Dorothea Brande on Being a Stranger in Your Streets

Most of us stumble through our lives in an insensible stupor, asleep to the sensory details of physical reality.  We may go to the grocery store once a week but when was the last time we noticed the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the bakery?  We walk through our neighborhood almost daily yet do we see the charming old-fashioned street lamps, the lemon tree against the spring sky, the lavender and red geraniums, the tire swing and oak tree? 

It’s a tragic fact of life that we become blind the more we see something.  Take your significant other as an example.  Perhaps when you first met your paramour, you were absolutely infatuated with her.  During the giddy days of first love, your heart leapt after her every text message, sank when she didn’t call.  The more you learned about her, the more you became convinced she was the long-lost half of your Platonic soul: her favorite book was Love in the Time of Cholera, her favorite singer was Otis Redding and she wanted two kids, a boy and a girl.

As you headed to her house to pick her up for your first date (a picnic in the park), your palms were so sweaty you could barely grasp the steering wheel.  You arrived promptly at noon, climbed the front steps and knocked on the door.  Nervous, you shifted your weight from one foot to another.  “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” you thought.

When she came to the door, she instantly charmed you with her self-possession (“Hi, I’m ___,” she said so confidently, reaching out to shake your hand).  You couldn’t resist her cat eye sunglasses and polka dot dress.  “Nice to meet you,” you replied, momentarily forgetting how to arrange words into sentences.  As you chatted over lemon rosemary tea and cucumber-rye sandwiches, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her infectious laughter, the dramatic way she told stories and made gestures with her hands.  When the time arrived to take her home, you were the perfect gentleman: you walked her to her door, gave her a polite kiss on the cheek.  “I had a lovely time,” you said genuinely.  It was only an afternoon but you were already fantasizing about eternity.

Fast forward a year and the woman whose mere presence once made you as shy as a school boy is now your significant other.  Though you once dreamed of having the opportunity to kiss her, your lips now meet with such regularity— first thing when you wake up, when you leave home for work, when you go to sleep in the same bed every evening— that the miracle is lost on you.  For so long, your beloved was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after a few months of being together, it is the time before you knew her, before she was casually saying “I love you” and arranging plans for your birthday, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.

Sadly, the more familiar we become with something, the more likely we are to take it for granted.  Just as we stop appreciating the object of our obsession once they become our boyfriend/girlfriend, we cease to notice things once they become commonplace parts of our day.  Take the internet as an example.  When the internet first made an appearance in the 1990s, we were in wonderment of the worldwide web.  We marveled at its speed, the miraculous way it could connect people across continents.  Now— with just the click of a button— we had all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips.

Today, however, we are no longer in awe of the internet.  Though we carry an internet-powered computer in our pockets, our phones are as astounding to us as a light switch.  We’ve forgotten that a mere hundred years ago, phones could only do one thing: transmit sound.  We take for granted that today they can measure our heart rate, track our circadian rhythms, take pictures and write emails.

stranger in the streets

But if we want to write, we must not lose the ability to see and be astonished by things.  In her timeless classic Becoming a Writer, which I consider one of the best books ever written on writing, Dorothea Brande suggests a writer must recapture a childlike awareness of the world.  Unlike adults, who very rarely inhabit the present (distracted as they are by serious obligations and mortgage payments), children only exist in this moment: they don’t dwell on the fight they had with Sally yesterday, they don’t worry about their show-and-tell presentation tomorrow.  They find unbelievable joy in the smallest things: playing in a sandpit, slipping down a slide, jumping off a swing, blowing bubbles.

