The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“Fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.”

The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. The trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered music “a laboratory for feeling and time.” Perhaps because we experience music with our whole selves, with sinew and spirit alike, it is impossible to consider it merely as a sound. Like light, it seems to be both particle and wave; a vessel, a form, a space for working out who we are and what we long for — an essential language for our inner storytelling, which is the narrative pillar of our identity. In consequence, the most powerful and enchanting storytelling, be it a fairy tale or a novel or a biography, has a certain symphonic quality that lends it its power and enchantment.

That is what Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) — one of the world’s most beloved storytellers — argued shortly after he revolutionized the literature of the imagination with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, in a beautiful essay titled “The Shape of Music,” originally published in a special 1964 children’s literature issue of the San Francisco Examiner and included a year later in Evelyn Rose Robinson’s excellent anthology Readings About Children’s Literature (public library).

Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak writes:

Vivify, quicken, and vitalize — of these three synonyms, quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life, the surging swing into action, that I consider an essential quality in pictures for children’s books. To quicken means, for the illustrator, the task first of deeply comprehending the nature of his text and then giving life to that comprehension in his own medium, the picture.

The conventional techniques of graphic animation are related to this intention only in that they provide an instrument with which the artist can begin his work. Sequential scenes that tell a story in pictures, as in the comic strip, are an example of one technique of animation. In terms of technique, it is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his forgotten first children’s book.

In a sentiment evocative of Italo Calvino’s insistence on the art of quickness as essential to the magic of storytelling, Sendak adds:

The word quicken has other, more subjective associations or me. It suggests something musical, something rhythmic and impulsive. It suggests a beat — a heart beat, a musical beat, the beginning of a dance. This association proclaims music as one source from which my own pictures take life. To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book.

In Sendak’s creative process, music — actual music, not merely the notion of musicality — becomes a kind of Rorschach test as ideas begin to take shape under its clarifying force:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction. I find something uncanny in the way a musical phrase, a sensuous vocal line, or a patch of Wagnerian color will clarify an entire approach or style for a new work. A favorite occupation of mine is sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk [demonic spirit from Jewish mythology], and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters and covers celebrating libraries and reading.

Sometimes, Sendak notes, these associative flights of musically propelled fancy become a kind of personal time machine, unlatching “childhood fantasies that are reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen.” Reflecting on “music’s peculiar power of releasing fantasy,” he recalls the centrality of music in his early memories — “the restless, ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making” that are a fixture of childhood’s make-believe — and wrests from it a universality:

All children seem to know what the mysterious, the-riding-fiercely-across-the-plains (accompanied by hearty, staccato thigh slaps), and the plaintive conventionally sound like; and I have no doubt that this kind of musical contribution is necessary to the enrichment of the going fantasy. The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood. It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words — beyond the words yet available to a child — and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.

Signed original drawing by Sendak from the front end paper of his extremely rare 1967 illustrated edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

This musical quality, Sendak observes, is not only the chief animating force of his own work but also what he looks for in the work of artists he admires — artists who “achieve the authentic liveliness that is the essence of the picture book, a movement that is never still,” which children recognize and savor as native to their own experience. He points to André François and Tomi Ungerer

The sympathy I feel between the visual and the musical accounts for my liking to think of myself as setting a text to pictures, much as a composer sets a poem to music, and I have found that telling a story by means of related, sequential pictures allows me to “compose” with assurance and freedom. I do not, however, equate the musical approach to sequential drawings.

Sendak elevates William Blake — whose classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience he would come to illustrate in a rare gem of a book three years later, and who would would go on to be his greatest lifelong influence — as the highest master of quickening by means of musicality. (Blake’s particular musicality calls to my mind Aldous Huxley’s notion of music as a conduit to “the blessedness lying at the heart of things.”)

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

With an eye to “Blake’s incomparable genius,” Sendak writes:

How beautifully his Songs of Innocence and of Experience could be set to music, and how beautifully Blake did set them. The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his mystical poetry. His ingenious and wonderfully ornamental interweavings of illustrations, lettering and color visually animate the spirit of the poetry and create a lyrical vision of otherworldliness. And it is all expressed with an economy only the masters achieved.

