Copy
Happy Mother's Day! History's most inspiring letters of motherly advice, the surprising science of motivation, Raymond Chandler on writing, and more.

Hey you! If you missed last week's edition – a natural history of love, cultural mavens on the psychology of branding, how to pack like pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.

From Abigail Adams to Anne Sexton to Maya Angelou, History's Finest Letters of Motherly Advice

"Live to the HILT!"

Last year, we celebrated Father's Day with an omnibus of history's finest letters of fatherly advice, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Jackson Pollock, and Neil Armstrong. Later adding to them was more timeless epistolary advice from notable dads like Ted Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Dickens.

It's only fitting to honor Mother's Day with a similarly spirited selection of history's finest motherly advice, spanning nearly half a millennium of poignant and prescient counsel from notable moms.

From Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library), which also gave us the author's surprising report card, comes this remarkable 1969 missive she penned aboard an airplane for her daughter Linda to revisit later in life:

Dear Linda,

I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you – someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me. And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) – I want to say back.

1st I love you.

2. You never let me down.

3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 with a dead mother who I needed still. . . .

This is my message to the 40 year old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it – wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I’ve had a good life – I wrote unhappy – but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda – Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you 40 year old, Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are!—Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart – I’m in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her – or she me! Silly Anne! So there!

XOXOXO

Mom

In Letter to My Daughter (public library), which also gave us her beautiful meditation on home and belonging, beloved author and reconstructionist Maya Angelou writes to the daughter she never had:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.

Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.

Clare Boothe Luce was blond, athletic, and good-looking in an age when those attributes came with a set of expectations quite different from who she was. Ambitious and feisty, she emerged as a trailblazing media maven and went on to become the managing editor of Vanity Fair, a celebrated playwright, and a formidable congresswoman. In 1944, she became the first woman ever to deliver the keynote address at a national political convention. Her 1953 appointment as Ambassador to Italy made her the first female American ambassador to major post abroad. On November 24, 1942, Luce penned a letter to her 18-year-old daughter Ann, a sophomore at Stanford, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) – the same wonderful anthology that gave us Sherwood Anderson's timelessly poetic advice on the creative life. Amidst counsel on Ann's first romantic relationship, Luce offers the following advice:

Don’t worry about your studies. When you want to do them well you will do them superbly but for the moment the main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world because “these are the good old days” now.

The first American female poet, Anne Bradstreet also became the first American in history to have a book of poetry published when her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, printed a selection of her poems in 1650 against her will. The mother of eight children, her poems had been largely a private treat for her family and a great personal joy. In March of 1664, Bradstreet sent her second son, Simon, the following selection of "Meditations" on life, of which she'd go on to produce another seventy-three besides the four included here. The letter, featured in the 1897 tome The Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (public library), was found after Bradstreet's death in 1672 at her home in Massachusetts.

For my deare Sonne Simon Bradstreet.

PARENTS perpetuate their lives in their posterity, and their maners in their imitation. Children do natureally rather follow the failings then the vertues of their predecessors, but I am perswaded better things of you. You once desired me to leave something for you in writeing that you might look upon when you should see me no more. I could think of nothing more fit for you, nor of more ease to my self, then these short meditations following. Such as they are I bequeath to you: small legacys are accepted by true friends, much more by duty full children. I have avoyded incroaching upon others conceptions, because I would leave you nothing but myne owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde, yet I persume they will be better prif’d by you for the Authors sake. The Lord bless you with grace heer, and crown you with glory heerafter, that I may meet you with rejoycing at that great day of appearing, which is the continuall prayer, of your affectionate mother,

A. B.

Meditations Divine and Morall.

I.

THERE is no object that we see; no action that we doe; no good that we inioy; no evil that we feele, or fear, but we may make some spirituall advantage of all: and he that makes such improvment is wise, as well as pious.

II.

MANY can speak well, but few can do well. We are better scholars in the Theory then the practique part, but he is a true Christian that is a proficient in both.

III.

YOUTH is the time of getting, middle age of improving, and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age. He that hath nothing to seed on but vanity and lyes must needs lye down in the Bed of sorrow.

IV.

