The Real Meaning of Success

I’ve spent the last several months with my head deep in a dictionary, editing THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK, so excuse me if I’m a little definition-sensitive these days. But hear me out. This is important stuff.

How many of you have done this—set arbitrary goals that signal, in your mind, that you’ve become a success?

If I get a literary agent, then I’m a success.
If I get one book deal, then I’m a success.

And then you hit those goals, and suddenly, that definition of success gets tossed out the window.

No, one book deal isn’t successful! Two book deals would be!

And then you get those two deals. But again, it’s not enough to be deemed a success in your eyes.

So you compile an entire list of criteria for success.

A lead title!
A starred review!
Two starred reviews! Three! Four!
An Indies NEXT selection!

A Junior Library Guild selection!
A New York Times bestseller!
A Caldecott!!!!

The bar of success keeps inching higher. You are forever chasing it, feeling like a failure for not being successful!

But I’m here to tell you, YOU ARE A SUCCESS.

OK, I’m not telling you this just because *I* think you’re a success and I want to be all warm and fuzzy.

Let’s look at the WORD.

Notice that “success” is part of “succession”:

And that the meaning of succession is someone or something that follows another.

The Latin root of both words is succedere, which means to “come after or follow after.”

So all those goals you’ve lined up? And the ones you’ve already hit? They follow one after another after another and they’re the original definition of success—to continue to reach those goals and thus, form new ones.

You cannot say you’re not successful if you have conquered at least one goal on your list. You are.

The real meaning of being successful is forming goals, reaching them, and ascending to a new level, with loftier goals. As long as you are striving, you are succeeding.

Success is not stagnant. Success is always moving forward.


Here’s to being a SUCCESS—many times over!

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Reading group: which European novel should we read in June?

Restricting the choice to books published since the Treaty of Rome still leaves a dizzying array of possibilities. Please cast your votes in a fun Euro election!

This month on the Reading group, for reasons that are obvious and clearly partisan, I want to celebrate Europe. I want you to nominate your favourite book published on the continent since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – and let’s make it fun.

By this stage in the UK’s national nervous breakdown, plenty of us are painfully aware of what we stand to lose in cutting ourselves off from our friends in Europe – but that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate them. Especially since there’s so much good stuff to talk about. In literary terms, there are 62 of the most productive years in world literary history to choose from. Our only stipulation is that your chosen book was originally written in a European language other than English, somewhere on the continent and that English translations are widely available.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

The death of beloved children’s author Judith Kerr prompted many fond tributes last week. Cardellina wrote:

It’s heartbreaking. Are there any books that stay with us like the books you read as a very young child? I can remember the illustrations and the rhythm of the words so clearly all these years later. I remember vividly the front cover of my sister’s copy of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which I was always too terrified to read because I believed cuddly toys were real and it frightened me to think of one left behind (what a spoilt and sheltered child I was). I grew up with two cats, one of whom was grey and stripey, so I took Mog as a compliment. I love how Kerr understands cats and the joy of living with cats.

In my old flat before I moved back to the UK I had a photo of Judith Kerr on my wall, grey haired and beaming and clutching a far cat in her arms in front of a plate or biscuits and a teapot. “That’s happiness!” I thought, so I pinned it on my bedroom wall for those days when you just don’t feel like anything.

She’s one of those authors that I’ve intended to read for a while but never got around to it until now. I’ll definitely be reading more of her novels, because The Siege was superb. It’s set during the siege of Leningrad and is a remarkable portrayal of the city and its population, haunted by the suspicion and bloodshed of Stalin’s reign, now besieged by the Nazis and starving. Dunmore is excellent at writing about romance without being sentimental and at portraying people’s resilience and courage without lessening the fear, horror and suffering.

If there was even a slight doubt in my mind whether I want read all his work, then it’s gone after reading this one. Graham Greene called it: “The greatest spy story I ever read”. This one truly is amazing. Mind you, this is not for those who like fast paced action. In fact, there is hardly any action in the novel. It’s a slow burning spy story which turns the whole plot on itself towards the last two dozen pages. The plot twist on the very last page takes your breath away in a homage to the short story master O. Henry.

