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.

Rilke on How to Know You’re an Artist

Rilke & MoscowHow can you know you’re an artist?  In the most literal sense, an artist is one who has artistic talent.  Those gifted with the ability to write and paint and draw are obviously artists.  But do all artists share a common psychological makeup?  Do they possess something the rest of us don’t— receptive minds, attentive eyes, and sensitive hearts?  Is there any truth to the myth that to create is to suffer?  must artists undergo a lifetime of agony for their art?  Is the artist always a tragic, tormented figure?  a Plath with her head in the oven or an alcoholic Fitzgerald? 

No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art.  In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke.  How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer?  Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent.  Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself.  How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper?  In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:

“You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you— no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this strong, solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course.  But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art.  Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe.  If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list.  “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander.  Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:

“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”

Letters to a Young Poet has inspired generations of artists and will continue to inspire generations more.  If you want more stirring words to set your soul alight, delight in the free-spirited Brenda Ueland on art as infection, why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want advice from more modern literary lights, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  Long to add still more tools to your warehouse of writing wisdom?  Visit Ernest Hemingway on the secret of seduction, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of a recurring image.

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.”

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

Khaled Hosseini on the Limitations of Language & the Disheartening Difficulty of Truly Expressing Ourselves

No urge is more human than the urge to express ourselves.uSAIvyK3_400x400 - Version 2  We are hardwired to tell stories: our first stories appeared in the form of magnificent cave paintings tens of thousands of years ago.  The ancient Greeks told epic stories to memorialize great heroes; Native Americans told stories to explain the origins of the world.  Today we tell stories on front porches and bus stops, in newspapers and on national public radio.  We tell stories even when we’re condemned to solitude: prisoners wait to hear the jingle of keys disappear down the hall before passing notes between their cells; sailors lost at sea send messages in bottles hoping to one day be found.  More than love and be loved, humans want one thing: to be seen and be heard.

Language is how we accomplish the extraordinary feat of understanding and being understood.  When we impose order on the clutter of our thoughts, when we fit nebulous notions into clearly defined semantic categories and arrange them in comprehensible sentence structures, we can reveal the hidden depths of our souls.  Words make it possible to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people.  Without words, we’d be like Marin County and San Francisco, within sight of each other but eternally alone.

Sadly, it’s not always possible to cross the uncrossable distance between people.  The most profound experiences are beyond words.  How can words ever communicate the colossal grief of losing our mother?  the unbearable void left after we broke up with our boyfriend of ten years?  Not only are the difficult things hard to describe, the beautiful things are as well.  The simple pleasure of waking up on a frost-bitten morning to find our lover still warm wrapped in our arms, the enormous relief we feel when—after missing for a few hours— our lost dog returns home.  Joy and bliss, catastrophe and crisis: all are ineffable.

In his lovely essay in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, novelist Khaled Hosseini ponders the many limitations of language.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A treasury of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus III, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

For his passage, Hosseini chose the opening line of Stephen King’s “The Body,” a coming-of-age story that is perhaps more recognizable as its classic 80s movie adaptation “Stand By Me.”  In the passage, the protagonist, Gordie LaChance has a distressing epiphany: the most important things are the hardest to say.  The tragic irony of being able to speak, he realizes, is the things we most need to express our beyond our capacities:

“The most important things are the hardest to say.  They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them— words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”

For Hosseini, the opening lines of “The Body” remind us no matter how fundamental our need to understand and be understood, we can never be completely seen or completely heard.  Why?  Because there will always be a rift between what we want to say and our actual words.  Ultimately, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he says one thing but means another, he projects an outward persona but conceals his inner self. 

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players,” Shakespeare once wrote.  To function in society, we must confine ourselves to our appropriate role: subservient suburban housewife, corporate CEO.  The problem?  A part is a performance— it’s not our real self.  A woman might play the part of shallow housewife when she gossips over mimosas at Sunday brunch, but— behind her Botox-enhanced lips and designer Louie Vuitton — be able to hold a spirited discussion on existentialist philosophy and recite T.S. Eliot by heart.  Similarly, a frat boy might spend his weekends displaying his machismo in bar fights but reveal a more tender, sensitive side when he’s away from the aggressive masculinity of the frat house with a girl he loves.  Reflecting on his first encounter with Stephen King’s opening lines, Hosseini recalls: 

“When I first read those lines I was twenty— not a teenager anymore, but certainly a young man.  At that age, especially, you feel like the world doesn’t get you— if only people could look inside you and see all you carry inside!  This passage is an expression of how alone we are, really.  How fully we live inside our minds, that the person who walks down the street and shakes hands is only an approximation of the self inside.  The personas we inhabit publicly are merely approximations of who we are internally— shrunken, distorted versions of ourselves that we present to the real world.  This is because the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”

Just as our oversimplified exterior selves can never capture the interior complexities of who we are, what we write never quite expresses what we wanted to say— our words stumble short of our ideas.  The painter who tries to reproduce the surreal midnight blue of a starry sky, the novelist who attempts to articulate the inexpressible yearnings of the heart: anyone who calls himself an artist knows the exquisite torment of expressing oneself.  The artist is a dauntless explorer who sets out on the expansive sea of the blank page to discover new worlds.  The problem?  Much like Columbus, we intend to go to one place but often end up on the other side of the globe.

