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An Illustrated Tour of New York City from a Dog’s Point of View

A vibrant concentration of humanity, seen through earnest eyes of wonderment and infectious enthusiasm.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York — a city that has, in fact, has inspired a great deal of poetry itself: visual poetry, like Berenice Abbott’s stunning photographs of its changing face and Julia Rothman’s illustrated tour of the five boroughs; poetic prose, like Zadie Smith’s love-hate letter to Gotham and the private writings of notable authors who lived in and visited the city; and poetry-poetry, like Frank O’Hara’s “Song (Is it dirty)” and Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.”

Now comes a most unusual addition to the menagerie of Gotham-lovers — a foreign cousin of Manhattan’s beloved creative canines. In Americanine: A Haute Dog in New York (public library), French illustrator Yann Kebbi takes us on an imaginative and infectiously enthusiastic tour of the city from the point of view of a dog, “a merry canine” — a creature full of goodwill and earnest wonderment at the world, wholly devoid of the petty cynicisms that blind us to the miraculousness of so much humanity compressed into such a small space. It is only through such eyes of fiery friendliness that we begin to add music and meaning — to New York, to any city, to life itself.

Kebbi’s illustrations, immeasurably delightful in their own right, bear a palpable kinship of spirit with this singular city itself — colorful and deeply alive, they bridge haste and purposefulness, simplicity and sophistication.

We follow the dog as he samples the usual tourist attractions — from staples like the Statue of Liberty and Grand Central to classic funscapes like the Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel to bastions of high-brow culture like the Guggenheim.

Tucked into his journey are treats to which tourists may remain oblivious but which locals will recognize with nostalgic delight — the Central Park saxophonist, the archetypal spoke-figure of the dog walker, the Domino Sugar factory by the Williamsburg Bridge, the city’s iconic water towers.

There also semi-hidden perplexities that wink at the reality of the story and the reality of the city simultaneously: Our dog-hero wanders the streets leashed, and yet the enigmatic leash-holder always remains out of the frame — both a source of mystery and a subtle layer of civic history, for it is illegal to let dogs off-leash in the streets of New York.

The playfulness of the canine perspective extends a warm invitation to pause and marvel at some of the absurd things we humans do, which we’ve come to take for granted in the rhythm of daily life. As the dog peers through the window of a giant gym and watches people run in place without getting anywhere, one is suddenly reminded of how silly much of what we do would seem to a rational observer.

What emerges is a loving portrait of a city ablaze with aliveness, one in which both tourists and locals will recognize themselves — their dreams and their realities, mirrored back at them with eager and nonjudgmental eyes full of wonderment.

The wholly delightful Americanine comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion Books, the independent picture-book powerhouse behind such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, Little Boy Brown, The Lion and the Bird, Why Dogs Have Wet Noses, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

For some complementary treats, see The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, the graphic biography of the man who shaped Gotham, and the science of how a dog actually “sees” the world through smell.

BP

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,’ a visual history of Soviet children’s book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from ‘I, Leonardo.’ Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

BP

Celebrated Writers on the Culturally Controversial Choice Not to Have Children

“It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.

A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers’ by JonArno Lawson. Click image for more.

With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:

Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:

For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.

Illustration from ‘Little Boy Brown,’ a vintage ode to childhood’s loneliness. Click image for more.

And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:

I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

[…]

It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

This begs the necessary question of gender balance — in the larger cultural conversation as well as in the particularity of this volume — which Daum addresses with no-nonsense elegance:

There are notably more women than men here — a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.

But for all its diversity of perspectives on and paths to nonparenthood, the anthology is underpinned by one obvious self-selection bias — all sixteen contributors are writers, and as Martin Amis memorably observed, “the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.” What’s more, in addition to a greater need for solitude and higher tolerance for financial uncertainty, artists and writers have in common one other key differentiator from the general population: We tend to measure legacy in memetics rather than genetics — in the ideas rather than the infants we seed into society. (In one extreme, writers who do choose to procreate end up designating their children like they do their works — with a byline: Take F. Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter, Scottie.)

To be sure, Daum counters this disclaimer by pointing out that if the choice were as simple as “writing versus children,” writers “wouldn’t have much to say on the subject” — and they have a great deal to say, with a great deal of dimension.

Geoff Dyer (Photograph: Jason Oddy)

In one of the funniest essays, Geoff Dyer brings all of his wonderful, curmudgeonly, self-deprecating Englishness to the subject and writes:

In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?

[…]

By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched — they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice — and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from ‘Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.’ Click image for more.

