Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt — another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit — observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?

That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — Bechdel’s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted father’s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother — which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion — Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live.

I pause here to note that this is one of very few books I’ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing — so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.

Although she sets out to write a book about her mother’s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdel’s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Stein’s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wife’s). Her mother’s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:

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(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir“Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”)

In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:

You can’t live and write at the same time.

And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdel’s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary: “What a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.”

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“My mother composed me as I now compose her,” Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and I’m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderful phrase “composing a life” — for isn’t every life, after all, a composition?

Bechdel writes:

For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary.”

Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.

Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed — in Bechdel’s life, as in any life. One such moment: her mother’s unease about the publication of Bechdel’s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdel’s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:

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The book is a kind of modern-day florilegium composed of Bechdel’s marginalia on books she is consumed with — above all, the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, alongside cultural classics like Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (“that endlessly consoling ode to sensitive children everywhere”), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich (who sent a personal rejection, uncushioned yet somehow mobilizing, to Bechdel’s first submission to a major literary journal).

It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting — in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of “hypertext” references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicott’s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalyst’s name.

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No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”

The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy — at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are.

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Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the “sleeping counterpart” who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living.

Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spider’s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two?

Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds — a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives.

At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:

I would argue that for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.

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Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdel’s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:

I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin writing

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George OrwellDavid Foster WallaceItalo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

Adding to the endlessly fascinating daily rhythms of great writers, which reflect the wide range of differences in the cognitive conditions of the ideal writing routine, Baldwin shares his work habits:

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

Complement The Writer’s Chapbook — a treasure so wisdom-packed that it is a tragedy to see it fall out of print — with Joseph Conrad on what makes a great writer, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and Jane Kenyon on what remains the finest ethos to write and live by, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society and his terrifically timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity.

Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand,” Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) counseled in his 1935 Esquire compendium of writing advice, addressed to an archetypal young correspondent but based on a real-life encounter that had taken place a year earlier.

In 1934, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson set out to meet his literary hero, hoping to steal a few moments with Hemingway to talk about writing. The son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers, he had just completed his coursework in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but had refused to pay the $5 diploma fee. Convinced that his literary education would be best served by apprenticing himself to Hemingway, however briefly, he hitchhiked atop a coal car from Minnesota to Key West. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson later recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have to have much reason for what he did.” Unreasonable though the quest may have been, he ended up staying with Hemingway for almost an entire year, over the course of which he became the literary titan’s only true protégé.

Samuelson recorded the experience and its multitude of learnings in a manuscript that was only discovered by his daughter after his death in 1981. It was eventually published as With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba (public library) — the closest thing to a psychological profile of the great writer.

Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.
Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.

Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.

This is the list of heartening and hopeless-making masterworks that Hemingway handed to young Samuelson:

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  1. The Blue Hotel (public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat (public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary (free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners (public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black (public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage (free ebook | public library) by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks (public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell (public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library)
  13. The Enormous Room (public library) by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights (free ebook | public library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago (free ebook | public library) by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American (free ebook | public library) by Henry James

Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library).

Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Alongside these edifying essentials, Hemingway offered young Samuelson some concrete writing advice. Advocating for staying with what psychologists now call flow, he begins with the psychological discipline of the writing process:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

Then, echoing Lewis Carroll’s advice on overcoming creative block in problem-solving, Hemingway considers the practical tactics of this psychological strategy:

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

He then returns to the psychological payoff of this trying practice:

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.

When Samuelson asks how one can know whether one has any talent, Hemingway replies:

You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.

Hemingway tempers this with a word of advice on ambition, self-comparison, and originality:

Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.
Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neil Gaiman’s magnificent commencement address on the only adequate response to criticism, Hemingway cautions Samuelson about the petty jealousies that arise with success:

When you start to write everybody is wishing you luck, but when you’re going good, they try to kill you. The only way you can ever stay on top is by writing good stuff.

With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba brims with the celebrated writer’s wisdom on literature, life, and the creative experience. Complement it with Hemingway on knowledge and the dangers of ego, and his short, spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the essential reading lists of Joan DidionLeo TolstoySusan SontagAlan TuringBrian EnoDavid ByrneNeil deGrasse Tyson, and Patti Smith.

Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

Recently, in listening to a dear and brilliant friend rationalize her choice to stay at a soul-sucking corporate job under the seemingly sensible pretext that it would eventually grant her the financial freedom to be a full-time writer, I was reminded of how one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.

In 1906, Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) left teaching and moved to New York City to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine — the most successful and prestigious periodical of the era, famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing trailblazing fiction by writers like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But its success was also driven by brutally ambitious corporate management that saw journalism as a profitable business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today. Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but when the majority of McClure’s staff — including the great Lincoln Steffens — left en masse over discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she was tasked with the onerous work of an intense investigative project, which became a sensation and exploded the magazine’s circulation. “Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” she wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.

Willa Cather

Cather was excellent at the job, enjoyed being called an “executive,” and couldn’t deny the gratifications of the attractive pay. But she eventually came to feel that the hamster wheel of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, steering her further from her calling as a literary writer. And yet she remained unable to tear herself away, for all the complex and conflicted reasons that any of us stay in situations, relationships, and jobs that contract rather than magnifying our spirit.

Everything changed on December 13, 1908, when Cather received a remarkable letter of advice from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. Found in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — the marvelous tome that gave us Cather on writing through times of trouble and her only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — the letter was at once a hard shake of the shoulders and a warm embrace. It provided precisely the kind of prod Cather needed in order to awaken from her trance of corporate productivity and revive her creative energies as a writer.

Sarah Jewett
Sarah Jewett

Jewett wrote:

Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.

Cather was shaken, in the best possible way. Her reply to Jewett is masterwork of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:

My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;

Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.

At the heart of Cather’s lament is the acute sense of the tradeoff between productivity and creativity, calling to mind Parker Palmer’s incisive observation that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on.”

She writes to Jewett:

Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.

[…]

[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.

Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)

McClure, for his part, was a deft manipulator of the interior conditions that kept his staff from hopping off the corporate hamster wheel, feeding their confidence at the specific productivity he needed and fueling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. Cather writes:

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.

And yet Cather remained awake to the tradeoff, animated by unshakable restlessness about the sacrifice she was making in buying into this particular model of success at the expense of her creative satisfaction:

The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.

Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.

Her mind then performs the same acrobatics of rationalization we all engage in when we justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of a life:

I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.

willacather_stamp

Cather began working on her first novel shortly thereafter. Although it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s — by that point, she was one of the most powerful women in journalism — once she did, she never looked back. Her debut novel was published that year to critical acclaim and was followed by thirteen books over the next three decades, which earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize and established her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with Cather on happiness, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit, Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, and Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-draining day job to become a full-time writer.

Creative Magic and What Makes a Great Writer: Joseph Conrad’s Beautiful Tribute to Henry James

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Creative Magic and What Makes a Great Writer: Joseph Conrad’s Beautiful Tribute to Henry James

In 1905, six years after the release of Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad (December 3, 1857–August 3, 1924) penned a beautiful essay titled “Henry James: An Appreciation,” eventually included in Conrad’s thoroughly terrific collection Notes on Life and Letters (public library | free download). In addition to being one of the loveliest homages in literary history, on par with Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse, teenage James Joyce’s beautiful letter to Ibsen, and Dostoyevsky’s remembrance of George Sand, the essay — a celebration of James as a writer who “keeps a firm hold of the substance, of what is worth having, of what is worth holding” — is perhaps the most direct distillation of Conrad’s views on writing and what makes a great writer.

josephconrad

Conrad writes:

After some twenty years of attentive acquaintance with Mr. Henry James’s work, it grows into absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one’s artistic existence. If gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense of favours to come, it becomes very easy to be grateful to [Henry James]. The favours are sure to come; the spring of that benevolence will never run dry. The stream of inspiration flows brimful in a predetermined direction, unaffected by the periods of drought, untroubled in its clearness by the storms of the land of letters, without languor or violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every turn of its course through that richly inhabited country its fertility has created for our delectation, for our judgment, for our exploring. It is, in fact, a magic spring.

