Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

Gabriel García Márquez on His Improbable Beginnings as a Writer

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Gabriel García Márquez (March 6, 1927–April 17, 2014) is one of the greatest authors of all time, and yet he had an unlikely path to greatness. His life-story is an emboldening antidote to the tyrannical myth that the crib is the crucible of creative genius, that only those who turn their childhood dreams into reality are destined for cultural significance, and that unless you have clarity about your purpose early in childhood, you’re doomed to a life of floundering and mediocrity.

García Márquez had no such precocious clarity. (For that matter, neither did Van Gogh.) Instead, the celebrated author’s life stands as a heartening testament to the fact that a purpose is not something you are born with but something you find and cultivate, something that reveals itself when you let your life speak — even when what your life has to say is not, at first, what you want to hear.

García Márquez grew up wanting to be a musician. “I had dreamed about the good life, going from fair to fair and singing with an accordion and a good voice, which always seemed to me to be the oldest and happiest way to tell a story,” he writes in his magnificent memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (public library), before recounting the unlikely beginnings of his career as a writer:

I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one’s children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents.

The expectations of his parents were lofty. As a young boy, Gabo had always been an excellent student, a genial and unproblematic child — so much so that his grandmother, who was instrumental in raising him, frequently commended him for being “the perfect kid.” But now he was struggling through his secondary education, unhappy in a school that had a “bad reputation as a laboratory of political perversion.” Dejected, he started hanging out with questionable friends, abusing alcohol, and staying out well into the night — he had veered, as he aptly puts it, toward “the wrong path.”

His parents were understandably perturbed at the sudden change. García Márquez relays a pivotal conversation he had with his mother at the age of eighteen:

“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said after a lethal silence, “because if we tell all this to your father he’ll die a sudden death. Don’t you realize you’re the pride of the family?”

For them it was simple: since there was no possibility I would be the eminent physician my father could not be because he did not have the money, they dreamed I would at least be a professional in something else.

“Well, I won’t be anything at all,” I concluded. “I refuse to let you force me into being what I don’t want to be or what you would like me to be, much less what the government wants me to be.”

These tense conversations recurred over the remainder of the week, until one day his mother, “as if by chance,” suggested something that profoundly surprised him:

“They say that if you put your mind to it you could be a good writer.”

I had never heard anything like it in the family. Since I was a child my inclinations had allowed me to suppose that I would draw, be a musician, sing in church, or even be a Sunday poet. I had discovered in myself a tendency, known to everyone, toward writing that was rather convoluted and ethereal, but this time my reaction was one of surprise.

Although his reply was one of cynical skepticism, in it — since cynicism is simply hope masked with fear — has the kernel of aspiration that would define his life:

“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones, and they don’t make them anymore,” I told my mother. “After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

But once the veil of youthful cynicism was lifted, García Márquez saw he had no choice but to make himself “one of the great ones.” Four decades later, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Complement Living to Tell the Tale with celebrated writers’ collected wisdom on writing and this Literary Jukebox celebration of García Márquez.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil GaimanAlbert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
Artwork from Stefanie Posavec’s ‘Writing Without Words,’ visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from ‘Wild,’ one of the best children’s books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from ‘Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds.’ Click image for details.

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writingNeil Gaiman’s eight pointersNietzsche’s ten rulesWalter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrinesHenry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with styleZadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differas would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

The Art of Quickness: Italo Calvino on Digression as a Hedge Against Death and the Key to Great Writing

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

When Italo Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry — Harvard’s annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage — he hurried to commit to paper the six lectures he would deliver over the course of the term, exploring “the millennium of the book” that was about to end and peering forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of writing. But as he contemplated this grand cultural precipice, he himself ran out of time.

Calvino — a sage of writing and a man of enduring insight into such subtleties of existence as distraction and procrastinationthe art of asserting oneself with grace, and the meaning of life — died shortly before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver the lectures. He had spent his final months laboring over them but had completed only five of the six, eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most poignant of his lectures, both in the context of Calvino’s own fate in the hands of time’s merciless gallop and in his prescience about today’s age of compulsive speediness that he never lived to see, is the second one, titled “Quickness.”

