Sunday, January 31, 2016

SocialistWorker.org | Weekend edition


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From: Socialist Worker <sw@socialistworker.org>
Sent: Friday, January 29, 2016 12:11 PM
To: SocialistWorker.org Alerts
Subject: SocialistWorker.org | Weekend edition
 
Here's what's new at SocialistWorker.org...
A review of this week's coverage, plus a few articles from the archive.
http://socialistworker.org
socialistworker.org
Daily news and opinion site based in the U.S., with reports from struggles around the world and left-wing analysis of political events.


________

Focus: Election 2016

Editorials
THE "DON'T VOTE FOR WHAT YOU WANT" CAMPAIGN
Clinton supporters are worried about Bernie Sanders not because he's turning off voters with his radicalism--but because he's attracting them.

Comment: Paul Heideman
THE CLINTONS' SHAMEFUL RECORD
Hillary Clinton is trying to downplay Bernie Sanders' surge in the polls by highlighting her support among Blacks--support she doesn't deserve in the least.
________

Focus: Crisis in Michigan

Comment: Dorian Bon
THEY POISONED A CITY
Flint's lead-poisoning crisis is finally getting national attention. But will the austerity fanatics and unaccountable bureaucrats be held responsible?

Report: Alan Maass
TEACHERS WANT SCHOOLS FIXED
After a series of sick-outs, Detroit teachers have put the shameful condition of the city's schools before the eyes of the world.
________

Focus: Black Lives Matter

Comment: Elizabeth Schulte
HE THOUGHT THEY'D STAY SILENT
The conviction of an Oklahoma City cop who committed serial rape is exposing routine abuse committed against Black women.

Report: Corin Warlick
POLICE KILLER INDICTED IN ATLANTA
Activists celebrated a grand jury decision to indict an Atlanta-area police officer for killing an unarmed, mentally ill man.

Comment
ON THE ROAD AHEAD FOR BLM
Protests and actions in the Bay Area during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend have raised important discussions for the struggle.
________

Focus: Europe

Speech: Eric Toussaint
EUROPE'S UNELECTED LEADERS
A leading left-wing economist describes how the European creditors maneuvered Greece into a position of subordination.

Comment
PODEMOS AFTER TWO YEARS
Two founding members of Spain's Podemos assess what the party has achieved and the challenges that lie ahead.

Report: Duncan Thomas
NO JUNGLE AND NO BORDERS
Refugees in the camp known as "the Jungle" in France are refusing to go quietly as the government attempts to move them.
________

The Egyptian Revolution

Interview: Sameh Naguib
FROM REVOLUTION TO REACTION
A leading Egyptian socialist reflects on the causes of the Egyptian Revolution five years ago--and the regime's drive to eradicate its memory today.

From our archives
Five years ago, SW's Ahmed Shawki reported from Cairo on the Egyptian revolution in the making. His articles, collected in a featured series, are an amazing document of the ebb and flow of the revolt against Mubarak.

Articles include:
I. Millions against Mubarak
II. The regime lashes back
III. The struggle surges ahead
IV: A bid to derail the rebellion
V. The unfolding revolution
VI: Another world is possible
________

Other Top Articles of the Week

Comment: Nicole Colson
CAUGHT IN THEIR OWN TRAP
The indictment of two anti-choice fanatics in Texas is welcome, but the right's attack on Planned Parenthood has already taken a toll.

Comment: Charlie Hore
THE UNOFFICIAL CULT OF MAO
What does the strange story of a demolished giant statue of the former Chinese leader say about the crisis of the current ruling class?
http://socialistworker.org/2016/01/26/the-unofficial-cult-of-mao

Review: Keegan O'Brien
A TRAVESTY REVEALED ON CAMERA
The Netflix series Making a Murderer tears the mask off the criminal justice system--for a huge audience across the country.