A SHIP that beares much saile, and little or no ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering.

In January of 1780, amidst America's War of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her twelve-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, urging him to follow his father, future American president John Adams, across the Atlantic to France in pursuit of a fine education. The letter, found in Noble Deeds of American Women: With Biographical Sketches of Some of the More Prominent (public domain), examines the foundation of character – a topic particularly fitting for the boy's formative age, given it would be another four years until Adams would see her son again.

My dear Son

[…]

Some Author that I have met with compares a judicious traveler, to a river that increases its stream the farther it flows from its source, or to certain springs which running through rich veins of minerals improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you my son that as you are favourd with superiour advantages under the instructive Eye of a tender parent, that your improvements should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you, but attention, diligence and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.

These are times in which a Genious would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orater, if he had not been roused, kindled and enflamed by the Tyranny of Catiline, Millo, Verres and Mark Anthony. The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.

[…]

The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude, and every Manly Virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do Honor to your Country, and render your parents supreemly happy, particuliarly your ever affectionate Mother,

AA

In another letter found in Posterity and dated December 1, 1872 – nearly half a century before women were legally allowed to vote in America and two centuries before the letters of the second wave of feminism – social justice pioneer and women's rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton gives her twenty-year-old daughter Margaret, at the time a student at Vassar, essential advice on independence as the root of happiness:

I am so glad, dearest, to know that you are happy. Now, improve every hour and every opportunity, and fit yourself for a good teacher or professor, so that you can have money of your own and not be obliged to depend on any man for every breath you draw. The helpless dependence of women generally makes them the narrow, discontented beings so many are.

Pair these timeless words with the letters of the women who ushered in the second wave of modern feminism, raising a generation of sons and daughters with an eye on true equality.

:: READ FULL ARTICLE / SHARE ::

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: The Science of What Motivates Us, Animated

"When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen."

The question of how to avoid meaningless labor and instead find fulfilling work brimming with a sense of purpose is an enduring but, for many, elusive cultural ideal. Daniel Pink tackles the conundrum in this wonderful animation by the RSA – who have previously sketch-noted such fascinating pieces of cultural psychology as the truth about dishonesty, the power of introverts, where good ideas come from, what's wrong with the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, the broken industrial model of education, and how choice limits social change – based on his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (public library).

Pink shares the counterintuitive results of two studies that reveal the inner workings of what influences our behavior – and the half-truth of why money can't buy us satisfaction:

The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work. Once you do that, it turns out there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

In Drive, Pink goes on to illustrate why the traditional carrots-and-sticks paradigm of extrinsic reward and punishment doesn't work, pointing instead to his trifecta of intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that's important to us; and Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond than ourselves.

Also of note is Pink's TED talk on the subject.

In his follow-up to Drive, Pink dissects the secret of selling your ideas with his signature blend of counterintuitive science and practical psychology. Pair with his insights on how we construct our identity in a material world.

:: READ FULL ARTICLE / SHARE ::

Letters to Ms.: How Mary Thom (RIP) Built "Social Media" for Women's Rights in the 1970s

Celebrating the invisible art of making a movement visible.

Yesterday, I attended the memorial for reconstructionist Mary Thom, whom we lost in a tragic motorcycle crash last month and who changed the voice of women's rights as founding editor of groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. In the early 1970s, just as women were emerging from the stifling grip of the Mad Men era and beginning to raise their voices against injustice at the workplace, Ms. came in as a beacon of what many of us have since come to take for granted, a brave promise of what life would be like in a gender-blind world.

Named after the form of address recommended in secretarial handbooks for when a woman's marital status was unknown, subsequently subverted by women who wished to be recognized as individuals rather than defined by their relationship to a man, the magazine proclaimed in its inaugural half-column announcement that "Ms." was meant "only to signify a female human being. It's symbolic, and important. There's a lot in a name." Indeed, there was: From the outset, Ms. made no apologies for calling things by their true, hegemonically defiant names – in the Preview Issue, which appeared as an insert in New York magazine in the spring of 1972, Ms. launched “a campaign for honesty and freedom,” in which fifty-three women signed a statement declaring that they had had an abortion, which at the time was illegal in most states.

