On Writing: Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography (With Quotes)

It’s rare that I’ll find a book that truly captures the writing process and the struggle of trying to express complicated ideas clearly on paper.

I have always been a fan of Bertrand Russell’s work since reading The Conquest of Happiness, a book I knew would answer the many questions I had about life and happiness. For me, Russells books have always provided the answers to difficult problems I might never have discovered myself. I would have struggled with the problems for the rest of my life, probably never coming to a clear solution.

As Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, one of the best arguments for reading is that much more intelligent people have had our problems, worked through them, and have written their solutions in books.

Russell autobiography is more about the events of his life than it is about the writing process. It was in his letters, to and from friends and loved ones, that I found him talking about writing. It was in these letters that Russell wrote about the difficulties he faced, and the advice his friends provided in return. I found them very intriguing, and extracted every excerpt about writing and life that helped me better understand the craft and work in general.

Below are some of these excerpts, with a description to provide some context:

1. On self-development: ‘One never knows what one will develop into, and anyhow the first few years after 21 should be given to self-education, and the search for one’s work, and marriage, or even a settled engagement, interferes sadly with all that.‘ – Logan Pearsall Smith (American-born British essayist and critic) – Here, L.P.S is referring to Russell’s first marriage, and his advice about spending the first fear years of your 20’s in self-education and exploration is something that I agree with and have taken to religiously.

2. On focus and concentration: ‘His capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day, when I was staying with him at Grantchester, our friend Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.‘ – Russell writes this memory of Alfred Whitehead (English mathematician and philosopher), and I couldn’t help but feel envious that I do not have this level of concentration while working, and at the same time feel the strong urge to work towards attaining it.

3. On work and pleasure: ‘It gives moments of delight, but these are outweighed by years of effort and depression. Also, I reflected that the value of a work of art has no relation whatever to the pleasure it gives; indeed, the more I have dwelt upon the subject, the more I have come to the prize austerity rather than luxuriance.‘ – It is Russell’s words on effort and depression that give me solace in knowing that my own feelings are normal.

4. On pain: ‘ and I confess I think it better to have both pain and pleasure in an extreme degree than to have both soberly.‘ – Pleasure can be saught in extreme degrees, and it may or may not be attained, but pain always comes unannounced.

5 & 6. On work: ‘Work, when it goes well, is in itself a great delight; and after any considerable achievement I look back at it with the sort of placid satisfaction one has after climbing a mountain.‘ – I highlighted this because of my familiarity with the feeling. And similarly, on the next page: ‘I am working hard at Vol. II. When it goes well, it is intense delight; when I get stuck, it is equally intense torture.‘ – Somehow, knowing that this feeling is mutual amongst writers makes the discomfort a little bit easier.

7. On persistence: ‘I am eager that you shall express yourself sooner or later, and meanwhile you must write and write until you begin to feel that you are saying what you want to say, in the way that you wish others to understand it.‘ – Found in a letter written to Russell by Bernard Berenson (American art historian). I always need to be reminded that persistence is key to great work because the difficulty at times makes me forget.

8. On purpose: ‘When thee is well and happy and doing good work, I feel quite contented, and only wish that I were a better person and able to do more work and be more worthy of thee.‘ – Bertrand Russell’s first wife Alys wrote this to him. I highlighted it because I felt a little empty realizing that I’ve never felt this way about someone, or I never felt it in relation to my work, and also because I feel as though making a loved one as the purpose of your work makes dealing with the difficulty of work a little bit easier.

9. On life: ‘I feel as if one would only discover on one’s deathbed what one ought to have lived for, and realize too late that one’s life had been wasted. Any passionate and courageous life seems good in itself…‘ – I give a lot of thought to what I would regret on my deathbed, and I can only assume (with some guidance from great thinkers) and act on those assumptions while I still can.

10. On patience: ‘Wishing you all success with your work and venturing to express the hope that you will not allow yourself to be hurried.‘ – The last line of the book is also one of my favorites. Here F. H. Bradley (British philosopher) is telling Russell how much he admires his work and wishes him luck on his next book. Not allowing myself to be hurried is a constant struggle I face, and I try to remind myself that I am running a marathon, not a sprint.

I wish I could write out all the quotes from the book that I found valuable, but then I’d probably be typing up the entire book all over again.

I decided to write this post because the book provided me with such great companionship and guidance in life, love, work, and wisdom that I felt compelled to share it with you. I hope you will find it as valuable and enriching as I did.

All the best,

Olgi

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