Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Quote of the Day

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Contrary to the strict division of the activity of the human spirit into separate departments—a division prevailing since the nineteenth century—I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the mythos, spoken and unspoken, of our present day and age.

Wolfgang Paul, in Quantum Questions

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November 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

The essential solidarity of poets

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We now give more serious weight to the words of a country’s poets than to the words of its politicians—though we know the latter may interfere more drastically with our lives. Religions, ideologies, mercantile competition divide us. The essential solidarity of the very diverse poets of the world…is one we can be thankful for, since its terms are exclusively those of love, understanding and patience. It is one of the few spontaneous guarantees of possible unity that mankind can show, and the revival of an appetite for poetry is like a revival of an appetite for all man’s saner possibilities, and a revulsion from the materialist cataclysms of recent years and the worse ones which the difference of nations threatens for the years ahead. The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun, and we shall have to adapt or disappear.

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations

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October 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Between uncertainty and certainty

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I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one. This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park. But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog. It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair. The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying…It leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice…

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

Sally Mann, Hold Still

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June 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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For simplicity, let me say that people like me are “geeks,” and that geeks comprise about two percent of the world’s population. I know of no explanation for the rapid rise of academic computer science departments—which went from zero to one at virtually every college and university between 1965 and 1975—except that they provided a long-needed home where geeks could work together.

Donald Knuth, to InformIT

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May 2, 2017 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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March 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Grace Paley

Have a low overhead. Don’t live with anybody who doesn’t support your work…Keep a paper and pencil in your pocket at all times, especially if you’re a poet. But even if you’re a prose writer, you have to write things down when they come to you, or you lose them, and they’re gone forever. Of course, most of them are stupid, so it doesn’t matter. But in case they’re the thing that solves the problem for the story or the poem or whatever, you’d better keep a pencil and a paper in your pocket. I gave this big advice in a talk, and then about three hours later I told a student I really liked his work and asked how I could get in touch with him. He said he would give me his name and address. I looked in my pocket, and I didn’t have any pencil or paper.

Grace Paley, to Poets & Writers

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March 2, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The caricature of a man

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Miguel de Unamuno

If a philosopher is not a man, he is anything but a philosopher; he is above all a pedant, and a pedant is a caricature of a man. The cultivation of any branch of science—of chemistry, of physics, of geometry, of philology—may be a work of differentiated specialization, and even so only within very narrow limits and restrictions; but philosophy, like poetry, is a work of integration and synthesis, or else it is merely pseudo-philosophical erudition.

All knowledge has an ultimate object. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is, say what you will, nothing but a dismal begging of the question. We learn something either for an immediate practical end, or in order to complete the rest of our knowledge. Even the knowledge that appears to us to be most theoretical—that is to say, of least immediate application to the non-intellectual necessities of life—answers to a necessity which is no less real because it is intellectual, to a reason of economy in thinking, to a principle of unity and continuity of consciousness…And the most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and the will. For it is on this rock that every philosophy that pretends to resolve the eternal and tragic contradiction, the basis of our existence, breaks to pieces. But do all men face this contradiction openly?

Little can be hoped from a ruler, for example, who has not at some time or other been preoccupied, even if only confusedly, with the first beginning and the ultimate end of all things, and above all of man, with the “why” of his origin and the “wherefore” of his destiny.

And this supreme occupation cannot be purely rational, it must involve the heart. It is not enough to think about our destiny: it must be felt. And the would-be leader of men who affirms and proclaims that he pays no heed to the things of the spirit, is not worthy to lead them.

Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

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