Most serious writers and online publishers are relentlessly on the prowl for fresh inspiration to fuel both their creativity and productivity.
If you aren’t familiar with the writing of Maria Popova, prolific author of the “discovery engine for interestingness” known as Brain Pickings, you’ve been missing out on some of the most fascinating and heady publishing on the web.
Ms. Popova is a wellspring of knowledge and she daily cross-pollinates a wide variety of disciplines, all in the spirit of creativity and discovery. She has contributed to Wired, The Atlantic, is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow, and was named to Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business (among many other accolades).
Although she began her professional career in advertising, she found the DIY integrity of publishing her own website far more rewarding, and her indie work ethic has contributed to a growing legion of fans (including quite a few celebrities).
Join me as we examine the file of Maria Popova, writer …
Maria religiously publishes three posts a day for her more than 350,000 Twitter and 590,000 Google+ followers — as well as 150,000 plus email subscribers — and in a recent interview she talked about the organic growth of her creative brainchild:
My philosophy, and the one thing I’ve been strategic and deliberate about from the beginning, is reader first …
Maria admits to putting in some exhaustive hours to get where she is today, and we are honored that she took the time to stop by The Writer Files.
In this installment of our Q&A, Maria Popova shares her thoughts on a lifetime of “research,” the power of ritual, the toxicity of approval, and much, much more.
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
A reader who writes.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
I’m not an expert and I aspire never to be one. As Frank Lloyd Wright rightly put it, “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.
That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession – it’s something that gives me enormous joy and stimulation, so I do it a great deal, but I don’t know if that constitutes expertise.
Where can we find your writing?
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
Practically (pathetically?) every waking moment, with the exception of the time I spend writing and a couple of hours in the evening allotted for some semblance of a personal life. I do most of my long-form reading at the gym (pen and Post-Its and all), skim the news while eating (a questionable health habit, no doubt), and listen to philosophy, science, or design podcasts while commuting on my bike (hazardous and probably illegal). Facetiousness aside, however, I have no complaints – as the great Annie Dillard put it, “a life spent reading – that is a good life.”
Because Brain Pickings is simply a record of my own curiosity, of my personal journey into what matters in the world and why, it’s hard to quantify how much of my life is “research” – in fact, I feel like all of it is.
I just had tea with someone – a writer whose book I’d written about and who reached out and wanted to connect – and that hour-long conversation gave me a dozen ideas to think about, to learn about, and thus to write about (including two books I already ordered based on our chat). Is that “research” in the sense that one deliberately sets out to find something already of interest? No. Is it “research” in terms of the unguided curiosity that lets one discover something previously unknown and succumb to the intellectual restlessness of wanting to learn everything about it? Absolutely.
And I think that’s part of our challenge today, not just semantically but also practically – we tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
Given I write several thousand words each day, there’s no room for “pre-gaming.”
The “game” IS the ritual.
Do you prefer any particular music (or silence) while you write?
I have music on all the time (unless I’m transcribing archival audio), with various playlists for different purposes or moods. My taste is too eclectic, both across genres and eras, to list specific artists. But, I’m an incredibly loyal listener – some of the songs in those playlists have gotten more than 10,000 plays over the past few years. Familiar, beloved music – much like habit or ritual – is a remarkably powerful creative grounding force, I find.
How many hours a day do you spend writing (excluding email, social media, etc.)? What is your most productive time of day?
Anywhere between three and eight hours. It’s hard to separate the reading and research part of the process from the writing and synthesis one. The osmosis of the two is where the magic happens – that place where you pull existing ideas together into a mesh of insights that germinates your very own point of view, that illuminates the subject in an entirely new way. Is that reading? Writing? Or some other form of sense-making we don’t yet have a word for?
Ironically, I prefer to write earlier in the day, but find the onslaught of email too overwhelming – even though I can’t possibly even open everything, just the awareness of it being in my inbox is uncomfortable. It’s hard to retreat into a quiet corner of your own mind when you feel demanded of. So I tend to write later in the day now, often well into the night, when email is quiet. The dark, too, is somehow grounding – I’ve always found lucubrating strangely meditative, like a bubble of light that envelops you and silences the rest of the world.
Do you write every day or adhere to any particular system?
I publish three articles a day, Monday through Friday. All are pre-scheduled and pre-written, some weeks in advance and others the day before. I try not to write on Fridays, which I reserve for email and meetings.
Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
I think the operative word here is “believe.” If you fixate on it, it’ll be there. It’s kind of like insomnia – the more you think about not being able to fall asleep, the less able to fall asleep you become.
It’s different for everyone, of course, but I find that you break through that alleged “block” simply by writing. As Tchaikovsky elegantly put it, “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
The writer’s creativity …
The ability to connect the seemingly unconnected and meld existing knowledge into new insight about some element of how the world works. That’s practical creativity. Then there’s moral creativity: to apply that skill towards some kind of wisdom on how the world ought to work.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
That’s what my side project, Literary Jukebox, celebrates. Though it’s impossible to name all, some are Susan Sontag, Anaïs Nin, Carl Sagan, Henry David Thoreau, Stephen Jay Gould, Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, Debbie Millman, Andrew Sullivan.