There will always be a gap between what we envision and what we execute.  The painter’s cheerful shade of blue won’t quite capture the mysterious wonderment of that surreal summer sky; the novelist’s heartbreaking scene between estranged lovers won’t ring true.  So what are we aspiring artists supposed to do?  Zadie Smith advised we resign ourselves to the “lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”  The witty Michael Childress put it another way: accept that “a book is best before you’ve written a word.”

Hearing this advice, you might wonder: if we’re inevitably going to be disappointed with what we create, why write at all?  Isn’t it a cruel form of masochism to try to accomplish what we prove— time and time again— cannot be done?  To write, in the words of Bill Bryson, is to “come to terms with the dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.”  Though the summit continually retreats by whatever distance we press forward, still we stagger on…what else can we do?  Most writers would say they write— not to arrive at the top of the mountain— but for the thrill of trying to get to the top.  Though writing involves discouragement and disappointment, Hosseini affirms it’s ultimately a joyous, humbling experience:

“This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship.  You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true.  And yet, by the time this idea passes through different filters in your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen— it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished.  The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.  

When this happens, it’s quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer.  It can be extremely frustrating.  When I’m writing, a thought will occasionally pass unblemished, unperturbed, through my head onto the screen— clearly, like through a glass.  It’s an intoxicating, euphoric sensation to feel that I’ve communicated something so real, and so true.  But that doesn’t happen often.

[…]  

Even my finished books are an approximation of what I intended to do.  I try to narrow the gap, as much as I possibly can, between what I wanted to say and what’s actually on the page.  But there’s still a gap, there always is.  It’s very, very difficult.  And it’s humbling.”

I once read that words are the instruction manual for reassembling our ideas.  As writers, our job is to outline our thoughts so clearly that our readers can reconstruct them for themselves.  If we don’t arrange our points in a logical fashion or use signposts to signal a shift in ideas, they’ll be like the unfortunate soul who tries to assemble an IKEA coffee table without the instructions— they’ll struggle to connect the parts of our argument into a coherent, comprehensible whole.  The result?  They’ll end up— not with a functional table— but a wobbly three-legged nightmare. 

This analogy attests to the difficulty of ever truly communicating with someone.  Transmitting a message to another requires reasoning abilities far more advanced than those required of a whale’s song or bird’s squawk.  Yet no matter how eloquent or sharp-witted we are, our capacity to express ourselves will falter.  Why?  Because not only are we imperfect writers, our audience is composed of imperfect readers— they can always misunderstand us.  As Gordie so poignantly observes, 

“…you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.  That’s the worst, I think.  When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

And isn’t that what so often happens?  We so fear being misunderstood that we safeguard the gems of who we genuinely are in the vault of our hearts.  Think about love.  Perhaps we’ve been dating someone casually for a few months and our initial seeds of infatuation are beginning to blossom into love.  Do we confess our feelings?  Of course not.  What if they think we’re needy/clingy/psycho?  What if dating as an adult is just as infantile as having a crush on the playground?  What if the moment our schoolyard crush knows the depths of our feelings, he ceases to like us?  After all, isn’t reciprocation a surefire way to repulse someone?  If we say how we feel, he might think we want a deeper commitment and run off.  Or—having finally won our affection— he might get bored and seek to conquer another woman’s heart.  Our biggest fear is being rejected and misconstrued.  The last thing we want is to utter those immortal words from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not it all.  That is not what I meant, at all.”

Yet no matter how impossible it is to be truly seen and truly heard, no matter how likely we are to be misunderstood, the beauty of literature— of all art, really— is it bridges the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between ourselves and others.  “Books make us less isolated,” exquisitely erudite philosopher and re-inventor of self help Alain de Botton once wrote, “They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.”  An exalting line of poetry, a richly imagined novel: despite how challenging it might be to form close bonds in real life, art reminds us of our common humanity and alleviates our terrible sense of being alone.  Hosseini concludes by celebrating literature’s miraculous ability to connect people in a disconnected world:

“But that’s what art is for— for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true.  It seems miraculous, doesn’t it?  That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog.  Great art reaches through the fog, toward this secret heart— and it shows it to you, holds it before you.  It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens.  You feel understood.  You feel heard.  That’s why we come to art— we feel less alone.  We are less alone.  You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have— and you feel better.”

For more wisdom on writing and the writing life, visit Maya Angelou’s writing routine & the exquisite torment of the creative life, Anne Sexton’s advice to young writers, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.  For even more guidance from our era’s most dazzling literary lights, rejoice in Brenda Ueland on art as infection, art as a grand gesture of generosity, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and the incubation of ideas. 

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

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

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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.