Children are curious creatures.  Spend an afternoon with any child under the age of twelve and you’ll be tasked with solving the universe’s most mysterious riddles: why is there day and night?  why is the sky blue?  where did the dinosaurs go?  Because they’re young, children have yet to become weary of the world: they can still be surprised by learning something they didn’t know.  We adults, however, are convinced we’ve seen it all.  We know there’s day and night because the earth rotates about its axis once every twenty four hours; we know the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 66 million years ago.  It’s hard for us to awe at a hummingbird’s incredible speed or wonder at a butterfly’s patterned wings outside our window.  We marvel at Cassiopeia and cumulonimbus clouds as often as toaster ovens and cutting boards.  Why?  Because habit has desensitized us.  As Brande writes,

“The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world.  Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives.  Most of us are only intermittently aware, even in youth, and the occasions on which adults see and feel and hear with every sense alert become rarer and rarer with the passage of years.  Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance…The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events— a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.”

So how do we become more mindful?  Brande recommends we recover a childlike “innocence of eye”— a wide-eyed interest in the world.  Rather than remain asleep to the splendor of living, more dead than alive, she suggests we set aside at least a half an hour each day to awaken our senses and simply observe.  What do we see?  hear?  If we’re taking the subway to work, what do we notice about the people there?  Where are they headed?  What do they wear?  If we’re stopping at our favorite cafe for a cappuccino, what do we imagine is going on with the couple in the corner?  Is the woman stirring her tea in silence because she’s irritated with her husband for forgetting to do the laundry or because she’s just discovered he’s having an affair?  Our goal: to treat every place as a potential setting, every incident as a potential plot line, every person as a potential character.

The greatest writers of all time were— above all— alert.  Hour after hour, minute after minute, they were attuned to their experience.  Turn to any page of Anais Nin’s diaries, for example, and you’ll find descriptions of accomplishment-obsessed New York and romantic, restful Paris, detailed sketches of her father, Joaquin Nin, her literary friends Truman Capote and Henry Miller, her patients, her acquaintances.  Every trivial conversation contains the suspense of a Greek drama; every mundane incident a heart-racing rising action, exhilarating climax and satisfying resolution as if her life had an underlying structure as comprehensible as a novel.  If we observe the world as closely, we— too— can gather a wealth of material:

“It is perfectly possible to strip yourself of your preoccupations, to refuse to allow yourself to go about wrapped in a cloak of oblivion day and night, although it is more difficult than one might think to learn to turn one’s attention outward again after years of immersion in one’s own problems…set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’  For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at age of five.  Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.”

If we want to be writers, we must be “strangers in our streets” and look at the world around us as if for the first time.  But how, exactly, do we truly see something, especially something we’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times?  We don’t have to seek new landscapes, only fresh eyes.  Like scientists who discard all their preconceptions and simply record what they see, we should remain open, receptive and attentively observe our surroundings.  If we see a spring sky, what color is it?  a cloud-dotted azure?  an innocent robin’s egg blue?  If we find ourselves in a winter landscape, is the air “chilly” or “frigid”?  Are the trees “bare” or “frost-bitten”?  What is the overall atmosphere and mood?  Be as specific as possible.  Or as Brande writes,

“You know how vividly you see a strange town or a strange country when you first enter it.  The huge red buses of London, on the wrong side of the road to every American that ever saw them— soon they are as easy to dodge and ignore as the green buses of New York, and as little wonderful as the drugstore window that you pass on your way to work each day.  The drugstore window, though, the streetcar that carries you to work, the crowded subway can look as strange as Xanadu if you refuse to take them for granted.  As you get into your streetcar or walk along a street, tell yourself that for fifteen minutes you will notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on.  The streetcar: what color is it outside? (Not just green or red, here, but sage or olive green, scarlet or maroon.)  Where is the entrance?  Has it a conductor and motorman, or a motorman-conductor in one?  What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters?  How do the seats face?  Who is sitting opposite you?  How are your neighbors dressed, how do they stand or sit, what are they reading, or are they sound asleep?  What sounds are you hearing, which smells are reaching you, how does the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat the brushes past you?  After a few moments you can drop your intense awareness, but plan to resume it again when the scene changes.

