On Staying Sane

I have a deep mistrust of self-help and motivational books, videos, speakers, and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m every bit as prone to fits of existential angst as the next person. But I’m fundamentally a stoic at heart. I strongly believe that we’re all essentially alone; and we had better damn well be self-reliant and self-fixing, however unfair the world, and however personal a hurt may feel. I worry that anyone who makes a habit of going to hear motivational speakers, or believes that listening to self-help CDs is going to help them, is probably going to remain broken: worse, they’re giving up their freedom of thought.

That notwithstanding, there ARE two books that I occasionally refer to, the first for a chuckle and to get perspective, the second not so much for motivation but rather because it makes me feel sane, since just about every quotation in it reinforces my own philosophy and approach.

Pushcart’s complete “ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS” is an indispensable little volume both for writers and indeed anyone who enjoys seeing self-important people (in this instance, critics and publishers) proved deeply, desperately wrong in their reviews and rejections of great authors and books which went on to become classics. For instance:

OTHELLO (Shakespeare): “Pure melodrama. There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.”   -George Bernard Shaw

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Emily Bronte): “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”  – James Lorimer in the North British Review

CRASH (J.G. Ballard): “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”   -Rejection letter

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Le Carre): “You’re welcome to Le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”   -Rejection letter

THE TIME MACHINE (H.G. Wells): “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”   -Rejection letter

YOUTH and HEART OF DARKNESS (Conrad): “It would be useless to pretend that they can be very widely read.”    -The Manchester Guardian

The second book is an equally delicious little volume titled, “ZEN GUITAR” by Philip Toshio Sudo, and you don’t have to play guitar to read it, only to have a pulse. The book consists of a number of quotations from famous musicians, followed by a one- or two-page commentary from a Zen perspective by the author, and each one is a gem. Some of my favourite quotations (you’ll have to buy the book for the commentaries) are:

“Music should go right through you, leave some of itself inside you, and take some of you with it when it leaves.”   –Henry Threadgill

“I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.”   –Townes Van Zandt

“At the end of a show he’ll leave the stage, and the sirens will be going, and the limousines waiting, and Charlie will walk back to his drumkit and change the position of his drumsticks by two millimetres. Then he’ll look at it. Then if it looks good, he’ll leave… The drums are about to be stripped down and put in the back of a truck, and he cannot leave if he’s got it in his mind that he’s left his sticks in a displeasing way.”   –Keith Richards, on Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts

“You get older…you start having hopes for other people rather than yourself.”   -Bob Dylan

Finally, I have a few favourite volumes of poetry that I read from time to time. Everyone, happy or sad, sick or healthy, in love or not, should read poetry, and good poetry at that (and there’s a lot of really poor poetry out there to turn off the unwary.) My personal favourite collection is THE MENTOR BOOK OF MAJOR BRITISH POETS (ed. Oscar Williams).

Which reminds me, I must buy a new copy of MAJOR BRITISH POETS. My original is just about worn out!

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