The guy is just brilliant. Having already read Dark Matter and his forthcoming Recursion in recent weeks, I’ve now just devoured the first in his Wayward Pines trilogy and loved that too. His books are so gripping and just relentlessly pacy.

As with all his books, it’s hard to say too much about Pines without ruining it. But imagine if some genius/nutcase mashed together Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, The X Files, The Purge, The Village, Stepford Wives and Men in Black.

The book is massive – weighing in at a mighty 832 pages. But every sentence of this intriguing tale set on the wild west coast of southern New Zealand during the time of its gold rush is expertly written, every cliffhanger chapter-ending making us beg for the next to begin. The Luminaries has been perfectly constructed as the consummate literary page-turner.

The Mongol hordes, they rode horses, smelled bad and they conquered vast areas of the world. That’s about all I’d heard of Genghis before reading this. Turns out they had a massive impact on the spread of technology, trade and knowledge despite being relatively unsophisticated and few in number. The author spent years travelling in the back of beyond tracing the path followed by Genghis and his successors, tracked down and translated the Mongols secret history and generally sunk himself deep in the history. The result is a cracking story with plenty of information and analysis of the long term results of what was a short lived empire.

Largely based on the author’s own medical experience, the story of Andrew Manson, an idealistic young doctor whose career climbs from a low-paid practice in a Welsh mining village to the rarefied heights of society London, takes in the fads and frauds, the greed, extortion and downright corruption of interwar medicine. Written in a popular realist style, well paced, it is said to have played a part in the establishment of the NHS.

“My metric of success is not, ‘What did everyone think of the prose?’” The New York Times has bravely penetrated the shadowy world of book clubs.

Germany has handed over to Israel 5,000 personal documents owned by Franz Kafka’s confidant, Max Brod.

“Seamus’s feet never left the ground… and you could nearly say he never left Bellaghy.” On Seamus Heaney at home.

Matthew Sweet politely corrects a huge mistake in Naomi Woolf’s latest book.

The art of doodling.

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4 Challenges of Writing for a Modern Audience

writing for a modern audienceSometimes I think everything I learned about life I learned from The Andy Griffith Show.

For instance, in the episode “Andy Discovers America,” when Andy is incredulous about the new school teacher “starting them awful young for history,” Aunt Bea just sighs, “Well, maybe they have to. There’s more of it these days.”

If that idea was true of history back in 1963, it’s even more true of literature in 2019.

One of the coolest things about this ultra-modern era is the insane number of stories literally at our fingertips. It’s staggering. Not only are we able to access the vast archives left to us by hundreds of ancestral generations, we are also living at an unprecedented moment of story output. Stories of all sorts—books, movies, TV, commercials, you name it—are created at a brain-numbing rate. Even those of us nerdy enough of to try could never sample them all.

This is incredible in so many ways. That I can decide I want to read Of Mice and Men, borrow it from Overdrive, and download it on my Kindle in all of three minutes (or less—I didn’t count) would no doubt astound John Steinbeck. Heck, these days we sometimes don’t even have to wait a week for a new episode of our favorite show. The latest season of Stranger Things? Pow. Watch the whole thing in one night.

And then what? What happens after I finish reading Of Mice and Men? After I finish bingeing Stranger Things? Well, I start looking for something else, of course. And something else and something else.

After a while, the stories we consume in our lifetimes rack up considerably. In 2002, I started tracking the number of books I read. At this point, I’ve recorded 1,777. Add to that the books I consumed before keeping a record. Then add what has to be at least twice as many movies. Plus TV (including many, many Andy Griffith reruns…).

Nearly everyone with access to either the Internet and/or a TV can probably say the same.

That’s a mountain of stories. An ocean of stories. A galaxy of stories.

But here’s the interesting thing. The more stories We the Audience consume, the more jaded we are likely to become in our consumption.

What’s this mean for We the Writers?

Basically this: today’s audience ain’t Granddad’s audience.