Reflecting on the most resonant expression of this musical analogy in his own work, Sendak points to his lovely collaborations with the poet Ruth Krauss — so enchanting partly due to Krauss’s particularly uncommon originality, and partly due to poetry’s general quickening quality — and writes:

Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme, and perhaps the last page from I’ll Be You and You Be Me is the simplest expression of my devotion to the matter of music.

Art by Maurice Sendak for I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss (1954)

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s lyrical reflection on the source of music’s supreme power, then revisit Sendak’s symphonic illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, and his wonderful conversation with Studs Terkel about creativity, storytelling, and the eternal child in each of us.

Photograph of Maurice Sendak by Sam Falk

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Is The Golden Notebook a feminist novel?

For all the suffering its women endure at the hands of men, it’s not hard to see why Doris Lessing disliked her book’s polemical reputation

The New York Times critic Ernest Buickler once wrote that “a firkinful of scorching aphorisms” could be culled from nearly every page of The Golden Notebook. An exaggeration, of course – but only just. Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel is eminently quotable:

“For with my intuition I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he would begin to run.”

“The real revolution is women against men.”

And so this man spent a second night with Julia. With no better results.

“Naturally he left at four, so that the little woman could believe he had been working late. Just as he left he turned on me and said: ‘You’re a castrating woman, I thought you were from the moment I saw you.’”

He sauced her with his eye; sitting up broad, solid, pink-cheeked; very sure of himself and his world in this house.

“Why haven’t you put on the dress you said you were going to wear?”

Continue reading…

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How to Disappear: The Art of Listening to Silence in a Noisy World

“Silence is the presence of time undisturbed.”

“There is… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1972 taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. But where does the modern soul go to pasture on awareness and commune with the cosmos in a civilization increasingly savaged by noise? Where do we find, and how do we protect, those places where, in the lovely words of the poet Wendell Berry, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives”?

Governed by the passionate belief that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has devoted his life to locating and conserving that gravely endangered species of sensorial experience and planetary poetics. Inspired by the writings of the visionary naturalist John Muir, who believed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Hempton has spent thirty-five years picking out Earth’s rarest nature sounds, equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing.

Gordon Hempton inside what he calls “Nature’s Largest Violin” — the giant log of a Sitka spruce, a species prized for crafting acoustic instruments due to its rich vibratory sensitivity. (Photograph courtesy of Gordon Hempton.)

Emanating from his collection of more than 100 recordings from silent places is the idea that “there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat” — a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and the quality of presence. What emerges is the embodied awareness that silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed.

Planted partway between conservation and celebration, Hempton’s lovely One Square Inch of Silence project offers a sanctuary of silence drawn from the Hoh rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington — “very possibly the quietest place in the United States” and certainly one of the most ecologically diverse.

Silence is the presence of time undisturbed. It can be felt in the chest. It nurtures our nature.

Hempton delves into the science and animating spirit of his work in this wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which is how I first encountered him years ago and have remained enchanted since:

Complement with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired picture-book about the art of listening to your inner voice amid the noise of modern life — then revisit Walt Whitman’s exquisite ode to listening to the song of existence.

HT Kottke

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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.

Let’s start with some searching questions from Larts, who has been enjoying Warlight by Michael Ondaatje:

Ondaatje has the ability to draw me into the events of the novel but at the same time imbue scenes with mystery by leaving information out. As I read I have the sense of confusion and puzzlement – I am trying to piece events and characters together. It seems to be fragmentary and yet detailed, thoughtful yet careless.

The novel has also made me realise, yet again, that I do not know the significance of certain people or events in my life. I dig around for that one moment, the moment in the rose garden. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. People walk into and out of my life and I miss them, wonder what they’re doing. Do they remember the things I remember? Do they think of me? That elusive meaning … what is it? I don’t often personalise the things I read – or do I?

I’m in love with David Livesey. He’s a pipe smoking contemplative magistrate. He’s a hands on medic true to his oath but also quick to show his swashybuckle side. His powdered wig is his emotional barometer, on and off like nobody’s business … when he is het up or in a pickle. If that wasn’t enough he carries a chunk of parmesan in his snuff box. I mean, come on.

