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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.”

The product of storytelling is wisdom

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“Stories,” Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What makes a great story?

That’s what the great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016), who revolutionized cognitive psychology and pioneered the modern study of creativity in the 1960s, explores in his 1986 essay collection Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library).

Jerome Bruner

In an immensely insightful piece titled “Two Modes of Thought,” Bruner, turned 100 recently, writes:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formed (thought).

They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.

The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes Not truth but verisimilitude.

Maya Terro shared this link

A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Bruner notes that the Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning — a dichotomy Hannah Arendt addressed brilliantly more than a decade earlier in her 1973 Gifford Lecture on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

One could go even further and argue, after Walter Benjamin, that the product of the analytical mode is information, whereas the product of storytelling is wisdom.

Bruner calls these two contrasting modes the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation, and the narrative. Each, he argues, is animated by a different kind of imagination:

The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis.

But paradigmatic “imagination” (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts.

It deals in human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.

[…]

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a “story grammar.”

The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:

Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.

[…]

We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must “be” to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.

But this matter of intention remains forever mediated by the reader’s interpretation.

What young Sylvia Plath observed of poetry — “Once a poem is made available to the public,” she told her mother, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” — is true of all art and storytelling, whatever the medium.

Bruner considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:

It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader’s interpretation “maps” on an actual story, does justice to the writer’s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture.

But in any case, the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory.

So “great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers.

But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination.

One cannot hope to “explain” the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist “explains” what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it…

All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader’s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

This essential “subjunctivity” is the act of designating a mood for the story. “To be in the subjunctive mode,” Bruner explains, means “to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties.”

Out of this drive toward unsettled possibilities arises the ultimate question of “how a reader makes a strange text his own,” a question of “assimilating strange tales into the familiar dramas of our own lives, even more than transmuting our own dramas in the process” — something Bruner illustrates brilliantly with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan from Italo Calvino’s masterwork Invisible Cities, which takes place after Marco Polo describes a bridge stone by stone:

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Bruner extracts from this an allegory of the key to great storytelling:

But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up.

So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.

As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking.

First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary.

The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.

Bruner concurs with Barthes’s conviction that the writer’s greatest gift to the reader is to help her become a writer, then revises it to clarify and amplify its ambition:

The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a remarkable read in its totality, exploring the psychological realities of language, thought and emotion, and the self.

Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on the task of storytelling, Oliver Sacks on its curious psychology, and Martha Nussbaum on how it remaps our interior lives, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.

Future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort.

I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.

I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

 15 October 2013

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults.

For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories.

A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy.

Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned. (An awkward sentence that I didn’t get)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know.

You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it?

And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with and books are real places, make no mistake about that.

And more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up.

(I patronize a supposedly private library that closes during holidays. When kids are supposed to visit a library? And I go to library because at home no one encourages to read)

I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university, about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003.

That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is.

Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages.

One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London.

The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

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Perfectionism is the enemy of the creative

william choukeir posted this June 26, 2014
 

“do you mind, even a little, that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and […] career ahead of your creative […] life? giving all your life force away, to ‘help’ and impress.” —anne lamott

what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism? let’s get into that right after we establish a common understanding of perfectionism.

think of it this way, in geometry, you can imagine a perfect picture-frame with right angles, and with edges that are perfectly parallel.

in real life, there are no perfectly parallel lines. trying to re-create this perfect frame in the real world would be perfectionism. It’s like chasing the horizon.

“it’s actually kind of tragic”, admits david foster, because doing anything means that you “sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

so what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism?

it’s common for fear to be lurking behind people-pleasing, and that more often than not leads to perfectionism. i expect a couple of you to disagree with the following statement. if you do disagree, then you’re either not aware of the fear, or the following doesn’t apply to you.

you may not be aware that fear [usually] lurks behind perfectionism. fear is the fuel that drives your compulsion to polish things to the ultimate.” says renown psychiatrist david burns, M.D.(1) people-pleasers are usually afraid. According to burns, perfectionism protects you. “it may protect you from risking criticism, failure, or disapproval.”

one perfectionist confesses that if he didn’t submit a perfect paper, he’ll let down the professor, get a D, ruin his own academic record, and people would be angry with him, he’ll be a failure, rejected by everyone, alone and miserable.(2)

people-pleasing often leads us to follow someone else’s dreams and ideas, thinking them our own.

