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01 NOVEMBER, 2012

Joy Williams on Why Writers Write

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“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

Why do writers write? Some of literary history’s most famous and timeless answers have come from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Charles Bukowski. In her beautiful essay “Uncanny Singing That Comes from Certain Husks,” published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library), Joy Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

[…]

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.

She considers the generative power of awareness:

The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

[…]

A writer’s awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write. The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it. A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light. The writer is separate from his work but that’s all the writer is — what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness.

On complacency:

The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.

Recounting critical reactions to some of her essays, Williams offers:

But a writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing, I don’t think.

On language, and the metaphor from which the essay title comes:

Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing — uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough. The work stands a little apart from the writer, it doesn’t want to go down with him when he stumbles or fails to retreat. The writer must do all this alone, in secret, in drudgery, in confusion, awkwardly, one word at a time.

[…]

The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work — this Other, this other thing — this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, either is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three o’clock in the morning, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve…something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness — those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.

Williams ends with a direct yet wonderfully poetic answer:

Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve — hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve — not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2012

Stunning Spanish Illustrations for The Communist Manifesto

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The Marx and Engels classic, brought to new life in black, white, and red.

For a new Spanish edition of The Communist Manifesto, Madrid-based artist Fernando Vicente created a series of striking, chromatically appropriate black-white-and-red illustrations that capture the message and sensibility of the Marx and Engels classic with brilliant conceptual and aesthetic expressiveness:

Positively the most gorgeous graphic design for the Marx and Engels classic since Paul Buckley’s cover for the Penguin Deluxe Edition:

Meanwhile, beloved British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who passed away a month ago today, contextualizes the contemporary relevance of the classic text in his introduction to The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition:

How will the Manifesto strike the reader who comes to it today for the first time? The new reader can hardly fail to be swept away by the passionate conviction, the concentrated brevity, the intellectual and stylistic force, of this astonishing pamphlet. It is written, as though in a single creative burst, in lapidary sentences almost naturally transforming themselves into the memorable aphorisms which have become known far beyond the world of political debate: from the opening ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism’ to the final ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’ Equally uncommon in nineteenth-century German writing: it is written in short, apodictic paragraphs, mainly of one to five lines — in only five cases, out of more than two hundred, of fifteen or more lines. Whatever else it is, The Communist Manifesto as political rhetoric has an almost biblical force. In short, it is impossible to deny its compelling power as literature.

[…]

But then, the Manifesto — and this is not the least of its remarkable qualities — is a document which envisaged failure. It hoped that the outcome of capitalist development would be ‘A revolutionary reconstitution of society at large’ but, as we have already seen, it did not exclude the alternative: ‘common ruin’. Many years later, another Marxian rephrased this as the choice between socialism and barbarity. Which of these will prevail is a question which the twenty-first century must be left to answer.

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31 OCTOBER, 2012

A Visual History of New York City’s Destruction in 200 Years of Fiction

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What visions of the magnificent city’s destruction reveal about American ideology and the dominant social issues of each era.

This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city’s most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it “the worst” in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven’t been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we’re so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.

A ghostly Manhattan, hauntingly devoid of people and cars, prepares for Sandy. October 29, 2012.

Gotham braces itself for the superstorm. October 29, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.

In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as “surreal,” was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail — but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city’s narrative. In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries’ worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation — floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions — lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.

Page writes:

America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, ‘green death.’ American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city’s end — floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.

[…]

Visions of New York’s destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city’s end have paralleled the city’s economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city’s end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.

Thomas Nast, 'Something That Did Blow Over,' Harper's Weekly, 1871.

That Liberty Shall Not Perish From the Earth,Buy Liberty Bonds, ca. 1918

The cleansing action of the apocalypse, as pictured in 'Amazing Stories' from 1920

Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal — one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.

Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.

Danny Shanahan, cartoon representation of Godzilla and King Kong in Manhattan © The New Yorker Collection 1997

Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1907, reproduced in In The Shadow of No Towers, 2004

The trope of New York’s destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:

New York’s death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on ‘a culture of calamity.’ That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city’s end.

Eric Drooker, 'Turtle Island' in FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures, 1992

The Twin Towers are attacked in Challenge of the Superfriends, 1978

Page goes on to argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy — the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it’s bigger than that — and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?

But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ that ‘we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.’ Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte’s nightmare of the deadened ‘organization man.’ The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe — terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don’t worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy — moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters — feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Ralph E. Lapp, 'before; and 'after' illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.

Alexis Rockman, Washington Square, 2004

Stuart Leeds, New Yorker cartoonist parodying meteor hysteria, 1992 © The New Yorker Collection

In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Harry Belafonte, as Ralph Burton, in a deserted Times Square in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959

Paul Sahre graphic for the Week in Review section of The New York Times, July 10, 2005

But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City’s End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster — and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.

Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova

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