Thursday, March 26, 2015

Failure and Imagination with Jo Rowling

 This is Jo Rowling's 2008 Commencement Address at Harvard.  Her subjects are failure and the imagination.  (Here is a link to the transcript, although the responses of the audience is important.)  The central graph:

"So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

But not everyone has that certainty, or that big idea.  But there are other more general lessons:

"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned."

As for imagination, she wasn't only talking about dreaming up Hogwarts:

"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

She talked about her experiences working for Amnesty International in her early 20s--a moving and real account that never gets mentioned in her bios.  And how it informed her as a person and a writer.  For everyone, denying imagination is dangerous: "I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

Empathy and compassion change our relationship to the world, and may change at least little parts of the world. "One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing."

This is turn can inform the imagination in its action in the world. "We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

In this brief speech she does not overtly make the connection between her two topics, failure and the imagination.  Failure can drive you inward, and depression drags you down into uselessness.  There are other products of failure that are likewise overrated.  But empathy is the classic benefit of failure, if it results in something like humility.  She did mention humility as a possible product of failure: "Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes."

Perhaps my failures didn't impact my life enough, or perhaps what it revealed was an insufficiently focused and disciplined person.  Anyway I don't think I've dealt with failure all that well.  I still deal with the effects of it on myself every day. But in terms of acting from it, perhaps I have not felt urgently enough, or really faced, that so much of my life has been wasted.  Of course there may still be time for remedy, and if there isn't, soon enough none of it will matter.    

Obviously Jo Rowling has made a huge difference in a huge number of lives through her Harry Potter books.  I expect my writing has made some difference to some people, perhaps fewer than I hope but more than I know. And I suppose that I personally have made some positive difference, more than negative.  I may have to be content with that.  And with imagining better.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Updike

John Updike was a particularly important author to me in my last year or so of high school and first few years of college.  I identified to some extent--another small town Pennsylvania boy (the subject of these early stories as well as a biographical fact), and he was writing for outlets I aspired to: the New Yorker magazine, and Knopf book publisher.

Though our enthusiasms may fade, it's interesting to note their lasting effects.  Since I've been thinking and writing about those years, I've revisited some of the early Updike short stories I first read, and I noted particularly a couple of his comments in his Paris Review interview.  aI'm sure I came upon the first of them for the first time in this interview, and it became formative.  The second is more in the nature of consolation, a retroactive justification for a different personal history than I was looking for.

"When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.  I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.  The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

"No, I always wanted to draw or write for a living...I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles if I had to...The distinction between a thing well done and a thing done ill obtains everywhere..."

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Critical Need

From an essay by  Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times Book Review (emphases added):

"Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind.

"... What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability.

As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

 Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.

 It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness..."
Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything.

 "Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof..."

" Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect. We have much to gain and much to lose."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Age of Change

Change is neither good nor bad in itself.  Sometimes change is another word for waste.  These days it is often thoughtless, though it has its own momentum.

Humans are built for change.  Dealing with change--sizing up and seizing opportunities, foreseeing and responding to danger--is what our species does best. When the environment changes, we adapt.  It's why we're still around.

This ability is so much a part of our natures that we seek change.  As a species we spread out all over the world, sometimes compelled by circumstances but apparently very often because we like to wander.  We change our environment voluntarily. We are intensely curious, both mentally and emotionally.  We imagine a better place, a better future.

That and a superficial evaluation of technological change has tended to privilege change itself.  You can't fight "progress."  That may be true to some extent, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Change that is danger to some is opportunity to others, and it is in their interest to augment the natural excitement that change inspires. Capitalism needs and fears change.  Large-scale change for the past couple of centuries has largely occurred when corporations could engineer it for profit.

As you get older, you have more experience with the vagaries of change.  So older people are perhaps more skeptical of change that sweeps society with the frenzy of fashion, the pressure of conformity and the opportunities to make a move, make money, make a name, move up in the world.  Maybe it takes older people to see the potential pitfalls, the costs of waste, the possible and probable consequences. And to have the security to say, no thanks.

