Timeless wisdom and practical advice on the pleasures and perils of the written word and the creative life.
By Maria Popova
After the year’s best books in photography, psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists concludes with the year’s best reads on writing and creativity.
1. WHY WE WRITE
The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.
In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), editor Meredith Maran seeks out answers on the why and advice on the how of writing from twenty of today’s most acclaimed authors.
Prolific novelist Isabel Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’s insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:
I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.
Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:
I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed — because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.
She offers three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:
- It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
- When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
- When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.
Celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:
When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.
Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.
Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.
A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:
Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.
She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:
- You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
- You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
- You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
- Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.
True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, Michael Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive — in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:
Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.
My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.
More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:
There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.
I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.
“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:
Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.
And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:
Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.
That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.
And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:
Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.
After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.
That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.
Lewis offers some advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats with his three guidelines:
- It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
- I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
- A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.
2. MANAGE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY
We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut to Burroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn. And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (public library), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei and featuring contributions from a twenty of today’s most celebrated thinkers and doers, delves into the secrets of this holy grail of creativity.
Reflecting Thomas Edison’s oft-cited proclamation that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” after which 99U is named, the crucial importance of consistent application is a running theme. (Though I prefer to paraphrase Edison to “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent aspiration” — since true aspiration produces effort that feels gratifying rather than merely grueling, enhancing the grit of perspiration with the gift of gratification.)
One of the book’s strongest insights comes from Gretchen Rubin — author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, one of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, titled after her fantastic blog of the same name — who points to frequency as the key to creative accomplishment:
We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.
Frequency, she argues, helps facilitate what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the crucial ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which is the defining characteristic of the creative mind. Rubin writes:
You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.
Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.
Echoing Alexander Graham Bell, who memorably wrote that “it is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” and Virginia Woolf, who extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Rubin writes:
Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.
Riffing on wisdom from her latest book, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Rubin offers:
I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”
With a sentiment reminiscent of William James’s timeless words on habit, she concludes:
Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.
Entrepreneurship guru and culture-sage Seth Godin seconds Rubin and admonishes against confusing vacant ritualization with creative rituals that actually spur productivity:
Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.
The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.
There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.
He echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), observing:
The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.
Originally featured in May — read more here.
3. STILL WRITING
“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace,” Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” And yet, Zadie Smith admonished in her 10 rules of writing, it’s perilous to romanticize the “vocation of writing”: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”
Still, surely there must be more to it than that — whole worlds rise and fall, entire universes blossom and die daily in that enchanted space between the writer’s sensation of writing and the word’s destiny of being written on a page. For all that’s been mulled about the writing life and its perpetual osmosis of everyday triumphs and tragedies, its existential feats and failures, at its heart remains an immutable mystery — how can a calling be at once so transcendent and so soul-crushing, and what is it that enthralls so many souls into its paradoxical grip, into feeling compelled to write “not because they can but because they have to”? That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (public library) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing.
Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book:
Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.
Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully:
When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.
Above all, however, Shapiro’s core point has to do with courage and the creative life:
The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.
Writing is also, as Shapiro poetically puts it, a way “to forge a path out of [our] own personal wilderness with words” — a way to both exercise and exorcise our most fundamental insecurities and to practice what Rilke so memorably termed living the questions, the sort of “negative capability” of embracing uncertainty that Keats thought was so fundamental to the creative process. Shapiro echoes that Dillardian insistence on presence as the heart of the creative life:
We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.
The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. … Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.
In fact, it’s hard not to feel Dillard’s influence and the echo of her voice in Shapiro’s own words as she considers the conflicted yet inexorable mesmerism of writing:
What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.
These rewards manifest not as grand honors and prizes and bestseller rankings — though hardly any writer would deny the warming pleasure of those, however fleeting — but in the cumulative journey of becoming. As Cheryl Strayed put it in her timelessly revisitable meditation on life, “The useless days will add up to something. . . . These things are your becoming.” Ultimately, Shapiro seconds this sentiment by returning to the notion of presence and the art of looking as the centripetal force that summons the scattered fragments of our daily experience into our cumulative muse — a testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity, reassuring us that no bit of life is “useless” and reminding us of the vital importance of what Stephen King has termed the art of “creative sleep”. Shapiro writes:
If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.
To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.
4. ODD TYPE WRITERS
Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.
As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:
One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.
Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:
To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.