Conrad then corrects himself, noting that James’s body of work — as all great writing — is best compared to “a majestic river,” and contributes a magnificent definition of art:

All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind, pinned down by the conditions of its existence to the earnest consideration of the most insignificant tides of reality.

Action in its essence, the creative art of a writer of fiction may be compared to rescue work carried out in darkness against cross gusts of wind swaying the action of a great multitude. It is rescue work, this snatching of vanishing phases of turbulence, disguised in fair words, out of the native obscurity into a light where the struggling forms may be seen, seized upon, endowed with the only possible form of permanence in this world of relative values — the permanence of memory. And the multitude feels it obscurely too; since the demand of the individual to the artist is, in effect, the cry, “Take me out of myself!” meaning really, out of my perishable activity into the light of imperishable consciousness. But everything is relative, and the light of consciousness is only enduring, merely the most enduring of the things of this earth, imperishable only as against the short-lived work of our industrious hands.

Art by Matt Kish for his illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness
Art by Matt Kish for his illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness

But however much the activity of the artist may elevate the multitude — however much it may, in the unforgettable words of William Faulkner, “help man endure by lifting his heart” — the artist, Conrad argues, doesn’t create out of selfless heroism but out of the sheer inevitability of the creative impulse:

The artist in his calling of interpreter creates (the clearest form of demonstration) because he must. He is so much of a voice that, for him, silence is like death; and the postulate was, that there is a group alive, clustered on his threshold to watch the last flicker of light on a black sky, to hear the last word uttered in the stilled workshop of the earth.

And yet whatever the interior stimulus of the artist, in its external effect art ultimately bolsters humanity’s heroism in the face of life’s perishableness:

It is safe to affirm that, if anybody, it will be the imaginative man who would be moved to speak on the eve of that day without to-morrow — whether in austere exhortation or in a phrase of sardonic comment, who can guess?

For my own part, from a short and cursory acquaintance with my kind, I am inclined to think that the last utterance will formulate, strange as it may appear, some hope now to us utterly inconceivable. For mankind is delightful in its pride, its assurance, and its indomitable tenacity. It will sleep on the battlefield among its own dead, in the manner of an army having won a barren victory. It will not know when it is beaten. And perhaps it is right in that quality. The victories are not, perhaps, so barren as it may appear from a purely strategical, utilitarian point of view.

The artist’s task, Conrad suggests, is to remind us of the larger plentitude as we stand amid the barren battlefield:

The earth itself has grown smaller in the course of ages. But in every sphere of human perplexities and emotions, there are more greatnesses than one — not counting here the greatness of the artist himself. Wherever he stands, at the beginning or the end of things, a man has to sacrifice his gods to his passions, or his passions to his gods. That is the problem, great enough, in all truth, if approached in the spirit of sincerity and knowledge.

He turns to the role of fiction, singular among the arts in how it orients us toward the truth of existence:

Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting — on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.

Pointing to Henry James a a supreme “historian of fine consciences,” Conrad adds:

The range of a fine conscience covers more good and evil than the range of conscience which may be called, roughly, not fine; a conscience, less troubled by the nice discrimination of shades of conduct. A fine conscience is more concerned with essentials; its triumphs are more perfect, if less profitable, in a worldly sense. There is, in short, more truth in its working for a historian to detect and to show. It is a thing of infinite complication and suggestion.

Conrad observes of the great writer, that “historian of fine consciences”:

There are no secrets left within his range. He has disclosed them as they should be disclosed — that is, beautifully. And, indeed, ugliness has but little place in this world of his creation. Yet, it is always felt in the truthfulness of his art; it is there, it surrounds the scene, it presses close upon it. It is made visible, tangible, in the struggles, in the contacts of the fine consciences, in their perplexities, in the sophism of their mistakes. For a fine conscience is naturally a virtuous one. What is natural about it is just its fineness, an abiding sense of the intangible, ever-present, right. It is most visible in their ultimate triumph, in their emergence from miracle, through an energetic act of renunciation. Energetic, not violent: the distinction is wide, enormous, like that between substance and shadow.

