‘Which is to say, I decided to write a poem.’

Ocean Vuong, writing for The New Yorker:

Reading and writing, like any other crafts, come to the mind slowly, in pieces. But for me, as an E.S.L. student from a family of illiterate rice farmers, who saw reading as snobby, or worse, the experience of working through a book, even one as simple as “Where the Wild Things Are,” was akin to standing in quicksand, your loved ones corralled at its safe edges, their arms folded in suspicion and doubt as you sink.

The final sentence in this piece is the most perfect summation of writing that I’ve ever read.


The Backstory Behind David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech

Sam Levine, writing for The Huffington Post:

David Foster Wallace wanted to know who had thought bringing him to Kenyon College to deliver its commencement address was a good idea.

Meredith Farmer, an English and philosophy double major in the class of 2005, nervously claimed responsibility.  

“Go fuck yourself,” Wallace told her. “Fuck you.”

As a famous embracer of cliche, D.F.W. would appreciate the fact that the only way the 'This is Water' speech can be described now is by saying that is has "taken on a life of its own."

/via The Howling Fantods


Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?

Kim Brooks, writing for New York Magazine:

As I aged, married, inched closer to the world of domesticity, I’d feel reassured whenever I learned that one of the contemporary writers I admired also had a family she hadn’t abused or abandoned (at least to anyone’s knowledge). Why should it be so hard to walk this line, now that domestic burdens were distributed more evenly between men and women, now that parenthood had been stripped by machine and innovation of much of its drudgery and transformed into something more elevated and imaginative? Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized.

I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.

As per the norm (these days), this piece's conclusion isn't nearly as drastic as it's open would have you believe. That being said, the answer to the title's question is obvious—of course it is.

Nothing has impacted my ability to find time to write (or lack of time to write) like having children. As I type this, an episode of Magic School Bus is blaring in the background, competing with a baby wailing in the other room and a three year-old chomping on fruit snacks. It's not quite the environment I imagined back in grad school.

But, the life I was leading in grad school? That wasn't going to produce much in the long run, either.

At the end of the day, domestic life is only the enemy of creative work if you refuse to change how you approach your creative work. And the good news is that there is no better way to learn about adapting to change than to have a couple of kids.


Anne Truitt on the Parallels Between Being an Artist and Being a Parent

Anne Truitt:

I noticed that when my children reached the age of about twelve, the balance of power shifted from me to them. I have sometimes felt myself in the quandary of a chicken who has hatched duck eggs: my children took to the water, I remained on the riverbank. But I cherish my own independence too much to begrudge them theirs. I do better on the bank cheering them on. If I keep a respectful distance, they welcome me into their lives almost as wholeheartedly as I welcomed them into mine when they were born. “Almost” because even the most affectionate adult children maintain with their parents a healthy reservation that marks the boundary of their autonomy.

If you had "Brain Pickings" on your What Site's Article Will Make Joe Cry in the Coffee Shop When He Reads It bingo card, you're a big winner.


Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20

Tom Bissell, in a New York Times essay adapted from his foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition of 'Infinite Jest':

I read for hours that way, morning after morning, my mind awhirl. For the first few hundred pages of my initial reading, I will confess that I greatly disliked “Infinite Jest.” Why? Jealousy, frustration, impatience. It’s hard to remember exactly why. It wasn’t until I was writing letters to my girlfriend, and describing to her my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and host-family members and long walks home through old Soviet collectivized farmland in what I would categorize as yellow-belt Wallaceian prose, that I realized how completely the book had rewired me. Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. Several writers’ names have become adjectivized — Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Dickensian — but these are designators of mood, of situation, of civic decay. The Wallaceian is not a description of something external; it describes something that happens ecstatically within, a state of apprehension (in both senses) and understanding. He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one.

Reading 'Infinite Jest' changes you. There's no way around it. Writer or not, it changes your brain. It doesn't just exercise your muscles; it activates muscles that you never even knew you had.


“What I do keeps the wolf from the door.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Marsh brought out the stimulator again. This time it was turned up to 8 before there was a reaction, and Dashi said, “Face.”

Marsh waved me over.

“See this? This little spot here. That’s the center for facial movement. We have to leave that in peace.”

Were all the expressions the human face could make supposed to originate in this little spot? All the joy, all the grief, all the light and all the darkness that filled a face in the course of a life, was it all traceable to this? The quivering lower lip before tears begin to flow, the eyes narrowing in anger, the sudden cracking up into laughter?

Marsh continued working with the two instruments. Using the sucker, he pried and pushed and shoved continuously, while he used the other tool in between, with no trace of hesitation, without stopping and, seemingly, without thinking.

He brought out the electric stimulator again. This time he pushed it toward the bottom of the hole.

“This should be the face again,” he said.

“Nothing,” Dashi said.


Dashi shook his head, and Marsh went on working.

Every adjective I know to describe something intelligent and beautiful and profound and surgically precise would fail to adequately capture how strongly this piece, by my new favorite writer, embodies all of those qualities. If you like reading about science, this is a must-read. If you like having the human condition displayed in front of your eyes, this is a must-read. Fuck all of that—this is a must-read.


How to (Actually) Be a Writer

Todd Moss, writing for Penguin Random House, on Medium:

That was just the beginning. Putnam asked for three more books in the Ryker series, one per year. This meant I needed a disciplined system to write and still hold down my day job. (I also drive my son to high school, coach middle school basketball, and pick up my fourth grader from dance class.) Thus the questions: Where do you find the time? How can you keep everything straight in your head? Do you ever see your family? When do you sleep?
Every author has their own system that works best for them. Here’s mine.

Look past the link bait-y title of this piece. This is about as close as I’ve ever seen to what the optimal setup of a functioning writer looks like. It’s a little dry for my taste (he’s not creating what I would call Literary Fiction, which demands a bit more of Artistic Process) but it’s a damn good starting point. They should hand something like this out to all the 20-somethings in MFA programs who (as I once did) think that hanging out with our buddies Charles Bukowski, Jim Beam, and Nat Sherman is the only way to write anything of worth.


My Writing Education: A Timeline

George Saunders, writing for The New Yorker:

Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.

Wow, I think, huh.

When my first book was published, I emailed all of my writing teachers just to tell them and say thank you. I remember lessons and advice from all of them. Every semester, I hope to have that effect on at least one of my students. The kind of devotion and respect that Saunders writes about here—I don’t know that I’ve ever even dreamed it was possible to inspire it in a student. But  now, after reading this—maybe.