Books Now!

News and reviews from around the corner to across the world


2 Comments

GETTING THE CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING

Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Why Walking Helps Us Think

BY FERRIS JABR

Jabr-Walking-690

CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX MAJOLI/MAGNUM

 

In Vogues 1969 Christmas issue, Vladimir Nabokov offered some advice for teaching James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.” He drew a charming one himself. Several decades later, a Boston College English professor named Joseph Nugent and his colleagues put together an annotated Google map that shadows Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step by step. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, as well as students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have similarly reconstructed the paths of the London amblers in “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Such maps clarify how much these novels depend on a curious link between mind and feet. Joyce and Woolf were writers who transformed the quicksilver of consciousness into paper and ink. To accomplish this, they sent characters on walks about town. As Mrs. Dalloway walks, she does not merely perceive the city around her. Rather, she dips in and out of her past, remolding London into a highly textured mental landscape, “making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.”

Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that bothstimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Earlier this year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published what is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. They got the idea for the studies while on a walk. “My doctoral advisor had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm,” Oppezzo says of Schwartz. “One day we got kind of meta.”

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

Where we walk matters as well. In a study led by Marc Berman of the University of South Carolina, students who ambled through an arboretum improved their performance on a memory test more than students who walked along city streets. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day. A crowded intersection—rife with pedestrians, cars, and billboards—bats our attention around. In contrast, walking past a pond in a park allows our mind to drift casually from one sensory experience to another, from wrinkling water to rustling reeds.

Still, urban and pastoral walks likely offer unique advantages for the mind. A walk through a city provides more immediate stimulation—a greater variety of sensations for the mind to play with. But, if we are already at the brink of overstimulation, we can turn to nature instead. Woolf relished the creative energy of London’s streets, describing it in her diary as “being on the highest crest of the biggest wave, right in the centre & swim of things.” But she also depended on her walks through England’s South Downs to “have space to spread my mind out in.” And, in her youth, she often travelled to Cornwall for the summer, where she loved to “spend my afternoons in solitary trampling” through the countryside.

Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.


1 Comment

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading and More

Jeanette Winterson was the keynote speaker at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, just wrapping up. Here’s Maria Popova’s feature taken from her blog Brain Pickings.

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading, and How Art Creates a Sanctified Space for the Human Spirit

by

“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

In September of 1994, beloved British writer Jeanette Winterson joined Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel on the air for a spectacular conversation, later published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the fantastic collection that also gave us Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.

Winterson — who was raised in a church and began writing sermons at age six with the intent of becoming a missionary, only to leave home at age fifteen after falling in love with another girl — reflects on what the preacher’s technique has in common with the artist. (After all, if the commencement address is the modern secular sermon of our time, it’s no wonder that the genre’s greatest exemplars are delivered overwhelmingly by celebrated writers.) She considers what evangelizing can teach a writer about compelling storytelling:

Of course it was extremely useful training to be brought up in an environment where you must attract other people to your way of thinking, you must win them over; it’s the art of persuasion, it’s rhetoric in the old-fashioned sense. I learned how to handle language and the spoken word and the written word, and I learned how to persuade. That’s what preachers do, that’s what preachers are, and the most successful preachers are the ones who are able to convince their audience that the audience themselves have got it wrong and the preacher’s got it right. And the artist tries to do this too—there are close parallels — except the artist does it in its own right, for its own sake, not for some higher purpose, not for God. You can see from the look on somebody’s face whether or not you’re persuading, and that does translate itself to the way you then write. It’s not that you have an audience in mind, it’s simply that you can imagine what will perhaps tilt the balance in your favor, how to get underneath the barriers and the defenses which people normally put up to protect themselves from intrusion.

Contemplating her greatest learning from the Bible, Winterson complements Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the glory of language by considering the liberating power of words:

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

Illustration by Sydney Pink. Click image for details.

When Wachtel points out Winterson’s signature sensitivity to “the artifice of language and its limitations,” the writer responds:

Yes, it is artificial, but it is, as yet, the best way human beings have found to communicate to one another their deepest, their most difficult, feelings. And that is the preserve of poetry and of true fiction, to put roots down through the surface into the subsoil of the human heart and to draw up those elements that would otherwise lie locked there, unheard, unspoken, perhaps unregarded. Language can do that, and I think that it is the duty of the writer to go on pushing language forward because if it’s not developing, if it’s not growing, if people aren’t using it in unique and different ways while at the same time regarding its tradition, then that language is going to start atrophying.

For Winterson, indeed, the artist has a moral obligation to this forward-facing elasticity of form. Echoing Henry Miller’s memorable assertion that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” she adds:

Art forms must always change… You cannot stop in art, you cannot fossilize art in a redundant form, and you cannot take a point in history and favor it above any other point and say, ah yes, this is the way to do it. If you want to read nineteenth-century novels, there are plenty for you to read, and you may as well read the real thing and not go out and buy a reproduction. Personally, I loathe reproduction furniture; I’d rather have something made by a living designer, just as I’d rather have something made by a writer now who, whilst recognizing patterns and traditions, is prepared to go on pushing the experiment forward.

Winterson argues that ordinary readers are much more receptive to the type of experimentation that pushes art forward than professional critics can be:

Readers, I think, are more sophisticated on the whole than critics. They can make the jumps, they can make imaginative leaps. If your structure is firm and solid enough, however strange, however unusual, they will be able to follow it. They will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, the right handholds. That’s what I want my readers to do: I want them to come with me when we’re going mountain-climbing. This isn’t a walk through a theme park. This is some dangerous place that neither of us has been before, and I hope that by traveling there first, I can encourage the reader to come with me and that we will make the trip again together, and safely.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

One of Winterson’s most pause-giving points transcends the realm of art and touches on cosmology and philosophy. Reflecting on her intense use of history in fiction, Winterson reminds us that time is an abstraction that both contains and responds to our experiences, and examines the relativity of “reality”:

I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock.