Calvino begins by considering objects and the storytelling mesmerism that they hold, as in real life, in fiction:

The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.

He then turns to the particular magic of quickness, but not before an essential caveat:

I do not wish to say that quickness is a value in itself. Narrative time can also be delaying, cyclic, or motionless. In any case, a story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.

One mode of contracting time, which Calvino points out is particularly common in the folklore traditions of oral storytelling, is repetition — the same strategy that so enchants the brain in music. He writes:

Sicilian storytellers use the formula “lu cuntu nun metti tempu” (time takes no time in a story)… It leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition: for example, when the tale consists of a series of the same obstacles to be overcome by different people. A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas. Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.

Calvino points to folktales and fairy tales as an especially enduring example of masterful quickness, for “the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.” He extols their genius of playing with the elasticity of time and making its relativity their material:

Everything mentioned has a necessary function in the plot. The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression. The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials. There is always a battle against time, against the obstacles that prevent or delay the fulfillment of a desire or the repossession of something cherished but lost. Or time can stop altogether, as in the castle of Sleeping Beauty.

Illustration by the late Yan Nascimbene for Calvino’s short stories. Click image for details.

Quickness also matters, Calvino argues, because of “the relationship between physical speed and speed of mind” — something captured in the oft-used metaphor of the horse as a symbol of speed, and of speed of thought, pioneered by Galileo (who, as we know, practically invented modern timekeeping and sparked the tyranny of the clock). Calvino quotes Galileo himself:

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.

Noting that for Galileo “good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples,” Calvino — in a remark wonderfully prescient a quarter century later — considers how this question of quickness illuminates the role of literature in a modern world obsessed with speed in all of its permutations:

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.

The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men and machines. But mental speed cannot be measured and does not allow comparisons or competitions; nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it. A swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for details.

And yet, just as embedded in his tribute to lightness in the first lecture was a deep respect for weight, Calvino is careful to point out that his “apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering.” (Milton Glaser captured this beautifully in asserting that “everything exists at once with its opposite.”) Among literature’s most rewarding techniques for slowing down the course of time and inviting lingering, Calvino argues, is the art of digression. He extols its singular joys:

In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy. In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We do not have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose. Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.

Citing Tristram Shandy as the ultimate example of a novel “completely composed of digressions” — curiously, without mentioning that Laurence Sterne himself memorably called digression “the sunshine of narrative” in a meta-remark inside that very novel — Calvino writes:

The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death, of course.

He quotes a passage by Italian writer Carlo Levi from the introduction to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy:

Death is hidden in clocks… Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows — perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.

Illustration from ‘About Time’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

With a sentiment invariably bittersweet in the context of Calvino’s own death a few weeks later, he echoes Alan Watts on hurrying and delaying as he simultaneously celebrates Levi’s perspective and counters it:

Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly.

Calvino ends with what is effectively the last direct reflection on his own work he ever wrote, folded into which is a broader meditation on the secret of great writing:

My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time. In my love of adventure stories and fairytales, I have always searched for the equivalent of some inner energy, some motion of the mind. I have always aimed at the image and the motion that arises naturally from the image, while still being aware that one cannot speak of a literary result until this stream of imagination has been turned into words. Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.

He takes one last sidewise look at quickness and its necessary counterpoint, one last prophetic glance into the future, as he salutes the power of introverts and the art of stillness as the driving force behind great art:

In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.

[…]

Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words. Certainly my own character corresponds to the traditional features of the guild to which I belong. I too have always been saturnine, whatever other masks I have attempted to wear. My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a revelatory read in its entirety, a worthy last legacy of one of modern history’s most magnificent minds. Sample it further with the first lecture, exploring the unbearable lightness of language, literature, and life, then complement it with Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, and the paradox of America.

