Brain Pickings

Italo Calvino on Writing: Selected Wisdom from a Lifetime of Letters

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“One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.”

Culled from the 600+ pages of Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — the same fantastic recently released tome that gave us Calvino’s prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life — are the beloved author’s collected insights on writing spanning more than four decades of his career, a fine addition to this master list of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft.

On March 7, 1942, writing from university to his best friend and literary-minded comrade-in-arms, Eugenio Scalfari, in the typical tone of irreverent facetiousness the two shared, 18-year-old Calvino extols the joy and art of writing letters::

A fine thing it is to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel; fine not because I like to plunge into captious polemics nor because I enjoy getting certain ideas into the head of some idiot from the Urbe, but because writing long letters to friends means having a moral excuse for not studying.

In the same letter, Calvino admonishes Eugenio about the mixed motives of the publishing world — at least as an 18-year-old aspiring writer saw it:

Don’t trust the big names that support youth movements: it’s fashionable to show you’re favoring youth.

Several weeks later, Calvino — who had gone to university to study agriculture but found himself increasingly drawn to literature as he immersed himself in the dullness of his major — shares with Eugenio an intense expression of the inner contradiction that defines being human, the increasing inner tug-of-war between the disinterested agronomist and self-conscious poet:

It will perhaps please you to know that, as regards the famous italcalvinian dualism, the agronomist is about to lose out, and the poet will emerge as the clear winner. My revision for the exams is still today in a deplorable state and offers no hope of recovery. The Easter holidays, which were filled with the pleasures of cheerful cycling trips along the Via Aurelia and daring but unsuccessful pursuits of Riviera Amazons, have long disappeared. The poet, on the other hand, has been more productive: he has finished the famous Brezza di terra (Land Breeze) and would now do well to go off and hide. The work is solemn rubbish and I don’t think I’ll have the courage to present it, not even in Florence. Rhetoric, artifice, and trite Pirandellian ideas grafted onto pompous D’Annunzian language. But also daring, warmth, enthusiasm and, what counts above all, real poetry.

In early May of 1942, after Eugenio sends Italo one of his poems, Calvino echoes Wordsworth as he articulates his budding philosophy on poetry, then trails off in a meta-affirmation:

I’ve read your poem. I too, if you remember, wrote a Hermetic poem in my early youth. I know that gives enormous satisfaction to the person who writes it. But whether the person who reads it shares this enthusiasm is another matter. It’s too subjective, Hermeticism, do you see? And I see art as communication. The poet turns in on himself, tries to pin down what he has seen and felt, then pulls it out so that others can understand it. But I can’t understand these things: these discourses about the ego and the non-ego I leave to you. Yes, I understand, there’s the struggle to express the inexpressible, typical of modern art, and these are all fine things, but I …

Later in the same lengthy letter, Calvino, sharing in Bukowski’s assertion that writing should come “unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut” and dissenting from Coleridge’s view that “the mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem,” engages in his usual self-derisive conviction:

I’m a regular guy, I like well-defined outlines, I’m old-fashioned, bourgeois. My stories are full of facts, they have a beginning and an end. For that reason they will never be able to find success with the critics, nor occupy a place in contemporary literature. I write poetry when I have a thought that I absolutely have to bring out, I write to give vent to my feelings and I write using rhyme because I like it, tum-tetum tumtetum tum te-tum, because I’ve got no ear, and poetry without rhyme or meter seems like soup without salt, and I write (mock me, you crowds! Make me a figure of public scorn!) I write … sonnets … and writing sonnets is boring, you have to find rhymes, you have to write hendecasyllables so after a while I get bored and my drawer is overflowing with unfinished short poems.

In July of the following year, still in school and approaching his 20th birthday, Italo grumbles to Eugenio in frustration over his creative process, which seems to disobey the general principles of intuitive incubation and unconscious processing:

I’m still too ignorant to write articles and as for my output of short stories, a famous summer of overproduction has been followed by years of crisis. … All the ideas currently in my head are subject to a strange phenomenon: while I work on them and perfect them continuously from the philosophical point of view, they stay rudimentary and barely sketched on the dramatic and artistic side. In my creativity thought has the upper hand over imagination.

