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Steinbeck and the Difficult Art of the Friend Breakup

“I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing.”

“A friend,” wrote the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue in his beautiful meditation on the Ancient Celtic notion of anam cara, “awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” But what happens when a friendship ceases to magnify your spirit and instead demands that you be a smaller version of yourself? While David Whyte is absolutely right in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness,” there comes a point past which granting forgiveness yet again for the same hurtful behavior becomes not an act of moral strength but one of moral weakness — an exercise in self-mutilation in the unwillingness to relinquish what has metastasized into a draining or even abusive relationship.

That’s what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) confronted in his mid-thirties as his friendship with George Albee, another young writer, grew increasingly strained by Albee’s professional jealousy. Things came to a head in early 1938 when a young woman Steinbeck had known since childhood accused him of getting her pregnant; although the accusation appears false by biographical accounts, Steinbeck found himself in the midst of a maelstrom he described as one of the most trying times of his life.

When he was most in need of support from his loved ones, he learned that Albee had been speaking ill of him instead of sticking up for him. The disloyalty wounded Steinbeck deeply and he distanced himself from his former friend. Albee eventually sensed the cooling of the relationship and pressed for an answer.

In a masterwork of the friend breakup, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the Nobel laureate’s terrific advice on falling in love in a missive to his teenage son — Steinbeck finally confronts Albee:

Dear George:

The reason for your suspicion is well founded. This has been a difficult and unpleasant time. There has been nothing good about it. In this time my friends have rallied around, all except you. Every time there has been a possibility of putting a bad construction on anything I have done, you have put such a construction.

Some kind friend has told me about it every time you have stabbed me in the back and that whether I wanted to know it or not. I didn’t want to know it really. If such things had been reported as coming from more than one person it would be easy to discount the whole thing but there has been only one source. Now I know that such things grow out of an unhappiness in you and for a long time I was able to reason so and to keep on terms of some kind of amicability. But gradually I found I didn’t trust you at all, and when I knew that then I couldn’t be around you any more. It became obvious that anything I said or did in your presence or wrote to you would be warped viciously and repeated and then the repetition was repeated to me and the thing was just too damned painful. I tried to sidestep, just to fade out of your picture. But that doesn’t work either.

I’d like to be friends with you, George, but I can’t if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time. I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing. This has been the most difficult time in my life.

I’ve needed help and trust and the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve tried to beat the system which destroys every writer, and from you have come only wounds and kicks in the face. And that is the reason and I think you always knew it was the reason.

john

Apparently unsatisfied with having made the point too implicitly, Steinbeck sums it up in an explicit postscript:

And now if you want to quarrel, it will at least be an honest quarrel and not boudoir pin pricking.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

Some days later, still stewing over the situation, Steinbeck writes to his literary agent and lifelong friend Elizabeth Otis:

Unpleasant thing. I finally broke open the thing with George. At least now if he wants to quarrel it won’t be lady quarreling. I feel better about that, but I don’t like such things at all.

A few weeks later, Steinbeck writes in his diary in lamenting the dark side of his success:

People I liked have changed… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me.

When asked about the fallout, Richard Albee, George’s brother, reflects:

You may be sure that the basic cause was artistic jealousy, and of course it was on the part of George, not John.

Indeed, few things erode the mutual dignity of a friendship more effectively than the petty jealousies of competitiveness. But just a few weeks later, in a testament to Kierkegaard’s observation that creative work is the only antidote to the embitterment of such petty jealousies, Steinbeck embarked upon the greatest creative labor of his life, the fruits of which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize the following year and became the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later.

Complement Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — which is thoroughly satisfying in its totality, full of the beloved writer’s wisdom on literature and life — with Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the joy of writing by hand, and his prophetic dream about how the commercial media machine is killing creative culture, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why true friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love.

BP

How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work

“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”

Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.

Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.

Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.

johnsteinbeck3

Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:

Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.

A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:

This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:

All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.

So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:

Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.

And in another:

When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.

Wall clock by Debbie Millman.

But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:

If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.

And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:

If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.

On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:

For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.

This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.

Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:

For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.

He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:

I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.

Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:

Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.

Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:

This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.

Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:

I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:

Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.

Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:

Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.

Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:

Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.

That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:

I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.

As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:

Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.

A few days later, he paces himself again:

Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:

I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.

When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:

And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.

One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:

Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.

In another, he laments:

Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.

And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:

Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.

Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:

I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.

In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:

Must be sure not to drink too much.

And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:

Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.

But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:

Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters

In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:

Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.

Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:

Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?

But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:

I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.

In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:

Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.

Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:

I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.

But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:

After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.

But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:

It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.

In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:

Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.

Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:

This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.

Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:

So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.

He comes to use the diary the way David Lynch uses meditation — as a moral center and an anchor of creative purpose:

When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.

And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:

I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.

The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published on April 14, 1939, and sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone. And therein lies the very thing that makes Working Days a necessary creative scripture for anyone laboring in the arts — the journal’s deeply assuring testament to the fact that even those of exceptional genius are plagued by constant self-doubt, and that perhaps the most important quality setting the brilliant apart from the mediocre is their willingness to let the doubt happen but plow forward anyway, not to be shown up by it but to show up doggedly for the day’s task, however monumental its ask and however small its give.

The great payoff is not critical or commercial success, but the knowledge that one has simply done one’s best.

BP

Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness

“Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”

English poet, essayist,literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709–December 13, 1784) endures as one of the most influential figures in literary history. His Dictionary of the English Language, originally published in 1755, is celebrated as one of the highest achievements of Western scholarship. A brilliant man yet a confounding figure in his lifetime, his peculiar tics and quirky gestures were only posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome.