George Orwell on Writing and the Four Questions Great Writers Must Ask Themselves

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

George Orwell (June 25, 1903–January 21, 1950) was a man of unflinching idealism who made no apologies for making his convictions clear, be they about the ethics of journalism, the universal motives of writing, or the golden rules for making tea — but never more so than in his now-legendary essay “Politics and the English Language,” which belongs among history’s best advice on writing. Originally published in 1946, Orwell’s masterwork of clarity and conviction is newly published in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — an altogether magnificent “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought celebrating the 100th anniversary of The New Republic with a selection of more than fifty timeless, timely essays from such formidable minds as Virginia WoolfVladimir NabokovJohn DeweyAndrew Sullivan, and Zadie Smith.

Decades later, Orwell’s essay endures as a spectacular guide to writing well — an increasingly urgent reminder that language is first and foremost a tool of thought which, when misused or trivialized, does a tremendous cultural disservice to both reader and writer. Much like clichés poison language through their contagiousness, Orwell argues that our carelessness with the written word is propagated, in a meme-like fashion, by our relinquishing of deliberate thought in favor of lazy, automatic replication. His “catalogue of swindles and perversions” remains a remarkable clarion call for mindfulness in writing.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman from a rare 1995 edition of ‘Animal Farm.’ Click image for more.

Orwell opens with a characteristically curmudgeonly lament, all the timelier in our age of alleged distaste for longform writing:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Noting that the decline of language isn’t “due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer” but, rather, has deeper political and economic causes, Orwell nonetheless offers the optimistic assurance that this downturn is reversible. Such a turnaround, he argues, hinges on our collective ability to uproot the “bad habits which spread by imitation,” an act of personal and political responsibility for each of us. Citing several passages as examples of such perilous abuse of language, he points to the two qualities they have in common — “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” — and lists the most prevalent of the “bad habits” responsible for this “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that poisons the English language:

  1. Dying metaphors: A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
  2. Operators, Or verbal false limbs: These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de-formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such refunding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, etc.
  3. Pretentious diction: Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual basic, primary, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on anarchaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, trident, sword, shield, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, status quo, gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, lackeys, flunkey, mad dog. White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
  4. Meaningless words: In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot. The Soviet Press is the freest in the world. The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with the intent to deceive. Others words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Many decades before our era of listicles, formulaic BuzzWorthy headlines, and the sort of cliché-laden articles that result from a factory-farming model of online journalism, Orwell follows his morphology of misuses with a timely admonition:

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit.

His most salient point, however, is a vivid testament to what modern psychology now knows about metaphorical thinking as conduit of an active imagination:

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

Orwell concludes with a practical checklist of strategies for avoiding such mindless momentum of thought and the stale writing it produces:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.

The remainder of Insurrections of the Mind offers a wealth of similarly sharp meditations on the vibrant variety of social forces and dynamics that we call culture. Complement this particular excerpt with more perennial pointers on writing, including Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writingVladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storytellerElmore Leonard’s ten rules of writingWalter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrinesHenry Miller’s eleven commandmentsKurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Zadie Smith on the Psychology of the Two Types of Writers

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

On March 24, 2008, two years before she penned her oft-cited ten rules of writing, the immeasurably brilliant Zadie Smith delivered a lecture at Columbia University’s Writing Program under the brief “to speak about some aspect of your craft.” Appropriately titled “That Crafty Feeling” and included in Smith’s altogether enchanting collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (public library), the lecture outlines the ten psychological stages of writing a novel.

While invariably subjective, as all advice is, and rooted in Smith’s own experience — by that point, “twelve years and three novels” — her insights undoubtedly belong with history’s most enduring wisdom on writing.

Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

Smith begins by proposing the two psychological profiles into which all writers fall — a dichotomy reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s hedgehog-versus-fox classification system of writerly personalities. Smith writes:

I want to offer you a pair of ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.

