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Posts Tagged ‘H. P. Lovecraft’

19 FEBRUARY, 2013

Happy Birthday, United Amateur Press Association: H. P. Lovecraft on the Early Spirit of “Blogging”

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“Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism.”

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of amateur press associations (ASAs) — small groups of writers, often without professional training, who would produce individual articles, pamphlets, or magazines mailed to all other members of the association; in other words, a progenitor of subscription-based blogging, and yet another example of primitive versions of modern social media. The first such group to become a formal organization was the National Amateur Press Association, founded on February 19, 1876, in Philadelphia. Over the century that followed, NAPA went on to produce a series of wide-ranging and intelligent articles spanning politics, language, religion, literary criticism, and more, including NAPA vice-president H. P. Lovecraft’s famous advice to young writers. For the first time in the history of mass media, a small group of dedicated writers had pulled into question the distinction between “journalists” and “amateurs,” a line all the more profoundly blurred today.

Lovecraft himself lays out a mission statement in Writings in the United Amateur (public domain; public library):

The desire to write for publication is one which inheres strongly in every human breast. From the proficient college graduate, storming the gates of the high-grade literary magazines, to the raw schoolboy, vainly endeavoring to place his first crude compositions in the local newspapers, the whole intelligent public are today seeking expression through the printed page, and yearning to behold their thoughts and ideals permanently crystallized in the magic medium of type. But while a few persons of exceptional talent manage eventually to gain a foothold in the professional world of letters rising to celebrity through the wide diffusion of their art, ideals, or opinions; the vast majority, unless aided in their education by certain especial advantages, are doomed to confine their expression to the necessarily restricted sphere of ordinary conversation. To supply these especial educational advantages which may enable the general public to achieve the distinction of print, and which may prevent the talented but unknown author from remaining forever in obscurity, has arisen that largest and foremost of societies for literary education The United Amateur Press Association.

Amateur journalism, or the composition and circulation of small, privately printed magazines, is an instructive diversion which has existed in the United States for over half a century. In the decade of 1866-1876 this practice first became an organized institution; a short-lived society of amateur journalists, including the now famous publisher, Charles Scribner, having existed from 1869 to 1874. In 1876 a more lasting society was formed, which exists to this day as an exponent of light dilettantism. Not until 1895, however, was amateur journalism established as a serious branch of educational endeavour. On September 2nd of that year, Mr. William H. Greenfield, a gifted professional author, of Philadelphia, founded The United Amateur Press Association, which has grown to be the leader of its kind, and the representative of amateur journalism in its best phases throughout the English-speaking world.

Lovecraft offers a necessary disclaimer to the term “amateur,” reminding us that it is a distinction of motives rather than of competence — those who pour countless hours and endless heart into the publication do it for love rather than for commercial gain:

In many respects the word ‘amateur’ fails to do full credit to amateur journalism and the association which best represents it. To some minds the term conveys an idea of crudity and immaturity, yet the United can boast of members and publications whose polish and scholarship are well-nigh impeccable. In considering the adjective ‘amateur’ as applied to the press association, we must adhere to the more basic interpretation, regarding the word as indicating the non-mercenary nature of the membership. Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism. Many of them are prominent professional authors in the outside world, but their professionalism never creeps into their association work. The atmosphere is wholly fraternal, and courtesy takes the place of currency.

Today, the spirit Lovecraft describes endures online, where countless brilliant “amateurs” craft with love havens of knowledge and stimulation around their passions — like Joe Hanson in science, Tina Roth Eisenberg in design, John Ptak in history, Christopher Jobson in art, Dan Colman in education, Emily Spivack in sartorial history, and many more. To be an “amateur,” in that sense, seems to be to avoid work by doing what you love.

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11 JANUARY, 2013

H. P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers, 1920

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“A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” admonished Henry Miller, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In January of 1920, iconic science fiction and fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft published a short guide titled “Literary Composition” for United Amateur Press Association — a grassroots literary education collective that dubbed itself an “exponent of amateur journalism,” an early version of today’s blogs and citizen journalism. Found in the anthology Writings in the United Amateur (free download; public library), the essay offers aspiring writers technical tips and big-picture wisdom on the art and craft of the written word.

Much like Jennifer Egan did nearly a century later, Lovecraft stresses the vital osmosis between reading and writing:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.

Lovecraft notes the equal importance of non-reading as intellectual choice:

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.

He advocates for cultivating a love of uncommon words:

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.

Like Thoreau, Lovecraft finds in nature a literary muse:

For the purpose of securing epithets at once accurate and felicitous, the young author should familiarize himself thoroughly with the general aspect and phenomena of Nature, as well as with the ideas and associations which these things produce in the human mind.

He offers a meditation on fact and fiction, with a cautionary note about narrative sequence:

In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average. Development should be as lifelike as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes be later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule.

Lovecraft enumerates the twenty most common mistakes of young authors, “aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects,” and offers a common cure for all:

  1. Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
  2. Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  3. Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved.
  4. Ambiguous use of pronouns.
  5. Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
  6. Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
  7. Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
  8. Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
  9. Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise,” or “He said the earth was round.”
  10. The split infinitive, as “to calmly glide.”
  11. The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met you.”
  12. False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
  13. Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  14. Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
  15. The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
  16. Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me,” “Leave me take this,” “He was obsessed with the idea,” or “He is a meticulous writer.”
  17. Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena,” or “two stratas of clouds.”
  18. Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
  19. Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
  20. Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter of advice, 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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