This is my (Abe's) writing down of Maria’s answers to the top 10 questions resulting from her earlier episode on The Tim Ferriss Show.
There are so many points throughout Maria's monologue that deeply touch me with the sincerity and clarity of artistic and creative integrity. So much so that I felt compelled to write it all down and really dig into everything that she had to say. So much of creative expression depends on having something to say; not just for the sake of creation itself, but for expression from one’s own voice and perspective. So I ask myself, “What do you have to say, today?”
"I read very few blogs, regularly, at all, Brain Pickings is one of the few that makes the cut. It is a real treasure trove."
“Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give a complete beginner about starting a Blog?”
The second you begin to write for or to a so called “audience”, and this applies equally to podcasting and filmmaking and photography and dance and any field of creative endeavor, the second you start doing it for an audience, you’ve lost the long game because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run, requires most of all, keeping yourself excited about it, which in turn of course requires only doing things that you yourself are interested in, that enthuse you.
I think the key to being interesting is being interested and enthusiastic about those interests; that’s contagious. That’s what makes people read you and come back, which by the way should and can only ever be a byproduct of your own willingness to keep coming back to your work, to your creation because if you do it for other people, trying to predict what they’ll be interested in and kind of pretzeling yourself to fit those expectations, you soon begin to begrudge it and become embittered and it begins to show in the work. It always, always shows in the work when you resent it. And there’s really nothing less pleasurable to read than embittered writing. I’m reminded of Vonnegut who in the 7th of his “8 tips on Writing”, he said, write to please just one person. If open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. Now first of all, gotta love Vonnegut. Always so witty and so wise. But when I first came upon this, which was maybe about five years into Brain Pickings, it so elegantly crystallized something that I deeply believed and was kind of living by and operating by but hadn’t articulated this succinctly even to myself. Now sometimes I think people, usually younger people can misinterpret that to mean write to please your teacher, or your publisher, or the person you’re in love with. But Vonnegut really meant; Write to please yourself.
And the other thing related to this which is a major, major thing is this. I bet you that, if Vonnegut were alive today and was writing in a medium like a blog, he’d be approaching it the same way he did his fiction. And he, like any self respecting writer, would never ever, ever, refer to or think about his writing on that platform, on any platform, as quote unquote, “content". On that platform, be it a blog, be it something else, which is just a medium for the writing, he would be writing things more in the spirit of “Cat’s Cradle” than in the unspirited vein of (? couldn’t understand this one). There’s actually I think nothing more toxic to the creation of meaningful cultural material, whatever its medium, than the term “content”. Which already implies an icky external motive. Content is something you produce and purvey to other people, filler material that becomes currency for advertising and whatnot, and not something you do for yourself. Nobody does content for the joy of their soul. And the second you start thinking of your writing as content, you’ve altered the motive, you’re no longer writing for yourself. So, to distill. Write for yourself, Stay interested, don’t ever let yourself think of what you do as content or be bullied into viewing it, much less treating it as such.
"You have probably read and understood all the wisdom and knowledge shared on Brain Pickings, do you feel you have become who you want to be? If not, what is stopping you?"
It’s such an interesting question because they’re so many layers to it. As I told Tim in our original conversation, I started Brain Pickings in my early twenties as a kind of record of my own becoming. And now, nine years in it’s still that and it can only ever be that, because we never stop becoming, we never stop growing. If we do, that’s how we know we’re dead. Life is a continual process of arrival into who we are and the funny thing actually is that from the vantage point of any moment in our lives, we look back on ourselves say, five years earlier and we think, “Wow, what a spiritual embryo I was, what an intellectual baby, and yet that very vantage point, when looked at from five years into the future, will look just as primitive a version of who we are then. The Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert whose book “Stumbling on Happiness” should be required reading for every human being. He puts it perfectly, he says “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” And I think that’s so true.
But, there’s a fine between contentment and self satisfaction. And I think the key is to be content with who you are and where you are at any given moment. Because living with presence both requires and gives rise to such contentment. But not to be so self satisfied as to assume that you’ve reached perfection or who you’re supposed to be. And to kind of cut yourself off from that vital impulse for continual growth. So, back to the question…I don’t think I’ve become who I want to be and I have become who I want to be, in this moment, but not in an ultimate sense. And what’s stopping me from becoming who I want to be. Well, in a way, what I do is all about stopping myself from having the illusion of having arrived. Of having become a static and self satisfied final self. So, the thing stopping me then is the very thing that’s driving me forward and I think that’s true of all of us. If we’re serious about personal growth and this lifelong process of Becoming.
“What is the most significant characteristic that distinguishes people who have accomplished greatness in any given field?"