It was not an easy read due to the subject material, but all the same, I’m glad I did. The recent TV programme of the same name deviated somewhat from the book. Such a tragedy was the culmination of political pressure to exceed power output, operator error (inexperienced staff conducting a safety test which deviated from procedure, which was driven by a career climbing senior staff member) and withholding of pertinent safety issues surrounding the use of cheaper RBMK reactors (government level). When I finished the book, I came away with the feeling that human history has a tendency to repeat itself – economic/political success trumps the human cost of delivering such success.

Some of it I could have done without, I don’t really need a romantic plot to illustrate what is obvious. But it was fascinating to read about the importance of water, the corruption associated with providing it in those days, & how the people in the bay just did not recognise what was happening with the mountain. The central character for me was Pliny who literally died because he could not stop being curious. He was also rather stupid at the same time. A great read.

I thought that Homegoing was very good indeed; it surpassed my expectations. The novel tracks two branches of a family, ranging in setting from the Gold Coast as the slave trade is beginning to present day US. Each chapter is narrated by a new character, each a generation later than the last. I worried that this might be frustrating and stop me bonding with the characters but, in general, they were well-drawn and interesting enough for this not be a problem … It’s a first novel by a young author, so it’s not all perfect, but I thought it was an excellent read and recommend it.

Staying with racism infecting society (it’s been a cheerful reading fortnight), I then read The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya … it’s a really good novel and quite nuanced in its portrayal; for every racist, there are several other people in the community who are well-meaning, albeit sometimes in a clumsy way … Markandaya’s prose can be a bit strange at times, causing the odd stumble in the first few pages. But, once you’re into the rhythm of it, she’s a very good writer.

Set in 1932, it focusses on the lot of Violet, a 38-year-old so-called ‘surplus woman’, in her situation of struggling to cope with loss, to make ends meet on a low-income job (afford a warm meal) and to be independent. We read about her position in her family and her developing new friendships, as Violet and others gradually and quietly push back against societal constraints. What is particular is that the author paints a detailed picture of ecclesiastical activities (the crafts of embroidery and bell-ringing) at Winchester Cathedral, where Violet finds some comfort in the community of volunteer broderers working on a project to embroider kneelers for worshippers. The scenes are well set and enjoyable; the characters come to life. The ending gave me food for thought. I won’t say anymore.

The deep and lasting resonance of Goodnight Moon.

The JD Salinger exhibition at The New York Public Library sounds incredible.

“Isn’t faux praise and elevation of mediocrity just as patronizing as the dismissal of ‘ethnic writing’?” Colin Grant considers the anxieties and complexities of furthering diversity in the literary world.

I “had a good experience” with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron says Anthony Madrid in The Paris Review.

Reading Gaol is up for sale.

Continue reading…

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Sanditon: why are Austen fans so enraged by Andrew Davies' ending?

ITV’s dramatisation of the unfinished novel has offended the sensibilities of many Janeites. Alison Flood wonders if this makes sense

In one of the last glimpses Jane Austen gives us of the world of Sanditon, her final, unfinished novel, Charlotte Heywood has just met Sidney Parker, a young man of “about seven or eight and twenty, very good-looking, with a decided air of ease and fashion and a lively countenance”.

Andrew Davies’ TV adaptation of Sanditon, which aired on Sunday, ended with Charlotte and Sidney bidding each other a tearful farewell – in love, but not together. Viewers were teased with the hope of a last-minute reconciliation, as Sidney stopped Charlotte’s carriage. Would he throw honour to the wind and choose Charlotte over Eliza? But the expected happy ever after didn’t materialise. Reader: he didn’t marry her.

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This Is How to Transform Info Dumps Into Exciting Plot Reveals

Clues, mysteries, plot reveals, and plot twists—these are some of a writer’s stock tricks for hooking readers page after page. But as important as these tricks are, when they’re asked to bear the load of being the main attraction for readers, they too often turn into boring info dumps.

Imagine you’re reading a story in which the author has skillfully created some kind of mystery.

This mystery might be:

  • The murder in a whodunit.
  • A straightforward strategic puzzle focused on figuring out how to defeat the bad guys.
  • Something more domestic, such as an ongoing question of a character’s parentage.
  • Something simple and amusing, such as a character obsessively (and perhaps symbolically) trying to prove that a neighbor’s dog is digging holes in his yard.
  • Less about proving a proposed solution and more about figuring out whether or not something mysterious is happening at all—e.g., is the new neighbor’s strange night activity a sign of something sinister?

