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Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Poet Friend Taught Him About the Nature of Creativity

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.

In On the Move: A Life (public library) — the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love — Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn’s poem “On the Move” from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.

Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)

He adds:

The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.

What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)

Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.

He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.

Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.

He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.

But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:

I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.

I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.

Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.

Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.

He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:

I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.

Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:

It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)

I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:

Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.

Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:

I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.

But their relationship lived up to Emerson’s assertion that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere” — Gunn’s feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks’s development as a writer, who was “eager for [Gunn’s] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else.”

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:

Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…

Sacks adds:

I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).

But it was in Gunn’s poetry that Sacks found something else — something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn’s intricate tapestry of influences — his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — Sacks writes:

I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.

Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne’s sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:

I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.

Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.

I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)

Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.

BP

The Subterranean River of Emotion: Cheryl Strayed on Writing, the Art of Living with Opposing Truths, and the Three Ancient Motifs in All Great Storytelling

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder,” Cheryl Strayed told an aspiring writer in her no-nonsense advice on faith and humility. But there is an enthralling ease — or willingness, perhaps — with which Strayed herself digs into the impenetrable surfaces of things and mines the raw material with which to warm our souls, be it in her celebrated Dear Sugar advice column or in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (public library), her magnificent memoir of mourning and self-redemption in the wilderness, which rose to such levels of cultural resonance as to become a major movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.

On the fantastic Longform podcast — a belated but befitting addition to these favorite podcasts for a fuller life — Strayed dives into the depths of her writing process, her credos and how she channeled them as Sugar, and the singular and quite possibly unrepeatable-in-our-time experience that precipitated Wild. Her immensely vitalizing conversation with Longform founder Max Linsky emanates the very personhood from which Strayed’s enchanting prose springs.

A necessary note here: We live in a culture that expects us to cushion a conversation with a phenomenal person with the apologetic caveat that it’s two hours long but it’s brilliant and well worth it — a tragic symptom of our shortcuttism. As I’ve lamented elsewhere — incidentally, in a long conversation — real conversations (much like a good book, which requires the same investment and rewards with the same intimacy of insight) are among the few ways to invite meaningful ideas into our lives, for we don’t arrive at meaning via sound bites and status updates. Lest we forget, William James was right — conversation is how “bound energies are let loose.” True thinking — the kind of deliberate reflection that welcomes wisdom — takes time. Digging past the surface of things — getting to what Strayed herself calls “the subterranean river” of truth and meaning — takes time. Time alone may not be a sufficient condition, for the conquest of meaning also requires thought and wholeheartedness and resolute intentionality, but it’s an absolutely necessary one.

Which is all to say, let’s begin to reclaim our humanity by reclaiming our language, which both reflects and shapes our thought. Let’s revert to the lucid conjunction: When it comes to communing with a shimmering mind, the conversation is long and therefore it’s brilliant and well worth it. And so: This conversation with Strayed is indeed brilliant and deeply rewarding in its totality. Below, I’ve transcribed some of the most shimmering parts.

On the latent recognition of how our seemingly unremarkable experiences add up to our becoming, something Strayed addressed beautifully as Sugar:

Some of the most interesting experiences, maybe all of them … become more interesting in retrospect, in hindsight. You know everything that happened and how it came to be.

On good books being the product of processing life’s raw material at its rawest and how that transmutation of sorrow into story into solace fueled her Dear Sugar column:

All of my life has been a processing… Having to forgive and cry and understand mortality and love … you have to do this, I think, to write a book.

[…]

We can’t essentially escape who it is that we are, and I am — for better or worse — a writer who likes to go into that subterranean, emotional world and to talk about the mysterious and dark and beautiful places inside of us… I always felt that story was the greatest consolation in my own sorrow, so when I started to help people in their sorrows and their confusions, I had to tell stories.

[…]

[In Dear Sugar] I might have told a story about myself, but it was really about the letter-writer — it was really about how can that story illuminate a truth that is universal, not just for me, not just for letter-writer, but for [the readers]. That column was like doing therapy in the town square.