4 Challenges of Writing for a Modern Audience

Writers who are pointed to the exemplary writing of the classics often complain that the likes of Thomas Hardy and Edna Ferber couldn’t possibly get published these days. There’s some truth to that, in no small part because modern audiences are a far different crowd from those of a couple hundred years ago. (This is not to discount the continuing worth of the great classics. The evolution of the modern audience is firmly founded on all the literature that has come before.)

However, as modern authors writing for a modern audience, we must be aware of the unique challenges that face us, not only in connecting with the current audience, but also in recognizing the formative effects upon ourselves as members of that same contemporary audience.

You can start by taking note of these four crucial facts.

1. Modern Audiences Are Inundated With Stories

Generally speaking, the modern audience is pretty story savvy. They’ve seen it all, or at least feel like they have. And they believe (often rightly) that they are qualified to judge what they’ve seen or read, not just on a personal level, but on a technical level.

What This Means: It’s much harder for writers to pull off the old magic tricks. The audience not only knows someone’s working the levers behind the curtain, they also know exactly where the curtain is and how to pull it back.

At this point, audiences know every twist in the book. They have evolved super-smell when it comes to sniffing out foreshadowing. The gimmicks that might have wowed audiences of yesteryear are now seen as boring or even manipulative.

It’s true the story-consuming public may not understand all the conscious techniques of good story theory or storytelling, but they often do have an even better instinctive grasp of what’s working and what’s not than do those actually doing the writing.

What to Do About It: The only thing you can do to get a modern audience member to pay attention to your story, much less approve of it, is to write your guts out.

It’s not enough to write a good-enough story. Every single one of you reading this blog right now has read and watched hundreds of good-enough stories. Some of them you can name (probably just because they made you mad). Most of them you’ve relegated to the waste bin in the back your brain to save on cognitive space.

Write something brilliant. Write something original. Writing something true. And most of all: write something packed full of so much quality that it stands out like a Thoroughbred in a lineup of burros.

2. Audiences Are Inundated With Subpar Storytelling

As awesome-sauce as it may be to live in an era with unlimited stories, it has its downsides. The biggest is simply that quality stories are ever-increasingly difficult to find amidst all the quantity.

The self-publishing boom of the early 2000s treated me well as an author, so I hate to knock it. But as a reader, it has turned out to be kind of a bummer. It’s frustrating and often defeating to have to scroll through page after page of the kind of ramshackle cover art that too often signals equally ramshackle storytelling.

But it’s not just that the Gatekeeper is dead and the Gates are down. Traditional publishing, Hollywood, indie filmmaking, and TV aren’t much better. There are shining gems out there to be sure. But the rubbish is piled so high and so wide, it’s hard for audiences not to grow increasingly jaded—and to some extent, numb.

What This Means: Modern audiences don’t have a lot of trust in their storytellers. After a certain point, they tend to assume (consciously or unconsciously) that any new story they try will probably disappoint them.

For example, going to the theater used to be a highlight event for me. I loved it. But somewhere in the last 5-10 years, I stopped going. I realized one day (after the extraneous debacle that was Jason Bourne) that I was increasingly disappointed with what I was experiencing whenever I sat down in a darkened theater. It wasn’t a highlight any longer.

In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird points out:

…every time an audience reads a bad book, watches a bad movie, or attends a bad play, it just gets harder for the next writer, because the audience is increasingly reluctant to care again.

What to Do About It: There’s both bad news and good news here.

The bad news, of course, is that if your audience is anywhere over the age of 15, you’re probably facing an uphill battle. They came, they saw—and they judged most of what they saw to be unworthy of their time and money. At this point, your story is going to be a hard sell to just about anybody (even your mom, if she’s honest).

The good news, however, is there’s a lot of room at the top. If you can climb the rubbish heap and hold aloft your polished gem of a story, the audience will enshrine you. (For better or worse, good marketing is also instrumental and, usually, indispensable.)

