Posts Tagged ‘Books’
Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88.
His publisher, William Morrow, announced his death, saying his health had been failing. He had been living in Maine for the last 30 years.
Mr. Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when the novel — its full title was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” — was published in 1974 to critical acclaim and explosive popularity, selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since. (A first novel, it would be followed by only one more, the less successful “Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals,” a kind of sequel, in 1991.)
The novel, with its peculiar but intriguing title, ranged widely in its concerns, contemplating the relationship of humans and machines, madness and the roots of culture.
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and the author of books about the counterculture, said that “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.
“There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation — even if they didn’t know what they were looking for,” Mr. Gitlin said in 2013 in an interview for this obituary. “Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.”
Mr. Pirsig’s plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” helped define the 1960s.
Where “Don Juan” pursued enlightenment in hallucinogenic experience, “Zen” argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R. Years after its publication, it continues to be invoked by famous people when asked to name a book that affected them most deeply — among them the former professional basketball player Phil Jackson, the actors William Shatner and Tim Allen, and the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate.
Part road-trip novel, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Mr. Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.
The narrative alternates between travelogue-like accounts of their 17 days on the road, from the Pirsigs’ home in Minnesota to the Pacific Coast, and long interior monologues that he calls his “Chautauquas,” after the open-air educational meetings at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., popular with self-improvers since the 19th century.
Mr. Pirsig’s narrator (his barely disguised stand-in) focuses on what he sees as two profound schisms. The first lay in the 1960s culture war, in which the “hippies” rejected industrialization and the technological values that had been embraced by the “straight” mainstream society.
The second schism is in the narrator’s own mind, as he struggles in his hyperrational way to understand his recent mental breakdown. Mr. Pirsig, who was told he had schizophrenia in the early 1960s, said that writing the book was partly an effort to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, including electric shock therapy, and the turmoil that he, his wife and children suffered as a result.
Describing both breakdowns, cultural and personal, Mr. Pirsig’s narrator invokes the Civil War: “Two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other, with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself.”
He adds: “What I’m trying to do here is put it all together. It’s so big. That’s why I seem to wander sometimes.”
(Mr. Pirsig’s son Chris was later also found to be mentally ill and institutionalized. He died in 1979 after being stabbed in a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen center where he had been living.)
In a foreword to the book, Mr. Pirsig told readers that despite its title, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.”
He added, “It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.”
Instead, he wrote later: “The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”
He added, “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”
The literary critic George Steiner, writing in The New Yorker, described the book as “a profound, if somewhat clunky, articulation of the postwar American experience” and pronounced it worthy of comparison to “Moby-Dick” as an original American work. The New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his review, threw in a comparison to Thoreau. In London, The Times Literary Supplement called the book “disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights.”
(Not all reviewers were wowed. Writing in Commentary, Eva Hoffman found Mr. Pirsig’s ruminations obtuse. “Beneath the complexity of disorganization,” she said, “the picture of society which the book presents and the panaceas it offers are distressingly naïve.”)
One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.
But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.
In his part gnomic, part mechanic’s style, Mr. Pirsig’s narrator declares that the real world is a seamless continuum of the material and metaphysical.
“The Buddha, the Godhead,” he writes, “resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”
Robert Maynard Pirsig was born in Minneapolis on Sept. 6, 1928, to Harriet and Maynard Pirsig. His father was a law professor and dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. As a child, Robert spoke with a stammer and had trouble making friends; though highly intelligent (his I.Q. was said to be 170), he was expelled from the University of Minnesota because of failing grades.
Serving in the Army before the start of the Korean War, he visited Japan on a leave and became interested in Zen Buddhism, and remained an adherent throughout his life. After his Army service, he returned to the university and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism.
He later studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Banaras Hindu University in India and taught writing at Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also did freelance writing and editing for corporate publications and technical magazines, including the first generation of computer journals.
His first marriage, to Nancy Ann James, ended in divorce. He married Wendy Kimball in 1978. She survives him, as do a son, Ted; a daughter, Nell Peiken; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Pirsig maintained that 121 publishing houses rejected “Zen” before William Morrow accepted it. He was granted a $3,000 advance, but an editor cautioned him against hoping the book would earn a penny more. Within months of its release, it had sold 50,000 copies.
With the book’s success Mr. Pirsig became famous, wealthy and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. He also, he said, became thoroughly unnerved. After enduring a flood of interviews, he began refusing them. He said he had reached the limits of his patience when fans started showing up at his house outside Minneapolis.