James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)
Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:
This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.
Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.
We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:
Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.
But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.
Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”
Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.
But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:
That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.
You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.
Originally featured in September — for more quirky habits, read the original article here.
5. MAXIMIZE YOUR POTENTIAL
“You are what you settle for,” Janis Joplin admonished in her final interview. “You are ONLY as much as you settle for.” In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (public library), which comes on the heels of their indispensable guide to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine, editor Jocelyn Glei and her team at Behance’s 99U pull together another package of practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs. Despite the somewhat self-helpy, SEO-skewing title, this compendium of advice is anything but contrived. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense, experience-tested, life-approved cookbook for creative intelligence, exploring everything from harnessing the power of habit to cultivating meaningful relationships that enrich your work to overcoming the fear of failure.
In the introduction, Glei affirms the idea that, in the age of make-your-own-success and build-your-own-education, the onus and thrill of finding fulfilling work falls squarely on us, not on the “system”:
If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.
Stressing the importance of staying open and alert in order to maximize your “luck quotient,” Glei cites Stanford’s Tina Seelig, who writes about the importance of cultivating awareness and embracing the unfamiliar in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20:
Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experiences. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.
But “luck,” it turns out, is a grab-bag term composed of many interrelated elements, each dissected in a different chapter. In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott H. Young echoes William James and recaps the science of rewiring your “habit loops”, reminding us how routines dictate our days:
If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.
Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.
Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.
We can’t, however, simply will ourselves into better habits. Since willpower is a limited resource, whenever we’ve overexerted our self-discipline in one domain, a concept known as “ego depletion” kicks in and renders us mindless automata in another. Instead, Young suggests, the key to changing a habit is to invest heavily in the early stages of habit-formation so that the behavior becomes automated and we later default into it rather than exhausting our willpower wrestling with it. Young also cautions that it’s a self-defeating strategy to try changing several habits at once. Rather, he advises, spend one month on each habit alone before moving on to the next — a method reminiscent of the cognitive strategy of “chunking” that allows our brains to commit more new information to memory.
As both a lover of notable diaries and the daily keeper of a very unnotable one, I was especially delighted to find an entire section dedicated to how a diary boosts your creativity — something Virginia Woolf famously championed, later echoed by Anaïs Nin’s case for the diary as a vital sandbox for writing and Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a notebook gives you better access to yourself.
Though the chapter, penned by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, co-authors of The Progress Principle, along with 13-year IDEO veteran Ela Ben-Ur, frames the primary benefit of a diary as a purely pragmatic record of your workday productivity and progress — while most dedicated diarists would counter that the core benefits are spiritual and psychoemotional — it does offer some valuable insight into the psychology of how journaling elevates our experience of everyday life:
This is one of the most important reasons to keep a diary: it can make you more aware of your own progress, thus becoming a wellspring of joy in your workday.
Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, the authors point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:
On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.
Even more importantly, however, they argue that a diary offers an invaluable feedback loop:
Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.
This, they suggest, can yield profound insights into the inner workings of your own mind — especially if you look for specific clues and patterns, trying to identify the richest sources of meaning in your work and the types of projects that truly make your heart sing. Once you understand what motivates you most powerfully, you’ll be able to prioritize this type of work in going forward. Just as important, however, is cultivating a gratitude practice and acknowledging your own accomplishments in the diary:
This is your life; savor it. Hold on to the threads across days that, when woven together, reveal the rich tapestry of what you are achieving and who you are becoming. The best part is that, seeing the story line appearing, you can actively create what it — and you — will become.
The lack of a straight story line, however, might also be a good thing. That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and creator of the wonderful Good Life Project, explores in another chapter:
Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.
Echoing John Keats’s assertion that “negative capability” is essential to the creative process Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s assertion that the role of great scientists is to remain uncertain, and Anaïs Nin’s insistence that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Fields reminds us of what Orson Welles so memorably termed “the gift of ignorance”:
Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.
All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas.
Fields argues that if we move along the Uncertainty Curve either too fast or too slowly, we risk either robbing the project of its creative potential and ending up in mediocrity. Instead, becoming mindful of the psychology of that process allows us to pace ourselves better and master that vital osmosis between freedom and constraint. He sums up both the promise and the peril of this delicate dance beautifully:
Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.