Conrad’s wholly wonderful Notes on Life and Letters is available as a free download. Complement it with E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist and Flannery O’Connor on art, integrity, and the artist’s responsibility to his or her talent, then revisit this growing collection of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Poet Jane Kenyon’s Advice on Writing: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“Be a good steward of your gifts.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

In Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — one of the finest, most insightful reflections on the creative experience ever committed to words — writer Dani Shapiro mentions a set of instructions by the poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995), a writing mantra of sorts, which she keeps tacked above her desk.

Literature being the original internet, I followed this analog hyperlink to Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem (public library) — an altogether marvelous posthumous collection.

These uncommonly sage instructions appear in a piece titled Everything I Know About Writing Poetry — Kenyon’s notes for a lecture she delivered at a literary conference in 1991, a superb addition to this growing compendium of writers’ advice on the craft. Although her advice is aimed at poets, at its heart is tremendous wisdom that applies to every field of creative endeavor and can electrify any artist. Spoken with the unpretentious honesty of her own experience as a working poet with decades of trial and triumph under her belt, Kenyon’s counsel comes as an offering of love:

Tell the whole truth. Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid. Close the critic out when you are drafting something new. Take chances in the interest of clarity of emotion.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

The closing passage — the one tacked above Shapiro’s desk — contains some of the most ennobling tenets for a human being to live by:

Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly wonderful A Hundred White Daffodils with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the vitality of “fertile solitude,” Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, and Mary Ruefle on the nourishment of good books, then revisit Shapiro’s indispensable memoir of the writing life.

The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless,” the editors of The Paris Review wrote in the introduction to their 1992 interview with poet, short story writer, educator, and activist Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007). Although Paley herself never graduated from college, she went on to become one of the most beloved and influential teachers of writing — both formally, through her professorships at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Syracuse University, and City College of New York, and informally, through her insightful lectures, interviews, essays, and reviews. The best of those are collected in Just As I Thought (public library) — a magnificent anthology of Paley’s nonfiction, which cumulatively presents a sort of oblique autobiography of the celebrated writer.

Grace Paley

In one of the most stimulating pieces in the volume — a lecture from the mid-1960s titled “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” which does for writing what Thoreau did for the spirit in his beautiful meditation on the value of “useful ignorance” — Paley examines the single most fruitful disposition for great writing:

The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.

[…]

What the writer is interested in is life, life as he is nearly living it… Some people have to live first and write later, like Proust. More writers are like Yeats, who was always being tempted from his craft of verse, but not seriously enough to cut down on production.

Therein, she argues, lies the key to why writers write. Echoing Joan Didion — “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she wryly observed in the classic Why I Write — Paley reflects:

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over. He tries to write with different names and faces, using different professions and labors, other forms to travel the shortest distance to the way things really are.

In other words, the poor writer — presumably in an intellectual profession — really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about.

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

With a skeptical eye to the familiar “write what you know” dictum of creative writing classes, Paley makes a case for the opposite approach in extracting the juiciest raw material for great writing:

I would suggest something different… what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?

[…]

You might try your father and mother for a starter. You’ve seen them so closely that they ought to be absolutely mysterious. What’s kept them together these thirty years? Or why is your father’s second wife no better than his first? If, before you sit down with paper and pencil to deal with them, it all comes suddenly clear and you find yourself mumbling, Of course, he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, and you think you have the answer — drop the subject.

In classic Paley style, where what appears to be subtle sarcasm turns out to be a vehicle for great sagacity, she adds:

If, in casting about for suitable areas of ignorance, you fail because you understand yourself (and too well), your school friends, as well as the global balance of terror, and you can also see your last Saturday-night date blistery in the hot light of truth — but you still love books and the idea of writing — you might make a first-class critic… In areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness…

When you have invented all the facts to make a story and get somehow to the truth of the mystery and you can’t dig up another question — change the subject.