I would say consistency. Showing up day in and day out, psycho-emotional rain or shine. If you look at the diary of any great artist or writer, and I read a lot of those so I have a pretty vast sample pool here. The one thing you see over and over is that, whatever happens, whatever they’re experiencing, be it agonizing self doubt, which by the way all of them experience, no where more beautifully than in Steinbeck’s “Working Days”, which I highly, highly recommend…or the intoxicating elation of being in love which makes you unable to think about anything else at all.
Making a living is merely a by product of that. And for some of them that doesn’t even come in their lifetime. And make no mistake by the way. All those artists and writers who bemoan how hard the work is, and oh how tedious the creative process, and oh, what a tortured genius they are. Don’t buy into it. They’re doing it perhaps because we’ve created society that mistakes the notion of hard work to mean not just dedicated work but difficult work. As if difficulty and struggle and torture somehow confer seriousness upon your chosen work. Doing great work simply because you love it, sounds, in our culture, somehow flimsy and that’s a failing of our culture not of the choice of work that artists make. But here’s the thing. Yes, a number of artists are bedeviled by serious mental illness that makes them experience actual, real anguish in their lives. I’ve written, by the way, about the relationship between creativity and mental illness. If you’re curious, it’s far more complex than we realize. You can find that online. But in any case, the reality of that, is that without their art all of these artists would have suffered more.
One of my big, big, big pet peeves is when someone, say, comments on Van Gogh's letters to his brother, which are absolutely beautiful and full of so much wisdom and light. And somebody says ”Why should we heed Van Gogh when he ultimately perished by his own madness.” Well, how many people are there in the history of the world who perished by their own madness and didn’t paint the “Starry Night”. Van Gogh's art didn’t take his life. It redeemed it. Without it he would have just been an average unkempt, mentally ill man, who died miserable in a small village. With it he was able to experience moments of transcendent joy and meaning. Which also happen to produce some of the greatest, most lasting works of art of all time. And of course, Van Gogh is an extreme case. Both in his talent and in his misery. But his life illustrates why every great artist, and I mean artist in the broadest sense of a human being creating work that makes other human beings feel something meaningful, why every great artist does what they do.
“How do you decide who to read and what to read first? What makes something not worth reading?"
I often say that literature is the original internet. So, every footnote in a book, every citation, every reference is essentially a hyperlink to another book. Most of the great books I’ve come across, and this applies especially to really wonderful forgotten books, most of those I’ve discovered through a mention by an author that I already enjoyed. It’s kind of the ultimate recommendation algorithm that leads you to new very surprising manifestations of the same shared sensibility sure to please you. And for instance recently it was through Cheryl Strayed’s memoir that I came upon a beautiful book from 1968 by a man named Edward Abbey, it’s called “Desert Solitaire”. And he writes about a few months he spent as a park ranger in the Moab desert. But he’s really writing about solitude and our intricate connection to the natural world and how we find ourselves by getting lost. Very profound things through what’s essentially a travelogue. And similarly, it was through Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel the “Signature Of All Things” which is obviously fiction, but it’s heavily inspired by the long history, actual history of largely unsung female botanists. It was through that that I came upon a tiny miraculously beautiful book called “Gathering Moss” by a bryologist, that I learned, is a scientist that studies moss. A bryologist named Robin Wall Kimmerer. She writes about moss, but she’s really writing about how to live.
To me, that’s a book that illuminates some aspect of how to live, however large or small, that leaves you with a sense of having understood a little bit better your purpose here. Or having appreciated a little bit more some aspect of the world, inner or outer, or ideally both. And as for the sequence of what to read when, it is so much a matter of what’s on my mind, what I’m experiencing in my own life, what I’m trying to make sense of. I read to make sense of life. And the writing is just the record of the reading. So mood, life events, time of year, time of the month, time of the day. All of these can have an impact on what of the things I have chosen to read, I will read, begin reading in that specific moment. But again, it has to answer some aspect of this question of how am I going to make my life better and richer, in this moment, and in the long run.
Actually, a number of people asked very similar questions so I’m gonna combine them and answer the all at once here.
“What is the text you refer to again and again” and “What book have you read multiple times and have read the most"
I would say right now, and this answer might be different in another nine years, the diaries of Henry David Thoreau. Speaking of this intersection of the outer world and the inner world, nobody writes more beautifully about the immutable dialog between the two than he. There is just so much, and I mean so much, universal timeless truth in his private reflections, on everything from the best definition of success to the perils of sitting, which he wrote about 150 years before we started saying “sitting is the new smoking”. And actually, what I said just a few moments ago about our warped cultural ideas of hard work reminded me of a journal entry, one of his journal entries. Let me see if I can find it. Ok, ok here it is. It’s from March of 1842.
