes susceptible to limitation and paradox — the logical equivalent to Audre Lorde’s memorable metaphor that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated this splendidly when she wrote in her diary in 1854:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

The century and a half since has been strewn with myriad scientific breakthroughs that have repeatedly transmuted what we once thought to be unknowable into what is merely unknown and therefore knowable, then eventually known. Evolutionary theory and the discovery of DNA have answered age-old questions considered unanswerable for all but the last blink of our species’ history. Einstein’s relativity and the rise of quantum mechanics have radically revised our understanding of the universe and the nature of reality.

And yet the central question remains: Against the infinity of the knowable, is there a fundamental finitude to our capacity for knowing?

That’s what English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores with intelligent and imaginative zest in The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library) — an inquiry into the puzzlement and promise of seven such unknowns, which Du Sautoy terms “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see.

Marcus du Sautoy

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s assertion that our appetite for seemingly unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Du Sautoy writes:

For any scientist the real challenge is not to stay within the secure garden of the known but to venture out into the wilds of the unknown.

[…]

The knowledge of what we don’t know seems to expand faster than our catalog of breakthroughs. The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns. And it is those unknowns that drive science. A scientist is more interested in the things he or she can’t understand than in telling all the stories we already know the answers to. Science is a living, breathing subject because of all those questions we can’t answer.

Among those are questions like whether the universe is infinite or finite, what dark matter is made of, the perplexity of multiverses, and the crowning curio of devising a model of reality that explains the nature and behavior of all energy and matter — often called a “theory of everything” or a “final theory” — unifying the two presently incompatible models of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which deals with the largest scale of physics, and quantum field theory, which deals with the smallest scale.

Du Sautoy, who believes — as do I — that “we are in a golden age of science,” considers the central ambivalence behind such a final theory and the very notion of knowing everything. Echoing artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous advice that “making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” he writes:

Would we want to know everything? Scientists have a strangely ambivalent relationship with the unknown. On the one hand, what we don’t know is what intrigues and fascinates us, and yet the mark of success as a scientist is resolution and knowledge, to make the unknown known.

And yet, too often, our human tendency when faced with unknowns is to capitulate to their unknowability prematurely — nowhere more famously, nor more absurdly, than in the proclamation Lord Kelvin, one of the most esteemed scientists of his era, made before the British Association of Science in 1900: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Elsewhere in Europe, Einstein was incubating the ideas that would precipitate humanity’s greatest leap of physics just five years later. Lord Kelvin had failed to see beyond the edge of the known.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

A quarter century after James Gleick introduced the world to chaos theory, Du Sautoy selects chaos as the first of his seven “edges” and writes:

There are natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known. Chaos theory asserts that I cannot know the future of certain systems because they are too sensitive to small inaccuracies. Because we can never have complete knowledge of the present, chaos theory denies us access to the future.

That’s not to say that all futures are unknowable. Very often we are in regions that aren’t chaotic, where small fluctuations have little effect. This is why mathematics has been so powerful in helping us to predict and plan. The power of mathematical equations has allowed us to land spaceships on other planets, predict the paths of deadly typhoons on Earth, and model the effects of deadly viruses, allowing us to take action before they become a pandemic. But at other times we cannot accurately predict or control outcomes.

This, Du Sautoy notes, is representative of the common denominator between all of the “edges” he identifies — the idea, also reflected in the aforementioned problem of consciousness, that we might be fundamentally unable to grasp a system from a bird’s-eye perspective so long as we are caged inside that system. Perhaps the most pervasive manifestation of this paradox is language itself, the hallmark of our cognitive evolution — language contains and carries knowledge, but language is a system, be it the language of the written word or that of mathematics.

Du Sautoy reflects on this possible meta-limitation:

Many philosophers identify language as a problem when it comes to the question of consciousness. Understanding quantum physics is also a problem because the only language that helps us navigate its ideas is mathematics.

At the heart of this tendency is what is known as “the paradox of unknowability” — the logical proof that unless you know all there is to be known, there will always exist for you truths that are inherently unknowable. And yet truth can exist beyond logic because logic itself has fundamental limits, which the great mathematician Kurt Gödel so elegantly demonstrated in the 1930s.

Illustration from a vintage children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s trailblazing science fiction homage to Newton

So where does this leave us? With an eye to his seven “edges,” Du Sautoy writes:

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that science gives us verisimilitudinous knowledge of the universe; that is, it gives us a narrative that appears to describe reality. We believe that a theory that makes our experience of the world intelligible is one that is close to the true nature of the world, even if philosophers tell us we’ll never know. As Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

In consonance with my foundational belief that the cross-pollination of disciplines is what catalyzes the combinatorial creativity out of which every meaningful new idea is born, Du Sautoy adds:

Science flourishes when we share the unknowable with other disciplines. If the unknowable has an impact on how we lead our lives, then it is worth having ways to probe the consequences of choosing an answer to an unknowable. Music, poetry, stories, and art are powerful tools for exploring the implications of the unknowable.

[…]

Chaos theory implies that … humans are in some ways part of the unknowable. Although we are physical systems, no amount of data will help us completely predict human behavior. The humanities are the best language we have for understanding as much as we can about what it is to be human.

Studies into consciousness suggest boundaries beyond which we cannot go. Our internal worlds are potentially unknowable to others. But isn’t that one of the reasons we write and read novels? It is the most effective way to give others access to that internal world.

What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science. We may not know, but that doesn’t stop us from creating stories, and these stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating The Great Unknown, which examines the implications of these seven elemental unknowns for everything from consciousness to our experience of time to the future of artificial intelligence, with Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, philosopher Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, and artist Ann Hamilton on the creative power of not-knowing.

BP

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