An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska 

“I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, about how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite, or even do both at once. Eleven years ago today, Brain Pickings began — birthed by what feels like another self, one that was once myself but no longer is and never again will be, and yet tethered to who I am today by some invisible thread of personal sensibility woven by and of time.”

Source: An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska – Brain Pickings

Congratulations to Maria Popova and her eleven years of hard work on “Brain Pickings.” Here you’ll find some of the most diverse, exciting, literate, and inspirational essays and articles on the Internet.

Today’s poem is a good example of the wonders to be found here. Take a look. Subscribe. Feel enriched.


A something or other with no name

“To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love.” – Maria Popova in How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

We tend to view the world through the lens of our language. Students taking language classes are often surprised that many of their pet phrases and notions have no twin in the language they’re being taught. Why not? The native speakers of that language see the world differently. My stories about, say, Glacier National Park, would be much different if they had been written in Blackfeet or Kootenai.

As a storyteller (writing in English for others who speak English), I see that naming things is both a sign of respect and acknowledgement as well as a limiting factor. When you name a mountain “Chair Rock,” you’re doing a normal thing. But you’re also making it difficult to see the rock any other way. If you see a translation of a story that includes “Chair Rock,” the name may suddenly be further away from your world view than the author will ever know.

In many cultures, people hide their true names–sometimes called “basket names”–from people outside the family because those names are linked to their true selves and telling them gives others a power over you. I can respect that. When I write, there is much that I refuse to say.

americahorsewithnonameThere’s an old gag about Dewey Bunnell’s song “A Horse with No Name,” recorded by America in 1971, that what with all that time in the desert, couldn’t the guy name the horse?

It’s hard to visualize the song, originally called “Desert,” with a horse named Fury or Flicka or Mr. Ed. Perhaps he didn’t respect the horse other than to say he was, in fact, riding a horse rather than something or other. Or, perhaps, the horse didn’t want its true name to be known.

Here, I’m respecting Dewey Bunnell and America by mentioning them. For a writer, that’s intentional because–as is often the case–those names have been forgotten while–in this case–the song is still widely known.

The specifics we include in our storytelling are there not because we are are name dropping or “adding a bunch of description” (as some call it) or playing with a place names dictionary or a “this date in history” website.

They are in the story because they confer the “dignity of autonomy” and because they’re an affirmation of their existence, as Maria Popova calls it. The realities in a story tie the story to a time and place as part of what happened their or how the world moved there. They are also in the story because the characters living in that time or place would know them and have empathy for them–as perhaps you, the reader, will know them as you read.

I included a glossary in the back of Conjure Woman’s Cat because the story includes folk magic terms, blues songs and performers’ names that they characters in the story would know. If Conjure Woman’s Cat were nonfiction, I could have included footnotes. The glossary seemed less distracting.

Part of research is changing what a writer knows about his or her story in progress from a something or other to something specific and loved and known within the context of the tale and the language in which it’s told. To paraphrase Jim Croce, like the pine trees and the croaking toad, everything in the story has a name.

If an author gets those names right, s/he can immerse you into the real and/or fictional world where those names arise even though–like maps–they’re not the territory.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”

What might have been; what might still be

“Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.”

– Glenn Kurtz in “Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music,” quoted in “The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” by Maria Popova

writergraphicIf I were to give up writing, I would, to borrow an idea from Kurtz, feel the loss more strongly than the greatest lovers I have lost.

Childhood dreams of becoming something–a poet, a novelist, a playwright–often nurtured by well-meaning parents who tell their sons and daughters they have what it takes to be great, often fade as interlocking realities about earning a living with creative writing as part of the equation.

Even before Amazon and e-books and free books and cheap books turned publishing upside down, few writers stepped out of college with a manuscript in their briefcases that was ready to become a critical and/or a commercial success on Broadway, in Hollywood or in a major publisher’s newly released book list.

Life as they say, got in the way. And it still does.

It’s easy to find oneself suddenly middle aged with a drawer filled with rejection slips for manuscripts actually submitted and another drawer filled with manuscripts that stalled somewhere between once upon a time and happily ever after.

How easy it is to stop trying, perhaps to ponder on dark and stormy nights what might have been if one hadn’t gotten married too soon, if the baby hadn’t forced one to take a second job, if aged parents hadn’t needed time-consuming care, if somebody somewhere had provided an ounce more of encouragement and support and/or a way for the amateur to get his or her foot inside the golden door to professional status.

It’s also easy to wonder what kind of youthful vanity or arrogance led one to believe s/he would be one of the appallingly small percentage of writers who earns all or a substantial percentage of his/her yearly income as a poet, novelist or playwright/screenwriter.

The dream seemed so right, how could it be wrong?

Quitting the dream makes sense because, with the list of failures in mind between then and now, it has injured a lot of people: spouses and lovers led from hope to hope and from pillar to post while the writer promised year after year that “this” was “the” book, while schedules and expenses and work spaces were arranged to accommodate the writer’s holy mission, while books and manuscripts turned the house into a warehouse of faded paper and faded hopes.

It’s hard to quit and easy to quit. It’s hard because, like the lottery player who thinks this week’s number will win the jackpot, the writer thinks “this time my work in progress will find an agent and then a publisher who believes in it.”

It’s easy to quit because writing, after a long while, becomes not only an expensive and time-consuming hobby, but a rather sad thing like the habits of inventors who think they’re on the verge of creating  something the world needs or aging models who think “I still have it” or various other delusions that verge (at best) on hobbies and avocations when the stars and planets align.

When you quit, you stop growing and you feel the way you felt when the person you wanted to marry somehow slipped away. When you quit, you stop growing because you’re not practicing the craft your childhood or young adult self said it loved, said was a mission, said was like breathing, said was more important than sex, said was a life’s purpose, said was destiny.

If you’re lucky, so you don’t quit because practicing your craft is who you are and you realize when you’re not writing, you’re somebody you don’t recognize in the mirror.

Maybe Hollywood and Random House will never call, though you still dream that they might, and you understand that as some people like creating lists of all the birds they’ve spotted or the places they’ve been or the languages they’ve learnt, that you’re writing because it’s you and you love it and you cannot abide the death of part of yourself if you didn’t keep typing one word after another.

Loving it is where we need to be for those of us who aren’t Hillary Mantel and Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and so we keep writing for what might still be, the satisfaction of reading what we’ve written whether anyone else reads what we’ve written and finds any satisfaction from it, much less pays for the opportunity.

Perhaps we will one day be discovered. Meanwhile, we’re continually discovering ourselves through the words we put on the page.


thesailorcoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories” and “The Sailor.”