You will recognize a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent — for me, unthinkable — radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

Noting her intolerance for that approach — “not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying” — Smith professes to being a Micro Manager herself:

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line.

[…]

Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pileup of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed.

But this inherent open-endedness also leaves the Micro Manager vulnerable to what Smith calls obsessive perspective disorder, or OPD — “a kind of existential drama” that unfolds over the course of the novel’s first twenty pages, possessing the writer to compulsively attempt answering the question of what kind of novel is being written. And yet, Smith marvels, despite how disorienting OPD is, it isn’t paralyzing — the writing continues throughout this straining state. In that regard, OPD appears to be, rather assuringly, mere garden-variety anxiety — the same psychic malady that tormented Darwin as he was producing his most influential work, the very state Kierkegaard believed powers creative work rather than hindering it, which psychologists have also found to be the crux of the link between creativity and mental illness. Smith writes:

That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

‘Paper Typewriter’ by Jennifer Collier from Art Made from Books

She considers, with a lyrical personal testament, the key blessing of her type:

There is one great advantage to being a Micro Manager rather than a Macro Planner: The last day of your novel truly is the last day. If you edit as you go along, there are no first, second, third drafts. There is only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done. Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the confidence trick, Smith considers what transmutes that obsessive worrying into that final moment of absolute elation and relief:

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.

Smith goes on to sketch out another psychological dichotomy of writerly temperaments — those who “won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own” and, if you err to recommend to them a good novel at that stage, “give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife”; and those who read voraciously, perhaps aware that the myth of originality is a limiting illusion anyway and that all writers, as Pete Seeger memorably put it, are but links in a creative chain. Smith illustrates this with a beautiful metaphor:

Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra — they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even.

It seems, then, that what is true of the optimal physical environment for writing — the finding that some writers are vitalized by background noise, while others woefully distracted by it — also applies to the optimal intellectual and creative environment of the writer. Noting that it’s “a matter of temperament,” Smith admits to being among the latter — a writer whose desk is “covered in open novels” and who finds enormous creative nourishment in the Kafkas and Nabokovs and Dostoyevskys, a writer who thrives on that peculiar “feeling of apprenticeship” one experiences in absorbing the work of a master in one’s own craft, a product of what Oscar Wilde once described as “the temperament of receptivity.” She writes:

To [the former] way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even if it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber E. M. Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

For me, that echo chamber was essential. I was fourteen when I heard John Keats in there and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class — though how archaic that must sound, here in America. Keats was not working-class, exactly, nor black — but in rough outline his situation seemed closer to mine than the other writers you came across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked “Apprentices Welcome Here.”

‘Flights of Mind’ by Vita Wells from Art Made from Books

Smith dubs the fourth stage of novel-writing “middle-of-the-novel magical thinking,” which she describes in a passage that tickled my affection for punctuation and its emotive power:

By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind.

Smith is essentially describing a state of creative flow. But, more than anything else, the phenomenon she describes — that immersive, elated intimacy with the work — parallels what we experience when we’re in love, a resonance she doesn’t explicitly tease out but one her language very much implies:

Magical thinking makes you crazy — and renders everything possible.

Illustration by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

How similar this is to Stendhal’s notion of “crystallization” from his 1822 meditation on the stages of love — the transcendently delusional moment when the lover begins to “overrate wildly” his beloved, to “endow her with a thousand perfections.” Stendhal likens this mental trickery that “draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one” to the covering of an ordinary twig with magical ice crystals that wholly obscure its true nature — the same process Smith describes when a writer reaches that pivotal point of falling in love with her unfinished novel as a proxy for the fantasy of her finished novel.

