Hey you! If you missed last week's edition – Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing, what children's metaphors teach us about the imagination, E. B. White's love letter to his wife "written" by their dog, Salvador Dalí illustrates the signs of the zodiac, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
"When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way."
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) – which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean, Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library – Michael Lewis, one of today's finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.
Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury's insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that "pieces on the life of the underclass in America" were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis's provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he "kept plugging away" and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:
I didn’t get the job – the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college – but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.
True to Alan Watts's philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, 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.
Still, Lewis admits to being stirred by the awareness that he can change minds and move hearts – a somewhat nobler version of Orwell's "sheer egotism" motive:
The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.
That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.
"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 adds to famous writers' daily routines and seconds Maira Kalman's faith in the power of deadlines:
When I was writing my first book, I was going from eleven at night till seven in the morning. I was very happy waking up at two in the afternoon. My body clock would naturally like to start writing around nine at night and finish at four in the morning, but I have a wife and kids and endless commitments. … My natural writing schedule doesn’t work with my family’s schedule. I actually do better when I have pressure, some mental deadline.
Aware that he is "mentally absent" from family life while immersed in a book project, Lewis considers himself lucky to be a "binge writer" who takes lots of time off between books … "which is why I still have a family," he jokes. His immersion, in fact, is so complete that it changes his physical experience:
When I’m working on a book, I’m in a very agitated mental state. My sleep is disrupted. I only dream about the project. My sex drive goes up. My need for exercise, and the catharsis I get from exercise, is greater. When I’m in the middle of a project, whether I’m doing Bikram yoga or hiking up the hill or working out at the gym, I carry a blank pad and a pen. I’ll take eight hundred little notes right in the middle of a posture. It drives my yoga instructor crazy.
Like many of history's great minds, from Henri Poincaré to T. S. Eliot, Lewis is a believer in the power of unconscious processing and creative pause, or the "mental mastication" period of which Lewis Carroll wrote:
At any given time I usually have eight new ideas. … I need time between projects. It’s like a tank filling up. I can’t just go from one to the other.
Lewis ends on a note of advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats and offering 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.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do remains a must-read of the most highly recommended kind, featuring contributions from such celebrated authors as Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Rick Moody.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
How to master the beautiful osmosis of conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary, deliberate and serendipitous.
In 1926, thirteen years before James Webb Young's Technique for Producing Ideas and more than three decades before Arthur Koestler's seminal "bisociation" theory of how creativity works, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas, sixty-eight at the time, penned The Art of Thought – an insightful theory outlining the four stages of the creative process, based both on his own empirical observations and on the accounts of famous inventors and polymaths. Though, sadly, the book is long out of print, with surviving copies sold for a fortune and available in a few public libraries, the gist of Wallas's model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 treasure The Creativity Question (public library) – an invaluable selection of meditations on and approaches to creativity by some of history's greatest minds, compiled by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg and philosopher Carl R. Hausman, reminiscent of the 1942 gem An Anatomy of Inspiration.
Wallas outlines four stages of the creative process – preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification – dancing in a delicate osmosis of conscious and unconscious work. These phases, which literary legend Michael Cowley would come to parallel in his 1958 model of the four stages of writing, go as follows:
During the preparation stage, the problem is "investigated in all directions" as the thinker readies the mental soil for the sowing of the seeds. It's the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which to construct the new ideas. It is fully conscious and entails part research, part planning, part entering the right frame of mind and attention. Wallas writes:
The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.
Next comes a period of unconscious processing, during which no direct effort is exerted upon the problem at hand – this is where the "combinatory play" that marked Einstein's thought takes place. Wallas notes that the stage has two divergent elements – the "negative fact" that during Incubation we don't consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the "positive fact" of a series of unconscious, involuntary (or, as he terms it, "foreconscious" and "forevoluntary") mental events taking place. He writes:
Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.
T. S. Eliot would come to echo the value of incubation seven years later in his own meditation on the role of idea-incubation in the creative process, as would many other great minds: Alexander Graham Bell, for all his deliberate dedication, spoke of the power of "unconscious cerebration" and Lewis Carroll advocated for the importance of mental "mastication."