The mystery could be the main focus of the story, with the protagonist’s main plot goal being the solution to the mystery (as in Chamber of Secrets). Or the mystery might just be a clever way to avoid info dumps while slowly trickling important information throughout the story (as in Half-Blood Prince).

Whatever the case, adding a mystery can greatly enhance your story’s readability. If you’re able to consistently present questions (whether implicit or explicit), you’re giving readers more reasons to keep reading. In addition to wanting to watch what happens to your characters, they now also want to know the answer to the questions you’re proposing.

But don’t miss the order of that last sentence. Readers are there first and foremost to see what happens to your characters. And this is where we encounter some of the problems you can run into if you’re relying too heavily on plot reveals to provide the entertainment factor.

Ask Yourself: Is Your Story About Clues or Consequences?

Mysteries are fun. They’re fun to create and fun to solve. But in themselves they are not stories and certainly not the best part of stories (even in the mystery genre). This is why it’s important for writers not to fall into the trap of relying on clues to carry the story.

In the myopia of early plotting, it can be easy to feel you’re writing something deeply gripping just because a new clue is being unveiled in every scene. In these instances, the plot progression may look like this: Clue>Clue>Clue>Clue. The progression grows obviously monotonous, no matter how interesting the mystery itself.

E.M. Forster famously distinguished story from plot by emphasizing the causality of events.

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.

In dramatic fiction, things don’t just happen. They happen because other things happened first. This certainly holds true for the unraveling of mystery. If the revelation of clues are just revelations, the story will stagnate. Instead, any and every clue your plot reveals should be the result of a character’s choice, with the discovery itself turning the plot by creating consequences.

You want the progression of your story to look like this: Choice>Consequence>Choice>Consequence. (Which is, of course, just a variation on how to view classic scene structure of Goal>Dilemma.)

Even just glancing at the two equations shows the difference. For me, the latter progression, of choice and consequence, immediately blips my writer radar. The reminder that my character’s choices have causal consequences always functions for me almost like a writing prompt. So many juicy possibilities.

Focusing a story’s progression on choice and consequence creates forward momentum—a line of causes and effects. Even better, it creates a much more interesting framework in which to leverage a story’s mysteries, questions, and revelations.

5 Ways to Turn Info Dumps Into Plot Turns

Maybe you can relate to this: A writer hands beta readers a story that the writer feels is jam-packed with exciting action.

But the beta readers are all bored. “Nothing happens,” they complain.

The writer is bewildered. “All sorts of things happen! The heroes learn all this stuff about the bad guys’ plans and what they have to do to defeat them!”

It may take several more drafts and much confused agony before the writer realizes the reason it feels like nothing happens in this “jam-packed” novel is… because nothing does happen.

The characters may be learning lots of exciting and revelatory stuff. But that’s all they’re doing. They’re sitting around in a boardroom while their spies bring in horrifying reports. Or they’re taking lesson after lesson in order to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to finally defeat the bad guy (lookin’ at you, YA fantasy). Or maybe the two love interests spend more time thinking about each other or small-talking than they do actually getting out there and falling in love.

With the best intentions, the writer accidentally left most of the story’s best stuff on the cutting-room floor. The problem isn’t that the story’s reveals of information are necessarily uninteresting. Rather, the problem is that the information is the story. And that’s boring.

Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mysteries and plot reveals are wonderful. They just need to be sown into the causal fabric of your characters’ deep and primal plot struggles.

To that end, here are five principles to keep in mind.

1. The Character Explicitly Wants/Needs/or Doesn’t Want This Info—or Some Combo Thereof

Identify a motive for why your character will have more than a casual relationship with this information.

We all learn bits and pieces of things every day—someone was born, someone died, somebody did something good, somebody else did something bad. Some of these bits may interest us, but most are incidental. We have no life-changing motive to seek them out and no subsequent reason to interact with them.

For us, that’s okay. But the information you introduce in your story is information that matters to your protagonist. It’s info that’s going to change his life, which means he absolutely has a reason to interact with it.

The one big exception to this principle is that your story’s mystery may begin with a bit of info the character initially didn’t know he needed—but which very quickly becomes important for some reason (even if it’s just a burning need to know what the nocturnal new neighbor is up to over there).

