How to Read Like a Writer | Brain Pickings.

In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (public library), Francine Prose sets out to explore “how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught” and lays out a roadmap to learning the art of writing not through some prescriptive, didactic methodology but by absorbing, digesting, and appropriating the very qualities that make great literature great — from Flannery O’Connor’s mastery of detail to George Eliot’s exquisite character development to Philip Roth’s magical sentence structure.

‘Ever since I was a child, I have had the tendency to create a fictitious world around me, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I don’t know, of course, if they didn’t really exist or if it is me who doesn’t exist. On such matters, as in all others, one shouldn’t be dogmatic.) Ever since I became aware of the thing that I call self, I can remember the figures, the movements, the character and the history of several fictitious people who were, to me, as visible and mine as those things which we, perhaps abusively, call real life.  This tendency has always been with me, modifying slightly the kind of music it uses to bewitch me but never altering its manner of bewitching’ Fernando Pessoa in a letter to Casais Monteiro, 1935.

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa lived most of his life in a furnished room in Lisbon, where he died in obscurity in 1935, aged forty-seven. He had never married, preferring instead his own company or that of a brandy bottle. He had left behind him one slim volume of verse called A Mensagem – ‘The Message’, itself largely ignored by the Portuguese literary fraternity. When cleaners were sent to clear out his belongings, however, they found a locked trunk: inside were close to 26,000 pages of poems, musings and writings that were to make him, posthumously, into one of the most important poets of the twentieth century.

Pessoa was special not because he wrote learned, vital, metaphysical poetry – but because this kind of world-view was only one of his many mouths. For all intense purposes, Pessoa was a literary schizophrenic: more, a sufferer of multiple personalities. Chain-smoking in his room, he developed heteronyms; fictional characters with their own histories, personalities, flaws and qualities by which he could make sense of his own contrasting desires, hopes and opinions. These heteronyms would comment and criticise each other’s works and even Pessoa’s ‘own’ writings that he published under his own name, appearing in the literary review, Orpheu, which he published with some friends.

Pessoa was never the vibrant socialite. In fact, he regularly gave up on real life to feed the authenticity of his fictional poets, rendering each with a personal biography, psychology, politics, aesthetics, religion and physique: Alberto Caeiro, the blue-eyed, uneducated shepherd. Ricardo Reis, an epicurean, doctor and classicist. Álvaro de Campos, a modernist, naval engineer, traveller and bisexual dandy. These three ‘authors’ were to become the principal voices in Pessoa’s mind, three in an eventual collection of at least seventy-two heteronyms that were responsible for the hundreds of published and the tens of thousands of undiscovered texts that filled that innocuous trunk.

However, what is so compelling about Pessoa is not the number of different ‘selves’ he entertained but the extraordinary relationship he had with them. Completely convinced of their legitimacy, he would even calculate their horoscopes in order to better understand them. He wrote of his first real heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, to a friend: ‘One day…March 8, 1914…It was the most triumphant day of my life…What followed was the appearance of someone in me…Alberto Caeiro. Forgive the absurdity of the sentence: in me there appeared my master.’

Caeiro, the villager, was distinctly anti-metaphysical. ‘In the world around us’, he said, ‘things are precisely as they seem – there is no hidden meaning anywhere.’ Caeiro thought that our unhappiness sprung from our unwillingness to limit our horizons and accepted sadness as a natural state. In this sense, Caeiro represented a natural, primal vision of reality, the pagan incarnate of Pessoa himself.

From Caeiro’s The Keeper of Sheep:

I’ve never kept sheep

But it’s as if I’d done so.

My soul is like a shepherd

It knows wind and sun

Walking hand in hand with the Seasons

Observing and following along.

All of Nature’s unpeopled peacefulness

Comes to sit alongside me.

Still, I’m sad, as a sunset is

To the imagination, 

When it grows cold at the end of the plain

And you feel night come in

Like a butterfly through the window.

But my sadness is comforting

Because it’s right and natural

And because it’s what the soul should feel

When it already thinks it exists

And the hands pick flowers

And the soul takes no notice.


I’ve no ambitions or desires.

Being a poet isn’t my ambition.

