Hey T Ludikrist! If you missed last week's edition – E.B. White's beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, Picasso on success and why you should never compromise in your art, Van Gogh on love, a tender illustrated story about loneliness and friendship, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
What makes Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) so timelessly rewarding and one of the greatest books on writing of all time is that besides her wisdom on the craft, Lamott extends enormous sensitivity to and consolation for the general pathologies of the human condition – our insecurities, our social anxieties, our inner turmoils. Among her most powerful and memorable meditations in the book is that on how our perfectionism kills the creative spirit – something she revisited recently in a short essay on her Facebook page, spurred by a surge in negative comments and vicious troll attacks.
Lamott's words, once again, shine with warm and luminous wisdom. Alluding to the chapter on perfectionism, she writes:
There's a whole chapter on perfectionism in Bird by Bird, because it is the great enemy of the writer, and of life, our sweet messy beautiful screwed up human lives. It is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you're an artist, it will destroy you…
Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else's needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to "help" and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.
Look, I struggle with this. I hate to be criticized. I am just the tiniest bit more sensitive than the average bear. And yet, I'm a writer, so I periodically put my work out there, and sometimes like all writers, I get terrible reviews, so personal in nature that they leave me panting. Even with a Facebook post … do you have any idea what it's like to get 500-plus negative attacks, on my character, from truly bizarre strangers.
Really, it's not ideal.
Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That's why I'm alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I've said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
She reminds us that we don't find time for what matters, we make time – and the priorities we set define our destiny:
Is it okay with you that you blow off your writing, or whatever your creative/spiritual calling, because your priority is to go to the gym or do yoga five days a week? Would you give us one of those days back, to play or study poetry? To have an awakening? Have you asked yourself lately, "How alive am I willing to be?" It's all going very quickly. It's mid-May, for God's sake. Who knew. I thought it was late February.
It's time to get serious about joy and fulfillment, work on our books, songs, dances, gardens. But perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great, and that you may never get published. (Wait, forget the prowling satanic lion – your parents, living or dead, almost just as loudly either way, and your aunt Beth, and your passive-aggressive friends, whom we all think you should ditch, are going to ask, "Oh, you're writing again? That's nice. Do you have an agent?")
She reminds us, too, of something that Debbie Millman articulated beautifully in her 2013 commencement address, advising aspiring creators: "Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now." Lamott echoes this sentiment with exquisite, poetic rawness:
Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you're 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn't go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It's going to break your heart. Don't let this happen. Repent just means to change direction – and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn't mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.
Echoing Neil Gaiman, who counseled young artists to "make glorious, amazing mistakes," Lamott concludes with a recipe for an antidote – the only real antidote – to perfectionism:
Here's how to break through the perfectionism: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes – these are where the goods are. Put something on the calendar that you know you'll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp. Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing. Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too. Now; today. One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mike,and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god-awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed's feelings if he read it, which he isn't going to.
Change his name and hair color – he won't even recognize himself.
At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.
Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?
(Or, as I wrote some time ago in reflecting on my learnings from seven years of doing this: "When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.")
Lamott is truly a mystic of the written word and of the human soul. Treat yourself to Bird by Bird for closer communion with her singular spirit, then revisit Benjamin Franklin's trick for handling haters, Vi Hart on how to tame the trolls, and Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.
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"Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind," I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It's a conundrum most of us grapple with – on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan's timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: "Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours."
That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) – a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why "self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes," and the follow-up to McRaney's You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don't believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence is as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they're presented with.
Nicolaus Copernicus's simple yet revolutionary 1543 heliocentric model, which placed the sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, contradicted the views of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was detained under house arrest for the remainder of his life for supporting Copernicus's model.
On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out "evidence" while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we're now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)
McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett's rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:
When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.
This also explains why Benjamin Franklin's strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness – our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:
The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.
One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters – the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become "teflon for positive and velcro for negative." McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling – something that takes an active effort to fight – back to its evolutionary roots:
Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.
This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn't fire – instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.
So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, "The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself."
The remainder of You Are Now Less Dumb is just as wonderfully, if uncomfortably, illuminating. Sample it further with the psychology of the Benjamin Franklin Effect, and treat yourself to McRaney's excellent podcast, You Are Not So Smart, which will, of course, make you smarter.
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Children's questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: "Where do babies come from?" Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley's only children's book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library) – an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children's inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.
Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.
I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it's a big one.
But once the little boy is able to get his real question out – Where do babies come from? – his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.
Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall's own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.
At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.
His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.
Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but "he doesn't know where to get the eggs."
Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:
From inside their mom, says Mom. They start off really tiny, says Dad. Almost too small to see, says Mom. They begin with a seed from their dad… Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…
The baby grows in there for nine months…
Until it runs out of room… And it's ready to be born. Sometimes at home… But usually in the hospital.
The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all – Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital – except his grandpa:
I'm going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.
At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.
All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that continues to stump grownups – but no longer has to.
Complement with Blackall's wonderful The Mighty Lalouche and peek inside her singular mind through her fantastic conversation with Debbie Millman.
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Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) – a chronicle of Oates's characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.
One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 – a pivotal time in Oates's life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters – falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the "blue wild snow-glaring world outside" and marvels:
How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.
She watches a "puffy-feathered female cardinal" rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as "the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God." Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity – our human capacity – to behold such beauty:
Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?
…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.
She ends with a "tentative conclusion" that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman's awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:
All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.
The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates's 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.
For more beloved writers' diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.
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Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake's paintings for Milton's Paradise Lost and for Dante's Divine Comedy, Picasso's drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse's etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord's illustrations for Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí's prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.
In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman's undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman's poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.
Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:
Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive…
With this book, I've tried to make the vigor of "Song of Myself" tangible. I've attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman's unfurnished sensibility…
I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman's panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman's day. Thus, you'll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman's work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.
Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish's illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman's magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.
Especially enchanting is Crawford's heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.
All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.
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