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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

31 OCTOBER, 2013

Eudora Welty on the Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown

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“No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”

“Longest way around is the shortest way home,” James Joyce wrote in one of the most memorable lines in literature — so memorable and impactful perhaps because it harnesses so exquisitely the ineffable yet enthralling role of place in writing. That’s precisely what Eudora Welty explores in an extended 1956 meditation found in On Writing (public library) — an indispensable handbook on the art of mastering the most important pillars of narrative craft, from language to memory to voice, and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers.

Welty begins by considering how place shapes the “goodness” of good writing:

As soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may and teachers well know how to, and consider what good writing may be, place can be seen, in her own way, to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it. How so?

First, with the goodness — validity — in the raw material of writing. Second, with the goodness in the writing itself — the achieved world of appearance, through which the novelist has his whole say and puts his whole case. … Third, with the goodness — the worth — in the writer himself: place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.

Welty adds to history’s wisest meditations on art and echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art is a bridge of mutual understanding and argues that no form of art is better able to touch us than fiction:

Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.

She offers a beautiful metaphor, delightful in its object’s datedness yet timeless in its sentiment, for how fiction works its illuminating magic:

Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.

This fusion of the separateness of human life, she argues, is the core responsibility of the writer, who upholds it by separating the meaningful from the meaningless through a series of choices — a concept curiously similar to French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that “to invent is to choose” in his 1908 description of how the inventor’s mind works. Welty writes:

This makes it the business of writing, and the responsibility of the writer, to disentangle the significant — in character, incident, setting, mood, everything — from the random and meaningless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it. It is a matter of his selecting and, by all that implies, of changing “real” life as he goes. With each word he writes, he acts — as literally and methodically as if he hacked his way through a forest and blazed it for the word that follows. He makes choices at the explicit demand of this one present story; each choice implies, explains, limits the next, and illuminates the one before. … What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself: the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it. In a working sense, the novel and its place have become one: work has made them, for the time being, the same thing, like the explorer’s tentative map of the known world.

In noting that “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance” is the primary responsibility of the writer, Welty returns to the power of place, which she argues is the writer’s best way of reconciling the quest for truth with the awareness of the deliberate construction of this world of appearance:

Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.

Inevitably, we get to the g-word: Place, Welty insists, plays into genius, for place helps us focus and focus helps us love, much like attention anchors us to reality:

Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius. . . . It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight — they are like the attributes of love. The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning; it is the act that, continued in, turns into mediation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world.

Place, above all, is an instrument of the imagination, which at once shrouds things in fruitful illusion and strips them to their bare essence:

Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument — one of intensification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental. … The writer must accurately choose, combine, superimpose upon, blot out, shake up, alter the outside world for one absolute purpose, the good of his story. To do this, he is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world’s, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two. It is his clear intention — his passion, I should say — to make the reader see only one of the pictures — the author’s — under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s; this enormity is the accomplishment of a good story. I think it likely that at the moment of the writer’s highest awareness of, and responsiveness to, the “real” world, his imagination’s choice (and miles away it may be from actuality) comes closest to being infallible for his purpose. For the spirit of things is what is sought. No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.

Welty adds to this a point of advice to aspiring writers:

One of the most important things the young writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as a glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face. Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through — it may sometimes divine and prophesy. Misused, it turns opaque almost at once and gets in the way of the book.

And so we return to the chief responsibility of art and the artist, which swings reader and writer into an intimate dance of believing and being believed:

Making reality real is art’s responsibility. It is a practical assignment, then, a self-assignment: to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unaidable vision, and transferring this vision without distortion to it onto the pages of a novel, where, if the reader is so persuaded, it will turn into the reader’s illusion. How bent on this peculiar joy we are, reader and writer, willingly to practice, willingly to undergo, this alchemy for it!

This alchemy, Welty argues, is the alchemy of place:

The sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bringing us back to earth when we fly too high. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too. Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.

Since place is always bound up in our boundaries, Welty echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless wisdom on embracing the unfamiliar and cautions:

For the artist to be unwilling to move, mentally or spiritually or physically, out of the familiar is a sign that spiritual timidity or poverty or decay has come upon him; for what is familiar will then have turned into all that is tyrannical.

Indeed, this vital willingness to move toward the unfamiliar is entwined with our willingness to take risks, which is what keeps us moving, if not spatially, then at least spiritually. Welty ends with a beautiful reflection:

No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.

The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.

On Writing is a must-read in its entirety and a superb addition to these favorite books on writing. Complement it with more advice on the craft from great writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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21 OCTOBER, 2013

Dani Shapiro on the Pleasures and Perils of Writing & the Creative Life

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“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive.”