His neighbors called them “Pirsig’s Pilgrims.” Most were young people in search of a guru. Mr. Pirsig wanted none of it.
“One morning I just woke up at 3,” he told The Washington Post years later. “I told my wife, ‘I just have to get out of here.’ We had the camper packed in half an hour, and I was on the road.” He stayed away for months at a time, sometimes far out at sea on his boat.
In interviews, he lamented that he was not embraced by academic philosophy departments, and that his books were sometimes lumped with “new age” publications in bookstores.
The near-cult popularity of “Zen,” though, puzzled him for years before he came up with a theory. Writing in an afterword to the 10th-anniversary edition in 1984, he used a Swedish word (it was his mother’s native language) to describe the phenomenon. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” he wrote, was a “kulturbarer,” or culture-bearer.
A culture-bearing book is not necessarily a great book, he said. It does not change the culture. It simply heralds a change already underway. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” an indictment of slavery published before the Civil War, was a culture-bearing book, he said.
“I was just telling my own story,” he said in a short interview posted on his website. He had never intended to make a splash.
“I expressed what I thought were my prime thoughts,” he added, “and they turned out to be the prime thoughts of everybody else.”
The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a beacon for this book, and especially in my reflections on hope. In life, he joined intellectual rigor, scientific discovery, and an adventurous, expansive view of the human spirit. “An interpretation of the universe,” he wrote, “remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter.” While he was excavating the primitive “Peking man” fossil in China, he imagined future humanity excavating the modern human psyche and spirit — and seeing it revealed as primitive. He foresaw that we would overlay the biosphere with the noosphere — the realm of human intelligence, information, and action. He predicted, that is, something like the Internet. He believed that the noosphere would drive the next stage of evolution — an evolution of spirit and consciousness. This is a grand and exciting vision for imagining the long-term stakes of what we might be fermenting now.
But Teilhard thought in slow, deep, geologic time, and so must we. A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world. We are in the adolescence of our species, not by any measure in full possession of our powers. The twenty-first-century globe resembles the understanding we now have of the teenage brain: dramatically uneven; immensely powerful and creative at times and in places, reckless and destructive in others.
In America, many features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions. This book is for people who want to take up the great questions of our time with imagination and courage, to nurture new realities in the spaces we inhabit, and to do so expectantly and with joy.
I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others. Desmond Tutu, whom I found impossible to doubt, says that God has a sense of humor. There is science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections and leaning into them with joy. So I hope and trust that a smile in the voice may sometimes rise from these pages. And I do bring many voices along with me here, snatches of conversation completing and informing my thoughts, as they do all the time in my life and work.
I’m not surprised by the fact that inexplicable and terrible things happen in a cosmos as complicated as ours, with sentient beings like us running the show. But I am emboldened by the fact that surprise is the only constant. We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications. I am emboldened by the puzzling, redemptive truth to which each and every one of my conversations has added nuance, that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long. I have heard endless variations on this theme — the battle with illness that saves the life that follows; the childhood pain that leads to vocation; the disability that opens into wholeness and a presence to the hidden wholeness of others. You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.
And what is true for individuals is true for peoples. Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.
–Krista Tippett, from her book “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living”
For the most part yesterday I spent the day reading, because of a 10-hour brownout. I read Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters – And How To Talk About It. Krista Tippett is the award-winning host of my favorite internet podcast On Being.
The book is full of gems of wisdom. These are some of the passages in the book that resonated with me:
We miss the essence of great religious figures…if we imagine them sitting, uttering a list of doctrines. And our theology… should be like poetry.
If we wait for clean heroes and clear choices and evidence on our side to act, we will wait forever, and my radio conversations teach me that people who bring light into the world wrench it out of darkness, and contend openly with darkness all of their days.
Healing, like faith, …is most effective when it incorporates what is broken rather than denying or curing it.
The way we deal with the losses of our lives, large and small, may be what most determines our capacity to be present to the whole of our lives.
Religious traditions give me language and ideas to hold on to ambiguity—the pleasure and pain of human experience that complicate and enliven each other.
A rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, gave me the best illustration I know of the difference between spirituality and religion. On Mount Sinai, she says, something extraordinary happened to Moses. He had a direct encounter with God. This was a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments were the container for that experience. They are religion.
We speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world.
The book is for people who want to make sense of what religion is all about and how to practice it in our modern, contemporary, 21st century society. It is also for those who have been wounded by the negative, unhealthy and life-denying aspects of religion. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love:
Her intelligence is like a salve for all thinking people who have felt wounded or marginalized by The God Wars.