One way to sharpen our artist’s eye is to make time for adventure and novelty.  Brande suggests we shake off the blinders of custom and habit and, every so often, do something new: eat pancakes for dinner, take a different route to work, go to a matinee on a Tuesday at noon.

We don’t have to venture to a lush jungle in Indonesia to see things anew.  We can practice looking at things in a fresh way from the comfort of our living rooms.  Stand on the coffee table.  Somersault across the floor.  Do a headstand.  Anything to make the familiar objects of our lives as unfamiliar as possible:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.  But any moment of your life can be used, and the room that you spend most of your waking hours in is as good, or better, to practice responsiveness on as a new street.  Try to see your home, your family, your friends, your school or office, with the same eyes that you use away from your own daily route.  There are voices you have heard so often that you forget they have a timbre of their own…the chances are that you hardly realize that your best friend has a tendency to use some words so frequently that if you were to write a sentence involving those words anyone who knew him would realize whom you were imitating.”

Dorothea Brande is a kick-in-the-pants coach who will inspire you to get to your writing table.  For more tips and tricks from Becoming a Writer, read Brande on how to follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical. 

Dorothea Brande’s 15 Minute Rule

I don’t feel like writing today.  Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page.  Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work.  But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).

“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself.  As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say.  After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink.  And what do I do?  I grab a sponge and start scrubbing.  “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors!  I’ll just give them a quick polish.  Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.

dorothea-brande

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page.  We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died.  Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy.  Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.

But despite popular mythology, we don’t need to be in the “mood” to write.  As phenomenally productive writer Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.”  In his eleven commandments, Henry Miller created a no non-sense credo for himself, “If you can’t create, you can work.”  Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, one of the most timeless books on the craft, offers similarly simple advice: if you want to write, write!  Don’t wait for the mythical lightning bolt or the mysterious, mystical whisperings of the muse.

Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life.  You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook.  Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds.  You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical.  Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:

“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you.  Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself.  It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”

If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable.  Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself.  If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses.  As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:

“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must!  No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”

The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window.  The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper.  Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion.  All that matters is we do it.  Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:

“…write anything at all.  Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed.  However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”

Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes?  Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done?  For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long.  Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers.  But fifteen minutes is doable.  Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes.  Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page.  Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.

Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance.  The result?  We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.

Becoming a Writer is an invaluable addition to any writer’s library.  The 1934 classic won’t teach you the technical aspects of how to create compelling characters or construct plots, but it will train you to sharpen your powers of observation, follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical.  Want more nourishment for the writer’s soul?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  If you want more practical advice on the nuts and bolts of the craft, study Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of motif, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Ernest Hemingway on the appeal of telling almost the whole story.

Kurt Vonnegut on Why We Should Make Art Every Single, Solitary Day of Our Lives

“All art is rather useless,” dapper dandy and master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once quipped.  Art might startle and surprise, astound and astonish but it has no practical purpose.  After all, a play can’t fold the laundry, a poem can’t fix a flat tire, a painting can’t change your motor oil.  Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” can’t end global warming; Cezanne’s apples and oranges— no matter how charming— can’t cure cancer or rebuild coral.  So why bother to scribble a sonnet or compose a villanelle?

According to Kurt Vonnegut, postmodern genius behind such masterpieces of counterculture as Slaughterhouse Five and sage behind some of the wisest writing advice, we should paint and write and act and sing and dance and draw because making art helps us better understand ourselves and the world.  Will our still life save the rain forest?  Will our exhibit of black-and-white photographs find a more sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels?  No, but trying to capture something will stretch our understanding and deepen our appreciation of whatever we write and draw.  Or as Brenda Ueland once wrote, “By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

As sensible adults, we want results.  If we spend all day at our desk, we want something to show for our work; if we devote years to writing a novel, it better win the Pulitzer Prize and become a New York Times bestseller; if we go through the trouble of painting a Renoir blue sky, it better hang in the Louvre.  What’s the point of dedicating untold hours to writing or painting if it never earns us acclaim?  if it never sells and increases our net worth?