Summoning Virginia Woolf in her own most curmudgeonly Englishness — “A child is the very devil,” she wrote in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents.” — Dyer adds:

Certainly at that moment, the threatened love these mums felt for their children seemed ferocious and vile, either a kind of insanity or, at the very least, a form of deeply antisocial behavior. I stress this because it’s often claimed that having kids makes people more conscious of the kind of world they’re creating or leaving for their offspring. That would be why, in London, a city with excellent public transportation, parents have to make sure they have cars. Many of these cars come speeding along my street on their way to the extremely expensive private school on the corner. You can see, from the looks on these mums’ faces as they drop off their kids at this little nest of privilege, that the larger world — as represented by me, some loser on his bike — doesn’t exist, is no more than an impediment to finding a parking space. Parenthood, far from enlarging one’s worldview, results in an appalling form of myopia. Hence André Gide’s verdict on families, “those misers of love.”

Dyer turns a skeptical eye toward the most common case for having children:

Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile — apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose — then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.

Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void. But some of us are quite happy in the void, thank you, and have no desire to have it filled.

It’s worth pausing here to circle back to Tolstoy and point out that although he filled his existential void with fourteen children, he quickly found them to be insufficient filler and spiraled into his now-legendary search for meaning. But Dyer is equally skeptical of turning to “the writing life” for such existential filler as he is of the pro-procreation dogma:

Any exultation of the writing life is as abhorrent to me as the exultation of family life. Writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money. If you want to make sure I never read a line you’ve written, tell me about the sacrifices you’ve made in order to get those lines written… Sacrifice is part of the parent’s vocabulary.

[…]

After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations — even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting in-laws, being forced to stay in and baby-sit) that they scale the summit of their desires.

Unmasking this charade of “sacrifice,” Dyer pounces at the jugular of the anti-childlessness tyrant:

Does this mean, as parents might claim, that I’m just too selfish? Now, there’s a red herring if ever there was one. Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is.

Anna Holmes (Photograph: Victor Jeffries)

Jezebel founder and epistolary heartbreak-hunter Anna Holmes addresses another facet of the Me-First myth, considering the choice not to have children as an act of self-caring — of knowing intimately the singular, un-peer-pressured needs of one’s inner life and honoring them — rather than one of selfishness:

Herein lies the rub: as it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for — or ability to achieve — success in any other arena. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.

[…]

Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness” — I would call it “agency” — but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin. [My choice] has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.) But the fact is, it is never far from my mind that the means of reproduction — and its costs — are beasts of burden borne, historically, by the fairer sex.

[…]

As I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. (No, I cannot perform that job; no, I cannot meet you for coffee ; no, I cannot be in a relationship in which I feel starved for emotional and physical connection.) … The irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.

Sigrid Nunez (Photograph: Marion Ettlinger)

In one of the most somber, sobering, and intense essays in the volume, Sigrid Nunez explores the complex variables that go into that choice — the wanting, the not-wanting, the wanting-to-want — through the lens of her own life as well as those of yesteryear’s prominent childless women writers.

Nunez is among those of us unafraid to acknowledge that one’s childhood shapes one’s disposition to being a parent in adulthood. She reflects on her mother — a woman who was decidedly unmaternal and to whom “a child, any child, was a brat”:

The circumstances of her own youth (the war, the too-early pregnancy, the immigration to America with a husband who was in all ways an unsuitable match and whom she considered beneath her) ensured that she would always see herself as unlucky, as someone who had been cheated. Whatever good might come her way from having had a family (and that good would not come before the children were grown), it was the bad that marked her, that made her life what it was.

Nunez grew up in a community of families made up of people like her mother — “people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin — people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder” — and experienced the direct results of that anguishing awareness:

Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children.

“Don’t let’s think about the pets,” she adds parenthentically, and those of us who grew up in such homes instantly know what she means. Worse yet, this acting-out of frustrations wasn’t confined to the home — it was condoned by the community:

The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both, seemed to be anger. It was part of the chaos of that place and time: you never knew when some grown-up was going to fly off the handle. Children were forever being screamed at, sworn at, slapped around, or worse… The berating or whipping of a child in public, often before a smirking crowd, was nothing rare. And the suffering of anyone subjected to that particular humiliation was so obvious and so dreadful that it was hard to believe the parent inflicting it could possibly also love that child.

Much of what Nunez endured calls to mind Kafka’s relationship with his abusive father — most of all, perhaps, the way in which children who grow up in such environments come to mistake such parenting for the norm; when our pain is consistently invalidated and dismissed, we come to believe that there is something wrong with us for experiencing that pain, rather than with our parents for inflicting it. Nunez considers the complexities of the issue and the psychological aftershocks, which never quite leave us:

At some point, of course, I came to understand that not all children had been unwanted, and that, like people everywhere, most of the parents I knew, the mothers in particular, had counted having a family among their life’s sweetest dreams. The problem for many of them arose from being unable to prevent having more children than they’d wanted, or from having them come along at times when they couldn’t help being more burden — Another mouth to feed! Where’s he gonna sleep? — than blessing. And I began to understand how a person could love his or her children and at the same time deeply resent them… But I have known many whose lives were formed — or deformed, perhaps I should say — by having been made to feel guilty for all the trouble they caused by coming into the world.