Cautioning that writing fails when “the tension and the mystery and the question are gone,” she concludes:

The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

A few years later, Paley revisits the subject in a 1970 piece from the same volume titled “Some Notes on Teaching,” in which she offers fifteen insights as useful to aspiring writers as they are to professional writers like herself “who must begin again and again in order to get anywhere at all.” Noting that she aims to “stay as ignorant in the art of teaching” as she wants her students to be in the art of writing, she observes that the assignments she gives are usually questions which have stumped her, ones which she herself is still pursuing.

She first turns to the integrity of language, so often squeezed out of writers by their education:

Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue… If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren’t a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.

She then offers an assignment that puts into practice this essential art of “ununderstanding,” with the instruction of being repeated whenever necessary:

Write a story, a first-person narrative in the voice of someone with whom you’re in conflict. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don’t understand. Use a situation you don’t understand.

Paley raises a dissenting voice in literary history’s many-bodied chorus of celebrated writers who extol the creative benefits of keeping a diary:

No personal journals, please, for about a year… When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring. When I find only myself interesting, I’m a conceited bore. When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.

(It is worth offering a counterpoint here, by way of Vivian Gornick’s excellent advice on how to write personal narrative of universal interest and Cheryl Strayed’s observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”)

Ignoring John Steinbeck’s admonition — “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is,” he asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech“no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” — Paley offers if not a recipe then a pantry inventory of the two key ingredients necessary for great storytelling:

It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults. That is, everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements; people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two facts.

Art from the original edition of Henry Miller’s ‘Money and How It Gets That Way.’ Click image for more.

She returns to the essential fork in the vocational road that separates writers from critics:

Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious. Luckily for artists, they don’t require art to do a good day’s work. But critics and teachers do. A book, a story, should be smarter than its author. It is the critic or the teacher in you or me who cleverly outwits the characters with the power of prior knowledge of meetings and ends.

Stay open and ignorant.

Echoing Nadine Gordimer’s enduring wisdom on the writer’s task “to go on writing the truth as he sees it,” Paley adds:

A student says, Why do you keep saying a work of art? You’re right. It’s a bad habit. I mean to say a work of truth.

What does it mean To Tell the Truth?

It means — for me — to remove all lies… I am, like most of you, a middle-class person of articulate origins. Like you I was considered verbal and talented, and then improved upon by interested persons. These are some of the lies that have to be removed:

a. The lie of injustice to characters.
b. The lie of writing to an editor’s taste, or a teacher’s.
c. The lie of writing to your best friend’s taste.
d. The lie of the approximate word.
e. The lie of unnecessary adjectives.
f. The lie of the brilliant sentence you love the most.

She ends by urging aspiring writers to learn from the masters of this art of truth-telling:

Don’t go through life without reading the autobiographies of
Emma Goldman
Prince Kropotkin
Malcolm X

To that, I would heartily add the autobiography of Oliver Sacks — had she lived to read it, Paley may well have concurred.

Complement Paley’s Just As I Thought with this growing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, William Zinsser on how to write well about science, and Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing.

New blog: Read to Death

Recently I had the idea of starting a blog about reading, and its importance. I now have two blogs. They are Write to Life and Read to Death. Since these represent the two key components of The Pencil Driven Life, I obviously intend a sort of symmetry: life vs. death. But, death of what?

Here’s my answer in short:

I encourage you to read to death. This isn’t like running yourself to death; it’s more like running to kill something else. By running, I mean reading. Read–fiction and nonfiction– until you’ve put to death your false opinions and beliefs. If you keep at it, keep reading widely and deeply, you’ll replace your wrong-headedness with the truth.

from Read to Death

You can access this blog by clicking the icon, Read to Death, at http://richardlfricks.com, or by going directly to https://readtodeath.com/.

I hope you’ll follow my new blog.

Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

In 1977, Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932–February 19, 2016) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of listslover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan SontagGrace PaleyAnn PatchettSusan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

The Workhorse and the Butterfly: Ann Patchett on Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art

I encourage you read these powerful, awe-inspiring words from Maria Popova’s wonderful collection, Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Here is the link to today’s article.