It’s so important to make art because it reconnects us to our inner child.  Unlike too-serious, too-solemn adults who believe we are what we accomplish, children understand there is more to the day than a to-do list.  Children don’t make mud pies or build sandcastles or construct bed sheet fortresses because they want to be the envy of their friends or see their essay published.  They don’t care if their crayon drawing is hung proudly on the fridge or is forgotten in a junk drawer. They create because it brings them joy.  For them, making art is its own reward.

Vonnegut believes we can all learn from children.  Even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time is wasted.  We’re always better for having created.

kurt vonnegut

With his zany wit and exuberant, playful love of life, Vonnegut implores a group of Xavier High School students to live creatively.  In this lovely letter, featured in the altogether inspiring Letters of Note: Volume 2, he writes:

I thank you for your friendly letters.  You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years.  I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously!  I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.  Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her.  Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on.  Make a face in your mashed potatoes.  Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  No fair tennis without a net.  Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood.  OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

go into the arts

Being creative doesn’t have to be pompous or pretentious; it doesn’t have to be a poem or a painting on a canvas.  Everything is art: how you stir your tea, how you organize your spice cabinet, how you arrange a bouquet of flowers, how you frost a cake, how you tell bedtime stories to your children, how you kiss your husband goodnight, how you greet the day, how you laugh, how you love, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you decorate your home.  Want to learn more about how you can be an artist of the everyday?  Rejoice in Proust on how art reawakens us to the extraordinary beauty of ordinary things and 3 things I learned from Sarah Ban Breathnach.

Rilke on the Importance of Patience to Creative Work

Is there any value we so underrate as patience?  In our accelerated age of bullet trains andRilke & Moscow high speed internet, we demand instant gratification.  The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration.  If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event.  This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections.  We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up.  Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone?  We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now?  We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote.  No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists.  If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all?  why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer?  What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire?  What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?

As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock.  By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth.  But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks.  Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker?  Shouldn’t we be further along by now? 

rilke tree

In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward.  When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time.  Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something.  The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates.  As Rilke writes, 

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist.  If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit Brenda Ueland on art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want more insight into the writing life, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne SextonMaya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.

Brenda Ueland on the Incubation of Ideas & the Importance of Idleness to Creativity

if you want to write

We live in a productivity-obsessed age where we streamline our lives with the efficiency of assembly lines, devoting our every minute, every second to the capitalist task of “getting things done.”  Today some ten-year-olds have busier schedules than corporate CEOs.  Hour after hour is crammed with basketball games and ballet classes, playdates and piano.

The problem?  In our rabid race to achieve, we leave little time for idleness.  We all need “time freed from time”— respite from the relentless hamster wheel of duty and obligation.  Savoring a cup of chamomile tea, unwinding in a hot bath, lounging on a languid summer afternoon with nothing pressing to do and no set plans: such idle moments are restful commas in a hurried sentence.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that we all require time for rest, renewal, and relaxation.  Yet in our “time is money” capitalist culture, we feel guilty if we don’t maximize every hour and do something “useful.”  If we fritter away a Saturday morning painting or writing sonnets or simply staring out the window, we’re slothful— or worse— sinful.  Idleness is an unforgivable violation of the capitalist credo.

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, delightfully defiant Brenda Ueland suggests idleness is not a condemnable waste of time but a critical component of the creative life.  Much like Rebecca Solnit, who argued the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour, Ueland believes the imagination “works slowly and quietly.”  Indeed, throughout time, idleness has been behind all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “What we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.