On a larger scale these are attributes that are among those that make elders pretty good futurists.  It may seem ironic but evaluating change, keeping eyes open to consequences, is oriented towards the future.

This is not an argument for stasis.  Change involves risk, but benefits as well as drawbacks are possible, and no one can foresee everything.  Even in daily life, novelty perks us up, change can refresh, and it gives us another place to stand, another perspective, to appreciate and evaluate our world, both old and new.

Change is energizing, and can be intoxicating.  But it is not always better.  We need skeptics as well as risk-takers.  Slow absorbers and synthesizers as well as enthusiasts and early adopters.  People willing to resist the stampede.

Vision does not always mean a vision of changes to come.  Vision is also about evaluating consequences and interactions.  We need look no further than the spreading dead zones and huge floating islands of plastic garbage in our oceans, or to the climate we have irrevocably deformed, to realize this.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Larger Reality

Ursula LeGuin made two different but related points, both vital, in accepting an award.

The first has to do with the literary legitimacy of science fiction and fantasy writers, and the importance of future visions to the future itself:

 "And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

 I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

The second point is the restraint on the freedom to write and on true authorship that's been growing a long while and has now reached nearly impossible proportions, not because of some fascist or even national security state, but because of the takeover by the institutionalized greed of capitalism:

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

 Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. 

 Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

This is almost her complete speech--it's under six minutes in the video above, and the complete transcript is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

R.I.P. The Editor: Ben Bradlee

For a short time in the post-Watergate '70s, Ben Bradlee and I had something in common: we were both editors of a Washington newspaper.  Of course, fledgling alternative weekly Washington Newsworks was not exactly the giant, swaggering Washington Post.  We were the "Washington Outsiders" (as our promo said--I wrote it) in direct contrast to the insiders at the Post.  Though there was also another daily in town (the solid, well-edited Washington Star) the Post was the measure of all journalism in Washington.  They were all over the glamorous federal Washington, but their Metro section was weak.  So we looked for our stories there, as well as in the youth culture that the Post saw chiefly with bemusement.

Though I never met Bradlee, he was already an icon.  I'd been in Boston when the Pentagon Papers and Watergate were happening--my own stories on the 1972 Nixon campaign cited the Post's reporting before it permeated the political consciousness.

  Then when I was Newsworks editor, Bradlee's boldness was an unadmitted model.  My first news decision was reviving a story that had been held back because it might offend an advertiser.  Bradlee wouldn't be intimidated! I worked with the writer to make sure the story was solid, and we gave the advertisers a heads-up on its publication (They shrugged--they knew newspapers reported stories when they bought the ads.)

  Later I went after a national story which involved facing down some very important people, channeling Bradlee without realizing it.  My proudest moment now was how Newsworks covered the assassination of Chilean activist Orlando Letelier in a car bombing by Pinochet's secret police on the streets of Washington that also killed American Ronni Karpen Moffitt.  Jeff Stein did all the reporting (he's now a columnist at the Washington Post) all on his own, so except for a little text editing my role was as Newswork's Bradlee.  I put the story on the cover and gave it major play inside.  I worked with Jeff, with the art and production department.  The result was the best and most thorough coverage in the city.  Better than yours, Ben.  I'll bet you noticed.

Those who knew him are marking his death with their remembrances.  (For good example, David Remnick at the New Yorker.)  For everybody else, there's an apparently dead-on portrayal of Bradlee by Jason Robards in the classic film of All the President's Men.  For me, there was and is the example of a editor with courage and panache who stood for--and stood up for--a kind of journalism I believed in, and tried to do.  Sure, he had lots of faults and some lapses.  So did and do I.  But as a model, he was it.  May he rest in peace, but his restless spirit ever pervade American journalism.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Beginning of a Long Thought

"Recently, while moving my CD collection to new shelving, I struggled with feelings of obsolescence and futility...The tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding."
Alex Ross
"The Classical Cloud"
New Yorker September 8, 2014