This state, she observes, makes you marvel at “how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now” as you begin to feel that every experience you have, everything you encounter in the world, has direct and almost fated relevance to your novel. Indeed, who, while in love, hasn’t had the experience of suddenly feeling like every poem, every song, every book has been written, as if by some grand act of cosmic blessing, for that particular love? Who hasn’t been stunned by the recognition of some mundane coincidence — your lover’s aunt once visited the foreign city where you were born — and taken it as confirmation of fatedness? We are remarkable machines for spiritual pattern-recognition, in love and in creative work. Both the peril and the promise of being human is that we can manufacture nonexistent patterns by the sheer force of our state of mind, so hungry for psychic alignment between our soul and that of the beloved, between our work and the needs of the world.

Smith proceeds to offer her “only absolutely twenty-four-karat-gold-plated piece of advice,” a strategy that serves, in a way, as deliberate melting of the crystals so that one may prune the twig:

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[…]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Elsewhere in the lecture, Smith touches on this psychological distancing in observing the writer’s tendency to think, from book to book, “My God, I was a different person!” But we are, in fact, profoundly different people throughout life — such is the greatest perplexity of the human self and the reason why we so pathologically hinder the happiness of our future selves. Even more than being a “professional observer” of the world, as Susan Sontag once described the project of the writer, she has no choice but to become a professional observer of her inner world — something impossible without this very distancing that allows the writer to gasp with precisely such disbelief at her own otherness in hindsight. To edit one’s own work, Smith seems to suggest, is to not only reluctantly recognize but actively inhabit one’s own transmutation over time. She captures this wryly:

When people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa.

Changing My Mind is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. For more advice on the craft, see this ongoing archive of wisdom on writing, including Nietzsche’s ten rules for writersKurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with styleHenry Miller’s eleven commandmentsSusan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, and Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing.

David Foster Wallace on the Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Despite his heartbreaking end, or perhaps in part because of it, David Foster Wallace endures as one of the most revered and celebrated modern sages, from his wisdom on writing and self-improvement to his superb definition of true leadership to his chilling-in-hindsight insights on death and redemption to his unforgettable commencement address on the meaning of life. In May of 1996, Wallace appeared on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss “the future of fiction in the information age.” With his characteristic penchant for meandering eloquence, he addresses questions of prescient and growing significance in today’s world, where the experience of reading is being redefined, not necessarily for the better, by a medium whose full blossoming Wallace never lived to see.

Transcribed highlights below.

On relying on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous contention that “a true artist takes no notice whatever of the public”:

If you think about … the size of the audience or how much it will appeal to the reader, you go nuts fairly quickly.

On the tension between commercial entertainment and true art, something Wallace tussled with in writing that year:

The generation I think of myself as part of was raised on television — which means that, at least I was raised to view television as more or less my main kind of artistic snorkel to the universe. And I think television, which is a commercial art that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art … affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art.

[…]

Commercial entertainment — its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses — changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment, it changes what an audience is looking for.

[…]

It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV… Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more.

On the necessary component of fun in reading, on which Wallace would later come to expound in his fantastic essay “The Nature of the Fun,” with a decided bittersweetness over how increasingly hard it is to access that higher-order pleasure as we struggle to distill wisdom in the age of information:

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

On that immutable sense of belonging, or what Kafka called “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” that reading gives us and TV does not:

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world…”

On the idea that as a creative person, you should “draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use”:

The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I … want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading. A lot of it has to do with … really stretching myself … really having to think and process and feel in ways I don’t normally feel.

Complement with Wallace on becoming who we are and the perils of ambition.

William Faulkner on Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create: A Rare 1958 Recording

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

The writer’s duty, William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) asserted in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Faulkner’s idealism about and intense interest in the human spirit permeated all of his creative pursuits, from his views on writing and the meaning of life to his only children’s book to his little-known Jazz Age drawings.

In 1957 and 1958, the period halfway between his two Pulitzer Prizes, Faulkner served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. On the last day of his residency in May of 1958, he read from his favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions — wonderfully Southern-drawled questions — from the audience. The surviving recording, found in the University of Virginia’s Faulkner archives, is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in sheer richness of insight into Faulkner’s views on writing and the project of art. Transcribed highlights below.