That aside, you will instantly gain so much more story power by looking for ways to instill your story’s revelations with meaning and stakes.

What is of particular note here is the possibility of having your character choose to learn this information. This is just one of many ways to keep your character from being a bystander in his own story. It also means that when consequences ensue, the protagonist will not be a victim, but will have to shoulder the full load of responsibility for what he has learned (see #4 below).

2. Information Is Never Free

Your character’s choice to seek out information should ultimately be more weighty than her simply deciding to tap her finger on random click-bait on her phone. It should be a choice she has to think twice about—because it, unlike the click-bait, isn’t free.

Except in instances where it would unnecessarily bloat a story, your character’s choice to seek important information should come with complications (and this is before we even get to the consequences). She might have to give up some of her hard-earned babysitting money to bribe info from the school stooge. Or she might have to risk detention by skipping class. Or she might have to face her own fears to talk to somebody dangerous.

It’s possible she may not immediately understand the full cost of what she’s paying to gain this info, but the sooner readers understand the stakes, the more currency you’ll generate for character development. Naturally, not all your characters’ dilemmas will be life-shattering, but you should try to wring a little blood whenever you can by creating situations in which characters must either choose between two equally bad options or two mutually-exclusively good options.

When a character “pays” for info, readers know the info is going to be worth their time.

3. Knowledge Is Power—And With Power Comes With Great Responsibility

Welcome to Pandora’s box. Your character really, really wanted/needed/tried to avoid knowing something. But now that he does know, he can never return to ignorance. (This is true of massively life-changing reveals, but it should also echo down to the relatively small clues leading up to the big reveals.)

It’s much better for your character to learn bad news than good news. There are, of course, exceptions (and you’ll want to vary the intensity of your character’s discoveries either way), but bad news is what builds a story’s conflict and the protagonist’s increasingly pressing need to push through to the resolution of the plot goal.

Although stories can certainly reveal objectively good information, that’s not the stuff of mystery. Mystery is all about tension. Whether rightly or not, the character suspects something bad behind the closed door. If he thought it was something good, the stakes wouldn’t feel as high—and readers wouldn’t be as interested in discovering the truth.

When your character chooses to ask a question, only to receive a disturbing answer, the stakes rise. Because he chose to seek out or interact with this information, he is now responsible for his own knowledge. Whether or not he wants to do something with that knowledge (even if, for now, it’s just seeking the next clue), he increasingly feels the weight of obligation. He’s going to have to make a move (hello, plot turn!), and that is where his choices become consequences.

4. Clues Should Be Visual Whenever Possible

One of the big problems with the progression of Clue>Clue>Clue is that it’s boring. It turns what might indeed be exciting info into a dry recital of facts.

When a private slogs up to the general, salutes wearily, and says, “Sorry, sir, we lost the whole battalion”—that’s nothing but words. But when the general drives out to visit the battlefield and readers get to visualize the carnage through his eyes, the information becomes more than just information.

In a nutshell, this is simply a decision to convey the information through showing, rather than telling. Stories should be pictures on the page. Information, whenever possible, should be visceral. It should be sensory. Smelling a fire, hearing a siren, or seeing a roof collapsing under a blaze—all of these things convey information that might just as easily be learned from a newspaper article. But the visuals not only pack more punch, they also force characters to get out in the story world and do something.

5. Even Better, Clues Should Be Dramatized

If it’s better to convey information via word-pictures, it’s often one more step up from that if you can sow the revelation into the very heart of a scene’s dramatic action.

Maybe your character is hunting for proof that a legendary monster exists. He could discover that information in a dusty old book. He could hear about it from the lips of a creaky old grandmother who swears she saw the monster as a girl. He could even see the monster through his binoculars.

Or he could just about be eaten by the thing.

When your character is given the opportunity to learn on the job by personally and physically interacting with new information, the possibilities for plot-turning consequences pop up all over the place. Maybe the character’s guide (the old granny?) is eaten. Or maybe he loses an arm. Or maybe he accidentally herds the monster into an unsuspecting village, where it wreaks havoc.

As fast as that, this is no longer a story in which “nothing happens.” It’s a story in which information becomes more than a recital of facts, but rather an actual force for your protagonist to contend with.


Now it’s time for you to take a look at your story and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What bits of information are crucial to your plot?