Speaking of Faith is a book I will cherish and reread over and over again…
I realize that the one wish that was granted to me, so late in life, was the gift of friendship.
— From the movie “Finding Forrester”
When was the last time a Hollywood movie portrayed the acts of reading and writing in such a gratifying and fulfilling way that it made you want to read a real book rather than an “airport” bestseller? And when was the last time you saw an interracial mentor-pupil relationship presented as mutually rewarding, and interracial teenage romance depicted without punitive condescension or parental disapproval? Gus Van Sant’s deftly crafted “Finding Forrester” achieves all of the above and more: It provides a platform for Sean Connery to deliver a definitive, career-summation performance as a reclusive, charismatic literary legend. With the right handling, Columbia has a sure winner here, a skillfully written, expertly acted picture whose uplifting plot should score high among viewers across the board.
With the notable exception of “Psycho,” his futile 1998 remake, Van Sant’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. His work has always shown a fondness for outsiders, but rather than merely depicting them sympathetically, Van Sant places his outcasts in crisis, forcing them to confront their relationship to society and its rules. Two of the filmmaker’s most-used motifs are highlighted in the new film: the moral odyssey of outsiders and the casual randomness of urban life.
Indeed, on the surface, “Finding Forrester” tells a similar story to that of Van Sant’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” with Connery playing the Robin Williams part and black teenager Rob Brown in the Matt Damon role, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. While “Forrester” is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, it doesn’t put down the system itself.
With a touch of “Rear Window” voyeurism, narrative depicts Forrester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his Bronx apartment window, seemingly observing a bunch of black kids playing ball in a court across the street; later it turns out he’s an avid bird-watcher. Veiled in mystery, the last the world has heard of Forrester was more than 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-winning novelist. His book, which has since become a cherished classic, is apparently his only literary output.
As the youngsters are aware of Forrester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, 16-year-old Jamal (Brown) accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of his writing. The next day, the bag appears at the window and, to Jamal’s surprise, his papers have been read and graded by Forrester. An unlikely relationship begins, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when an exclusive Manhattan prep school recruits Jamal for his basketball talent and his academic achievement, and he seeks Forrester’s help in dealing with the new environment, becomes a reluctant hero and Jamal gradually becomes committed not only to his own writing, but to cracking Forrester’s shell.
Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While lines of authority are clearly maintained, Mike Rich’s graceful script shows how dependent the mentor becomes on the kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all the while determined to reignite Forrester’s passion for writing before it’s too late. Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn avoids the traps of the similarly themed “Educating Rita,” in which a working-class hairdresser-wife (Julie Walters) forces a boozy professor (Michael Caine) to become her instructor. “Forrester” doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated setups painted with a broad brush — there are no cutesy scenes like Rita giving her mentor a shampoo. Rich inserts enough narrative subtleties and moral shadings into a friendship that ultimately becomes a surrogate family relationship.
The text is extremely old-fashioned: A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent of a courtroom scene, in which an inflexible teacher (F. Murray Abraham) is contrasted with good ones. A bigger mistake is that the filmmakers signal where the tale will ultimately go about a reel before it gets there.
Undoubtedly, it’s the bravura acting that binds viewers to the characters’ shifting emotions from one scene to the next. “Forrester” is very much a chamber piece for two, with more than half the scenes set indoors in Forrester’s cluttered, oversize apartment, inventively textured by production designer Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of Never Never Land. What gives pic a much needed outdoor cinematic dimension are the basketball scenes, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and Valdis Oskarsdottir provides modulated editing.
Playing the Salinger-like writer of legendary stature, Connery expertly fills the bill as a man who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a recluse who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. The role allows the actor to display his signature humor, a flourish of arrogance balanced by depth. Connery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness, but now integrates it into the plot. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show.
Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Connery, and in some scenes even matches him with his inner strength and stillness. Anna Paquin plays a student who fosters a flirtatious friendship with Jamal, while “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon pops up for a late-in-the-game cameo.
— Emanuel Levy
List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It’s not about the ‘right book’ or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Doesn’t have to be in order. Then share with 10 friends and me so I can see your list.
Here’s my list:
1. How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler
The book that taught me not only to make the most out of reading books, but also how to think critically.
The three main questions are: What is the whole book about and how are its parts related to that whole? What, in detail, does the book say and what does the author mean by what he says? And the third question is, Is it true, and what of it?
