The Leaf-Mould of the Mind: On Influence, Conscious and Unconscious

Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their “influences.” Writers aren’t always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences–to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hopeto be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new life. 

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Other People’s Rodents

A group of Australian exchange students came to my sons’ school a while back. One of the most remarkable things I remember from their visit was their fascination with American squirrels. On more than one occasion, Australians were late for class because they were absorbed in watching gray squirrels scamper and cavort around campus. Bear in mind, these young men had kangaroos back home. And koala bears. And platypuses. But they didn’t have squirrels. So squirrels were a marvel to them.

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“A culture is a work of imagination”

We’re just a couple of days away from the Fourth of July here in the United States, and the approaching day have given me occasion to reflect on a line from poet Christian Wiman that I have quoted before in this space: “A culture, too, is a work of imagination.” Imagination–the kind of imagination we need–isn’t so much a matter of seeing things that aren’t real as a matter of seeing things that are truer and more real than the status quo.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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Love Letters–Valentine’s Day 2019

When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards–first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.

Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before–and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product! 

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Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

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Talk to Strangers: Everybody Has a Story

In a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast, producer Latif Nasser shares some of his techniques for finding stories to research and write about. The episode grows from this article, in which Nasser offers even more techniques, which range from setting Google alerts to rummaging around in library collections of personal papers and oral histories to repeatedly clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. 

I won’t list all of Nasser’s techniques, since you can click over to the article or podcast more easily than I can summarize them. His techniques are helpful, and I commend them to you. The most helpful thing about Nasser’s remarks, however, is his approach to story-finding almost as a lifestyle, or perhaps a philosophy. 

We all need to be in the habit of noticing, of keeping our eyes open to the marvels that surround us every minute of every day.

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Joy Is One Kind of Courage

Richard Wilbur is one of my favorite poets. This lovely remembrance by Christian Wiman articulates some of the reasons I love Wilbur so much. In short, for Richard Wilbur, creativity and productivity didn’t come from deep within the subconscious of the tortured artist, but from gratitude and wonder at a world he didn’t make. His gaze was outward, not inward.

What was revolutionary about Wilbur’s work, Wiman writes, is the light–in spite of the fact that Wilbur himself dealt with depression and addiction and the losses and hurts that we all deal with.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you’ve read more than two or three issues of The Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

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