Having long left school and working on his second novel, Calvino found himself no less full of inner contradiction and resistance to the calling of the writing life and its grueling routines. In a November 1948 letter to his friend Silvio Micheli, he voices, as if in a desperate effort to reconcile, his conflicted desires :

When you’re working you get buried, drowned under things. You’ve no more friends nor art. Only when you’ve an evening or afternoon free can you roam the streets or court a girl. That’s all. In short, working is pointless. I mean, from the point of view of education. But it’s essential. I cannot — and I don’t want to — live the writer’s life, that is to say write for a living. The novel I was writing, which for months and months had sucked all my blood (because, stubborn as I am, I was determined to finish it even though I no longer felt it was going anywhere), is dead, awful, full of wonderful clever things but desperately bad, forced, it’ll never work and I must not finish it. And I must not write for some time now otherwise I’d make more mistakes. I hope that Einaudi will publish my short stories eventually, they’re the only thing I believe in and which I believe are useful.

A few weeks prior, Calvino had written to another friend:

For seven or eight months now I’ve been mucking about with a novel that I began in a moment of weakness and it’s turning out to be very bad, causing me to waste lots of my time. But at least it’ll get rid of my desire to write novels for four or five years, which is what I dream of doing, and will allow me to study kind of seriously and learn to write decently.

On July 27, 1949, Calvino writes to Cesare Pavese:

To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.

In early December of the same year, Calvino writes to literary critic Geno Pampaloni, who had just reviewed the author’s second major published work, the short-story collection The Crow, expressing once again his inner turmoil:

My problem today is how to escape from the limits of these books, from this definition of me as a writer of adventures, fairy-tales, and fun, in which I can’t express myself or realize myself to the full.

In a lengthy letter to literary critic Mario Motta dated January 16, 1950, Calvino addresses the alleged death of the novel, a death toll still nervously resounding today:

There have been so many debates on the novel in the last thirty years, both by those who claimed it was dead and by those who wanted it to be alive in a certain way, that if one conducts the debate without serious preliminary work to establish the terms of the question as it has to be set up and as it has never been set up before, we’ll end up saying and making others say a lot of commonplaces.

Calvino echoes Herbert Spencer’s admonition that “to have a specific style is to be poor in speech” in a March 1950 letter to Elsa Morante, one of the most influential postwar novelists, whom he had befriended:

The fact is that I already feel I am a prisoner of a kind of style and it is essential that I escape from it at all costs: I’m now trying to write a totally different book, but it’s damned difficult; I’m trying to break up the rhythms, the echoes which I feel the sentences I write eventually slide into, as into pre-existing molds, I try to see facts and things and people in the round instead of being drawn in colors that have no shading. For that reason the book I’m going to write interests me infinitely more than the other one.

As dangerous as the blind adhesion to a style, Calvino writes in a May 1959 letter, is the blind reliance on tools, the cult of medium over message — but harnessing the power of tools is one of the craft’s greatest arts:

One should never have taboos about the tools we use, that as long as the thought or images or style one wants to put forward do not become deformed by the medium, one must on the contrary try to make use of the most powerful and most efficient of those tools.

The creative process, however, is an entirely different matter for Calvino, one where efficiency and merit aren’t necessarily correlated. In August of the same year, he complains to his friend Luigi Santucci about his creative block and sluggish daily routine — and yet he accepts that state, resigns to it as a given of the writing life. Above all, he adds to other famous meditations on why writers write — including ones from George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Isabel Allende, Susan Orlean, Joy Williams, and Charles Bukowski — and speaks to the difference between a career and a calling, that profound and unshakable sense of purpose that is the mark of good art:

You can imagine how slowly my fictional output has been going this summer, you who know how much labor, dissatisfaction, irritability, uncertainty this work costs … However — and this is the point — it is worth it. Or rather: one does not ask if it’s worth it. We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another. I am exaggerating: heaven help those who write without being read; for that reason there are too many people writing today and one cannot ask for indulgence for someone who has little to say, and one cannot allow trade-union or corporate sympathies.

In the same letter, he returns to the question of the novel and his relationship with fiction:

Even more annoying are those who theorize that the novel has to be like this or like that, that one must write the novel, etc. Let them go to hell! How much energy is wasted in Italy in trying to write the novel that obeys all the rules. The energy might have been useful to provide us with more modest, more genuine things, that had less pretensions: short stories, memoirs, notes, testimonials, or at any rate books that are open, without a preconceived plan.

Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension.