6. MAKE ART MAKE MONEY
“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod proclaimed in Ignore Everybody, echoing a prevalent cultural sentiment. And yet there’s something terribly disheartening and defeatist in the assumption that we’ve created a society in which it’s impossible to both make good art and not worry about money — an assumption that tells us art is necessarily bad if commercially successful, and commercial success necessarily unattainable if the art is any good. But in Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, writer Elizabeth Hyde Stevens sets out to debunk this toxic myth through the life and legacy of the beloved Muppeteer.
The story begins with a skit titled “Business, Business,” which Henson performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. It tells the story of two conflicting sets of creatures — the slot-machine-eyed, cash-register-voiced corporate heads who talk in business-ese, and the naïve, light-bulb-headed softies who talk of love, joy, and beauty:
“Business, Business” implies that business and idealism are diametrically opposed. The idealist is attacked not just by the establishment, but also from within, where greed starts to change one’s motives.
For the most part, money is the enemy of art. … Put simply, great art wants quality, whereas good business wants profit. Quality requires many man-hours to produce, which any accountant will tell you cuts significantly into your profit. Great artists fight for such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight against them.
And yet, like most dogmatic dichotomies — take, for instance, science and spirituality — this, too, is invariably reductionistic. Henson’s life and legacy, Stevens argues, is proof that art and business can be — and inherently are — complementary rather than contradictory. Produced only six months after the Summer of Love, “Business, Business” straddled a profound cultural shift as a new generation of “light-bulb idealists” — baby boomers, flower children, and hippies who lived in youth collectives, listened to rock, and championed free love — rejected the material ideals of their parents and embraced the philosophy of Alan Watts. And yet Henson himself was an odd hybrid of these two worlds. When he made “Business, Business,” he was thirty-one, which placed him squarely between the boomers and their parents, and lived in New York City with his wife, living comfortably after having made hundreds of television commercials for everything from lunch meats to computers. In his heart, however, Henson, a self-described Mississippi Tom Sawyer who often went barefoot, was an artist — and he was ready to defend this conviction with the choices he made.
Henson was already a capitalist when he made “Business, Business.” And we could even conclude that the skit describes his own conversion from idealism to capitalism. In 1968, he had an agent who got him TV appearances on Ed Sullivan and freelance commercial gigs hawking products as unhippielike as IBM computers and Getty oil.
Yet Jim Henson’s business wasn’t oil — it was art. While today, most artists are too timid to admit it, Henson freely referred to himself as an “artist,” and his agent went even further, calling him “artsy-craftsy.” Henson may have worked in show business, but he’d also traveled in Europe as a young man, sketching pictures of its architecture. He owned a business, but his business rested on the ideas the idealists were shouting—brotherhood, joy, and love. He wore a beard. Biographers would say it was to cover acne scars, but in the context of the late sixties, it aligns Henson with a category of people that is unmistakable. Though a capitalist, he was also a staunch artist.
“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries. And yet what Henson’s case tells us, Stevens suggests in returning to “Business, Business,” is that the very notion of “selling out” is one big non-truth that pits two parallel possibilities against each other:
If art and money are at odds, which side was Jim Henson really on? If you watch the skit, the clue is in the characters’ voices. Of the Slinky-necked business-heads and idealist-heads, Henson was really both and neither, because in “Business, Business,” he parodies both. Locked in conflict, they sound like blowhards and twerps, respectively, but they were both facets of his life. As an employer to two other men, Henson was the boss man — the suit, cash register, and slot machine — who wrote the checks. But he also got together with his friends to sing, laugh, and play with puppets in the kind of collectivism that hippies celebrated.
This cultural ambivalence — which dates at least as far back as Tchaikovsky’s concerns over creative integrity vs. commissioned work and which was famously, beautifully articulated by Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson in his 1990 Kenyon College commencement address — is arguably exacerbated today. Stevens laments:
Today — especially with Generation X and Millennials — serious artists often refuse contact with business. Large numbers of liberal arts graduates bristle when presented with the corporate world, rejecting its values to protect their ideals. Devoted artists move home to a parent’s basement to complete their masterpieces, while the more pragmatic artists live in cloistered “Neverland” artist collectives, grant-funded arts colonies, and university faculty lounges.
What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous. It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs, especially when Henson was so wildly successful in both categories.
Since he was in college, Jim Henson was a natural capitalist. He owned a printmaking business and made commercials for lunchmeats. In the 1970s, he became a merchandizing millionaire and made Hollywood movies. By 1987, he had shows on all three major networks plus HBO and PBS. … Of course, Henson was not just another Trump. Believe the beard.