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace,” Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” And yet, Zadie Smith admonished in her 10 rules of writing, it’s perilous to romanticize the “vocation of writing”: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

Still, surely there must be more to it than that — whole worlds rise and fall, entire universes blossom and die daily in that enchanted space between the writer’s sensation of writing and the word’s destiny of being written on a page. For all that’s been mulled about the writing life and its perpetual osmosis of everyday triumphs and tragedies, its existential feats and failures, at its heart remains an immutable mystery — how can a calling be at once so transcendent and so soul-crushing, and what is it that enthralls so many souls into its paradoxical grip, into feeling compelled to write “not because they can but because they have to”? That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (public library) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing.

Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book:

Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.

Book sculpture by an anonymous artist left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse. Click image for more.

Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully:

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.

'Paper Typewriter' by artist Jennifer Collier. Click image for more.

Above all, however, Shapiro’s core point has to do with courage and the creative life:

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.

In other words, it requires grit — that the science of which earned psychologist Angela Duckworth her recent MacArthur “genius” grant and the everyday art of which earns actual geniuses their status.

Writing is also, as Shapiro poetically puts it, a way “to forge a path out of [our] own personal wilderness with words” — a way to both exercise and exorcise our most fundamental insecurities and to practice what Rilke so memorably termed living the questions, the sort of “negative capability” of embracing uncertainty that Keats thought was so fundamental to the creative process. Shapiro echoes that Dillardian insistence on presence as the heart of the creative life:

'Flights of mind' by artist Vita Wells. Click image for more.

We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.

[…]

The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. … Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

In fact, it’s hard not to feel Dillard’s influence and the echo of her voice in Shapiro’s own words as she considers the conflicted yet inexorable mesmerism of writing:

What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.

These rewards manifest not as grand honors and prizes and bestseller rankings — though hardly any writer would deny the warming pleasure of those, however fleeting — but in the cumulative journey of becoming. As Cheryl Strayed put it in her timelessly revisitable meditation on life, “The useless days will add up to something. . . . These things are your becoming.” Ultimately, Shapiro seconds this sentiment by returning to the notion of presence and the art of looking as the centripetal force that summons the scattered fragments of our daily experience into our cumulative muse — a testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity, reassuring us that no bit of life is “useless” and reminding us of the vital importance of what Stephen King has termed the art of “creative sleep”. Shapiro writes:

If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.

[…]

To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.

Complement Still Writing, which is soul-quenching in its entirety, with famous writers’ advice on the craft, then revisit Annie Dillard on writing.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Ray Bradbury on How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity

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How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.

Susan Sontag argued that lists confer value and guarantee our existence. Umberto Eco saw in them “the origin of culture.” But lists, it turns out, might be a remarkably potent tool for jostling the muse into manifesting — a powerful trigger for that stage of unconscious processing so central to the creative process, where our mind-wandering makes magic happen.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

Bradbury would later come to articulate his conviction that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing, but it was through these lists that he intuited the vital pattern-recognition machinery that fuels creativity. Echoing Einstein’s notion of “combinatory play,” Bradbury considers the true value of his list-making:

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”:

THE MEADOW. THE TOY CHEST. THE MONSTER. TYRANNOSAURUS REX. THE TOWN CLOCK. THE OLD MAN. THE OLD WOMAN. THE TELEPHONE. THE SIDEWALKS. THE COFFIN. THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. THE MAGICIAN.

Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.

Bradbury, who has since shared timeless wisdom on withstanding the storm of rejection, recalls:

The tale was rejected by every science-fiction magazine because, after all, it was only a story about friendship being tested by circumstance, even though the circumstance was space travel. Mary Gnaedinger, at Famous Fantastic Mysteries, took one look at my story and published it. But, again, I was too young to see that “R is For Rocket” would be the kind of story that would make me as a science-fiction writer, admired by some, and criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fictions, I was a “people” writer, and to hell with that!

I went on making lists, having to do not only with night, nightmares, darkness, and objects in attics, but the toys that men play with in space, and the ideas I found in detective magazines.

Susan Sontag's list of her favorite things, illustrated. Click image for details.

But more than merely sharing the amusing story of his youth’s quirky habit, Bradbury believes this practice can be enormously beneficial for any writer, both practicing and aspiring, as a critical tool of self-discovery:

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He offers himself as a testament:

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.

It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.

He urges the aspiring writer:

Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…

Shortly before his death, Bradbury speaks to his official biographer, Sam Weller — who also conducted Bradbury’s lost Comic Con interview — and revisits the subject of list-making in a Paris Review interview:

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

(That’s exactly what Roland Barthes did in 1977, to a delightful effect.)

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a must-read in its entirety, and a fine addition to the collected advice of great writers. Complement it with Bradbury on writing with joy and this fantastic 1974 documentary on his fantastical mind.

For more wisdom on writing, see Stephen King on the art of “creative sleep,” Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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