Mary Thom by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists

Three decades before the age of social media and instant communities, Ms. presented an unprecedented avenue for women to connect with one another around the issues that impacted their lives daily, which remained taboo and thus cautiously avoided by mainstream media. It was in the letters to the magazine, collected in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) and edited by Thom herself, that these voices come together into a chorus line for the era's central political and social concerns – equal pay, reproductive rights, the everyday language of bias and discrimination.

Long before the heyday of smartphones and email and text-messaging, Thom herself laments the lost art of letter-writing in the foreword, reminding us of just how monumental and paradigm-shifting a "social network" this epistolary sisterhood was:

Letter writing is nearly a lost art in this age of telephones and easy travel – and the receipt of written correspondence that is detailed and witty is a lost pleasure. As a result, when Ms. magazine began publishing in 1972, few of us who were on the staff were prepared for the experience of reading the rich variety of the letters that were addressed to the editors. They allowed us to get to know thousands of our readers on a level of intimacy that one shares with only a few real-life friends. … Ms. was founded to give voice to the concerns of a movement, and the letters help us fulfill that purpose.

And the letters were indeed exceptional – diverse yet uniformly courageous, from the confessional letters seeking a sense that others share in the same struggles and concerns to the classic "click" letters, a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from a woman's anecdote that just "clicks."

Many tackled the workplace revolution – at the time of the inaugural issue, some 33.5 million women were working outside their homes, but most were earning 59 cents to the dollar of an equally qualified man doing the same job. Meanwhile, the work of keeping a household running and raising children was unaccounted for in the gross national product although it essentially fueled the economy by raising the next generations. One woman had a clever solution, but was met with institutional rigidity:

Rather than hire a housekeeper and baby sitter for our three preschool children, my husband and I decided to "hire" me – to pay me a salary and contribute social security. The Internal Revenue Service said nay; this can only be done for someone not a family member. We tried to contract for disability insurance for me – in the event of my not being able to perform my housekeeping and child-care duties – but we have not yet found a carrier. I am not adding to the family income – and he cannot be compensated for a loss that does not exist.

The implication is clear – the establishment is making it more attractive to leave the home and let others raise their families. So I went job hunting. Results: very few jobs open in my field; higher salaries for men of the same background; hesitation to hire a woman with three "little ones" because I might not be dependable (miss work). Let's find out why men with families are considered good, stable, desirable employees and women are not.

Mary Fortuna, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 1973 issue

A "click" letter poignantly considers just how deeply rooted and systemic the unequal pay problem is:

It occurred to me the other day to wonder at the discrepancy in wages that I pay to those high-school students who baby sit and those who do lawn cutting and gardening for me. Most of the "lawn and garden" people, who happen to be boys ask for a dollar an hour. Most of the baby sitters, who usually happen to be girls, ask seventy-five cents an hour.

Now I ask myself, is caring for my children less important, less valuable, less a responsibility? Or is lawn cutting and gardening considered harder and more taxing physical work? (Two active children under five can be pretty hard, taxing, physical work, too.) Or is it that boys just ask for and receive high wages from the beginning? And is it that child care is, anyway, considered to be "women's work" and not deserving of pay? Click!

Marge Mitchell, Baltimore, Maryland, September 1974 issue

One woman shares an amusing anecdote of claiming empowerment by turning back on the establishment its own double standards of sexual objectification:

I finally got up the courage to challenge an old established male tradition in my office. I do telephone sales. Our working area in the office has always been covered with "girlie" pictures and photographs of devastating (and devastated) maidens. This made us few women in the office feel terribly uncomfortable.

When the majority of the male staff was out to lunch, we proceeded to rape the latest issue of Playgirl of its best. Over my desk now hangs one gorgeous specimen of the male species, the centerfold. Everywhere there was a girlie picture there are now beautiful stud photographs.

I think the reactions of the men in the office could best be summarized in terms of shock. Although everyone tried to be good humored about it, jokingly or otherwise, they all compared themselves in some way to the models. It was a marvelous experience to see super-duper macho stud types go all to pieces when confronted with the same thing we have had to face for years – images of ourselves as we could never hope to be, images of ourselves as seen only in the minds of men.