Can you share a best-loved quote?
Another near-impossible task – I live in literature! But I do always come back to the approximate words of Seneca:
The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.
Practically everything in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom is words to live by.
How would you like to grow creatively as a writer?
By never ceasing to be curious because “I know” – but, at the same time, by reconciling this with the knowledge that I’ll never be able to “finish” all of literature, or the Internet, for that matter. That, I guess, is tied to my aspiration not only as a writer, but as a human – to be more comfortable with the open-endedness of life.
Who or what is your Muse at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?
I’ve been obsessed with the diaries of Susan Sontag, Anaïs Nin, and Maria Mitchell for a while. And old, out-of-print anthologies of letters: Raymond Chandler, Edna St. Vincent Millay (oh Edna!), Anne Sexton. The best writers (or artists, or scientists), I find, are also extraordinary philosophers full of timeless wisdom on the triumphs, tribulations, and imperfections of being human.
What makes a writer great?
The same thing that makes a human great:
Curiosity without ego, and generosity of spirit. No amount of talent is worth anything without kindness.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model do you presently use?
MacBook Air for writing, iPad mini for reading whatever is available as an e-text, and lots of Post-Its for my copious marginalia in paper books. (I prefer reading in the Kindle app on the iPad, so I can search my highlights and travel without having to carry hefty tomes, but since I write mostly about old books, they tend not to be available in digital form.)
What software do you use most for writing and general workflow?
My site runs on WordPress, but I write straight in HTML – on my desktop, in Coda – and not in the WYSIWYG editor on WordPress. I use Evernote to save notes on various items I’m reading and to photograph the marginalia on book pages, which are then searchable thanks to optical character recognition. I read almost everything online in Pocket.
Do you have any tricks for beating procrastination? Do you adhere to deadlines?
I don’t procrastinate when it comes to reading and writing. Having a daily rhythm of such intense pace makes that practically impossible.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
I keep a comprehensive editorial calendar that stretches weeks, months, and sometimes well over a year into the future, where I plan my reading (and thus my writing) – book releases, notable birthdays, anniversaries of important historical events.
I take copious notes on books I’m reading, as well as online materials, and save everything to Evernote, where I tag meticulously – it’s so easy for any extensive library or archive to become useless if the items in it aren’t searchable or retrievable, and I find the tagging system is an incredible memory aid to help counter that.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
I resort to the completely unoriginal yet completely comforting blend of yoga class and a cozy evening with my partner or with Anaïs Nin’s diary.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
I grew up in communist Bulgaria. My family didn’t have much when I was little and though communism fell in the early 1990s, things didn’t change much. Going to college in the U.S. was a challenge to begin with, especially an Ivy League school where most of my classmates came from families of privilege – a trying test of withstanding the inevitable erosion of self-esteem that befalls a young person who doesn’t “fit in” in such stark ways.
But having to pay my way through school by working up to four jobs at a time taught me a great deal about making do, about time management, and about the difference between what you’re good at versus what makes your heart sing.
There’s nothing like being tossed into necessity to help you figure out who you are and what matters most in life – necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s even more so the fairy godmother of self-invention.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Not having relinquished the hope that happiness is possible. Waking up excited to do what I do. Going to bed satisfied with what I have done.
And, okay, it was rather gratifying when the Library of Congress included Brain Pickings into their archive.
What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
We’ve created a culture that fetishizes the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.
Our presentism bias – anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist – perpetuates our arrogance that no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
Susan Sontag. And who knows where the evening might take us.
If you could take a vacation tomorrow to anywhere in the world, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
Henry Miller’s library in Big Sur.
Can you offer any advice to writers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
Writing is meant to move the heart, the mind, the soul – not the page-view meter. I’m fortunate – biased, perhaps – in having always approached my writing as personal development rather than business development and always having written for this personal audience of one. Everything external has been a byproduct rather than an objective.
So the most critical thing an aspiring writer can do, I think, is to always know why he or she is doing it and for whom. It’s fine to find gratification in the approval of others or in financial success or in any other extrinsic reward, but it’s toxic to make that approval or prestige the motive to write.
The most important piece of advice, however, renders the premise of the question somewhat moot:
Learn by doing.
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
And finally, the writer’s desk …
To borrow one of Maria’s oft-cited quotes:
A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
~ E. B. White
Ms. Popova, thank you for a glimpse into your inspiring creative process!
Photo by Elizabeth Lippman, provided by Ms. Popova.
And thank you for perusing The Writer Files …
We have more Q&As on tap from writers who inspire us, and if you want to dig into our archives, you can find more inspiration here.
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Now put on some familiar music and get back to work! See you out there.