Review: Ruth Hurley
WORKING-CLASS HISTORY 101
Struggle, even when defeated, shapes the institutions of U.S. society, argues a new documentary about the U.S working class.
http://socialistworker.org/2016/01/26/working-class-history-101
________ 

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Mozart's daily routine, the puzzlement of why we experience time as linear, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and more



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Mozart's daily routine, the puzzlement of why we experience time as linear, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and more
Mozart's daily routine, physicist Paul Davies on the puzzlement of why we experience time as linear, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy on the antidote to anxiety and impostor syndrome, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and more Email not displaying correctly?
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WelcomeHello, Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – Frida Kahlo on love, the psychology of what makes a great story, words of wisdom from people's 80-year-old selves, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spent hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it each month, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Cosmic Solitude: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on How the Prospect of Being Alone in the Universe Can Make Us Better Stewards of Our Humanity

In 1984, astronomer Jill Tarter founded SETI — an institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That year, Carl Sagan — a major supporter of the SETI project — began writing his novel Contact, which was published in 1985 and adapted into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster twelve years later. In the most beautiful scene in the movie, Foster's character, inspired by Dr. Tarter, peers out her spaceship window as she approaches an extraordinary alien world and gasps: "They should've sent a poet!"
Several months before the launch of SETI, it was indeed one of humanity's greatest poets — Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — who addressed the abiding allure of extraterrestrial life by way of its mirror image: the possibility that we might be alone in the universe, what it reveals about our most elemental fears, and how it can ennoble the human spirit.
In a beautiful 1983 piece titled Cosmic Solitude later included in her Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (public library) — a collection of short sketches, reflections, and "loose associations" inspired by books Szymborska was reading at the time — she writes:
Life is picky and demands a mixture of highly specific conditions; we've found their fulfillment on our planet and nowhere else so far. Which doesn't mean that among all the billions and billions of stars there's no chance of a similar combination.
With her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry wit, Szymborska offers an uncommon take on the implications:
I admit that I find the question of life beyond Earth quite interesting, but still I'd prefer not to have it settled too quickly and definitively. For example, I'm cheered, not disappointed, by the virtually certain fact that there is no life on any other planet in our solar system. I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth. Furthermore I'm not waiting for any UFOs, and I'll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs. Besides, I don't even know what I'm supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddis flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal. At the turn of the century, fashion called for rotating tables at which you could summon up the spirit of Copernicus to tell you who'd stolen your garnet ring or the spirit of three-year-old Sabina, who'd authoritatively predict when and where to expect the next European war. It was taken for granted that every spirit must know everything and be good at everything.
Jodie Foster in Contact, 1997. (Photograph courtesy of MoMA)
Setting aside the satire of the supernatural, Szymborska turns to the deeper concern undergirding our longing for celestial companions — our terror of solitude, extended from its acute manifestation in the human realm into our cosmic environment. In a passage all the more poignant today, as we stand perched on the precipice of her "imaginable future," she writes:
[But] the belief in UFOs has its serious side: fear in the face of cosmic solitude. I don't mean to make light of this, I'll just try to ask a few questions. Would this solitude really be so awful? So unbearable? … Would we really be driven to darkest despair by the news that life doesn't exist beyond Earth? Oh, I know, I know, no scientist will make such an announcement either today or tomorrow, since we have no data at this point and no way of obtaining data in the imaginable future. But let's stop and think about such a revelation. Would that really be the worst of all possible news? Perhaps just the opposite — it would sober us, brace us, teach us mutual respect, point us toward a slightly more human way of life? Perhaps we wouldn't talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos? Maybe a single, other life would finally gain the value it deserves, the value of a phenomenon, a revelation, a specimen unique to the entire universe? Every stage manager knows that the tiny figure of an actor against the backdrop of dark curtains on a vast and empty stage becomes monumental in every word and gesture… And after all, would the solitude we fear so much really be so solitary? Along with all the other people, plants, and animals?
Complement this particular portion of Szymborska's wholly wonderful Nonrequired Reading with Edward Abbey's love letter to solitude and psychoanalyst Adam Philips on why a capacity for "fertile solitude" is essential for a full life, then revisit Amanda Palmer's beautiful readings of Szymborska's poems "Possibilities" and "Life While-You-Wait."

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Why Can't You Remember Your Future? Physicist Paul Davies on the Puzzlement of Why We Experience Time as Linear