Sadly, in our accomplishment-manic society, we find it hard to tolerate the idleness so crucial to creativity.  To write, to paint, you need long stretches of seeming un-productivity.  Or as poet Mary Oliver so elegantly phrased, “a place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”  To be an artist, we have to resign ourselves to the dispiriting fact that some days we’ll slave for hours and have almost nothing to show for it; some days “working” will consist of simply staring out the window and sitting at our desks.  But if we’re to remain artists, we can’t be discouraged by this apparent lack of progress.  As Ueland writes:

“When we hear the word ‘inspiration’ we imagine something that comes like a bolt of lightning, and at once with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair and feverish excitement, a poet or artist begins furiously to paint or write.  At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.

But this isn’t so.  Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly.  Say that you want to write.  Well, not much will come to you the first day.  Perhaps nothing at all.  You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out the window and begin to brush your hair absent-mindedly for an hour or two.  Never mind.  That is all right.  That is as it should be,— though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper sooner or later.  And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”

Though we tend to idolize what the ancients called the vita activa, or life of action, Ueland believes we should devote just as much time to quiet contemplation.  Our ideas are like seeds: we can’t plant them in the ground and expect them to immediately sprout— they need to sit in the fertile soil of silence and solitude before they can bloom into fully-formed flowers:

“Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.  Bernard Shaw says that it is not true that Napoleon was always snapping out decisions to a dozen secretaries and aides-de-camp, as we are told, but that he moodled around for months.  Of course he did.  And that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people often say: ‘I am not creative.’  They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time.”

For Ueland, there is one crucial difference between the active, go-getting man and the idle man: while the go-getting man mindlessly follows other people’s maxims out of a stern sense of obligation, the idle man is a free thinker who has his own ideas and creates his own rules.  

“It is these fool, will-worshipping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten Commandments— not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you— but mechanically.

‘Honor thy father and thy mother’… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior.

The idle man says:

‘Honor they father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is?  and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained.  This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: ‘Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?'”

When we get quiet, we can hear the hushed whisperings of our own heart.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, in idleness the “more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.”  In what is perhaps my most beloved and oft-quoted line from If You Want to WriteUeland reassures us if we sit still and listen hard, the Muse will strike:

“So you see the imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’  But they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from the office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” 

For more of Brenda Ueland’s heart-sustaining meditations on art and creativity, revisit art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies.  Longing for more insight into writing and the writing life?  Read advice from our era’s leading literary lights including Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood, Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, and Maya Angelou on her writing routine and the exquisite torment of the creative life.

Brenda Ueland on the Imagination as the Glorious Gateway to the Divine

Poets and philosophers have been enraptured by the imagination since the beginning of time.  “I am if you want to writecertain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” romantic poet John Keats once wrote.  For playwright George Barnard Shaw, imagination was the beginning of creation, the first step to manifesting our deepest desires in the physical, material world: “You imagine what you desire.  You will what you imagine.  And at last, you create what you will.”  Founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought the imagination was a gift generously bestowed upon us by the gods.  “Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay,” she wrote in characteristically evocative prose.

But no words on the imagination startle with more truth than Einstein’s famous assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  In our era of content-driven education with its mechanical memorization and high-stakes standardized tests, how can this be true?  The word “imagination” itself carries a magical— if childlike quality— as if it only belonged in rainbow-colored kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes.  No, forget inspiration and invention, ingenuity and curiosity.  Knowing the exact years of WWI and the number of elements on the periodic table—we’ve been told— is more important.  Rather than encourage students to imagine, we cram their brains with useless facts.  So obsessed are we with knowing that we devotedly read What Your Sixth Grader Should Know and reduce what could be a consciousness-raising curriculum to a list of spirit-squashing state standards.

Yet despite our education system’s emphasis on knowledge, there can be no innovation without imagination.  If knowledge is composed of the things we know for sure, imagination permits us to play with possibilities, to explore the untrodden terrain of new ideas.  Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Einstein’s theory of relativity.  No feat in the arts or sciences can be accomplished without the ability to see and believe in something that is not yet there.

