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.

There must be something in the air. I’m re-reading Wind in the Willows,” says kate king:

I never fail to be enchanted by it, as a countrywoman, gardener and grower. Poor Mole – ‘Oh my oh my oh my’ – and his sardines on toast. But it’s so true that this time of year is magical and entrancing, and it would be so easy to spend hours watching bubbles in a river and the patterns of sunlight and willow leaves. It’s my Spring book – again.

Moving, powerful stuff. I like the dramatic way Smith writes dialogue and how she weaves it into the rest of the tale. I also thought as I read, and not for the first time, that she is one of those writers who demands that her readers do a bit of work as they read.

A mock autobiography of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle setting out the rise and fall of an early film legend. It’s a hell of a sad story, details an example of how low the gutter press will go to bump up sales and shows where the religious zealots of the USA have their roots, both in condemnation and narrow minded belief. A cracking read.

First published in 1962, the tense and absorbing plot becomes a means to explore and criticise contemporary attitudes in the author’s country, in particular the continuing glorification of the military. Far better than the film (which I saw way back when), it deserves to be reprinted: there is much here about lies and cover-ups among the powerful relevant to our own times.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. Obviously it’s informative and interesting, but it’s also exciting, dramatic, moving, riveting. A tale of high adventure and extraordinary human courage and endurance (natch) which you know actually happened. I gasped, I exclaimed, I cried real tears. Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. (The narrator, Simon Prebble, is outstanding – and I’m rather fussy that way.)

22nd century murder mystery with a backdrop of revenge, corporate intrigue, possibly an alien. I’m about halfway through and it’s a complicated story with many threads but despite being a (very) long book it holds together well and it rolls along at a good pace.

Well worth it despite the ever increasing forays into piety as the book goes on. It was a little strange reading something that was so familiar in other forms: film/tv series/sci-fi iterations etc, but interesting too to see what (such as the Christian piety) that has been mostly or entirely excised from the adaptations. I was left in some awe of Defoe’s imagination, the vivid and detailed way in which he put himself in Crusoe’s place. Not sure if I will tackle the further adventures though.

This Paradise (2019) by Ruby Cowling, a debut short story collection from Boiler House Press. It’s creepy and disquieting, mixing kitchen sink drama with dystopia, technology and eco-activism all resting on a very British landscape drenched with rain. Maybe too many kids for my liking, but it has twins. A good, sturdy collection nicely produced with design by Emily Benton and cover image by Kristy Campbell.

‘I get it.’ I said. ‘You need somebody to insult. Fire away, chum. When it begins to hurt I’ll let you know.’

I’m reading Playback the last Philip Marlowe novel and feeling bereft because there are no more to come.

What your book covers say about you.

An extract from Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me.

“I don’t really care”: Bret Easton Ellis gives a “chill and neutral” interview to the New Yorker.

The CIA scheme that brought Dr Zhivago to the world. Really.

Tim Parks gives a readers guide to planes, trains, and automobiles.

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Poem of the week: The Porch Light by David Wheatley


This quiet poem, about the ways locations both literal and metaphorical can be kept open, is wonderfully musical

The Porch Light

Birchwood ankle-deep in leafy mulch:
borrowed green of a buried can of Grolsch,
all living streams iced over or departed;
wrecks of chestnuts echoing, empty-hearted,
hollow victories woodpeckers tap
on trunks picked open for a place to sleep.
The breeze’s whistling summons and refines
itself to a buzzard’s wheep beyond the pines,
where arrowheads of geese above the farm
lock onto, lose their target and reform.
Eggbox hills that line the far horizon
draw a ribbon out of slowly rising
tracks that circle straggling round the village
millponds, quarries, setts, a gateless gate-lodge
keeping nothing in or out. A dipper
breasts the Don and wades in deep and deeper;
a porch light glimpsed among trees might be my house.
The path wants feet, it will not matter whose.
Whose woods these are I couldn’t claim to know,
the way I go all ways, on in back through.

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How to Use Your Outline When Writing Your First Draft


HOW TO USE YOUR OUTLINEOutlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.

Recently, I received an email from Matt Powers, which made me realize that, out of all the dozens of posts I’ve written about outlining, I’ve never actually talked about how to use your outline when writing the first draft. Matt wrote:

I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.

I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.

It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!

I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?

The How and Why of Outlining a Novel

For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.

At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.

That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.

For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):

Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.

And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:

Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.

For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.

On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.

This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.

He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.

>>Click here to read the complete transcript of my outline for my dieselpunk adventure Storming.

My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.

Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.

In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.

1. I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).

2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.

I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.

This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?

5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline

How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.

Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)

But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?