When Henson joined on to the experimental PBS show Sesame Street in 1968, he was underpaid for his services creating Big Bird and Oscar. Yet he spent his free nights in his basement, shooting stop-motion films that taught kids to count. If you watch these counting films, the spirit of Henson’s gift shines through. I think any struggling artist today could count Henson among their ilk. He had all the makings of a tragic starving artist. The only difference between him and us is that he made peace with money. He found a way to make art and money dance.
The key, of course, is to master this dance with equal parts determination and grace. Riffing off Lewis Hyde’s famous meditation on gift economies in The Gift, where he argues that the artist must first cultivate a protected gift-sphere for making pure art and then make contact with the market, Stevens offers a blueprint:
The dance involves art and money, but not at the same time. In the first stage, it is paramount that the artist “reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the art is created.” He keeps money out of it. But in the next two phases, they can dance. The way I see it, Hyde’s dance steps go a little something like this:
- Make art.
- Make art make money.
- Make money make art.
It is the last step that turns this dance into a waltz — something cyclical so that the money is not the real end. Truly, for Jim Henson, money was a fuel that fed art.
Originally featured in September — read more here.
7. ITALO CALVINO: LETTERS, 1941–1985
Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) offers more than four decades of wisdom in 600+ pages of personal correspondence by one of the 20th century’s most enchanting writers and most beautiful minds. In one letter, written on July 27, 1949, Calvino contributes one of his many insights on writing:
To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.
In another, he considers the secret of living well:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
In a lengthy letter to literary critic Mario Motta dated January 16, 1950, Calvino addresses the alleged death of the novel, a death toll still nervously resounding today:
There have been so many debates on the novel in the last thirty years, both by those who claimed it was dead and by those who wanted it to be alive in a certain way, that if one conducts the debate without serious preliminary work to establish the terms of the question as it has to be set up and as it has never been set up before, we’ll end up saying and making others say a lot of commonplaces.
Calvino echoes Herbert Spencer’s admonition that “to have a specific style is to be poor in speech” in a March 1950 letter to Elsa Morante, one of the most influential postwar novelists, whom he had befriended:
The fact is that I already feel I am a prisoner of a kind of style and it is essential that I escape from it at all costs: I’m now trying to write a totally different book, but it’s damned difficult; I’m trying to break up the rhythms, the echoes which I feel the sentences I write eventually slide into, as into pre-existing molds, I try to see facts and things and people in the round instead of being drawn in colors that have no shading. For that reason the book I’m going to write interests me infinitely more than the other one.
As dangerous as the blind adhesion to a style, Calvino writes in a May 1959 letter, is the blind reliance on tools, the cult of medium over message — but harnessing the power of tools is one of the craft’s greatest arts:
One should never have taboos about the tools we use, that as long as the thought or images or style one wants to put forward do not become deformed by the medium, one must on the contrary try to make use of the most powerful and most efficient of those tools.
Several years later, Calvino returns to his conception of fiction, this time with more dimension and more sensitivity to the inherent contradictions of literature:
One cannot construct in fiction a harmonious language to express something that is not yet harmonious. We live in a cultural ambience where many different languages and levels of knowledge intersect and contradict each other.
8. MAKE GOOD ART
Commencement season is upon us and, after Greil Marcus’s soul-stirring speech on the essence of art at the 2013 School of Visual Arts graduation ceremony, here comes an exceptional adaptation of one of the best commencement addresses ever delivered: In May of 2012, beloved author Neil Gaiman stood up in front of the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and dispensed some timeless advice on the creative life; now, his talk comes to life as a slim but potent book titled Make Good Art (public library).
Best of all, it’s designed by none other than the inimitable Chip Kidd, who has spent the past fifteen years shaping the voice of contemporary cover design with his prolific and consistently stellar output, ranging from bestsellers like cartoonist Chris Ware’s sublime Building Stories and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s The Mind’s Eye to lesser-known gems like The Paris Review‘s Women Writers at Work and The Letter Q, that wonderful anthology of queer writers’ letters to their younger selves. (Fittingly, Kidd also designed the book adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2006 commencement address.)
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.
A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
Originally featured in May — read the full article here, along with a video of Gaiman’s original commencement address.