In her timeless classic on art and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, the same trove that gave us art as infection and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, Brenda Ueland suggests the imagination is a glorious gateway to the divine.  If the atheist/agnostic among us shudder at her use of “God” and “Holy Ghost,” we can exchange her religious language for more secular terms.  God, Universe, Spirit, Fate.  Whatever we call it, the fact remains: when we create, we connect to something magnificently larger than ourselves.  In splendidly simple prose, Ueland argues— much like her idol Romantic poet and fellow champion of the creative spirit William Blake— that we should create for the whole of our limited time on Earth.  Why?  Because more than our capacity to reason, our imagination is what separates us from brutes:

“But the ardor for it [the imagination] is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.

Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost.  My theology might not be very accurate but that is how I think of it.  I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination and he said it was God. 

[…]

Now Blake thought this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives.  And so do I.  Why?  Because it is life itself.  It is the Spirit.  In fact it is the only important thing about us.  The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”

If creative expression is the portal to a more exalted life, one question remains: how do we keep the imaginative impulse alive?  Ueland offers a simple solution: use it.  Unfortunately in our efficiency-obsessed era, we find it hard to waste time on such “frivolous” pursuits.  After all, wouldn’t it be more productive to go grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner than compose a love song?  What’s the point of writing a 5-act play or perfecting a Beethoven concerto?  Why bother painting a vase of sunflowers or a wheat field at dawn?  Why devote time to our art when there are more serious things to be done?

Though there are always to-do lists and time sheets, we must create— it’s what we’re here to do.  To disregard the muse and refuse ourselves the God-given gift of creation, to deny ourselves what we most want is an unforgivable betrayal of the self.  Sadly, in our sensible world of should’s and have to’s, it’s common to sacrifice our wants:

“But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or play the piano.  And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves.  They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunsets, as they wanted to.”

If You Want to Write is a rousing reminder to forget duty and obligation and honor our wants, whether we want to write a novel or learn to cook Szechuan.  For more invaluable wisdom on creativity and art, read The Artist’s WayBird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer.

Leo Tolstoy on Art as Infection

if you want to writeWhat makes writing “good”?  In algebra, good math is accurate math; if we solved for the equation “x + 2 = 6,” for example, a good calculation would result in x = 4.  In quantum physics, a good scientific theory would have sufficient evidence and be able to be proved.  But how do we evaluate the quality of something as subjective as writing?  Does writing follow laws as immutable as those that govern the universe?  Does good writing always prefer the energetic active voice to the lifeless passive?  Does it use specific, concrete nouns and vigorous verbs?  In grade school, we were assured writing could be calculated with the precision of a math problem and handed rubrics with different criteria during peer review.  Did our partner use at least ten “academic” words (as if pretentious, highbrow words were better than simple, exact ones)?  If so, they earned a shiny gold star.

In her lovely ode to art, beauty, and the soul-affirming act of unabashedly expressing yourself, If You Want to Write, the same volume that explained why art is a grand gesture of generosity and idleness is important to creativity, Brenda Ueland revolts against the spirit-sucking rules of too rigid English classrooms.  Much like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron, Ueland believes we write best when we feel free and unselfconscious, when we have permission to write recklessly.  If we want to write well, we have to liberate ourselves from the padded walls of “ought’s,” “should’s”  and “have-to’s”:

“Yes, you must feel when you write, free.  You must disentangle all oughts.  You must disconnect all shackles, weights, obligations, all duties.  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to— a six-act blank verse, symbolic tragedy or a vulgar short, short story.  Just so that you write it with honesty and gusto, and do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.  What’s the use?  You can never be smarter than you are.  You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this: while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.) 

As you write, never let a lot of ‘oughts’ block you: I ought to be more humorous, more Leftist, more like Ernest Hemingway, more bitingly satirical.  Then it shows.  That spoils it.  It will not be alive, but dead.” 