Completed Novel Outline Wayfarer K.M. Weiland

Completed outline for my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer

In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.

(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)

Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.

1. Organize the Notes as You Go

Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).

The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.

Scene Outline Dreambreaker Highlights

2. Buy Scrivener

You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.

By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).

Writing_Process_Scrivener_Character_Sketches_Interviews

This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.

3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…

Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?

Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:

  • Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
  • He trips and vomits.
  • He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.

In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.

4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute

You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.

Why?

Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.

Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.

5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc

Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.

Wayfarer Chapter Five Outline in Process

As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.

This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.

***

Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!

How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you outline upfront? Has it been a challenge for you to figure out how to use your outline when writing the first draft? Tell me in the comments!


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The post How to Use Your Outline When Writing Your First Draft appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics


“Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”


How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics

“This country,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she considered what makes a great leader, “needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

Like all great seers of truth, for all her genius, Fuller was still a product of her time and place. Even as she was laying the groundwork for women’s political and civic empowerment, she chose “man” as the universal pronoun depicting the ideal leader — hers, after all, was still a time when every woman was a “man.” But how thrilled Fuller would have been to know that, exactly a century later, a leader would emerge to embody these very qualities — and she would be a woman.

eleanorroosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) entered the White House on March 4, 1933, as the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time she exited it twelve years later, she could be said to have effected more enduring social change than her husband. She had championed science as a centerpiece of a thriving democratic society, stood up for integrity and nonconformity, empowered individual citizens to take the reins of reform, and redefined the role of the First Lady not as a social decoration to the President but as a position of substantive leadership.

Roosevelt’s lasting impact on culture comes alive in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterful and surprisingly poetic history of the United States.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits a coal mine in Bellaire, Ohio, May 1935. (From These Truths by Jill Lepore.)

Lepore writes:

FDR’s election and the New Deal coalition also marked a turning point in another way, in the character and ambition of his wife, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in New York in 1884, she’d been orphaned as a child. She married FDR, her fifth cousin, in 1905; they had six children. Nine years into their marriage, Franklin began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, and when Eleanor found out, he refused to agree to a divorce, fearing it would end his career in politics. Eleanor turned her energies outward. During the war, she worked on international relief, and, after Franklin was struck with polio in 1921, she began speaking in public, heeding a call that brought so many women to the stage for the first time: she was sent to appear in her husband’s stead.

Eleanor Roosevelt became a major figure in American politics in her own right just at a time when women were entering political parties. It was out of frustration with the major parties’ evasions on equal rights that Alice Paul had founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916. Fearful that soon-to-be enfranchised female voters would form their own voting bloc, the Democratic and Republican Parties had then begun recruiting women. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) formed a Women’s Division in 1917, and the next year, the Republicans did the same, the party chairman pledging “to check any tendency toward the formation of a separate women’s party.” After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the League of Women Voters, steered women away from the National Woman’s Party and urged them to join one of the two major parties, advising, “The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party.” Few women answered that call more vigorously than Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a leader of the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party while her husband campaigned and served as governor of the state. By 1928, she was one of the two most powerful women in American politics, head of the Women’s Division of the DNC.

Roosevelt rose to a role she never wanted, then rather than conforming to its existing template, she redefined it to suit her aptitudes and transfigured it into a platform for change — her kind of change, on her terms. Like Emily Dickinson, who revolutionized the written word and channeled infinities from the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk, Roosevelt took the narrow parameters of her station and created from within them something unexampled and far-reaching. Lepore writes:

Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper. She hadn’t wanted her husband to run for president, mainly because she had so little interest in becoming First Lady, a role that, with rare exception, had meant serving as a hostess at state dinners while demurring to the men when the talk turned to affairs of state. She made that role her own, deciding to use her position to advance causes she cared about: women’s rights and civil rights. She went on a national tour, wrote a regular newspaper column, and in December 1932 began delivering a series of thirteen nationwide radio broadcasts. While not a naturally gifted speaker, she earned an extraordinarily loyal following and became a radio celebrity. From the White House, she eventually delivered some three hundred broadcasts, about as many as FDR. Perhaps most significantly, she reached rural women, who had few ties to the national culture except by radio. “As I have talked to you,” she told her audience, “I have tried to realize that way up in the high mountain farms of Tennessee, on lonely ranches in the Texas plains, in thousands and thousands of homes, there are women listening to what I say.”

Eleanor Roosevelt not only brought women into politics and reinvented the role of the First Lady, she also tilted the Democratic Party toward the interests of women, a dramatic reversal. The GOP had courted the support of women since its founding in 1854; the Democratic Party had turned women away and dismissed their concerns. With Eleanor Roosevelt, that began to change. During years when women were choosing a party for the first time, more of them became Democrats than Republicans. Between 1934 and 1938, while the numbers of Republican women grew by 400 percent, the numbers of Democratic women grew by 700 percent.

