Maria Popova: A Dear Mentor I’ve Never Met

Maria Popova is a thought-hero of mine. She’s not an idol—rather, at my best thinking self I try to be her apprentice. No, we’ve never met. And yet, as is manifest in her writing on years of written correspondence between women who admire each other intimately, we can seem to ourselves to know a soul through its verbal emanations.

Popova is a rigorous curator of poetic-scientific feeling. Her teenaged (13 years of consistency!) weekly newsletter is timeless—she puts the date only in the URL, in case you need it for citation—not in a way that endorses the shill of universal humanity, but because its story-threads accrete into a solid world. Her implicit theory of knowing prizes personal experience while including our full intellectual, vicarious, imagined worlds therein, avoiding the smallness of the preciousness and pathos that she does not devalue. She values grand narratives and builds them bottom-up, dialectically and dialogically insisting that the cosmos, and ours, are a rich tapestry of glittering details and a sweeping structure that is true and beautiful scribed in ideal forms. If I may, she’s a Platonist imagist and an Aristotelian observer, availing herself of the logical tools of both.

Her worldviews, through my kaleidoscope, give me confidence that our brilliant hearts can perceive the gestalt, a solid whole with these threads as atoms. Our consciousness can expand to simultaneously comprehend the old woman and the young one in that classic demonstration of shifted perception: we are not limited to watching the shifting tensions in pretty partner dances between micro and macro.

Popova’s poetics of bodies and evidence do have arguments, contra Jorie Graham’s idea that “great poems have so few arguments in them.” But she agrees with Graham in not “want[ing] to make the reader ‘agree’.” Her magnum opus (thus far), Figuring, is a smart book and a full one, loving both structure and flow, vivid and associational while taking real things as its raw material—if we understand feelings, mysteries and phenomena all as reality. Above all it holds all these poles as glimpses of a whole, fading and emerging by tricks of the light, in a decidedly expansive and expanding geometry.

The author’s voice is rarely present in first person in either Popova’s newsletters or Figuring, but only she could have written her work. And so she provides us a model of clear observation by the light of the heart and me with the courage to speak words like “heart” without a reflexive academic flinch. As a curator she is no mere compiler, but gets idea-full figures to play with each other through what feels like a light touch of intuition but I know to be thorough investigation. She runs towards intensity and in that process guides me to a practice of doing so, despite my fears, despite the defense of “rigor!” that we academics so often throw up against the intrusion of abiding care.

BrainPickings is an email newsletter you will actually open every week. Figuring is a bigger and differently rich attention commitment. I’m going to be a terrible curator here and point you to the whole damn archive to find what resonates, with votes in for mentions of Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Johannes Kepler, Emily Dickinson, and the wisdom of trees. Each article ends with a “complement with” section that is Popova curating herself: trust her to guide you, as I do.

To create, imitate

Some of my most memorable, and thus powerful, learning experiences in languages and humanities have come from imitation. In a college literature class on the English Metaphysical Poets, I had the opportunity to write a poem imitating John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and reflect on my process, defending how it was an imitation, instead of writing a standard seminar research paper. That was nine years ago, and I still feel a deeper connection to Donne’s work and cosmology than to most other poets I’ve studied. I also understand his style better.

Imitate more than innovate to learn your craft

There is a long history of imitation denigrated as “mere,” uncreative, derivative. Even if we recognize that poets’, painters’ and composers’ juvenalia often consist in imitations—and thus that imitation is part of learning one’s craft—they are considered juvenile: immature, less worthy of our study. Mere preludes to creation.

There is perhaps equally long history of imitation as a core part of humanistic education, whether to learn a language itself (say, Latin) or the style of its literary authors. Jacobus Pontanus, a Renaissance humanist who wrote *colloquia—*mostly fictional dialogues between students—to aid advanced students in learning Latin, is one among many, from antiquity through his own time, to suggest taking well-known fables from Aesop or a letter from some famous author and imitating it as closely as possible, sometimes following set rules of composition, occasionally taking more liberties. Expansion and summary, transposition into a new context, paraphrases, changing genres, adding meter to prose or turning verse into dialogue—all of these were common exercises designed not only to exercise the language itself, but also for students to achieve an intimate knowledge of what and how excellent ancient and contemporary writers thought.

Diligent teachers often take up the argument or the whole content of some learned man’s letter and propose it to their students, then, by comparing their students’ letters with the original, teach them what one should do and how one should write.

Jacobus Pontanus, Progymnasma 98

Pontanus even suggests keeping the theme and content of the original exactly the same, changing only words and form: treating hackneyed themes frees one from the need to make novel arguments and wrestle with style all at once. I have found this to be true in my own imitations: when I wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue in Ancient Greek, I tried—with less success than I’d imagined—to riff off and add a modern spin Plato’s ideas on pedagogy while I was imitating his style to better my Greek. I’m proud of the result, but I might have refined my sense of Greek prose style more had I stuck to a worn-out theme.

Fuel your originality with what you love

It’s not only the Latinists who accept and even encourage imitation—though, in modern times, often as a beginning phase that will naturally fade. In her essay “Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity,” Maria Popova, after quoting Susan Sontag on voracious reading feeding writing and neurologist Oliver Sacks on imitation as apprenticeship, summarizes the process of artistic becoming:

We learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.

Maria Popova of BrainPickings

John McPhee, a most dedicated craftsman-writer-researcher and, in his essay collection “Draft No. 4” a generous advice-giver, recalls his exchange with a young writer anxious about being original:

She said, “My style is always that of what I am reading at the time—or overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained.” I said, “How unfortunate that would be if you were fifty-four. At twenty-three, it is not only natural; it is important. The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.

John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 161

Grounding ourselves in others is the best way to our own way. And it’s a natural, even necessary, part of our creativity (modern neuroscientists and psychologists agree).

Follow echoes to your creative self—and follow yourself

Though imitation is important even for experts, we might worry, like McPhee’s young writer did, that we won’t grow beyond it. But centuries of artists’ practice, of the “Mature Works” that follow juvenalia in anthologies, suggests that we will and they do. I treasure the Collected Works editions of poets, where one sees the writer’s lifelong creative arc(s) and shifting preoccupations. Best of all, these authors seem to learn to follow themselves and to trust the ground ahead. This self-trust is hard won, and never complete (and shouldn’t be): just enough to keep on going. Recombination within and expansion of our web of ideas is part of creativity at any stage, but it seems to me something to look forward to more as I continue creating. As McPhee reflects in another essay in his collection,

New pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.

John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 11

It’s not, then, so much about growing out—of imitation or anything else—but of growing up to our hopes, growing into ourselves, growing through each other.