“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her lucid and luminous essay on where ideas come from and the “secret” of writing“But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” And yet our cultural mythology continues to perpetuate the perilous notion that great art is the product of great ideas that occur in a flash to those endowed with the mysterious gift of genius.

In her magnificent memoir-of-sorts This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (public library), novelist Ann Patchett offers one of creative history’s finest and most convincing counterpoints to this myth.

Ann Patchett by Heidi Ross

She writes in the introduction:

The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.

Patchett, who knew she wanted to be a writer since her early childhood — “A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers,” she asserts in one of her many piercing asides — first set out to figure this out by taking a number of freelance assignments for various magazines, writing essays and other nonfiction while dreaming with crystalline determination about being a novelist. She reflects on a curious duality — on the one hand, the fundamental differences between writing fiction and writing nonfiction; on the other, the surprising ways in which the craft of the latter recompenses the art of the former:

In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. Writing a novel, even when it’s going smoothly, is hard for me, and writing an article, even a challenging one, is easy. I believe nonfiction is easy for me precisely because fiction is hard; I would always rather knock off an essay than face down the next chapter of my novel. But I’ve come to realize that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles … had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.

But of all the skills essential to the fiction writer that Patchett acquired while writing nonfiction — from having her ego tamed by the constant practice of seeing her sentences slaughtered by editors to mastering “the ability to fake authority” — perhaps most valuable was the unshakable understanding that the chief purpose of writing, whatever its nature or genre, is to serve for people as Neruda unforgettable “hand through the fence.” Patchett recounts:

In the years I made my living writing nonfiction, I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a life span that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room, but the essays kept resurfacing. People would bring them to book signings and show them to me. I read this when my grandmother died. Someone gave this to me when I got divorced. They told me my story was their story, and they wondered if there was more, something they might have missed… The job of these essays had been to support art, not to be art, but maybe that was what spared them from self-consciousness.

In one of the most illuminating pieces from the book, titled “The Getaway Car” and subtitled “A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” Patchett considers how this writerly self-consciousness dances with our cultural narrative about great ideas being all it takes to produce great art:

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.

[…]

If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

Illustration from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.’ Click image for more.

She illustrates the disconnect between myth and reality by recounting an exasperating, almost absurdist encounter with a woman — not a writer — who claimed that while not everyone has in them “one algebraic proof” or “one five-minute mile,” everyone has “one great novel” tucked into their inner life, waiting to be externalized in writing. Patchett — a writer, and thus a rightfully indignant unbeliever in this strangely selective assertion — voices her incredulity:

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.

Living up to the book’s central disclaimer that it isn’t “an instructional booklet” but a subjective record of what has worked for her, Patchett echoes Tchaikovsky’s account of the “immense bliss” of ideation and relays her own experience:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Photograph by Christopher Payne from ‘North Brother Island.’ Click image for more.

Only writers, Patchett argues, bend but don’t break under this crushing dissatisfaction with how the gossamer perfection of the idea withers as it metamorphoses into the reality of the execution — and that is what sets them apart from those other people who die with their One Great Novel unwritten:

The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

And yet that resilience isn’t something arbitrarily bestowed upon the lucky few by a fickle muse — rather, it is earned the only way any stamina is ever earned. (Annie Dillard, perhaps our most benevolent patron saint of writing, put it best“You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”) In a sentiment that calls to mind the exquisite example of how John Steinbeck disciplined his way to a Pulitzer, Patchett observes:

It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.

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

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

With an eye to the deep rewards of practicing itself, Patchett addresses the obvious caveat:

Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound; not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from ‘Beastly Verse.’ Click image for more.

Returning to the question of transmuting inspiration into writing — one also addressed by another celebrated writer whose own relationship to butterflies was far from metaphorical — Patchett adds:

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

In this practice lies Patchett’s most empowering yet most difficult piece of advice:

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

[…]

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Patchett’s commencement-address-turned-book, then explore this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubtCheryl Strayed on faith, humility, and the art of motherfuckitudeElmore Leonard’s ten tips on writingNeil Gaiman’s eight pointersNietzsche’s ten rulesWalter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrinesHenry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.