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On why he considers The Sound and the Fury his favorite novel:

I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date… This is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it — not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for me to do. It’s the same feeling that the parent may have toward the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

On his influences and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our lived experience:

I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, and I’m sure that everything I’ve read from the telephone book up has influenced what I’ve done since. I think that’s true of any writer.

[…]

Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.

The question of why writers write — why artists make art — has been addressed, in one form or another, at one point or another, by nearly every significant writer in history. For instance, George Orwell listed four universal motives and Mary Gaitskill outlined six. For Joan Didion, the impulse grants her access to her own mind and for David Foster Wallace, it was about funMichael Lewis finds in it a way to exorcise the the necessary self-delusions of creativity and Joy Williams a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket, while for Italo Calvino it was about the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. When an audience member poses this very question, Faulkner offers his private answer, at the center of which are some beautifully articulated creative universalities:

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

He later revisits the subject in answering another question:

I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes

Faulkner echoes Schopenhauer in answering a question about style:

I prefer to think that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style.

Long and involved sentences — I don’t like them any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn’t think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it’s not really an evolution — simply that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

Having endured his share of derision early in life, Faulkner smirks at the question of whether criticism hurts him or causes him to change direction:

I don’t read critics. I’d rather read imaginary fiction.

(Susan Sontag once put it even more forcefully: “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.”)

Complement with Faulkner on the purpose of art and the strange story of the children’s book he wrote for the daughter of the woman he was courting.

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writers, Penned in a Letter to His Lover and Muse

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

More than a century before Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing inspired similar sets of commandments by Neil GaimanZadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood, one of humanity’s greatest minds did precisely that. Between August 8 and August 24 of 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) set down ten stylistic rules of writing in a series of letters to the Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé — the first female psychoanalyst, who corresponded with Freud about human nature, and an extraordinary woman celebrated as the “muse of Europe’s fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists,” to whom Rainer Maria Rilke would later come to write breathtaking love letters.

Smitten with 21-year-old Andreas-Salomé, Nietzsche decided to make her not only his intellectual protégé, but also his wife, allegedly proposing marriage at only their second meeting earlier that year. Despite Andreas-Salomé’s rejection of his romantic advances and the subsequent break in the friendship, she retained a lifelong respect for his mind and work. More than two decades later, she included his ten rules of writing in Nietzsche (public library) — her superb study of Nietzsche’s personality, philosophy, and psyche.

Collected under the heading “Toward the Teaching of Style,” they read:

  1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
  2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate. (The law of mutual relation.)
  3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.
  4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.
  5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything — the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments — like gestures.
  6. Be careful with periods! Only those people who also have long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods. With most people, the period is a matter of affectation.
  7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
  9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.
  10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

These commandments are obviously rather aphoristic. In fact, unlike Susan Sontag, who vehemently denounced it, both Nietzsche and Andreas-Salomé had a fondness for aphorism. Beneath the list, Andreas-Salomé reflects on Nietzsche’s style in light of his aphoristic predilection:

To examine Nietzsche’s style for causes and conditions means far more than examining the mere form in which his ideas are expressed; rather, it means that we can listen to his inner soundings. [His style] came about through the willing, enthusiastic, self-sacrificing, and lavish expenditure of great artistic talents … and an attempt to render knowledge through individual nuancing, reflective of the excitations of a soul in upheaval. Like a gold ring, each aphorism tightly encircles thought and emotion. Nietzsche created, so to speak, a new style in philosophical writing, which up until then was couched in academic tones or in effusive poetry: he created a personalized style; Nietzsche not only mastered language but also transcended its inadequacies. What had been mute, achieved great resonance.

Her Nietzsche is a magnificent read in its entirety. For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with styleHenry Miller’s 11 commandmentsSusan Sontag’s synthesized wisdomChinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility and the collected advice of great writers.