– Mortimer Adler
2. The Bible
As a Christian, I consider it as God’s word and the most important book in my life.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
– Psalm 119:105
3. The Gateless Gate, Yamada Koun Roshi
An incisive commentary on the classic book of koans by the modern-day Zen Master, Yamada Roshi.
You will feel as though the whole universe has totally collapsed. Strange as it may seem, this experience has the power to free you from the agonies of the world. It emancipates you from anxiety over all worldly suffering. You feel as though the heavy burdens you have been carrying in mind and body have suddenly fallen away. It is a great surprise. The joy and happiness at that time are beyond all words, and there are no philosophies or theories attached to it. This is the enlightenment, the satori of Zen.
– Yamada Koun Roshi
4. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart
The book that contains the entire text of the vernacular talks of my favorite Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart.
The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
– Meister Eckhart
5. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, St. John of the Cross
A classic on contemplative spirituality by one of the greatest Christian mystics, St. John of the Cross.
My Beloved, the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love.
– St. John of the Cross
6. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
The autobiography of my favorite spiritual author and childhood hero, Thomas Merton. He was a great influence in my life.
The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me.
– Thomas Merton
7. The Silent Life, Thomas Merton
A book which describes the different Catholic contemplative religious orders.
I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.
– Thomas Merton
8. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
A modern-day classic on contemplative prayer.
Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.
– Thomas Merton
9. The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau
One of the best books on Zen practice written by a Western Zen teacher.
The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.
– Philip Kapleau
10. Christian Zen, William Johnston
A book on Zen meditation written from a Christian perspective by a Jesuit priest and missionary.
In the twenty years that I have spent in Japan – so meaningful and rich that this land is almost my land – I have had some contact with Zen, whether by sitting in Zen meditation or through dialogue with my Buddhist friends. All this has been tremendously enriching; it has deepened and broadened my Christian faith more than I can say… Contact with Zen… has opened up new vistas, teaching me that there are possibilities in Christianity I never dreamed of.
— William Johnston
Writing isn’t easy. In fact, it can be painfully difficult. Why? Because it’s thinking, but on paper. “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough.
Many great writers, including Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, have said that their purpose for putting words on paper is to find clarity with their thoughts, and have described the process of writing as one of becoming familiar with their own minds.
“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a 1958 letter. “For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order.”
If you’re a writer, then you’re likely both devoted to your craft and eternally frustrated by it — and even the most talented writers could use guidance from the greats on how to hone their powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing. Take a cue from the likes of Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and William Faulkner to get into your “writer’s mind” and produce your best work.
Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits of great writers that might inspire you to think like a writer — and to develop a writing practice that optimizes your creativity.
Study the greats.
Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.
Marina Keegan, a brilliant young writer, died tragically just five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University. Her final essay for The Yale Daily News, “The Opposite Of Loneliness,” went viral and attracted over 1 million views the week after it was published.
In her too-short career, Keegan mastered the art of observation — perhaps a writer’s greatest asset. Keegan wrote in her application to a first-person writing class at Yale:
About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.
Daydreaming may get a bad rap — but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”
Write from your own truth.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez advised young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know.
“If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told,” García Márquez said. “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
Make writing your top priority.
Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else.
“Write first and always,” advises Miller. “Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”
Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.
Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”
But for the writing to come, you may have to nudge it along by finding a consistent source of inspiration. Stein says her best ideas came to her while she was driving around in her car looking at cows. She would write for only 30 minutes a day, driving around a farm and stopping at different cows until she found the one that most fit her mood.
Know what you’re getting yourself into.
Want to live the writer’s life? Great. But make sure you’re not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Find space for solitude.
Zadie Smith wrote in a list of rules for writers, “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.”
Particularly, Smith noted, the place where you write must be one of solitude. “Protect the time and space in which you write,” Smith writes. “Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”
If you’re stumped for writing material or unsure of whether you have enough life experience to draw from, try taking a little walk down memory lane. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.
When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there’s only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.
In her book of advice on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains that writers have to learn to take their projects one baby step at a time. The Traveling Mercies author writes:
My older brother 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, 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.”
And with your novel-in-progress or next big feature? Take it bird by bird.
Compete against only yourself.
William Faulkner described the artist as a “creature driven by demons,” perpetually dissatisfied with his own work. While this dissatisfaction is to a certain degree inevitable (and productive), it can be kept in check by refusing to compare your work to that of others.
“[The writer] must never be satisfied with what he does,” Faulker told The Paris Review in 1956. “It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
Just do it.
Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: “Read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
And do it with joy.
Amen to that.
— Carolyn Gregoire