On the misconception that her Dear Sugar column was about giving answers to others, while it was really about showing up for the questions throbbing in her own self and, in doing so, providing the sort of assurance that brings others closer to their own answers:

Ultimately, the truth is that we have to help ourselves — we all benefit from people helping us, but we will never get anywhere if we don’t help ourselves… [There is a] universal truth that we are all are responsible for our lives — that we all suffer and we all need to find light in that darkness, strength in that weakness.

[…]

It’s not as if I’m some sort of font of wisdom and perfection — what I’m speaking to is my own struggle. I’m talking to myself, too — all the time, every day. It’s not as if I have the answer and I’m giving the answers. I’m, instead, really down there in the struggle, speaking to it, trying to speak as openly as possible about what it means to be human.

On how great art transcends its creator and speaks to our own lives in the universal voice:

When we see a painting that we love, we’re not standing there thinking about the artist who made it — we’re thinking about how that painting makes us feel, what that reflects to us about our lives and the world. And so I love when love exceeds … its creator, which is the whole goal of art…; when it becomes not about the person who created it, but about the people who consume it…

This is especially true in memoir, where you’re writing about yourself — it has this horrible, false reputation of being the narcissistic form, which I think is pure bullshit. No good memoir is really about the writer — and yet it’s deeply about the writer.

On the three main narratives undergirding any good memoir — common threads of the universal language that illuminate the commonality between Strayed’s memoir, a form predicated on introspection, and her advice column, predicated on empathic outrospection:

If we go back to the ancients, those three narratives are there — they’re in the first writing that we have: It’s about sorrow, it’s about redemption, it’s about journey — the hero’s journey… When I teach writing, I always tell my students: “You might think you’re writing about your divorce, or your infertility, or whatever it is — remember the ancients, because nobody wants to read your book about your little tale.” Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story — insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…

That’s the writer’s work — it’s consciousness. It doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art — this is what we talk about when we talk about having to really apprentice yourself to the craft of writing.

[…]

When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.

On the great leap into the unknown that writing requires, the intuitive flow of which should still be tempered — as Ray Bradbury famously believed — by the intelligent discernment gained only through deliberate practice of the craft:

I’ve been a serious writer since I was nineteen or twenty, and I would say that the difference between being a writer now in my forties versus being a writer in my twenties is that I have just learned how to trust the mystery of the writing process… The most important thing that I’ve learned to trust is that I don’t know where I’m going to land, and it’s okay — but to follow the path where it leads me… I trust that there’s some intuitive place within me that’s driving me forward.

[…]

So you trust the intuition, but there is this point in the writing process where you damned well better know what you’re doing — you damned well better know the connection… The intuition falls away — you trust the intuition to get to that place you need to go as a writer, but then it’s not just, like, “Oh, I don’t know how it’s connected — I just know it is,” this kind of, “It sounds poetic, so it must mean something.” That never has worked for me — I’ve always had to eventually say, “No, this is the bridge.”

On the necessary capacity for duality, the complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the well-meaning but wholly misguided and infuriating cultural narrative that one should only “think positive” in order for positive outcomes to occur:

My mom was forty-five and she had a terminal diagnosis — she died seven weeks to the day after she was diagnosed… She wanted to live — and she didn’t. And she didn’t have any power over that… For a long time, I was very angry … at this very prevalent idea that we could conquer these terminal diseases with positive thinking — because, the fact of the matter is, sometimes people just get sick and die. And sometimes you just have to live with that fact, no matter what you want.

[…]

[And yet] you have to be a positive thinker — you really do have to control your mind in some way and think “I can” instead of “I can’t.” But I think that the danger of saying that is always [the question of] will this be misinterpreted [and] taken to its extreme [of believing that] you can actually reverse course on something like a terminal diagnosis with positive thinking…

If I had to say, in one fell swoop, what is Sugar, what is Sugar trying to espouse, it’s that two things can be true at once — even opposing truths. It could be true that you will suffer forever because you were sexually abused as a child — it can also be true that you can overcome that and not let that experience define your life. And you can hold those two truths in two hands, and walk forward.