[…]

Once, when I was six or seven, walking with my mother down a certain mean Brooklyn street, we passed a group of surly-looking boys gathered on a stoop. As my mother quickened her steps, dragging me along, one of the boys threw something at me: the wooden stick from an ice-cream pop he’d just finished eating . I tugged my mother’s hand. “Mommy, that boy hit me!” Marching on, staring grimly ahead, she addressed me in a voice that was like a slap: “And what do you think I can do about it?” At which a certain knowledge sank into my bones, and with that knowledge a fear that would never wholly leave me.

[…]

As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe? The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe.

As a counterpoint to her early and enduring doubt as to what kind of parent she’d make, Nunez grew up with absolute clarity and certainty about being a writer. This she discusses in a way that makes clear the anthology’s greatest feat: its testament to what we intuitively understand but refuse to accept — that many of those willingly childless were themselves the children of unwilling (and thus unloving, unpresent, unskilled) parents; that parenting is a tradeoff with creative and intellectual achievement. Nunez writes:

Although in my youthful, naive way I gravely underestimated how difficult such a life would be, I stuck to it, and I was steadfast in not letting other things distract me. No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children… Doris Lessing declared herself “not the best person” to raise the two young children she left behind when she moved from southern Africa to London to pursue her career. Why? “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm.’ Click image for more.

To be fair, this is perhaps a matter more selectively anecdotal than representative of empirical evidence — one imagines, for instance, Zadie Smith reading this as she cradles her second baby and raises an intelligent and unbored eyebrow.

Still, Nunez points to Sylvia Plath as a woman who had wanted it all with blazing ambition — the immortality of a creative genius, but also the feminine ideal of the family — only to crash and burn in the grip of deadly mental illness. (The direction of causality is left wanting: Did the desire to have it all, without resigning to the fact of any tradeoff, precipitate Plath’s mental illness, or was the desire itself a symptom of her mental illness? I err on the side of the latter, and Nunez seems to suggest the former.) Nunez returns to her own reality:

That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both.

A graduate student of mine tells me, with some heat, “I do plan to have kids one day, but I certainly hope they won’t be the most important thing in my life!”

Am I wrong to think that perhaps, if this is how she feels and continues to feel, she ought at least to consider not having kids?

I can hear her respond, with equal heat, “But that’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to a man.”

In any case, she will learn soon enough that her honesty isn’t likely to be met with understanding. When Michelle Obama (to name just one prominent, accomplished woman) announces, “I’m a mother first,” she is of course saying what most people want to hear. (It is inconceivable that any woman running for public office today could get away with explaining that although she loves her children dearly, for her, being a leader comes first. President Obama has often been heard to say, meaningfully, “I am a father.” No one leans in expecting to hear first.)

Illustration by Hilary Knight from ‘When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy’ by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

Nunez illustrates the social judgment to which a woman’s priorities are inevitably subjected with Nobel-winning writer Alice Munro’s uncompromisingly candid Paris Review interview:

“I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, ‘This was a hard-hearted young woman.’” Munro confesses to not having been there for her small children and knowing that they suffered for it. “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other.… This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”

Back to the important thing. What was most important to me. Make no mistake, this was a writer first.

[…]

Here’s my question: Is there any way for a woman in the young Munro’s position to escape being judged — by herself, by the world — as hard-hearted?

It’s worth wondering, perhaps, how Nunez’s question may have been shaped by her relationship with the son of one of the greatest writers of all time — Susan Sontag — who seems to have raised her child with an attitude similar to Munro’s. It’s hard to imagine that being in intimate proximity to this complex dynamic of love and resentment, and witness its enduring aftershocks, wouldn’t color one’s view of the parenthood-versus-writing tradeoff, to say nothing of seeding the baseline assumption that it is a tradeoff only the nuances — not the existence — of which are to be debated.

But for Nunez, the choice was ultimately not so much about sparing herself the resentment toward a child that distracts from her literary career as about sparing a child the lifelong trauma of being resented as a distraction — a decision based on compassionate realism rather than selfish idealism. It is, essentially, a question of deciding for oneself — as Munro did — what “the most important thing” is:

Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over. “Children detect things like that,” acknowledged Munro.

[…]

To forgo motherhood was the right thing to do. But whether it was a choice I made or one that was made for me is perhaps another question.

[…]

But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a nuanced and necessary read in its totality. Complement it with some thoughts on another socially frowned-upon personal choice — that of being alone — then revisit Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our own imperfect younger selves.

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

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