Name Withheld, October 13, 1975

Others shared moments of small daily triumphs, the glimmering light of hope for an equal future:

One day last week I pulled up to a four-way stop in my taxi. At one of the other stop signs sat a police officer in a chase cruiser, and at the third, a telephone installer in a Bell Canada van. What made the occasion memorable was the fact that all three of us were women. We celebrated with much joyful laughter and raised thumbs.

Jill Wood, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 1980 issue

But in academia, a field still notorious for its gender discrimination, things were far from joyful:

In 1972, as full professor, I sued the university for discrimination in salary on the basis of sex. They were simply paying the men more than the women, especially me. It took all these years of stonewalling, avoiding, ignoring, before they finally admitted I was right, and settled out of court. Of course, I had to promise not to tell anyone how much they gave me and to be a good girl and not encourage any other woman professor to do the same heinous act of subversion of the rights of administration to set salaries. At age seventy-two (I retired in 1975), my lawyer and I decided to settle.

So how much I got is a deep dark secret, but you will notice this letter is being written on a new word processor. There are other things I have done, too. But the most is to enjoy, heartily, the last laugh.

Good luck to all embattled species.

Name Withheld, August 14, 1982

Many of the letters found humor and wisdom in the innocent comments of young children, unburdened by the cultural baggage of gender roles – for instance, this one by one of Ms.'s male readers – a pastor, no less:

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

"You don't wipe your bottom when you tinkle."

"No, Kristin, I don't."

Reflective pause, then, "Why?"

"Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours."

Another reflective pause, then, "Why?"

"Because boys and girls are different."

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, "No, boys are different."

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine "norm," with her own status defined only in relation to that "norm." I Hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister, Tabernacle Christian Church, Franklin, Indiana, July 1981 Issue

Another section of the anthology is dedicated to letters championing equality in language, a topic particularly apt for a magazine whose very title offers meta-commentary on the subject:

Recently I was "called in" by a secondary-school district where I substitute-teach. I was told that I would be dropped from their list of substitute teachers, unless I stopped using "Ms." when writing my name on the board at the beginning of a new assignment – "because 'Ms.' makes students think of sexuality and liberation."

When I asked if there weren't other women on the faculty using "Ms." with their names, I was told, "No, we don't have very many young, unmarried women working for us." Click … crash!

Patricia R. Bristowe, La Honda, California, October 1973 Issue

Others found in the language issue a venue for small but meaningful acts of courage and resistance:

I resigned from my job yesterday as a matter of principle. I was given a letter to type by a senior secretary to the auditing firm that had recently been in our books. A woman headed up the team of accountants at our company for several weeks.

The letter was opened to "Gentlemen." I changed it to "Greetings." I was told that the letter must be redone because it was the policy of the company to use the salutation "Gentlemen." I was told that management determined company policy, not uppity secretaries who didn't know their place. I decided to resign and didn't redo the letter.

I'm looking for another job, but I did raise quite a few eyebrows and, hopefully, someone's consciousness.

Name Withheld, September 12, 1982

Even in Ms., the constant tension between editorial integrity and advertising didn't fail to rear its head – though it could be argued that, today, similar impossible ideals have permeated the editorial ranks and are being peddled by opinion-packages like Lean In rather than advertisers alone:

Why do advertisers persist in selling the image of the beautiful, shapely woman executive who keeps the same perfectly made-up face and styled hair, even after a hard day of earning a six-figure salary, dining in expensive restaurants, having a brisk game of tennis at the club, and a late night of discotheque hopping? It's no surprise that real women are tempted to wonder what they're doing wrong.

Deborah K. Smith, Brookline, Massachusetts, July 1980 Issue

In language, too, the little victories were celebrated as beacons of big change to come:

This may not sound like much, but my boss just asked me a question that made my day and that I am dying to share with someone. He was in a meeting when he called out my name. I thought I was going to have to make copies or do some other chore, but he asked a question: "Dianne, who is the new girl … lady … woman over at Mud Island?" Hooray, he's thinking! I felt wonderful. I don't know if he kept correcting himself for my benefit or not, but his awareness is all that matters!