The first thing to do in the face of an increasingly tough audience is to refuse to give up. The second is to commit yourself to the long haul of writing a truly excellent story. Do it for yourself and for your audience, but do it also for  your fellow writers. As Bird pointed out, bad writing is hurtful to all writers. One writer’s good story, however, makes it that much more likely another writer’s good story may also get its chance with that same audience.

3. Audiences Are Accustomed to (and to Some Degree Accepting of) Subpar Storytelling

Audience members may curtail some of their story habits due to disproportionate experiences with subpar stories, but they’re unlikely to quit cold turkey. Even if it weren’t all but impossible to opt out of stories in our media-driven culture, few people actually want to. We love stories so much we’d rather settle for poor stories than give them up altogether.

The problem here is that audiences—including the writers who are members of those audiences—become complacent in their acceptance of subpar work. How many times have we chosen a book or gone to a movie, knowing it was probably less-than-great—but it’s all that was available at the moment? When we are inundated with enough of these problematic offerings, we start expecting them, and then we start accepting them.

Netflix Expectation vs. Reality

What This Means: For my money, the most insidious problem with this scenario is that these pervasive subpar stories are the ones writers are now learning from. For starters, many of these stories are extremely famous and profitable. So it would seem evident these are the stories we should all be imitating.

Furthermore, by their very ubiquity, these stories are becoming part of our era’s archetypal narrative. We are permeated with these stories. They inhabit our subconscious—which is the incubator for our own ideas and instinctive understanding of story. Even if we’re not taking all these stories seriously, we’re still gobbling them up by the hundreds. And you know what they say: we are what we eat.

I will often observe or participate in discussions in which a new writer will argue against good advice with the insistence that “[such and such a popular story] did it this way!” If pressed, a few more supporting examples might even be produced. At the risk of sounding too Mom-like, let me put it this way: just because a famous (and perhaps otherwise brilliant) author did something stupid doesn’t mean you should too.

What to Do About It: This is exactly why it is so important for authors to be not just members of the audience, but conscious members. Become a keen observer of your own reactions to the stories you read and watch. What do you like? What do you not like? What are you perhaps unconsciously accepting just because? And, most importantly, why? Why does something work? Why does something not work? And… how could it work better?

Writing well is no accident. It is what happens when an author is purposefully conscious of the effects of any given story and its techniques.

Let me also say this: you’ll have a better chance of keeping your writing healthy if you’re eating more veggies than candy. The occasional “junk” movie or “stupid” book, just because that’s the mood you’re in, is fine. But if that’s the bulk of your story intake, you’re in trouble. If you want to be great, learn from the greats, not the oh-well-this-isn’t-amazing-but-it’s-all-we-have-so-we’ll-just-make-do.

4. Audiences Think They Like New and Shiny

Storytelling is so glam these days. So many gorgeous book covers. So many stylish new visuals in the movies. So many hot modern actors with their hot modern haircuts. I’ll admit to stocking my Kindle with beautiful YA books that turned out to be a year’s worth of really bad reading. I’ll also admit (in a much more mumbly voice) to watching Nicholas Sparks movies just because the lead actors are beautiful.

When browsing shelves at the library, it’s so much more tempting to pick up something with a shiny new cover versus this:

Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte Penguine Classic

Or some vapid new action movie versus this:

Judgment at Nuremburg

What This Means: Here are two anecdotes from my own experiences as an easily-distracted member of the modern audience.

As a reader, I took a break from my long-term pursuit of reading the classics. I was going through some difficult life stuff, and I just wanted to read “easy” and “fun” fiction for a while. So I chased after the pretty covers and found that, sure enough, easy though they might be, they started giving me a cotton-candy feeling in my stomach after a while.

So I decided to go back to the proven masterpieces for a bit. I chose Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, dove in, and from the very first paragraph experienced an almost palpable sense of the satisfaction that only good writing can create. No, Wharton’s not “easy.” She’s not even particularly “fun.” But in comparison to all that fluff I’d been distracting myself with, she was incredibly rewarding.