He was also a man of uncommon sagacity, which was collected a century after his death in the 1888 volume Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (public library; public domain). Here are some of Johnson’s most timeless insights on writing — a fine addition to this omnibus of great writers’ wisdom on the craft.

Like Thomas Edison, who believed that “success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” and Alexander Graham Bell, who argued that It is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Johnson reminds us that writing is an undertaking that requires remarkable self-discipline:

Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.

In a sentiment later echoed by E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), 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.”), Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), and Neil Gaiman (“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist.”), Johnson insists that doggedness outweighs “inspiration”:

A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.

And yet he offers a disclaimer — a cushion against the cult of productivity:

Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write, nor has any man at all times something to say.

Like Zadie Smith, who counseled to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” and Neil Gaiman, who advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Johnson admonishes that getting too hung up on perfectionism ensures frustration rather than elegance:

It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance and make one of its members answer to the other: but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.

Like Ray Bradbury, who asserted that the only way to write well is to write intensely and emotionally, and only when you’re done to think about it and revise, Johnson advocates for letting the intuitive mind, free and uninhibited, shape the initial stages of ideation, only later allowing the rational mind to filter and edit:

The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur; and, when you have matter, you will easily give it form: nor, perhaps, will this method always be necessary; for by habit your thoughts and diction will flow together.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, complement Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Pleasure and Spaciousness: Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Advice on Writing, Discipline, and the Two Driving Forces of Creativity

“Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.”

Pleasure and Spaciousness: Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Advice on Writing, Discipline, and the Two Driving Forces of Creativity

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron as he contemplated the interplay of discipline and creativity. A century later, James Baldwin echoed the sentiment in his advice on writing, observing: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

But for those of us who show up to do what we do day after day, inner rain or shine, as the days unspool into years — Brain Pickings turns 15 this year — there is something more than white-knuckle discipline making the steadfast labor not only bearable, not only sustainable, but vitalizing, inspiriting, joyful. What fuels the engine of endurance is a passionate enchantment — something of which Baldwin’s “love” reflects a glimmer but does not fully capture.

The most marvelous part of it is this: It is an enchantment we cast upon ourselves.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

How to cast that enchantment and how to couple it with the requisite endurance is what Your People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye, composer of the existentially symphonic “Kindness,” explores in a short, splendid prose reflection tucked into the final pages of her altogether soul-broadening collection Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems (public library).

In a sentiment evocative of Bertrand Russell’s lovely notion of “largeness of contemplation” in calibrating the relationship between intuition and the intellect, Nye writes:

Two helpful words to keep in mind at the beginning of any writing adventure are pleasure and spaciousness. If we connect a sense of joy with our writing, we may be inclined to explore further. What’s there to find out? Perhaps too much stock has been placed in big ideas or even small ones — a myth! — but regularity seems like a key. Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.

In consonance with John Steinbeck’s life-tested, Nobel-earning conviction that “in writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration,” she adds:

Small increments of writing time may matter more than we could guess. One thing leads to many — swerving off, linking up, opening of voices and images and memories. Nearby notebooks — or iPads or tablets or laptops — are surely helpful.

With this, Nye turns to the ongoing dialogue between the magic of creation and the mechanics of discipline:

Make a plan, and return to it. It’s a party to which we keep inviting ourselves.

And we have so many realms of material that are very close by:

Families
Neighborhoods
Changes
Memories
Spoken language woven into poems — something someone said to you a long time ago and you still remember it — why, out of all the talk, do you remember that thing?
Pets
Losses
First Times
Last Times
Fears
Friends
Being Sick, Being Well
What we see out our windows
Gifts
History — what used to be in this very place where we are sitting now?

Start anywhere.

Although such constructed starting points might seem mechanistic, they are the lever that unlatches the expanse where the unexpected can begin to unfurl. That incubus where ideas collide with one another into the unconscious combinatorial process we call creativity is also the place where the joy of all creative labor lives.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Returning to the twin consecrating forces of discipline, pleasure and spaciousness, Nye writes:

Spaciousness — any page is wider than it looks. You have no idea where this thing might be going. Write in nuggets — here are my questions, here are some details I saw within the last 24 hours, here are some quotes I heard people say today. Gather material first — then select and connect from it… Each thing gives us something else.

The more any of us writes, the more our words will “come to us.” If we trust in the words and their own mysterious relationship with one another, they will help us find things out… Consider the pleasure we feel when we go to a beach. The broad beach, the bigger air, the endless swish of movement and backdrop of sound. We feel uplifted, exhilarated. Writing regularly can help us feel that way too.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a short poem from the same book, calling to mind poet Ross Gay’s reflection on writing by hand as an instrument of thought, Nye considers the practical tools that carve out this observant spaciousness in which impressions can collide and coalesce into ideas:

ALWAYS BRING A PENCIL
by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will not be a test.
It does not have to be
a Number 2 pencil.

But there will be certain things —
the quiet flush of waves,
ripe scent of fish,
smooth ripple of the wind’s second name —
that prefer to be written about
in pencil.

It gives them more room
to move around.

For more practical and philosophical reflections on the craft from great poets, savor Mary Oliver’s advice on writing, Elizabeth Alexander on language as a vehicle for the poetry of personhood, and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, then revisit Rachel Carson on the sacred loneliness of writing and Walt Whitman on the discipline of creative self-esteem.

BP

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