In January 1933, she announced that she intended to write a book. “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration,” the Boston Globe reported, incredulous. “Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself.”

It’s Up to the Women came out that spring. Only women could lead the nation out of the Depression, she argued — by frugality, hard work, common sense, and civic participation. The “really new deal for the people,” Eleanor Roosevelt always said, had to do with the awakening of women.

Complement this fragment of Lepore’s rigorous and riveting These Truths with Adrienne Rich on the antidote to the white male capitalist model, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt’s breathtaking love letters to Lorena Hickok.


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Rachel Carson’s Bittersweet Farewell to the World: Timeless Advice to the Next Generations from the Woman Who Catalyzed the Environmental Movement


“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”


Rachel Carson’s Bittersweet Farewell to the World: Timeless Advice to the Next Generations from the Woman Who Catalyzed the Environmental Movement

In 1962, after pioneering a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science and the natural world, the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring — a courageous exposé of the pesticide industry, illuminating the profound interconnectedness of nature. It stunned and sobered humanity’s moral imagination, effecting a tidal wave of unprecedented citizen concern, with consequences reaching across popular culture and policy, leading to the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carson had been following the science of pesticides and their grim effects on nature, meticulously glossed over by the agricultural and chemical industries, for more than a decade. Already the most esteemed science writer in the country, she used her voice and credibility to hold the government accountable for its abuses of power in the assault on nature. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” she wrote to her beloved. Fully aware that speaking out against the pesticide industry would subject her — as it invariably did — to ruthless attacks by corporate and government interests, she saw no moral choice but to defend what she held dearest by catalyzing a new kind of conscience.

Rachel Carson

Carson’s aim with Silent Spring was threefold — to transmute hard facts into literature that stands the test of time, to awaken a public hypnotized into docility to the perils of substances so mercilessly marketed as panaceas by chemical companies, and to challenge the government to rise to its neglected responsibility in regulating these perils. She admonished against the fragmentation, commodification, and downright erasure of truth in an era when narrow silos blind specialists to the interconnected whole and market forces sacrifice truth on the altar of revenue. When citizens protest and try to challenge those forces with incontestable evidence, they are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” In a sentiment of striking resonance half a century later, Carson exhorted: “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.” Above all, she countered the pathological short-termism of commercial interests with a sobering look at “consequences remote in time and place” as poisons permeate a delicate ecosystem in which no organism is separate from any other and no moment islanded in the river of time.

Photograph by Bill Reaves from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

In June 1962, five days before the first installment of Silent Spring made its debut in The New Yorker, the terminally ill Carson summoned the remnants of her strength to take her very first cross-country jetliner flight and deliver a long-awaited commencement address at Scripps College in California, excerpted in Figuring (public library), from which this piece is adapted. She titled it “Of Man and the Stream of Time” — hers, after all, was an era when every woman, too, was “man.” It was a crystallization of Carson’s moral philosophy, a farewell to the world she so cherished, and her baton-passing of that cherishment to the next generation.

She told graduates:

Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars.

[…]

The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.

Therein lies our hope and our destiny.

Couple with Carson’s contemporary and admirer Lewis Thomas on our human potential and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, Neil Gaiman’s stunning tribute to her legacy, and the story of the writing of Silent Spring.

For more tastes of Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s love letters, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf and the fate of technology, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s beautiful reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.


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Why Mrs Hinch and the 'cleanfluencers' are sweeping up the book charts


Sophie Hinchliffe, a hairdresser who dispenses cleaning advice to 2.3m Instagram followers, has sold more than 160,000 copies of her first book in three days. What’s going on?

In 1861, the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton warned her readers: “not only health but life may be said to depend on the cleanliness of culinary utensils.” More than a century and a half later, more than 150,000 people have rushed to snap up a copy of Instagram “cleanfluencer” Mrs Hinch’s guide to a spotless home, Hinch Yourself Happy, which promises to reveal “how a spot of cleaning is the perfect way to cleanse the soul”.

Mrs Hinch, AKA Sophie Hinchliffe, is a hairdresser from Essex who dispenses regular cleaning advice to her 2.3 million Instagram followers: how to make a bed “‘bedgasm’ ready for the week ahead”, her favourite cleaning gloves, dousing her bathroom in disinfectant and karate-chopping cushions. Her book, a mix of memoir and advice, promises that cleaning (which she calls “hinching”) “can soothe anxiety and stress”, according to her publisher Michael Joseph, which bought the rights to the book in a “heated” 11-way auction in December. Published on 4 April, the book sold sold 160,302 copies in three days – making it the second fastest-selling non-fiction title of all time, just behind Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone’s recipe collection Pinch of Nom, which broke the record just last month by selling 210,506 copies in three days.