Wallas proposes a technique for optimizing the fruits of the Incubation stage – something our modern-day psychology of productivity would come to confirm – by deliberately building interruptions of concentrated effort into our workflow:
We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.
Following Incubation is the Illumination stage, which Wallas based on French polymath Henri Poincaré's concept of "sudden illumination" – that flash of insight that the conscious self can't will and the subliminal self can only welcome once all elements gathered during the Preparation stage have floated freely around during Incubation and are now ready to click into an illuminating new formation. It is the moment beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likens to the winning alignment of a slot machine, the same kind of "chance-opportunism" masquerading as serendipity that fuels much of scientific discovery.
But, Wallas admonishes, this Illumination can't be forced:
If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous "flash," it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final "flash," or "click" … is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours. … Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous.
Decades later, the great science communicator and MacArthur "genius" Stephen Jay Gould would come to concur that such "trains of association" – connections between the seemingly unconnected – are the secret of genius.
The last stage, unlike the second and the third, shares with the first a conscious and deliberate effort in the way of testing the validity of the idea and reducing the idea itself to an exact form. Once again borrowing from Poincaré's pioneering theories, Wallas cites the French polymath:
It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules. … All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. … They demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.
But perhaps most important of all is the interplay of the stages and the fact that none of them exists in isolation from the rest, for the mechanism of creativity is a complex machine of innumerable, perpetually moving parts. Wallas notes:
In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning's letters, may at the same time be "incubating" on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in "preparation" for a second problem, and be "verifying" his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a "problem and solution" scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.
The Creativity Question is altogether indispensable and enormously enriching in its entirety, the kind of book you return to again and again. Complement it with this 1939 creative catalyst and its modern-day counterpart.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
An existential walk into what money can and can't buy.
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one's day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture's cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.
That's precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) – an absolutely wonderful children's story told through Johnson's vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life – one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry's friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors – including some of Thoreau's equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less "efficient," is the better way to get to Fitchburg – more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.
Johnson tells young readers:
Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.
As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear's experience of life.
While Henry's friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.
While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne's garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.
While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson's study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.
On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry's friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.
In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson's gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:
His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. "The train was faster," he said.
Henry took a small pail from his pack. "I know," he smiled. "I stopped for blackberries."
More than a mere children's primer on Thoreau's philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.
:: MORE IMAGES / SHARE ::
"You don't even know what the word 'vacation' means because what you're doing is what you want to do and a vacation FROM that is anything BUT a vacation."
"Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul," Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson observed in his superb 1990 Kenyon College commencement address, "is a rare achievement." Indeed, the search for meaning, the life of purpose, the quest to do what makes you come alive – those are the greatest human aspirations. And who better to weigh in on the essence of this grand pursuit than Neil deGrasse Tyson, modern-day philosopher and eloquent cosmic sage, and Neil Gaiman, dedicated writer and champion of answering the daunting call of the creative life? In this short excerpt from the 2012 Connecticut Forum, the Neils answer the question "What makes someone visionary and brilliant?" and remind us that the most important component of genius is, in fact, love and unrelenting cultivation.
Tyson knows that truly fulfilling work never feels like "work":
If everyone had the luxury to pursue a life of exactly what they love, we would all be ranked as visionary and brilliant. … If you got to spend every day of your life doing what you love, you can't help but be the best in the world at that. And you get to smile every day for doing so. And you'll be working at it almost to the exclusion of personal hygiene, and your friends are knocking on your door, saying, "Don't you need a vacation?!," and you don't even know what the word "vacation" means because what you're doing is what you want to do and a vacation from that is anything but a vacation – that's the state of mind of somebody who's doing what others might call visionary and brilliant.
Gaiman echoes the sentiment with laconic self-awareness:
We get to look good because we get to do what we want.
Complement with this timeless anchor for how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit Gaiman's fantastic commencement address on living the creative life.
:: MORE / SHARE ::