What makes something art?  Ueland agrees with Leo Tolstoy’s definition.  In his landmark essay “What is Art,” Tolstoy asserts real art has the ability to transmit a feeling from artist to audience.  Its distinguishing characteristic?  The power to move.  A great novel (or painting or film) can foster sympathy, stir us to action, incite us to anger; it can reacquaint us with beauty or simply remind us to marvel and wonder.  If a work requires too much analyzing and dissecting, too much stuffy debate among academics in tweed suits, it’s not art.  Real art is felt, not merely understood: 

“Art is infection.  The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too.  And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art.  If you have to puzzle timidly over a picture or a book, and try, try, to like it and read many erudite critics on the subject so that you can say at last, ‘Yes, I think I really do begin to understand it and see that it is just splendid!  Real art!’  Then it is not Art.”

tolstoy

So how do we infect our readers?  Our English teachers had us believe good writing was characterized by pomp and pretension; they encouraged us to use flowery, overdramatic language and craft elaborate rather than simple sentences.  The result?  Though it’s been many years since we’ve seen judgmental red ink on a midterm paper, we still write like little school girls trying to please teacher.  Rather than choose the word that most precisely expresses what we’re trying to say, we diligently follow those strict rules of composition we learned long ago in grade school.  We endlessly search the thesaurus for a grand word that will dazzle with its sophistication; we prefer longer obscure words to too “short,” too “simple” ones.  But this only leads to bad art.  Because, despite what our teachers told us, what separates good writing from bad writing is not word choice or syntax but truth.  We can only infect our audience with an emotion if we genuinely felt it ourselves, if what we write is true.  Reflecting on her students, Ueland writes:

“I saw in their own writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were.  But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead.  No infection.”

Ultimately, we should concern ourselves not with whether our writing is “good” but with whether it’s true.  When we write what is true, when we put what we think and what we feel and what we see in the simplest terms, our writing sings with exuberance and truth.  But when we write something because we think “this is how writing should sound” or because we convince ourselves “this is what our reader wants to hear,” our writing loses its vigor.  Worse still, we compromise the trust of our readers.  “She’s calling her boredom ‘agonizing’?” our readers scoff when they come across an overwrought bit of description, “I no longer believe her.”  Ueland maintains we should never write for the validation of too stern English teachers— or anyone for that matter.  As writers, our only allegiance is to our own truth:

“And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored.  This is all you have to do.  Don’t say the boredom was ‘agonizing. excruciating,’ unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful.

That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true.”

For more of Brenda Ueland’s stirring meditations on writing and the writing life, delight in the qualities of good writing and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  Hungry for more soul-nourishing writing advice?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut.

Why Van Gogh Painted Irises & Night Skies: Art as a Grand Gesture of Generosity

sunflowersWhy do we write?  In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead.  I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.”  “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  Novelist Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  In her landmark essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion confessed writing was a process of discovery: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” she observed in characteristically clear-eyed prose. 

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland examines why great artists throughout time have bothered to paint landscapes and compose poems.  In one of the volume’s loveliest chapters “Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets,” she suggests writers write to better understand themselves and the world:

“One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the noblemen knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or English language was.”

vincent van gogh

Why do artists scribble in notebooks and paint at easels?  Some create to attain a lofty goal: to revolutionize modern thought, say, or to change the world.  For others, art is an act of ego.  You know the type: the young and status-obsessed who dream of seeing their byline in the sophisticated typeface of the New Yorker.  At writing retreats, they only have one concern: will my work sell?  Rather than dedicate themselves to the noble quest of expressing what is beautiful and true and good—in other words, the work— they busy themselves with the economics of the work: is it marketable?  does it deal with a timely topic?  is it written in a hip, of-the-moment style?  These writers care about things like Oprah’s book club selections and best seller lists and book sales.  Their drive to create originates from the ego: they want to immortalize their name in the canon of English letters; they want awards and acclaim, prestige and a Pulitzer.