Same thing happened to me as a watcher. The simplest metric for knowing whether or not I’m engaged in a movie is whether or not I reach for my phone. If I’m bored, the phone comes out. I’m looking up the actors’ bios or the story’s factual context or the trivia on IMDb. But if I never pick up the phone, it means I’m hooked.

After a recent library visit when I brought home about an equal number of modern versus “old” movies, I was fascinated to find myself on the phone in the middle of almost all the modern movies. But Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson? I was rapt. The phone never got so much as a fingerprint on it.

If there’s a moral here, it’s this. Audiences don’t always choose the stories they should, even when they know better. Mostly, however, this is because the new stuff and the good stuff isn’t overlapping as prodigiously as it could.

What to Do About It: Again, good news, bad news.

The bad news is audiences are easily swayed by pretty things. In an age of short attention spans, new and shiny often seems much more interesting than old and proven. Marketing is king, because marketing is how readers and viewers find the content. If the marketing seems good, then the audience believes (often even when they know better) that the content should follow suit.

On the other hand, the good news is that because you live in this pretty modern age, there’s no reason your pretty book cover or stylish script can’t be the next shiny thing to snag the audience’s attention.

The catch, of course, is that you want your story to do more than catch your audience’s eye. You want it to keep their attention. And that requires, first, an awareness of the type and quality of stories—new and old—that capture and keep your attention. Write those stories, and write them well.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the greatest challenge of writing for a modern audience? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post 4 Challenges of Writing for a Modern Audience appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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With a Snip and a Clip, Megan Wagner Lloyd Creates PAPER MICE (plus a giveaway)

When I opened the envelope containing PAPER MICE, I let out a small GASP! because it was so sweet and lovely. LOOK:

The mice! The color palette! The wood grain! The blue flowered cape! The setting sun!

Marvelous, I thought. So I emailed Megan.

Megan, the book’s opening line is so simple, yet so enticing. “With a snip and a clip, and a clip and a snip, the paper mice were made.” Was this also the first line you wrote? Or did it take a lot of revision to pare it down to just the most essential words?

I just checked my first draft and that is the first line I wrote. Actually, the beginning of the story is still very much intact from the first draft, but after about one quarter the way in, it’s completely different now.

At first I set up the story with that voice, but then jumped into a much different, more dialogue-heavy style. After sharing my first draft with my critique group, everyone gave me similar feedback that they liked the first part best and was there any way for me to carry that kind of feeling through the whole story. So that was my challenge—to take that kind of old fashioned, lyrical voice that had come to me at the beginning and then try to continue that throughout while also telling an active and meaningful story.

Does that lyrical voice come naturally to you? Or did you dig deep to uncover it?

I think being able to get into the voice and mood of a piece in general is kind of one of my writing superpowers. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed and that I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on from even before I was published. But it took me a lot of digging to discover that I could write picture books (I was focusing on novels for about eight years before I really tried writing picture books). And it has taken me a lot of time and many, many (many!) practice projects to understand plot, story structure, and character development.

What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about picture book plot, story structure or character development?

How interconnected the three are, and that the plot must develop authentically from the characters wants, needs, and actions.

This is now your fourth picture book. Is there anything new you learned about the process of making a picture book during this project?

I feel like I’m always learning with every project! With Paper Mice, I learned to dig deeper (even when I think I’ve already done so) to really find the theme of the story.

“They were only paper mice, but even they knew night is a mouse’s day…” The mood of this story is perfect for bedtime. What do you think Della and Ralph read before their bedtime?

I think they both like fairy tales and adventure stories, though nothing too scary right before bedtime!

Since the adventures of the Paper Mice are secret, do you have any behind-the-scenes secrets about making the book?

Well, when I was just starting out with publishing, I made a list of “dream illustrators”—artists and illustrators who I dreamed of working with someday. And Phoebe Wahl, though I didn’t even know if she was interested in illustrating kids books at that time, was at the top of my list! I never told anyone about this list. Imagine my surprise when my editor told me that she’d found the perfect illustrator for PAPER MICE—Phoebe Wahl! It was such a serendipitous moment and has always made the project feel extra-special to me.