It’s my way of being alone.

Ricardo Reis, Pessoa’s second heteronym, like Caeiro, urged Pessoa to feel rather than to think: ‚wise is the one who does not seek… the seeker will find in all things the abyss, and doubt in himself.’ A classical epicurean, Reis prayed to the Greek gods and believed completely in the notion of Fate. As an epicurean living in Christian Europe, however, Reis knew that his spiritual life was limited. He would muse melancholically upon the brevity of life, the vanity of wealth and struggle, and advocate the joy of simple pleasures, patience in times of trouble. He preached only the avoidance of pain and that man should seek tranquillity and calm above all else:

As long as I feel the fresh breeze in my hair

And see the sun shining strong on the leaves,

I will not ask for much.

What better thing could destiny grant me?

Other than the sensual passing of life in moments

Of ignorance such as this?

Yet Reis was unable to shake off his feelings of sadness, to regard them as a natural part of life. The increasingly-tormented Pessoa at this point was stuck in the monotony of a day job as a commercial translator and foreign correspondent. One pictures him asking himself whether he was to spend the rest of his days in an office, sneaking out to get drunk at lunchtime in order to see the day through.

Yet the most compelling and complicated of the heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos, was perhaps the closest character to Pessoa’s own. Campos was torn between a feverish desire to be and feel everything and everyone declaring – ‚in every corner of my soul stands an altar to a different god‘ – and at other times, profoundly wishing for a state of isolation.

From de Campos’ Tabacaria (The Tobaconists’)

I am nothing.

I will never be anything.

I cannot wish to be anything.

Yet, in me lies all of the dreams of the world

How should I know what I’ll be, I, who don’t know what I am?

I am what I think? But I think of so many things!

And there are so many people that think the same thing that there can’t be enough room for everyone!

Perhaps like the American writer Sylvia Plath after him, Pessoa was affected by the awareness that so many of the things he could have been, or potentially be, would remain unrealised. Though Pessoa would break off a potential love affair with Ophelia Queiroz, a young girl he met in his office because of his commitment to poety, a recurrent theme in Pessoa- himself’s poetry is Tédio or Tedium. It is more than simple boredom. It is from a world of weariness and disgust with life, a sense of the finality of failure. Pessoa could find solace in nothing but his literary ‘selves’, consumed more by his spiraling emotions than the desire to rid himself of them.

Or perhaps writing was the only way Pessoa knew how to rid himself of them: “One writes to become other than what one is” he once said. Was he then guilty of making up his alter-egos to compensate for a life deliberately unlived?

From Fernando Pessoa’s Bicarbonato de Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda):

Should I drink something or should I commit suicide? 

No; I am going to exist. Dammit! I am going to exist. 

To ex-ist… 

To ex-ist… 

Give me something to drink, for I am not thirsty!

To get to know Pessoa is to try and come to terms with the constant, ticking metronome of our own identities, our own endlessly changing desires and occasional complete lack thereof. Not as something bad or malignant but as something to be accepted as natural, as necessary to life. Here’s hoping he found it in death.

From Fernando Pessoa’s Autopsicografia (Self-Analysis):

The poet is a faker

Who’s so good at his act

He even fakes the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words

Will feel in what he wrote

Neither of the pains he has

But just the one they don’t.

And so around its track

This thing called the heart winds,

A little clockwork train

To entertain our minds.


Gesang von mir selbst


Heute vor Tagesanbruch bestieg ich einen Berg und schaute in das Sternengewimmel,
Und sprach zu meiner Seele: Wenn wir alle diese Welten umfassen werden und die Freude und das Wissen von allem, was darin ist, werden wir dann ganz erfüllt und befriedigt sein?
Und meine Seele sprach: Nein, wir ersteigen diese Höhe nur, um daran vorbei und weiter darüber hinaus zu kommen.

Du stellst mir auch Fragen, und ich höre dich,
Ich antworte, daß ich nicht antworten kann, du mußt es selber herausfinden.

Lange genug hast du verächtliche Träume geträumt,
Jetzt reibe ich dir den Schlaf aus den Augen,
Du mußt dich an das Blenden des Lichtes und jedes Augenblickes in deinem Leben gewöhnen.