Think of what a beautiful metaphor this is for not mistaking the husk, the outer accoutrements of productivity like busy-ness, or a full calendar, or a clever auto responder. Not mistaking those for the kernel, the core and substance of the actual work produced. And he then says, “those who work much, do not work hard.” I love that.
“If your house was burned and you had the chance to rescue only 1 book, assuming that you cannot buy any other book later on, which one would it be?"
Now if I can’t ever buy another book, the answer I guess would be the same, Thoreau’s Journals. But perhaps a more practical approach, assuming I can at some point replace the burned books, however far off into the future, then what is most valuable to me in read books is actually my marginalia. So for instance, while I have a physical copy of Thoreau's diaries, it’s actually available as an ebook which is how I most frequently revisit it and my highlights and notes on it are electronic, so I have so called copies of them in the cloud. It’s not clear in the question whether the great big fire is gonna wipe out the internet as well, assuming it does not, but there are out of print books that I treasure that are hard, if not impossible, to replace. I have copious notes by hand. In that case, I’d have a different answer and it would be a tie between “A Rap on Race”, which is the transcript of James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s extraordinarily prescient 1970 conversation on not just race but also gender equality, democracy, and forgiveness and the difference between guilt and responsibility and what comes after consumer culture. It is amazing. It is very, very, very hard to find. My book has so much of my own writing that on some pages it’s more than the actual text. So that would be tied with, “On Science, Necessity, & the Love of God” by the French Philosopher Simone Weil, whom I consider one of the most luminous and lucid and under appreciated minds the twentieth century. That book is also very, very, very, very, hard to find. Both of them in fact are so deeply out of print there’s actually a black market for them online, so if you manage to find a copy you can probably make some good money for it on eBay or Amazon used books. And again both of those copies, my own copies are so heavily annotated that what I’d be running with really is as much my own thoughts and ideas recorded in there as the actual ideas of the authors.
"If you could guarantee that every public official or leader read one book and engaged in one habit what would those be?"
The book would be, rather obviously, Plato's "The Republic". I'm actually gobsmacked that this isn't required in order to be sworn into office; like the Constitution is required for us American immigrants when comes time for obtain to gain American Citizenship.
After all, if you're a public official, the public good, which is just another word for the best possible collective destiny, should be your primary concern and nothing centers you more powerfully on that than the mindset gained through meditation and through mindfulness.
"How do you turn down invitations that don't interest you? How do you avoid getting time jacked by people who are just seeking from you and don't share anything?"
I think that's harder early on. Both earlier in life and earlier in any vocational trajectory because we're such pavlovian creatures and we crave positive reinforcement and we often mistake interest for affirmation of our worth, especially if there's an element of prestige attached to it. That is interest from people or institutions we admire, we perceive as prestigious. So if somebody admirable is interested in us we think , well we too then must be admirable, but over time I think you get better at trusting your criteria for for what makes you and your work admirable; admirable on the inside, that is. What makes you proud. Maybe appearing on CNN for two minutes will make your grandmother proud, but if the travel and the preparation and the logistics eat up 20 hours of your time so that your writing suffers so that you will ultimately not be proud of the result, then maybe it's not worth it. Often I think the paradox is that accepting the request you receive is at the expense of the quality of the very work, the reason for those requests in the first place and that's what you always have to protect. I recently read Oliver Sacks' memoir, "On the Move" which by the way and I don't say this lightly because perhaps by now you know how much and how whole heartedly and voraciously I read, it has been one of the most transformative reading experiences of my life and I couldn't recommend it more heartedly. But in any case, in it Dr. Sachs mentions that when his career as a writer started picking up, so did obviously the demands for speaking and interviews and this and that and so he put a piece of paper on the wall by his desk, that simply said, in ALL CAPS, "NO!" with an exclamation point. It was to remind himself to decline invitations that tipped away from his writing time. These reminders, they're so simple, they're so, in this case so analog, and they work. I have a tattoo on my right arm that, my right forearm, which I see all the time, that reminds me every day what to focus on. Now, this said, I think it's a very subjective thing, this dance of discerning whether the end product will make you proud, will be rewarding and fulfilling by your innermost measure. So for me, for example, I almost always do things for students, even if it takes up my reading and writing time. Because I feel that if I can help one young person even consider a life path other than the corporate gristmill, I can persuade one aspiring journalist to consider not working for BuzzFeed and refusing to feed the public's appetite for mindlessness and mediocrity and to assure this young person to have faith in the possibility of building a life and a career based on E.B. White’s journalistic ideal of lifting people up rather than lowering them down, then it's worth my time. It is absolutely worth my time. I also always do things for friends and for people whose work I admire and want to support and with whom I feel a kind of kinship of spirit, "Hi, Tim", even if it takes time away from my own work. I really, really, really believe that creative culture is woven of these invisible threads of goodwill between people who believe in one another and art is carried on the wings of this kinship.