Responding to a line from her novel Art & Lies that Wachtel cites — “The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world, but a world in itself.” — Winterson expounds on the limitations of time and, in the process, shines a beautiful sidewise gleam on what all great art does for the human experience:

Art & Lies is a journey into deep inner space, and the characters in the book are not characters in the physical sense that we know them on the street or perhaps even in our own lives. They are consciousnesses. They are ways of talking about ourselves, writ large, as we might be, more than we are. I know that the world of Art & Lies is a strange one, but it is a deeply emotional one and it is one which probes and peels away at the complacencies and habits that we take for granted and drag behind us as so much baggage in our lives. The worlds that I create are always worlds where it’s possible to find new space, not to be cluttered any more, to leave behind things which perhaps drag you down, things that you don’t need. In the book there is this freedom from gravity that we’ve been talking about. It is a sanctified space. And when you come out of it, what you do is up to you; but for a while it puts away the clutter and the jangle of modern life and gives time, infinite time. It may take four hours to read the book but actually it takes an entire life. The journey that you make is not one of the clock: it’s an interior one, and in it you travel through time, through space, through place.

To Wachtel’s question of “why sanctified space,” Winterson answers:

Because it’s a space that has been cleansed of other associations. It is itself, it’s coherent, it’s self-realized, it exists in its own right. Every work of art must be that; it must be a closed world. That is, you must be able to enter it and find it coherent and orderly, and be able to return to it to discover things you hadn’t found at first. But there is something cathedral-like about it: it’s a place where you can rest, contemplate, refuel and go out again knowing that it remains there for you. All art presents a sanctified space.

And in order to be able to craft this sanctified space, Winterson argues, the artist must come at it from a place of love. Echoing Ray Bradbury’s spirited defense of the right motives and Bukowski’s poetic homage to the only reason to write, she tells Wachtel:

If I wasn’t in love with language, what right have I to be here talking to you? What right have I to put pen to paper? It’s more than a job: it’s a life, it’s a vocation, it’s everything to me, and I must fulfill myself in that way and by fulfilling myself, I hope that I can give the best possible work to my readers.

But for a writer to do this wholeheartedly, Winterson — whose habit of reading five hours a day is rivaled only by Susan Sontag’s — argues for the essential, systematic immersion in language:

Unless I have a thorough soaking in all writers who have written in English then I cannot call myself an English writer. It’s a fantastic language, and to be ignorant of it as a writer is a sin that must exact the ultimate penalty, I think. If hell exists, that’s why one would go there, for calling oneself a writer and not knowing anything about English literature.

Illustration from ‘Henry Builds a Cabin,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

Winterson returns to the role of art in human life and society — something she has since explored beautifully in a short essay — and adds to history’s most memorable reflections on art:

Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself. It gives you a kind of self-reliance. We all feel powerless and we can’t really manage to do anything because there’s just so much. I want to try and cut through those feelings of apathy and powerlessness and be a kind of rallying point, offer a rallying cry, to people who would otherwise feel dispossessed.

Wachtel, an elegant interviewer, springboards this into the grand question of how to live — perhaps the only common denominator between everything I read and write about here on Brain Pickings — to which Winterson answers with equal elegance:

It’s an individual answer, and it’s certainly not an answer that can be got easily. It’s the answer of a lifetime. It seems to me to be the work that we are here to do, to answer that question — first of all in our own lives and then as a community… But I do think [the question] has to be asked, and if people then begin to ponder on it and ask it of themselves, then that is a good thing. I do believe that when you start asking these questions, you find the answers that you need, if you’ll put in the effort, even if it takes a lifetime.

But the answer art gives us is that of many lifetimes. Winterson speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that, as Mark Twain once bluntly put it, everything is a combination of second-hand ideas, that art builds on what came before, that to create is to uncover existing relationships. Winterson reflects on the very origin of the word “invent,” which originally meant “to come upon” rather than to “devise” or “fabricate” out of nothing:

It’s from the Latin invenire, which means to come upon. This takes us back to Plato’s idea that we are in a continual state of remembering, that the human life span is to remember, to remember the things that we are, that we can be, that we’ve left behind — to remember the glories of the soul, as Plato would have seen it.

[…]

[For the artist] it is a question of always going back and uncovering what is already there because the artist is something of a dredger: you have to let down your net and pull up things from the mud, from the silt, that are unrecognizable, that have been forgotten, that have lain disused and ignored for a long time. You bring them up and you clean them off and you look at them and you bring them back into the present where they can speak, where they have a place. I think it’s a dual role of dredging and of cleaning, but then also of re-creating so that you are always offering something that is right for your own time, that is new in itself.

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Lisbeth Zwerger from Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, Winterson returns to art’s function as psychoemotional therapy, its power in fortifying our psyche:

To learn how to heal yourself seems to me to be the most important thing that you can do because at that moment you are genuinely self-reliant, and if other people hurt you — as they will — it won’t matter because you have now in your own hands the tools of healing.

[…]

I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honorable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn’t believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.

More Writers & Company, a sequel to Wachtel’s first compendium of interviews, is a superb read in its totality, featuring conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

Complement this one with Winterson on adoption, belonging, and how we use storytelling to save ourselves and the value of art to the human spirit.


35 Comments

Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

GERMANY-HUNGARY-LITERATURE-KERTESZ          michener

Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”