Dee Butler, Memphis, Tennessee, September 1983 Issue

It's often said that editing is an invisible art, and Thom certainly tried to embody that by deliberately stepping away from the limelight and operating behind the scenes. The irony, of course, is that the snippets of strife and progress captured in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 make plainly visible the enormous gift Thom and Ms. gave those of us who often forget all the indignities we need not suffer because of these women's righteous, courageous indignation and fight for awareness.

Thank you, Mary, for everything.

Join me in supporting the Women's Media Center, where Thom was editor-in-chief, in the remarkable work they do to etch Thom's legacy into the bedrock of society.

:: MORE / SHARE ::

Raymond Chandler on Writing

"The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated."

Last week, while researching this omnibus of what famous authors wrote about their beloved pets in their letters and journals, I came upon the irresistible 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library). Among Chandler's many musings, exchanged with his agents, publishers, and literary friends are a number of timeless insights on writing, culled here as a fine addition to this master-list of famous writers' advice on writing.

In a 1937 letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder, Chandler echoes Virginia Woolf's case for the evolution of language:

That you should have pride in your purer American heritage of language seems to me a slight thing. Latin became corrupt, but French is a sharper language than Latin ever was. The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

In a vital meditation on defining one's own success, Chandler admonishes against pursuing prestige rather than authenticity, which for him is a serious creative block:

I can't seem to get started on doing anything. Always very tough for me to get started. The more things people say about you the more you feel as if you were writing in an examination room, that it didn't belong to you any more, that you had to protect critical reputations and not let them down. Writers even as cynical as I have to fight the impulse to live up to someone else's idea of what they are.

In a 1951 letter to his agent, Carl Brandt, Chandler once again shares his creative block but, like Rilke, welcomes the state of creative doubt and uncertainty, which Keats famously called "negative capability":

I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn't know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. that's the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.

In March of 1957, at the age of 69 and critically acclaimed, Chandler revisits this state of creative restlessness and uncertainty as a pillar of his identity as a writer:

I am the same man I was when I was a struggling nobody. I feel the same. I know more, it is true, break all the rules and get away with it, but that doesn't make me important. I may have written the most beautiful American vernacular that has ever been written (some people think I have), but if it is so, I am still a writer trying to find his way through a maze. Should I be anything else? I can't see it.

In the closing lines of a letter dated May 5, 1939, Chandler offers a meta-observation full of that typical writerly self-awareness bordering on self-consciousness:

And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that's proof he is fresh out of ideas.

On October 17, 1939, he comments on the ever-elusive alignment of lucrative and fulfilling work, the disconnect between authentic work and popular taste:

I have never made any money on writing. I work too slowly, throw away too much, and what I write that sells is not at all the sort of thing I really want to write.

In another letter to fellow detective novelist Earle Stanley Gardner, dated January 29, 1946, Chandler dives even deeper into his distaste for such writing and shares in Susan Sontag's sentiments about literary criticism, voicing a concern about popular taste that David Foster Wallace would come to echo some half a century later:

I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer's function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. …. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called "significant literature" will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods that are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles.

(One can only imagine how the era of Fifty Shades of Grey might stir Chandler's indignation.)

And though his opinion of "the public" might appear dismal, Chandler shares in E.B. White's belief in the responsibility of the writer to "lift people up, not lower them down." In a 1951 letter, he writes:

My theory has always been that the public will accept style provided you do not call it style either in words or by, as it were, standing off and admiring it. There seems to me to be a vast difference between writing down to the public (something which always flops in the end) and doing what you want to do in a form which the public has learned to accept.

In a March 1947 letter to the editors of Harper's, Chandler seconds H. P. Lovecraft's defiance to the distinction between "amateur" and "professional" writers, something all the more timely today in the age of democratized publishing:

There is not much point in all this pseudo-elaborate differentiation between the professional and the amateur. No such difference exists, or ever did. … All this talk about "pros" is itself sheer amateurism. There is no such thing as professionalism in writing.