C.S. Lewis on the Three Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“I don’t write for children,” the late and great Maurice Sendak said in his final interview“I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” J.R.R. Tolkien had memorably articulated the same sentiment seven decades earlier, in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” and Neil Gaiman eloquently echoed it in a recent interview. But perhaps the greatest and most ardent advocate for this notion was C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963).

In the spring of 1952, Lewis delivered a magnificent and wonderfully dogma-defiant talk at the Library Association titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” eventually adapted into an essay and published in Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (public library).

Lewis begins by outlining the trifecta of approaches:

I think there are three ways in which those who write for children may approach their work; two good ways and one that is generally a bad way.

I came to know of the bad way quite recently and from two unconscious witnesses. One was a lady who sent me the [manuscript] of a story she had written in which a fairy placed at a child’s disposal a wonderful gadget. I say ‘gadget’ because it was not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter. It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth. I had to tell the author honestly that I didn’t much care for that sort of thing. She replied, ‘No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.’ My other bit of evidence was this. In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, ‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.

The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of ‘giving the public what it wants’. Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself.

Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Darning Needle’ by Maurice Sendak, 1959. Click image for details.

Lewis counters this with the first of the two “good ways,” which may bear a superficial resemblance to the “bad” but is in actuality fundamentally different. This is the way of storytellers like Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose published work “grows out of a story told to a particular child with the living voice and perhaps ex tempore” — in Carroll’s case, little Alice Liddell, and in Tolkien’s, his own children. While this, too, may be a case of giving a child what he or she wants, the fact that it is a particular child means the author makes no attempt to treat all children like a “special public.” Lewis writes:

There is no question of “children” conceived as a strange species whose habits you have “made up” like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller. Nor, I suspect, would it be possible, thus face to face, to regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt. The child, I am certain, would see through that. In any personal relation the two participants modify each other. You would become slightly different because you were talking to a child and the child would become slightly different because it was being talked to by an adult. A community, a composite personality, is created and out of that the story grows.

He follows this with the final “way” of writing for children, that of his own preference:

The third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.

[…]

Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age… I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.

Illustration for the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928. Click image for details.

But Lewis’s most powerful point has less to do with the particular art-form of children’s literature and more to do with a broader cultural pathology. In discussing the fate of fantasy and fairy tales in society and in the hands of critics, he touches on our general tendency to treat adulthood as superior to childhood, a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down and seeing immaturity as a negative quality. Lewis writes:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But then into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

He extends this to how we evaluate our creative and intellectual “growth” over the course of life:

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed.

Illustration for The Fairy Tales of E. E. Cummings by John Eaton, 1965. Click image for details.

Just like every generation reports the alleged death of the novel, Lewis argues that “about once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale.” In a passage especially prescient in our age when fanciful untruths like creationism are still taught in classrooms, Lewis writes:

[The fairy tale] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations…

This distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the OdysseyThe Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

Lewis concludes with a beautiful and urgently important sentiment that applies as much to writing for children as it does to all writing, especially in our age of questionable motives for the written word, and perhaps most of all to life itself. It’s a poignant reminder that everything we put into the world is invariably the sum total of our lived experience and our personhood, and our journey, to attempt to sculpt the end result into something different would be not only an act of hypocrisy but also, inevitably, a guarantee of mediocrity. Lewis writes:

I rejected any approach which begins with the question ‘What do modern children like?’ I might be asked, ‘Do you equally reject the approach which begins with the question “What do modern children need?” — in other words, with the moral or didactic approach?’ I think the answer is Yes. Not because I don’t like stories to have a moral: certainly not because I think children dislike a moral. Rather because I feel sure that the question ‘What do modern children need?’ will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask ‘What moral do I need?’ for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.

Indeed everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from our child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests which children would not share with us. The matter of our story should be a part of the habitual furniture of our minds.

All of the writing in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories is absolutely fantastic, spanning everything from the nature of storytelling to why writers should read criticism of their own work to the role of science fiction in society. Complement it with Lewis’s letters to children on the secret of happiness and the only three duties in life.