Three years later, in April of 1962, Calvino returns to his conception of fiction, this time with more dimension and more sensitivity to the inherent contradictions of literature:

One cannot construct in fiction a harmonious language to express something that is not yet harmonious. We live in a cultural ambience where many different languages and levels of knowledge intersect and contradict each other.

In October of the following year, feeling yet constrained by that “cultural ambience,” Calvino fantasizes about freely and wholeheartedly immersing himself in modernism:

Secretly I dream that soon, once the kingdom of literature has been divided between the two opposing factions of traditionalists and innovators, who are united by a common and equal insensitivity to words, I will be able finally to write works that are clandestine, pursuing an ideal of modern prose to hand down to the generations which eventually, God knows when, will understand …

But he is far from conceiving of the writer as a solitary creature working in isolation, in service of some egoic genius. In a December 1967 letter, he parenthetically acknowledges the labyrinth of literature:

One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.

Similarly, in a letter penned a few months later, he recognizes the writer’s mind — like that of any great thinker — needs to be a cross-disciplinary one:

Every field of writing cannot be indifferent to other fields.

Much like H.P. Lovecraft argued against the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” journalists and Greil Marcus negated the divide between “high” and “low” culture, Calvino admonishes against the toxic dichotomy between “major” and “minor” writers and echoes Anaïs Nin’s defense of the fluid self”:

As a young man my aspiration was to become a “minor writer.” (Because it was always those that are called “minor” that I liked most and to whom I felt closest.) But this was already a flawed criterion because it presupposes that “major” writers exist. Basically, I am convinced that not only are there no “major” or “minor” writers, but writers themselves do not exist — or at least they do not count for much. As far as I am concerned, you still try too hard to explain Calvino with Calvino, to chart a history, a continuity in Calvino, and maybe this Calvino does not have any continuity, he dies and is reborn every second. What counts is whether in the work that he is doing at a certain point there is something that can relate to the present or future work done by others, as can happen to anyone who works, just because of the fact that they are creating such possibilities.

Calvino, in fact, is largely uncomfortable with the conventions of literary fame. In September of 1968, in a warm letter to John Woodhouse, who had just written the first book on Calvino, he reflects on the perils of prestige:

The public figure of the writer, the writer-character, the “personality-cult” of the author, are all becoming for me more and more intolerable in others, and consequently in myself. In short, if a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all.

In an August 1970 letter, Calvino adds to history’s noteworthy meditations on criticism:

The only kind of literature that is possible today: a literature that is both critical and creative.

In the summer of 1973, he returns to the idea that all literature is interconnected or, as Virginia Woolf memorably put it, “words belong to each other,” and laments the literary landscape of the time:

I am very discouraged by this general dearth of books coming out, a desert that also affects me, removes my desire to write, because books cannot grow if they don’t find around them the company of other books their same age and that are congenial to them.

One of his most prescient and timely meditations comes from a November 1975 letter and, once again, dissents against the artificial and detrimental hierarchies of the literary world:

The distinction between journalists and writers put in those terms does not distinguish anything at all: one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist when we are dealing with a good journalist.

In late 1979, having just turned fifty-six, Calvino reflects on his nature as a writer, reflecting also on the era’s evolution and presaging our present culture of compressed timelines:

The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong.

In the summer of 1980, he returns to the tension between career and calling and, echoing Tchaikovsky’s letter on commissioned work vs. creative purpose, confesses that freelance writing for literary journals leaves him vacant:

This jack-of-all-trades kind of writing does not give me any satisfaction at all, even though, yes, it is also a vocation of mine, but it is certainly the most time-consuming and least useful activity I could be doing, and what’s more in recent times what I manage to come up with are only boring things and my conscience is only at peace if I manage to entertain people.

And still, for all his tremendous insight and wisdom, Calvino is also a relentless devil’s advocate against himself, brimming with mischievous self-consciousness and self-derision that bespeaks one of the grand truths of creative life: No great artist can afford to take himself too seriously. Even in his formative years, Calvino intuited this: 19-year-old Italo tells Eugenio after writing his friend a lengthy letter full of youth’s typical early grapples with philosophy:

I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:

POSTERITY IS STUPID

Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!

And yet we’re far more amused than annoyed, and infinitely delighted, for Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is an absolute treasure trove in its entirety — the most profound intersection of writing, philosophy, and literary voyeurism since Susan Sontag’s journals and the diary of Anaïs Nin.

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