Lange hast du furchtsam gewatet und dich an einer Planke am Ufer festgehalten,
Nun will ich, daß du ein kühner Schwimmer werdest,
Abspringst mitten in der See, wieder auftauchst, mir zunickst, jauchzend und lachend das Wasser aus deinen Haaren schüttelst!


Und Leben, was dich betrifft, denk‘ ich, du bist das übrig Gebliebene von vielem Sterben,
(Ohne Zweifel bin ich schon früher zehntausendmal gestorben).

Ich höre euch flüstern da oben, ihr Sterne des Himmels,
Ihr Sonnen, ihr Gräser des Grabes, o unaufhörlicher Übergang und Beförderung!
Wenn ihr nichts sagt, wie kann ich etwas sagen?
Von dem trüben Sumpf, der im herbstlichen Forste ruht,
Von dem Mond, der die Tiefen der säuselnden Dämmerung hinabgleitet,
Sprühet, ihr Funken des Tags und der Dämmerung, flimmert auf den schwarzen Stämmen, die im Schlamme verfaulen,
Tanzt mit dem ächzenden Knarren der trockenen Äste!

Da ist dies Etwas in mir – ich weiß nicht, was es ist, aber ich weiß, es ist in mir.
Verzerrt und schweißig – dann wird mein Körper ruhig und kühl,
Ich schlafe … schlafe lange.

Ich kenne es nicht, es ist ohne Namen, ist ein unausgesprochenes Wort,
Es ist in keinem Wörterbuch, keiner Lautgebung, keinem Symbol.
Es dreht sich auf etwas, das mehr ist als die Erde, mit der ich mich drehe,
Ihm ist die Schöpfung der Freund, dessen Umarmung mich weckt.

Vielleicht könnte ich noch mehr sagen. O Andeutungen! Ich flehe für meine Brüder und Schwestern!

Seht ihr, o meine Bruder und Schwestern?
Es ist nicht Chaos oder Tod, es ist Form, Einheit, Bestimmung, ist ewiges Leben – ist Glückseligkeit!

Ich widerspreche mir selbst?
Nun gut, ich widerspreche mir selbst.
(Ich bin ja weiträumig, ich enthalte Vielheiten).

Der gefleckte Falke stößt an mir vorüber und schilt mich, er beklagt sich über mein Plaudern und Zaudern,
Ich bin aber doch nicht zahm, ich bin auch unübersetzbar,
Und lasse meinen barbarischen Raubvogelschrei ertönen über die Dächer der Welt!

Das letzte Leuchten des Tages weilt noch um meinetwillen,
Es wirft mein Ebenbild zu den andern, und treu wie nur eines, auf die schattenumwobene Wildnis,
Es lockt mich zum Nebel und Dämmerschein.

Ich scheide wie Luft, ich schüttle meine weißen Locken gegen die enteilende Sonne,
Ich lasse mein Fleisch in Wirbeln entströmen und in Fäden fortfließen.

Ich vermache mich dem Schmutz, um aus dem Grase, das ich liebe, zu keimen,
Brauchst du mich wieder, so suche mich unter deinen Stiefelsohlen!

Kaum wirst du wissen, wer ich bin, oder was ich meine,
Doch bin ich für dich trotz alledem die Gesundheit,
Und kläre und kräftige dein Blut.

Kannst du nicht gleich mich erfassen, behalte nur Mut,
Triffst du mich nicht an einer Stelle, so suche wo anders,
Irgendwo bleib‘ ich und warte auf dich.

(Walt Whitman)



And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to
try to alarm me.

To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes,
I see the elder-hand pressing receiving supporting,
I recline by the sills of the exquisite flexible doors,
And mark the outlet, and mark the relief and escape.

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not
offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.

And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns–O grass of graves–O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?

Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the soughing twilight,
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk–toss on the black stems that decay
in the muck,
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.

I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.


There is that in me–I do not know what it is–but I know it is in me.

Wrench’d and sweaty–calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep–I sleep long.

I do not know it–it is without name–it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.

Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.

Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death–it is form, union, plan–it is eternal
life–it is Happiness.


The past and present wilt–I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Walt Whitman