However for some, art is a selfless act of service— a way to offer others consolation and comfort.  The visionary Vincent Van Gogh belonged to this latter class of creator.  He didn’t paint irises and night skies to put a stop to global warming or end racism, nor did he paint to achieve any sort of worldly success (after all, despite his talent, he died by his own hand unknown and penniless).  He painted red poppy fields and farmhouses in Provence just because he thought they were beautiful and worth sharing with people:

“If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was.  It was just this: he loved something the sky, say.  He loved human beings.  He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was.  So he painted it for them.  And that was all there was to it. 

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman.  He had no thought of being an artist at all.  He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much.  He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamppost, a star, and he said something in his letter like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.”  And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.”

van gogh letter

van gogh letter #2

What, exactly, qualifies as “art”?  Who earns the distinguished title of “artist”?  Is art always contained in the dimensions of 4-by-4 picture frames and leather-bound covers?  Or can it be a sketch on a coffee-stained napkin?  as simple as a home-cooked meal and a beautifully-arranged bouquet of daffodils?

Though we imagine art is something lofty, the artist is someone who is simply awake to being alive in the world.  What makes a man an artist is not his raw talent or technical skill but his way of seeing: to create, you have to have attentive eyes and a receptive mind, you have to— in the elevating words of Van Gogh— devote one’s life to the task of expressing the hidden poetry of the world.  For the true artist, work is a labor of love undertaken in the spirit of generosity.  As Ueland so eloquently expresses, we paint, we draw, we write because we cherish something:

“But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse.  It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.”

For Ueland, the defining characteristic of art is exquisite attention to detail and a devotion to truth:

“Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care.  He made it as much like what he loved as he could.  You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly.  Well, that would have been a good thing to do too.  But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.”

irises

Master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once said “all art is quite useless”— a rather ironic statement considering he was a playwright and poet.  However, when he used the word “useless,” I think he meant in the sense that art has no practical purpose: it can’t keep you warm on a frigid winter night, it can’t nourish anything other than your soul.  After all, if you were stranded on a deserted island, you’d want a compass and a canteen of water— not a volume of Shakespeare’s poems. 

Those of us who aspire to be artists and writers are often reminded of our dream’s unfeasibility.  “You can’t support yourself writing!” we hear from concerned relatives at Thanksgiving.  If we’re bold enough to name ourselves writers over the clink of champagne glasses at a dinner party, we’re met with one question: “So are you published anywhere?”  The assumption is making art is only worthwhile if it earns us acclaim or contributes to our income.  We want things to be “useful.”  To fritter away hours attempting to capture the surreal blues of a starry night would be a pointless endeavor— that is, unless we sold the painting or had the opportunity to showcase it in a museum.

However, for Ueland, art is valuable in and of itself— we should make art for its own sake.  The rewards of a creative life are many: an awakeness to the marvels and mysteries of existence, a deeper appreciation for living.  But the greatest reward is a clarified, magnified understanding.  When we take the time to contemplate the colors of a spring sky and recreate it in words or in a painting, we see it more clearly.  The result?  We love it more dearly as well.  So even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time was wasted.  We’re always better for having created:

“And one of the most important of these intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination.  By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

Carl Sandburg wasn’t exaggerating when he said If You Want to Write was “the best book ever written about how to write.”  It’s one of a few cherished volumes (among them The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer) that I revisit every few years.  If you want more soul-sustaining encouragement from Brenda Ueland, revel in her insights on art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine and the incubation of ideas & the importance of idleness to creativity.  For practical nuts-and-bolts advice about the writing craft, study the wisdom of Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and John Hersey

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

maya angelou

All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

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“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard 

Women Writers at Work is a compendium of invaluable conversations with literary lights as dazzling as Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  For even more writing wisdom, visit Andre Dubus III on writing as dreaming, not thinking, Elizabeth Gilbert on joy, curiosity & having the courage to rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence and Yiyun Li on seeing, staring & the necessity of looking closer.