“a lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. they’re sucked in from other people. […] what i want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. […] because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” —alain de botton

imagine being a perfectionist while attempting to work on a task you’d like to like. that’s a recipe for procrastination. imagine pursuing a journey you ‘thought’ you wanted, only to find out that it’s what someone else wanted.

perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. […] 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.” —anne lamott

perfectionism freezes you. like ice stuck in time and space. water, on the other hand, flows. it glides around obstacles, adjusts its path, and moves forward. accept that ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. ideas are only perfect within the safety of our minds.

“remember that sooner or later, before your work ever reaches perfection,  you will have to let it go and move on and start […] the next thing.” —neil gaiman

flow around obstacles, critics, and those who want you to follow their idea of success. accept to sacrifice your perfect idea. put it into a shitty first draft. refine a few times. then move on to the next best thing. some will like it. some will hate it. be very clear with yourself about who it’s for. it’s only those who matter. listen. improve. then move on. anything you give to the world is better than keeping it in your head. the world deserves your gift.

if you can do that, then maybe you’ll realize that passion can replace perfectionism. risk having your ideas clash with the world enough times, and you’ll learn. you’ll grow. and so will your gifts. in your eyes it may still not be perfect. but in the eyes of your audience, it may very well be remarkable. flow, despite the fears, the self doubts, and the risk of rejection.

“perfection is like chasing the horizon. keep moving.” —neil gaiman


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resources 1 and 2: Burns, David D. (1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books (Whole Care). pp. 359-363.

 

Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott’s Advice on

Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity

by

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) is among my 10 favorite books on writing — a treasure trove of insight both practical and profound, timelessly revisitable and yielding deeper resonance each time.

Lamott adds to the collected wisdom of great writers with equal parts candor and conviction, teaching us as much about writing as she does about creativity at large and, even beyond that, about being human and living a full life — because as Lamott notes in the beginning, writing is nothing more nor less than a sense-making mechanism for life:

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.

What makes Lamott so compelling is that all of her advice comes not from the ivory tower of the pantheon but from an honest place of exquisite vulnerability and hard-earned life-wisdom.

She recounts her formative years and where she headed once she encountered that inevitable fork in the road where we can choose between being shut in and shut down by our traumatic experiences, or using them as fertile clay for character-building:

I started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about 40 pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon.

I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing together like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab.

I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting. I think this is why I walked like Nixon: I think I was trying to plug my ears with my shoulders, but they wouldn’t quite reach. So first I got funny and then I started to write, although I did not always write funny things.

[…]

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging.

In seventh and eighth grades I still weighed about forty pounds. I was twelve years old and had been getting teased about my strange looks for most of my life. This is a difficult country to look too different in — the United States of Advertising, as Paul Krassner puts it — and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.

So she found refuge in books, searching for “some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in [her] head.” To find that, she became a writer and began fantasizing about getting published, about “the thrill of seeing oneself in print,” as the highest form of existential validation.

When Lamott published her first book, she awaited the affirming grandeur of public approval and secretly thought that “trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all of its dizzying complexity.”

Of course, none of this happened — not with the first book, nor the second or third or fourth or fifth. Instead, what Lamott found was a deeper kind of reward — that sensation “unmerited grace” that Annie Dillard so eloquently captured in her timeless meditation on the writing life. Lamott echoes Ray Bradbury on rejection and reflects:

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

[…]

I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

But, one might wonder, why? Lamott answers beautifully:

My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.

But I also tell [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.

For her, the essence of writing is about something simple, something immutable about being human:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

[…]

Hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.

At the heart of writing, Lamott argues, lies a capacity for quiet grit and a willingness to decondition the all too human tendency to get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the journey that we’re too paralyzed to take the first step.

She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”, and David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”) Lamott cautions:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

[…]

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Lamott echoes Susan Sontag (“That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world.” and offers a beautiful definition of what it means to be a writer:

Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.

[…]

The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes. You’re outside, but you can see things up close through your binoculars.

Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

In a sentiment reminiscent of E. B. White’s timeless words on the responsibility of the writer, Lamott considers the core of being a writer:

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

That is, one needs to have a moral position.

I myself have long believed that the role of a great writer — or editor, or “curator,” or any other custodian of cultural values — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why.

George Eliot famously observed, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” — a notion Lamott considers in the context of that necessary moral position:

As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material. … A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have a new everything to face, and there is no point gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive. My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another.

She finds in writing what Carl Sagan found in science — profound awe, deep reverence, a source of spiritual elevation:

In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world.

Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.

[…]

There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness. . .

Most of all, however, Lamott sees in writing not a selfish act of personal gratification but an act of warm generosity — which is, after all, what drives all of us who wake up in the morning to put something we love into the world and go to bed at night glad that we did:

If you give freely, there will always be more. … It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

This mutual gratification is where the mesmerism of literature lies:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.

We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Bird by Bird is an absolute must-read, and must-reread, in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on writing, which inspired Lamott, and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, which was inspired by Lamott.

For more notable advice on writing, see 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, 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.

 

books-by-state

March 12, 2014 (Library Online)

Last week, we partnered with Parade Magazine to give readers the scoop on what people are reading all across the country.

To get the data, we looked at our library of 300,000 e-books and measured how many times a title was read by registered users in each state.

(Reading a title is not reading the book, I guess)

Below, we’ve listed the results as published originally in Parade.

Curious about what people in your state are reading? Scroll down for the answer!

  1. Alabama: Midnight Angel by Lisa Kleypas
  2. Alaska: Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book by Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, and Nancy Stevensben and jerry
  3. Arkansas: The Eve of Destruction by Howard Blum
  4. Arizona: Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
  5. California: Just Kids by Patti Smith
  6. Colorado: White Witch Black Curse by Kim Harrison
  7. Connecticut: Prayers for The Dead: A Decker/Lazarus Novel by Faye Kellerman
  8. Washington, D.C.: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  9. Delaware: Summer of Skinny Dipping by Amanda Howells
  10. Florida: Worst Fears Realized by Stuart Woods
  11. Georgia: Worth Any Price by Lisa Kleypas
  12. Hawaii: The Devil’s Star: A Novel by Jo Nesbo
  13. Idaho: The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn
  14. Illinois: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  15. Indiana: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro; Chuck Hogan
  16. Iowa:  The Venging by Greg Bear
  17. Kansas: The High Lord: The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan
  18. Kentucky: Devoured By Darkness by Alexandra Ivy
  19. Louisiana: The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez; Julie Wark
  20. Maine: Everything and the Moon by Julia Quinn
  21. Maryland: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  22. Massachusetts:  Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyesanybody out there
  23. Michigan: Serena by Ron Rash
  24. Minnesota: Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
  25. Mississippi: When Next We Love by Heather Graham
  26. Missouri: The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  27. Montana: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  28. Nebraska: I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
  29. Nevada: Scandal Becomes Her by Shirlee Busbee
  30. New Hampshire: Microserfs: A Novel by Douglas Coupland
  31. New Jersey: When We Meet Again by Victoria Alexander
  32. New Mexico: Murder on a Girls’ Night Out by Anne George
  33. New York: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee by Sarah Silvermanbedwetter
  34. North Carolina: Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult
  35. North Dakota: The Mental Floss History of the United States by Erik Sass, Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur
  36. Ohio: Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica
  37. Oklahoma: Everywhere That Mary Went by Lisa Scottoline
  38. Oregon: Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters
  39. Pennsylvania: Stuck in Downward Dog by Chantel Guertin
  40. Rhode Island: Raylan: A Novel by Elmore Leonard
  41. South Carolina: The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes
  42. South Dakota Heart of a Warrior by Johanna Lindsey
  43. Tennessee: I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell by Tucker Max
  44. Texas: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  45. Utah: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story by Todd Burpo; Lynn Vincent
  46. Vermont: The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod
  47. Virginia: Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant by Dyan Cannon
  48. Washington: Galactic Corps by Ian Douglas
  49. West Virginia: A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicketlemony snicket
  50. Wisconsin: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  51. Wyoming: Wishes in the Wind by Andrea Kane

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