"If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail," French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his 1929 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time, "we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer." Nowhere is this duality of time more disorienting than in the constant mental time travel we perform between what has been and what will be in order to anchor ourselves to what is. As our lives tick on, gradually robbing the future of potential and robbing the past of relevance, we trudge along the arrow of time dragging with us this elusive curiosity we call a self — an ever-shifting packet of personal identity, mystifying in how it links us to our childhood selves and misleading in how it maps out our future selves.
That puzzlement is what Australian theoretical physicist Paul Davies explores in a wonderfully mind-bending passage from his altogether terrific 1995 book About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution (public library), which embodies my three criteria for what makes a great science book.
Davies writes:
When I was a child, I often used to lie awake at night, in fearful anticipation of some unpleasant event the following day, such as a visit to the dentist, and wish I could press some sort of button that would have the effect of instantly transporting me twenty-four hours into the future. The following night, I would wonder whether that magic button was in fact real, and that the trick had indeed worked. After all, it was twenty-four hours later, and though I could remember the visit to the dentist, it was, at the that time, only a memory of an experience, not an experience.
Another button would also send me backwards in time, of course. This button would restore my brain state and memory to what they were at that earlier date. One press, and I could be back at my early childhood, experiencing once again, for the first time, my fourth birthday…
Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman addressed this perplexity in his model of the experiencing self and the remembering self, but for Davies the more interesting question deals not with the pure psychology of the experience but with how the accepted physics of time, seeded by Einstein's relativity theory, gives shape to that psychological experience. He returns to the larger questions arising from his childhood thought experiments:
With these buttons, gone would be the orderly procession of events that apparently constitutes my life. I could simply jump hither and thither at random, back and forth in time, rapidly moving on from any unpleasant episodes, frequently repeating the good times, always avoiding death, of course , and continuing ad infinitum. I would have no subjective impression of randomness, because at each stage the state of my brain would encode a consistent sequence of events.
[…]
The striking thing about [such] "thought experiments" is, how would my life seem any different if this button-pushing business really was going on? What does it even mean to say that I am experiencing my life in a jumpy, random sort of manner? Each instant of my experience is the experience, whatever its temporal relation to other experiences. So long as the memories are consistent, what meaning can be attached to the claim that my life happens in a jumbled sequence?
In the remainder of the thoroughly satisfying About Time, Davies goes on to probe the answer to this question by examining how the history of human thought, from St. Augustine to Einstein, has left us with a model of time that simply doesn't reflect the nature of experience, and what we can expect from the evolution of science as we reach for more complete models of this timelessly puzzling dimension of reality.

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Mozart's Daily Routine

"The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us," Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating how our routines give shape to our inner lives. This, perhaps, is why we're so transfixed by the daily routines of great artists, writers, and scientists — a sort of magical thinking under the spell of which we come to believe that if we were to replicate the routines of geniuses, we would also replicate some dimension of their inner lives and, in turn, their outer greatness.
Still, magical thinking aside, without insight into the routines of those who lead creatively fruitful lives, we would have never been able to study the psychology of the ideal daily routine. And few lives have been more creatively fruitful than that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791). In a letter to his father from December of 1777, found in Letters of Mozart (free ebook | public library), 21-year-old Mozart describes his daily routine at Mannheim, where he had traveled in search of employment. Unable to find work, he moved in with the musical Weber family he had befriended and fell in love with Aloysia, one of the family's four daughters, who rejected his suit.
He describes his days at the Weber house:
I am writing this at eleven at night, because I have no other leisure time. We cannot very well rise before eight o'clock, for in our rooms (on the ground-floor) it is not light till half-past eight. I then dress quickly; at ten o'clock I sit down to compose till twelve or half-past twelve, when I go to Wendling's, where I generally write till half-past one; we then dine. At three o'clock I go to the Mainzer Hof (an hotel) to a Dutch officer, to give him lessons in galanterie playing and thorough bass, for which, if I mistake not, he gives me four ducats for twelve lessons. At four o'clock I go home to teach the daughter of the house. We never begin till half past four, as we wait for lights. At six o'clock I go to Cannabich's to instruct Madlle. Rose. I stay to supper there, when we converse and sometimes play; I then invariably take a book out of my pocket and read…
But as he struggled to reconcile the growing demands of his evolving career and with those of his romance with Constanze, the third Weber daughter, his daily routine changed considerably. In a letter to his sister penned in 1782, a few months before he married his beloved, Mozart outlines a routine so intense that it left him a mere five hours of night's sleep:
At six o'clock in the morning I have my hair dressed, and have finished my toilet by seven o'clock. I write till nine. From nine to one I give lessons. I then dine, unless I am invited out, when dinner is usually at two o'clock, sometimes at three, as it was to-day, and will be to-morrow at Countess Zichi's and Countess Thun's. I cannot begin to work before five or six o'clock in the evening, and I am often prevented doing so by some concert; otherwise I write till nine o'clock. I then go to my dear Constanze, though our pleasure in meeting is frequently embittered by the unkind speeches of her mother, which I will explain to my father in my next letter. Thence comes my wish to liberate and rescue her as soon as possible. At half-past ten or eleven I go home, but this depends on the mother's humor, or on my patience in bearing it. Owing to the number of concerts, and also the uncertainty whether I may not be summoned to one place or another, I cannot rely on my evening writing, so it is my custom (especially when I come home early) to write for a time before going to bed. I often sit up writing till one, and rise again at six.