Speaking of extra-special, I heard you had a rather exciting auction for another project recently. 

I’d love to! I recently sold a middle-grade graphic novel (in a very exciting seven-house auction) to Scholastic! The book is called ALLERGIC and is about animal-obsessed girl who is about to finally get a dog of her own—only to discover she’s allergic to animals. It’s inspired by my own experiences growing up allergic to all animals with fur or feathers (but is fiction). Michelle Mee Nutter is my amazing illustrator co-creator on this project—her art is incredible, and I’m beyond thrilled that we could team up. ALLERGIC is scheduled to come out in 2021, and then we will be making a second graphic novel together for Scholastic as well.

Wow, that is amazing! Circling back to PAPER MICE, what aspect of this book do you hope readers will most connect with?

I hope most of all that readers find it a cozy and comforting read, one that makes their life a little less overwhelming and a little bit sweeter and more fun.

PAPER MICE is a delightful, cozy nighttime adventure. It was released this week and is now available anywhere books are sold. Thank you for chatting about it, Megan!

Would you like a copy of PAPER MICE?

Leave a comment below and a random winner will be selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!

Megan Wagner Lloyd is the author of Finding Wild, Fort-Building Time, Building Books and Paper Mice. Upcoming titles include the picture book The ABCs of Catching Zs as well as the graphic novel Allergic. She lives with her family in the Washington, D.C. area. Visit her at

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Game of Thrones has finished on TV – but we should wait for the final books | Andy Welch

There are still no signs of the last two volumes in George RR Martin’s fantasy saga – but he has a chance to fix all the problems in the adaptation

Game of Thrones finished this week. It’s all been very hush hush, I know. Thankfully, everyone’s really happy about the way it finished and isn’t going to mention it ever again. All that’s left to do is to be grateful for what we had and get on with finding another TV show to occupy the Hound-sized chasm in our hearts.

In reality, the ending of Game of Thrones is likely to make the 52 years that diehard devotees of The Prisoner have spent bickering about its finale look like a quick squabble. There’s already an angry petition (there’s always a petition) demanding a remake and there’s almost certainly someone re-editing the footage to make the show what they wanted. But it’s not just dignity that should stop anyone unhappy with the TV conclusion from signing that petition – it’s the knowledge that George RR Martin will write it properly.

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Why We Walk: A Manifesto for Peripatetic Empowerment

“I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.”

Why We Walk: A Manifesto for Peripatetic Empowerment

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau exulted as he championed the spirit of sauntering in an era when the activity was largely a male privilege — for a woman, these everyday crusades meant the dragging of long skirts across inhospitable terrains, before unwelcome gazes. It would take a century and a half of bold women conquering the mountains and reimagining the streets before Rebecca Solnit could compose her exquisite manifesto for wanderlust, reclaiming walking as an activity that vitalizes the mind — the mind that, in the landmark assertion of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, “has no sex.”

Lauren Elkin brings some of these women and their emancipatory, culture-shifting legacy to life in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (public library) — a celebration of the peripatetic foot as an instrument of the mind, an insurgency, a liberation, drawing on the novels and diaries of titanic writers like Virginia Woolf and George Sand, who wove walking into their lives and works as a central theme of empowerment and active curiosity, and on her own diaries and memories as an expatriate in Paris and Tokyo, a traveler in Venice and London, a student in New York.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The title itself is a rebellion against and a recouping of the French word flâneur, masculine for “one who wanders aimlessly,” popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. Elkin writes:

A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.

Every right begins as a privilege and Elkin sets out to reclaim this once-male privilege as a basic human right of the modern urban dweller — one that requires the resexing of flâneur into flâneuse:

Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse’. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.

Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down? This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for ‘flâneuse’ on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.

Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Walking for Elkin, as for her marching army of women, is a wholly different matter. She offers her own tessellated definition of its raison d’être:

Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.

Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.

Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.

More than half a century before the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd asserted that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Elkin adds:

I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.