In September of 1957, approaching his seventieth birthday, in a letter to Helga Greene, Chandler's last literary agent and subsequent heir, Chandler lists all his gripes about the superficialities of the literary world and concludes with what's perhaps his most poignant meditation on writing:

I haven't seen the New Yorker for months, just got tired of it. … But I think I may have become a bit crotchety from loneliness, worry, illness and physical suffering. My ideas of what constitutes good writing are increasingly rebellious. I may even end up echoing Henry Ford's verdict on history, and saying to unlistening ears: "Literature is bunk."

[…]

I may satisfy myself with Richard II or a crime novel and tell all the fancy boys to go to hell, all the subtle-subtle ones that they did us a service by exposing the truth that subtlety is only a technique, and a weak technique at that; all the stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents, mostly the former, that you can split a hair fourteen ways from the deuce, but what you've got left isn't even a hair; all the editorial novelists that they should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description: oh, we'll allow them one chapter of set-piece writing per book, even two, but no more; and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity. The things that last – or should – I admit they sometimes miss – come from deeper levels of a writer's being, and the particular form used to frame them has very little to do with their value. The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.

And here we are today, reading Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. Pair his wisdom with more insights on the written word from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, and Zadie Smith.

:: MORE / SHARE ::

Bringing you Brain Pickings takes lots of time, thought, and resources each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brand Thinking: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Other Mavens on How and Why We Define Ourselves Through Stuff

"The modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives."

Love And Art: The Secret to a Romantic Relationship That's Also a Creative Collaboration

"Relationships are our greatest learning experiences."

The Designer Says: The Collected Quips and Wisdom of Famous Graphic Designers

I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.

Our Objects, Ourselves

"If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects."

Darwin's Daily Routine

"After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano."

David Foster Wallace's Timeless Graduation Speech on the Meaning of Life, Adapted in a Short Film

"The real value of a real education … has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness."

Uncommon Grounds: How Coffee Changed the World

"In the form of a hot infusion of its ground, roasted seeds, coffee is consumed for its bittersweet bouquet, its mind-racing jump start, and social bonding."

The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later

"Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent."

Nellie Was a Lady: 1945 Radio Dramatization of Pioneering Female Journalist Nellie Bly's Life

"The life, loves, and laughter of one of America's most fascinating women."

Massimo Vignelli on the Secret of Great Book Design

"The grid is the underwear of the book."

Cats, Guns, and Books: William S. Burroughs's Daily Routine

For breakfast, "a salted soft-boiled egg with toast, or perhaps fresh-squeezed lemonade, and two cups of very sweet tea."

Why War: Einstein and Freud's Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace, and Human Nature

"Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise."

Advice to Little Girls: Young Mark Twain's Little-Known, Lovely 1865 Children's Book

Twain's mischievously empowering advice to girls, illustrated by the great Vladimir Radunsky.

Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

"Work on one thing at a time until finished." "Do back exercises." "Work alone." Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.

Life Doesn't Frighten Me: Maya Angelou's Courageous Children's Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

A priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones, and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us.

Literary Pets: The Cats, Dogs, and Birds Famous Authors Loved

Twain and Bambino, Browning and Flush, Dickens and Grip, Hemingway and Uncle Willie, and more.

Margaret Atwood on Literature's Women Problem

"No male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer."

On Craftsmanship: The Only Surviving Recording of Virginia Woolf's Voice, 1937

"Words belong to each other."

April, 1945: Mussolini Executed

Fifty-four seconds on the outermost fringes of our moral comfort zone.

Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas: The Fateful Meeting with Gertrude Stein and How Their Great Love Began

"She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire."

Star Wars Reimagined as a Muppets Comic: A 1983 Mashup

Two of pop culture's greatest cults, together at last.

Who Invented Writing? An Animated Historical Detective Story

From Sumerian cuneiform to hieroglyphics to Chinese script, a tale of simultaneous invention.

The Mansion of Many Apartments: John Keats's Metaphor for Life

"An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people – it takes away the heat and fever."

Mail Chimp
Holstee Manifesto
 unsubscribe | forward to a friend | open in browser | Brain Pickings NOT A MAILING ADDRESS 159 Pioneer Street Brooklyn, NY 11231 USA