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Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome

"We know that we live in contradiction," Albert Camus wrote in his magnificent meditation on strength of character, "but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it." One of the most pervasive and perennial contradictions pulling the human spirit asunder is our yearning for greatness, which coexists with our chronic propensity for self-doubt.
How to reduce that abiding contradiction is what social psychologist, researcher, and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explores in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (public library) — a potent antidote to one of the most common yet secretive and stigmatic maladies of modern life: impostor syndrome.
At the heart of Cuddy's research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn't power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one's own values, feelings, and capabilities. This capacity for presence is the seedbed of the confidence, courage, and resilience required to rise to even the most daunting of life's challenges.
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Let's make one thing clear: Although Cuddy's work deals in terms that have been hijacked by New-Agism and worn thin of meaning by the self help movement, it's a far cry from both. Instead, she fuses the rigor of a researcher befitting one of the world's finest universities with the raw empathic insight that springs from uncommonly trying personal experience.
When she was a college sophomore, Cuddy was in a brutal car accident in which she sustained a fractured skull and a diffuse axonal injury, or DAI — a traumatic brain injury that damages the brain's neural tissues and connective wiring, significantly slowing down the speed at which information travels. Unlike area-specific injuries that might affect concrete functions like language or motor ability, DAI rattles the entire brain and disfigures the most elemental ways in which you think, feel, behave, and interact, leaving you, as Cuddy puts it, a different person. Doctors declared her cognitively unfit to finish college and her IQ dropped thirty points, or two standard deviations. She was told that, in every measurable way, she was no longer smart.
Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works
Despite rounds of cognitive therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychological counseling, Cuddy slipped further and further from herself. She reflects:
Our way of thinking, our intellect, our affect, our personality — these aren't things we expect will ever change. We take them for granted. We fear having an accident that will make us paralyzed, change our ability to move around, or cause us to lose our hearing or sight. But we don't think about having an accident that will cause us to lose ourselves.
For many years after the head injury, I was trying to pass as my former self… although I didn't really know who that former self was. I felt like an impostor, an impostor in my own body.
But, propelled by the parallel redemptive forces of tenacity and the passage of time, Cuddy was able to slowly regain her cognitive ability, began studying psychology, and eventually became a social psychologist researching the interrelated phenomena she had collided with and tussled with and danced with on her own journey — confidence and self-doubt, the relationship between identity and the intellect, the central role of presence in our sense of power.
In 2012, she delivered a TED talk that spread across the globe like wildfire — an unexpected testament to just how deeply these questions affect people of every walk of life.
The astonishing response to her talk — which was viewed more than 30 million times and became the second most watched TED talk of all time — catalyzed Cuddy's further research into the psychological machinery of presence, a quality strangely elusive of a definition yet unmistakable when we feel it and unmistakably aggrieving when we feel its absence. She illustrates the latter with an instructive historical anecdote:
Eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in debate over a topic that he knew well. But perhaps he wasn't himself on that evening — a bit self-conscious, distracted, worried about looking foolish. When challenged on some point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of cobbling together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party.
Once outside, on his way down the staircase, Diderot continued to replay that humiliating moment in his mind, searching in vain for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found it. Should he turn around, walk back up the stairs, and return to the party to deliver his witty comeback? Of course not. It was too late. The moment — and, with it, the opportunity — had passed. Regret washed over him. If only he'd had the presence of mind to find those words when he needed them.
Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote, "A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs."
And so he coined the phrase l'esprit d'escalier — the spirit of the stairs, or staircase wit. In Yiddish it's trepverter. Germans call it treppenwitz. It's been called elevator wit [or] afterwit. But the idea is the same — it's the incisive remark you come up with too late. It's the hindered comeback. The orphaned retort. And it carries with it a sense of regret, disappointment, humiliation. We all want a do-over. But we'll never get one.
[…]
Most of us have our own personal version of this experience. After interviewing for a job, auditioning for a role, going on a date, pitching an idea, speaking up in a meeting or in class, arguing with someone at a dinner party.
But how did we get there? We probably were worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; feeling powerless, and also consenting to that feeling; clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat. That's how we got there. Before we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn't yet unfolded.
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of Alice in Wonderland
This, Cuddy notes, invariably leaves us with a sunken spirit, which in turn prevents us from showing up for any interaction with our whole, unselfconscious selves. (It's worth pointing out that such self-defeating tendencies bedevil even the most outwardly successful, even those we deem geniuses — take, for instance, the excruciating self-doubt and self-flagellation permeating John Steinbeck's diaries.)
The counterpoint to this paralyzing self-consciousness, Cuddy argues, is the quality of presence — an ability to project poised confidence, passion, and enthusiasm in high-pressure situations, which can't be easily faked but can be deliberately cultivated.
She writes:
The ideal effect of presence [is that] you execute with comfortable confidence and synchrony, and you leave with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, regardless of the measurable outcome.
To be clear, Cuddy's work on presence isn't about making you a more confident public speaker or a more persuasive negotiator or a more compelling interviewee — although its application does very much effect these surface outcomes; it's about a much larger and more expansive dimension of our personhood, exploring the deepest layers of what we experience as our identity and equipping us with the ability to attune to and articulate those dimensions.
How to do that is what Cuddy examines in the remainder of Presence, using a social psychologist's lens to synthesize and integrate insights from fields ranging from behavioral economics to Eastern philosophy to neuroscience. Complement it with Brené Brown on cultivating the qualities resilient people have in common and Parker Palmer on how to stop hiding your soul.