I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

And yet this inevitable commingling with humanity, for all of its rewards, also exposes one of the most disquieting questions of modern life — what does it mean to be in motion, in public? Elkin writes:

[This is] the key problem at the heart of the urban experience: are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in? Is that even possible? How do we — no matter what our gender — want to be seen in public? Do we want to attract or escape the gaze? Be independent and invisible? Remarkable or unremarked-upon?

With an eye to her childhood and young adulthood in suburban America, Elkin reflects on how she awakened to the relationship between walking and agency, to the sense that self-propelled motion is a vital form of participation in the world on one’s own terms:

I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder — what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met — won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland.

But alongside this self-empowerment, this triumph of individualistic agency, walking confers upon the walker a perpendicular gift — a connection, embodied in the sinews rather than reasoned by the mind, to the constellation of other selves speckling the world. Elkin reflects on a semester abroad in Paris — the city in which she first fell in love with “the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other” — during her time as a Barnard College student:

In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.

I remember when I’d take the métro two stops because I didn’t realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.

Complement Flâneuse, a captivating read in its entirety, with Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame on walking as creative fuel and Robert Walser on the art of walking, then revisit the crowning curio of the peripatetic canon — Solnit’s Wanderlust — and the story of how the bicycle emancipated women.

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Trailblazing Writer and Feminist Margaret Fuller on the Social Value of Intellectual Labor and Why Artists Ought to Be Paid

“The circulating medium… is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil.”

Trailblazing Writer and Feminist Margaret Fuller on the Social Value of Intellectual Labor and Why Artists Ought to Be Paid

By the end of her thirties, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) — one of the central figures in Figuring — had shaped her young nation’s sensibility in literature and art as founding editor and prolific contributor to the visionary Transcendentalist journal The Dial, advocated for prison reform and African American voting rights as the only woman in a New York newsroom, trekked through war-torn Rome seven months pregnant as America’s first foreign war correspondent, and composed the foundational treatise of American women’s emancipation movement. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would come to admire “the truth and courage in her, rare in woman or man.” Emerson would come to consider her his greatest influence.

Fuller alone among the Transcendentalists left the sanctuary of nature to test her ideas and ideals against the real world. She alone used her work as a journalist and literary artist to bring life as it was being lived a little closer to life as she believed it ought to be lived in a just society — pacing the periphery of Walden Pond while philosophizing is not quite the same thing as marching into prisons, asylums, and orphanages to uncover abuse and incite the public to demand change. She alone relinquished the Transcendentalist disdain for material means as an antithesis to the creative life and the life of the mind, instead insisting that artists and those engaged in intellectual labor ought to get paid the way other laborers do.

The only known photograph of Margaret Fuller

With her hard-earned income as a teacher and writer, Fuller had put her brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to her and other women for decades to come. In a letter penned in her thirty-third year, she lovingly exhorted her younger brother:

Even your frugality does not enable you wholly to dispense with the circulating medium you so much despise and whose use, when you have thought more deeply on these subjects, you will find to have been indispensable to the production of the arts, of literature and all that distinguishes civilized man. It is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil stimulated by whose society you read the woods and fields…

Two years later, Fuller set sail for Europe to report on the Roman Revolution for the New-York Herald Tribune, where she had been working as the first female editor at a major American newspaper. There, she met and fell in love with a young revolutionary, whose baby she bore at the age of thirty-eight in a willow-hedged cottage by a rapid river in the mountains of Italy. That she survived the birth at all was miracle enough for Fuller, whose health had been hazardously frail since childhood, so she was hardly surprised when her body reached its limit and failed to produce milk. As the young father returned to Rome to resume his duties in the Risorgimento, she hired a local wet nurse. Throughout her time in Europe, she had struggled to make ends meet, writing tirelessly for the Tribune for only $10 per column and constantly negotiating various loans and literary advances. Having supported her mother and brothers since her young adulthood, she was now once again the sole breadwinner for a family — for the baby, for the wet nurse and her own infant, and for her partner, who was unemployed and had relinquished support from his father on account of their political differences.

Art by Judith Clay from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting the New York public library system.