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Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination


We are not “patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance” but “specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.”


Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.

Maurice Bucke

By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.

Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.

When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:

It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:

Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.

In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:

Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.

[…]

The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.

  1. A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
  2. An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation’” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
  3. An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
  4. Dissolution of the fear of death.
  5. Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
  6. A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”

Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:

Should we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:

  • Francis Bacon (30)
  • William Blake (31)
  • Blaise Pascal (31)
  • Honoré de Balzac (32)
  • Walt Whitman (34)
  • Gautama Buddha (35)
  • Edward Carpenter (37)
  • Baruch Spinoza (45)

Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:

The immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.

Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.

The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:

Religion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.

Complement Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness with Virginia Woolf’s ecstatic description of a psychedelic experience, physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic account of a secular transcendent experience, and neuroscientist Christof Koch on the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Edward Carpenter, who inspired Bucke’s ideas, on love, pain, and growth.


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Reading group: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood is our book for April


Atwood’s blistering take on a female friendship that descends into bullying and torture was criticised as ‘anti-feminist’ on its release in 1988

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye has won our vote and will be the subject of this month’s reading group.

The 1988 novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Canadian Governor General’s award, and was described in the New York Times as “the finest addition to the Best Girlfriend genre yet.”

Any group that feels beleaguered also feels that you shouldn’t tell tales outside the group. You shouldn’t give the enemy any ammunition. On the other hand, that just puts a great deal of pressure on those who have stories to tell. And on those who think that only certain kinds of pain are legitimate, ie not theirs.”

Continue reading…



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The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology


“It is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place.”


The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology

“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962 as he considered the creative process and the artist’s responsibility in society. “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch insisted a decade later in celebrating literature as a vehicle of truth and art as a force of resistance.

That singular power of literary art to cast a clarifying light on society’s most perilous breaking points is what the novelist, essayist, biographer, and jazz scholar Albert Murray (May 12, 1916–August 18, 2013) explores in a portion of his superb 1973 book The Hero and the Blues (public library), which I discovered through a passing mention in theoretical cosmologist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s marvelous The Jazz of Physics.

Albert Murray

Having lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the cataclysmic dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Murray writes:

In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. The writer who creates stories or narrates incidents which embody the essential nature of human existence in his time not only describes the circumstances of human actuality and the emotional texture of personal experience, but also suggests commitments and endeavors which he assumes will contribute most to man’s immediate welfare as well as to his ultimate fulfillment as a human being.

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

To examine the mechanics and ideals of cultural mythmaking is to inevitably consider what makes a hero. Half a century after Joseph Campbell outlined his classic eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Murray locates the heart of heroism in what he terms antagonistic cooperation — the necessary tension between trial and triumph as the outside world antagonizes the hero with adversity that in turn anneals the hero’s character and cultivates in him or her the inner strength necessary for surmounting the trial. In consonance with Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Murray writes:

The image of the sword being forged is inseparable from the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation, a concept which is indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action, in fiction or otherwise. The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures. The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers no less than the most cooperatively rugged sparring mates jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century after Nietzsche defined heroism as the willingness “to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope,” Murray adds:

Heroism, which like the sword is nothing if not steadfast, is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose. They make it possible for him to make something of himself. Such is the nature of every confrontation in the context of heroic action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s impassioned conviction that idealism is our best realism, Murray makes and unmakes an essential disclaimer:

Such a conception of heroism is romantic, to be sure, but after all, given the range of possibilities in human nature and conduct, so is the notion of the nobility of man. And so inevitably, whether obvious or not, are the fundamental assumptions underlying every character, situation, gesture, and story line in literature. For without the completely romantic presuppositions behind such elemental values as honor, pride, love, freedom, integrity, human fulfillment, and the like, there can be no truly meaningful definition either of tragedy or of comedy. Nor without such idealistic preconceptions can there be anything to be realistic about, to protest about, or even to be cynical about.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Don Quixote

A century and a half after Emerson pioneered the American ideal of self-reliance as fundamental to a healthy society, Murray writes:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

In a passage of striking timeliness amid our present cultural drama, Murray returns to the notion of antagonistic cooperation as a centerpiece of heroism, in literature and life:

The writer who deals with the experience of oppression in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation works in a context which includes the whole range of human motivation and possibility. Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether fascinating The Hero and the Blues with Walter Lippmann’s formulation of what makes a hero in his stunning tribute to Amelia Earhart, then revisit John Steinbeck on heroism and human nature.


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