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How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

Recently, in listening to a dear and brilliant friend rationalize her choice to stay at a soul-sucking corporate job under the seemingly sensible pretext that it would eventually grant her the financial freedom to be a full-time writer, I was reminded of how one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.
In 1906, Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) left teaching and moved to New York City to join the staff of McClure's Magazine — the most successful and prestigious periodical of the era, famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing trailblazing fiction by writers like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But its success was also driven by brutally ambitious corporate management that saw journalism as a profitable business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today. Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but when the majority of McClure's staff — including the great Lincoln Steffens — left en masse over discontentment with the magazine's corporate ruthlessness, she was tasked with the onerous work of an intense investigative project, which became a sensation and exploded the magazine's circulation. "Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me," she wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
Cather was excellent at the job, enjoyed being called an "executive," and couldn't deny the gratifications of the attractive pay. But she eventually came to feel that the hamster wheel of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, steering her further from her calling as a literary writer. And yet she remained unable to tear herself away, for all the complex and conflicted reasons that any of us stay in situations, relationships, and jobs that contract rather than magnifying our spirit.
Everything changed on December 13, 1908, when Cather received a remarkable letter of advice from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. Found in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — the marvelous tome that gave us Cather on writing through times of trouble and her only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — the letter was at once a hard shake of the shoulders and a warm embrace. It provided precisely the kind of prod Cather needed in order to awaken from her trance of corporate productivity and revive her creative energies as a writer.
Sarah Jewett
Jewett wrote:
Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.
Cather was shaken, in the best possible way. Her reply to Jewett is masterwork of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:
My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;
Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one's habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls "men and measures." If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it's catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.
At the heart of Cather's lament is the acute sense of the tradeoff between productivity and creativity, calling to mind Parker Palmer's incisive observation that "the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we'll take on."
She writes to Jewett:
Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.
[…]
[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.
McClure, for his part, was a deft manipulator of the interior conditions that kept his staff from hopping off the corporate hamster wheel, feeding their confidence at the specific productivity he needed and fueling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. Cather writes:
Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.
And yet Cather remained awake to the tradeoff, animated by unshakable restlessness about the sacrifice she was making in buying into this particular model of success at the expense of her creative satisfaction:
The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It's stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day's work, but it's all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can't get things in fleeting glimpses and I can't get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn't stimulate me, it only wears me out.
Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can't be good for one, can it? It can't be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men's. It seems to spread one's very brain cells apart so that they don't touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one's immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.
Her mind then performs the same acrobatics of rationalization we all engage in when we justify tolerating circumstances that don't serve us in the grand scheme of a life:
I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don't think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — "and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book]." It's so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It's so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.
Cather began working on her first novel shortly thereafter. Although it took her another three years to finally leave McClure's — by that point, she was one of the most powerful women in journalism — once she did, she never looked back. Her debut novel was published that year to critical acclaim and was followed by thirteen books over the next three decades, which earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize and established her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with Cather on happiness, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit, Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, and Charles Bukowski's beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-draining day job to become a full-time writer.

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