Frugality took on a new meaning for Fuller as she began working on her ambitious chronicle of the Revolution. In the mountain cottage, which she rented for nine dollars a month, she could feast on “a great basket of grapes” for one cent and a day’s worth of figs and peaches for five. She didn’t hesitate to let her brother know, at the end of a three-page letter, that getting a single page to him cost her eighty cents. In another letter to him penned in the first months of her pregnancy, as she was facing the reality of providing for her new makeshift family, Fuller crystallized her sober philosophy of making a living in a life of purpose:

It is not reasonable to expect the world should pay us in money for what we are but for what we can do for it. Society pays in money for the practical talent exerted for its benefit, to the thinker, as such, only the tribute of materials for thought… We cannot have every thing; we cannot have even many things; the choice is only between a better and worser.

Fuller grew convinced that the most she could do for society lay in her chronicle of the revolution she saw as an exalted reach for better over worse, with implications not only for Italy but for the whole of humanity in upholding the ideals of liberty and equality she had long considered vital to human flourishing. And yet, in a letter to her mother penned upon returning to Rome, she articulated a profound recalibration of her sense of contribution:

In earlier days, I dreamed of doing and being much, but now am content with the Magdalen to rest my pleas hereon, “She has loved much.”

Couple with Fuller on what makes a great leader, then revisit Amanda Palmer, invoking another great Transcendentalist, on how artists can learn to ask for support and accept love.

For other excerpts from Figuring, see Emily Dickinson’s love letters, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his neighbor and literary hero Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a stunning astrophysical reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.

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My Heart: An Emotional Intelligence Primer in the Form of an Uncommonly Tender Illustrated Poem About Our Capacity for Love

“My heart is a shadow, a light and a guide. Closed or open… I get to decide.”

My Heart: An Emotional Intelligence Primer in the Form of an Uncommonly Tender Illustrated Poem About Our Capacity for Love

“How is your heart?” I recently asked a friend going through a trying period of overwork and romantic tumult, circling the event horizon of burnout while trying to bring a colossal labor of love to life. His answer, beautiful and heartbreaking, came swiftly, unreservedly, the way words leave children’s lips simple, sincere, and poetic, before adulthood has learned to complicate them out of the poetry and the sincerity with considerations of reason and self-consciousness: “My heart is too busy to be a heart,” he replied.

How does the human heart — that ancient beast, whose roars and purrs have inspired sonnets and ballads and wars, defied myriad labels too small to hold its pulses, and laid lovers and empires at its altar — unbusy itself from self-consciousness and learn to be a heart? That is what artist and illustrator Corinna Luyken explores in the lyrical and lovely My Heart (public library) — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem about the tessellated capacities of the heart, about love as a practice rather than a state, about how it can frustrate us, brighten us, frighten us, and ultimately expand us.

My heart is a window,
My heart is a slide.
My heart can be closed
or opened up wide.

Some days it’s a puddle.
Some days it’s a stain.
Some days it is cloudy
and heavy with rain.

Across the splendid spare verses, against the deliberate creative limitation of a greyscale-and-yellow color palate, a sweeping richness of emotional hues unfolds. What emerges is one of those rare, miraculous “children’s” books, in the tradition of The Little Prince, teaching kids about some elemental aspect of being human while inviting grownups to unlearn what we have learned in order to rediscover and reinhabit the purest, most innocent truths of our humanity.

Some days it is tiny,
but tiny can grow…
and grow…
and grow.

There are days it’s a fence
between me and the world,
days it’s a whisper
that can barely be heard.

There are days it is broken,
but broken can mend,
and a heart that is closed
can still open again.

My heart is a shadow,
a light and a guide.
Closed or open…
I get to decide.

Complement My Heart with The Day I Became a Bird — another spare, poetic picture-book about love and learning to unmask our truest selves — and a wondrous illustrated collection of classic love poems, then revisit three philosophers’ insightful perspectives on the largest subject in the universe: Erich Fromm on the greatest obstacle to mastering the art of loving, Martha Nussbaum on how you know you love somebody, and Skye Cleary’s animated inquiry into why we love.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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