2. Can you rework that information’s delivery so it isn’t presented straight up, but rather doled artfully with a bit of mystery and flair?

3. From there, can you go yourself one better and figure out ways to create a fraught relationship between your characters’ need to learn the information and the consequences when they do?

4. And, finally, can you brainstorm ways in which to show the information in visually dramatic ways that progress the plot?

You can use all four of these techniques to create mystery and character development in any type of story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of a scene in which your protagonist has acquired new information in a visually dramatic way rather than learning about it in an info dump? 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 This Is How to Transform Info Dumps Into Exciting Plot Reveals appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Rare, Arresting Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories by the Irish Stained Glass and Book Artist Harry Clarke

“And the man trembled in the solitude…”

“I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations… I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her poignant poem “Possibilities.”

Old fine-lined illustrations and classic tales that outgrim the newspapers’ front pages, twisting the grisly into the sublime, come together in a rare 1933 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (public library), with illustrations by the Irish stained-glass and book artist Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931), whose visionary work influenced the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and French Symbolism movements.

“I would call aloud upon her name.” (Available as a print.)
“The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic,… upon the interior surface of a funnel.” (Available as a print.)
“I saw them fashion the syllables of my name.” (Available as a print.)

Nearly a decade after I first featured Clarke’s black-and-white illustrations from an earlier edition, I walked out of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair victorious with a rare surviving copy of the 1933 edition, featuring 33 plates. Peppering the striking black-and-white line drawings and several dramatic illustrated lithographs, printed on glazed paper and pasted onto the regularly printed book — the legacy of Arthur Rackham’s innovation, which had revolutionized the business and technology of book art a quarter century earlier with his epoch-making Alice in Wonderland edition.

“He shrieked once — once only.” (Available as a print.)
“In death we both learned the propensity of man to define the undefinable.” (Available as a print.)

Clarke’s haunting, terrifying, yet lyrical illustrations become the perfect visual counterpart to Poe’s haunting, terrifying, lyrical prose. Here is a succulent bit from a fable titled “Silence”:

And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded far in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called upon the hippopotami which dwelt upon the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I cursed the elements, and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest — and the rain beat on the head of the man — and the floods of the river came down — and the river was tormented into foam — and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds — and the trees crumbled before the wind — and the lightning flashed and the thunder fell — and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled within the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the saber craft.” (Available as a print.)
“They swarmed upon me in ever-accumulating heaps.” (Available as a print.)
“There flashed upward a glow and a glare.” (Available as a print.)
“But there was no voice throughout the vast, illimitable desert.” (Available as a print.)
“It was the most noisome quarter of London.” (Available as a print.)
“His rooms soon became notorious through the charms of the sprightly Grisette.” (Available as a print.)
“Say, rather, the rending of her coffin.” (Available as a print.)
“And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me.” (Available as a print.)
“An attachment which seems to attain new strength.” (Available as a print.)
“The colossal waters rear our heads above us like demons of the deep.” (Available as a print.)

Complement with Clarke’s arresting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, then revisit other visionary artists’ takes on literary classics: Arthur Rackham’s transcendent illustrations for The Tempest and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Margaret C. Cook’s sensual paintings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

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Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

“What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.”

Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Spreads from Little Tree — a Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life.

Complement Iyer’s exquisite Autumn Light with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on reconciling our yearning for permanence with a universe predicated on constant change, Marcus Aurelius on the key to living with presence while facing our mortality, and Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor love letter to seasonality, then revisit Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness.

donating = loving

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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Not the Booker prize 2019: join us to watch the judges decide the winner live

The judges meet to decide the winner of this year’s award at 11am BST. Watch the meeting live to see if Daniel James will take the coveted Guardian mug

Let’s get down to business. The public vote is in.

At this point, we have a clear leader: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James. More than 70 votes behind that is Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin. Close behind that comes Liam Brown’s Skin, and then we have Flames by Robbie Arnott, Spring by Ali Smith and Supper Club by Lara Williams. Here are the votes so far:

Continue reading…

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The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“…scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice…”

The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.

A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.

Bill T. Jones at the 2019 Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:

by Ross Gay

       —after Steve Scafidi

The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,

you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm

swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,

though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.

And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat

and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —

but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle

that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.

Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer

of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,

tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,

little best of me.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.

donating = loving

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.


Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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