I think it’s the same way with the positive thinking — you can’t necessarily think your way out of lung cancer, but you can have a happier life if you think positively in the face of profound sorrow.

On how she applied this dynamic duality to her own life when her memoir became a movie and she was played by the gorgeous Reese Witherspoon, which called for a real discipline in not succumbing to self-comparisons and resisting the tyranny* of perfectionism:

It can be, sometimes, really hard to rise at the most beautiful moments of our lives… I decided that I was going to try to shine, in a sort of Hollywood way — I was going to wear those pretty dresses and get my hair and makeup done and not feel out of place in that world, but I was also going to be who I am and be the size that I am and have the body I have and be the forty-six-year-old that I am, and not allow myself to feel bad about it.

So I did … this mind-control thing, where every single time I thought [something negative about myself], I said, “Don’t think that — you’re not allowed to think that.” And it’s amazing what that can do — when you actually don’t let yourself be mean to yourself… You’re saying, “There you are — I see you, I acknowledge your presence, and you will not rule me.”

And I think that is so essential to any kind of success. We’re all flawed, we’re going to fail, we’re all going to be afraid sometimes, we’re all going to feel terrible about ourselves sometimes, or regret what we did or said… But you have to say, “Well, who is going to be my ruler?” — almost on a moment-by-moment basis.

On growing up poor and being a struggling writer until only recently, then being plunged into a very different world after the staggering success of Wild and learning to reconcile her lifelong values with the realities of her new life as she raises her kids:

[My kids are] going to have to learn what my struggle taught me about the world — they’re going to have to learn that another way. And that’s the thing — I think you can… You can learn as much from your privilege as you can from our oppression, but only if you’re aware of it and only if you have consciousness.

On our mythology of success, which once again bespeaks our difficulty with holding duality:

Every day of my life since the crazy-ass shit happened with Wild, I am fully aware that this is crazy-ass shit. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think I worked my fucking hiney off to have that success — I did. I actually worked my ass off. I also know that it would be true that I worked my ass off if nobody read Wild… The hard work is what’s true — the crazy-ass shit is … just the luck of life, the great fortune of life.

The distinction I’m trying to make here is that there’s a long history of women saying, “Well, I just got lucky.” I didn’t just get lucky — I worked my fucking ass off, and then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky — so you have to do the work, you always have to do the work. And part of the work is about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning how to say, “Hello, fear, thank you for being here, because you are my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.”

On learning to dance with the fear and the inevitable self-doubt which, as John Steinbeck’s diary so grippingly attests, bedevils even the greatest of writers:

The way it feels to write a book is that you can’t write a book.

Complement with Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers and her reflections, by way of Adrienne Rich and Marie Curie, on what power really means.

You can — and should — subscribe to the Longform podcast here.

* No era was more tyrannical in its unwillingness to hold paradox than the Victorian, which arguably cemented not only our superficial beauty standards but also our inability to live with duality. A mere century and a half before Strayed, another woman genius was constantly tormented by the pressure to choose between poetry and mathematics. But it was ultimately the fusion of the two that made Ada Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Even so, she wasn’t spared the era’s tyrannical resistance to duality — Lovelace, unlike Strayed, didn’t engage with the era’s ideals of ladyhood, leading her contemporaries to describe her as “poetical in appearance,” which was euphemism for unkempt and badly dressed, and only one step removed from “writerly in appearance.”

BP

The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

“Nothing any good isn’t hard,” F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his letter of advice on writing to his fifteen-year-old daughter upon her enrollment in high school. That uncomfortable yet strangely emboldening counsel is what Cheryl Strayed offers — with greater poeticism and much better grammar — to a despairing young writer in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), the ample soul-satisfactions of which have been previously extolled here.

Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Like all the letters Strayed answered as Sugar, this one is profoundly personal yet speaks to the artist’s universal dance with the fear — the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.

What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”

Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Echoing Voltaire’s memorable admonition from his letter of advice on how to write well“beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose” — and Bukowski’s lament that “bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Strayed adds:

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:

Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.

Pointing to Bassist’s litany of women writers who ended their own lives — perhaps Plath, Sexton, Woolf — Strayed calls the young writer out on perpetuating the dangerous mythology of creativity and mental illness. Reminding her — reminding all of us — that the stories we tell ourselves shape our horizons of possibility, Strayed reality-checks this perilous narrowing of attention:

In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

You know what is?

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.

[…]

The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

[…]

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:

But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.

[…]

I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.

[…]

A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.

Tiny Beautiful Things, it bears repeating, is nothing short of necessary to the liver of modern life. Complement this particular fragment with Dani Shapiro on the plight of the artist and this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

BP

Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Sarah Manguso

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

And yet this process of chronicling her orientation to the moment soon revealed that the recording itself was an editorial act — choosing which moments to record and which to omit is, as Susan Sontag observed of the fiction writer’s task to choose which story to tell from among all the ones that could be told, about becoming a storyteller of one’s own life; synthesizing the robust fact of time into a fragmentary selection of moments invariably produces a work of fiction. As Manguso puts it, the diary becomes “a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”

But alongside this pursuit of the fullness of the moment Manguso found a dark underbelly — a kind of leaning forward into the next moment before this one has come to completion. This particularly Western affliction has immensely varied symptoms, but Manguso found that it her own life its most perilous manifestation was the tendency to hop from one romantic relationship to another, oscillating between beginnings and endings, unable to inhabit the stillness of the middles. She writes:

I’d become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.

I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.

My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.

Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.

I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss.

As her relationship to these markers of time changed, she became interested not in the “short tragic love stories” that had once bewitched her but in “the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.” Eventually, she got married. Echoing Wendell Berry’s memorable meditation on marriage and freedom, she writes:

Marriage isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.

In a significant way, the stability of time inherent to such continuity was an experience foreign to Manguso and counter to the flow of impermanence that her diary recorded. This was a whole new way of measuring life not by its constant changes but by its unchanging constants:

In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn’t changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order … Would that be a better, truer record?

The record-keeping of truth, of course, is the domain of memory — and yet our memory is not an accurate recording device but, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out over and over, a perpetually self-revising dossier. Manguso considers what full attentiveness to the present might look like when unimpeded by the tyranny of memory:

The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.

Looking back on her own childhood, Manguso echoes Susan Sontag’s memorable protestation against the mnemonic violence of photography and writes:

When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.

For Manguso, memory and its resulting record became stubborn self-defense not only against forgetting but also against being forgotten — a special case of our general lifelong confrontation with mortality:

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word — soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me.

Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

[…]

I assumed that maximizing the breadth and depth of my autobiographical memory would be good for me, force me to write and live with greater care, but in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning.

He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.

He responded to my fan letter when he was ninety. When he was ninety-one, he died.

I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for The Velveteen Rabbit.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

But even that enlivening “untested hope” is a dialogic function of time and impermanence. Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life, of the diary itself:

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is merely a report,” Manguso considers “the tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe” and adds:

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Occasionally, a memory retains its stark original reality. Manguso recalls one particular incident from her son’s early childhood:

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake.

The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it — an incapacitating sweetness.

The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that… An unbearable sweetness.

The feeling strengthens the more I remember it. It isn’t wearing smooth. It’s getting bigger, an outgrowth of new love.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for The Velveteen Rabbit

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Echoing philosopher Joanna Macy’s recipe for dialing up the magic of the moment by befriending our mortality, Manguso adds:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

She revisits her original tussle with time, memory, beginnings, and endings:

How ridiculous to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.

[…]

Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.

It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.

Seen in this way, the diary becomes not a bastion of memory but a white flag to forgetting, extended not in resignation but in celebration. Manguso writes:

I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.

[..]

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.

Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

[…]

Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.

Complement Ongoingness, a spectacularly and unsummarizably rewarding read in its entirety, with Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are.

Thanks, Dani

BP

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