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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

11 AUGUST, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are

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“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

In late 1999, David Foster Wallace — poignant contemplator of death and redemption, tragic prophet of the meaning of life, champion of intelligent entertainment, admonisher against blind ambition, advocate of true leadership — called the office of the prolific writer-about-writing Bryan A. Garner and, declining to be put through to Garner himself, grilled his secretary about her boss. Wallace was working on an extensive essay about Garner’s work and his newly released Dictionary of Modern American Usage. A few weeks later, Garner received a hefty package in the mail — the manuscript of Wallace’s essay, titled “Tense Present,” which was famously rejected by The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, then finally published by Harper’s and included in the 2005 anthology Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Garner later wrote of the review, “a long, laudatory piece”: “It changed my literary life in ways that a book review rarely can.”

Over the course of the exchange, the two struck up a friendship and began an ongoing correspondence, culminating in Garner’s extensive interview with Wallace, conducted on February 3, 2006, in Los Angeles — the kind of conversation that reveals as much about its subject matter, in this case writing and language, as it does about the inner workings of its subject’s psyche. Five years after Wallace’s death, their conversation was published in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library).

Wallace begins at the beginning, responding to Garner’s request to define good writing:

In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.

Wallace, who by the time of the interview had fifteen years of teaching writing and literature under his belt, considers how one might learn this delicate craft:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

This act of paying attention, Wallace argues, is a matter of slowing oneself down. Echoing Mary Gordon’s case for writing by hand, he tells Garner:

The writing writing that I do is longhand. . . . The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful Letter to Borges, in which she defines writing as an act of self-transcendence, Wallace argues for the craft as an antidote to selfishness and self-involvement, and at the same time a springboard for self-improvement:

One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.

Wallace argues that one of the most important points of awareness, and one of the most shocking to aspiring writers, can be summed up thusly:

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

(Vonnegut only compounded the terror when he memorably admonished, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”)

Wallace weighs the question of talent, erring on the side of grit as the quality that sets successful writers apart:

There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Despite the prevalence of mindless language usage, Wallace — not one to miss an opportunity to poke some fun at then-President George Bush — makes a case for a yang to the yin of E.B. White’s assertion that the writer’s responsibility is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” arguing that part of that responsibility is also having faith in the reader’s capacities and sensitivities:

Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, right? — in which the President says things that would embarrass a junior-high-school student — the fact remains that … the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

Learning to write well, with elegance and sensitivity, shouldn’t be reserved for those trying to have a formal career in writing — it also, Wallace points out, immunizes us against the laziness of clichés and vogue expressions:

A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.

But it is still, I think, well worth paying attention. And it does help, I think . . . the more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

He returns to the question of good writing and the deliberate practice it takes to master:

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

In a sentiment that Anne Lamott memorably made, urging that perfectionism is the great enemy of creativity, and Neil Gaiman subsequently echoed in his 8 rules of writing, where he asserted that “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Wallace adds:

Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . .

Like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

Reflecting on the writers he sees as “models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose” — he lists William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy — Wallace makes a beautiful case for the gift of encountering, of arriving in the work of that rare writer who not only shares one’s sensibility but also offers an almost spiritual resonance. (For me, those writers include Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, E.B White, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf.) Wallace puts it elegantly:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Echoing Kandinsky’s thoughts on the spiritual element in art, he adds:

Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

But perhaps his most important point is that the act of finding our purpose and finding ourselves is not an A-to-B journey but a dynamic act, one predicated on continually, cyclically getting lost — something we so often, and with such spiritually toxic consequences, forget in a culture where the first thing we ask a stranger is “So, what do you do?” Wallace tells Garner:

I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.

Quack This Way is excellent in its entirety, brimming with the very spiritual resonance discussed above. Complement it with this compendium of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility, Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writers, and Jeanette Winterson on reading and writing.

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08 AUGUST, 2014

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writers

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

More than a century before Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing inspired similar sets of commandments by Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood, one of humanity’s greatest minds did precisely that. Between August 8 and August 24 of 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche set down ten stylistic rules of writing in a series of letters to the Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé — a 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 style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility and the collected advice of great writers.

Thanks, Dan

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04 AUGUST, 2014

The Best-Kept Secret of Clichés: How to Upgrade Our Uses and Abolish Our Abuses of Language

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A manifesto against mindless language, or how to get off autopilot in the art of communication.

“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980, lamenting the commodification of wisdom. But there is a yet greater abuse of language that bespeaks such impatience that bleeds into cognitive laziness — the aphorism’s cousin, the cliché, arguably the most successful meme of language. In It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (public library), lexicographer and linguistics researcher Orin Hargraves embarks on a quest to empower you to “proceed with the confidence that you have made peace with clichés through greater understanding and that you have established a relationship with them that will serve your interests when you write and speak.”

That understanding begins with the word itself: Hargraves points out that it comes from French, where it originally denoted “a convenience of printing, specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies” — hence its present semantic representation of a reusable template-expression. Hargraves outlines his mission in unambiguous terms:

I have persisted in my attempt to stop some clichés in their flight, capture and anesthetize them, splay their dull wings, pin them to the specimen board, and make them visible for all to see, so that they may be revealed in their true lack of color. My intention is to make speakers and writers more aware of the occasions when they are using clichés or when they think that they need to — for it must surely be the case that clichés are largely used mindlessly, given their viral proliferation. An increased awareness of clichés and the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication should serve as a motive for language users to consider alternatives to them.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

Indeed, this viral nature of clichés is both the reason for their success and their greatest failure of imagination. Hargraves explains:

A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared… Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.

And yet defining what makes a cliché remains a tricky endeavor — while most language scholars agree that its core characteristics are “overuse and ineffectiveness,” it’s hard to arrive at agreement over these qualities or who is to judge their degree of manifestation. Hargraves writes:

Nearly all judgments about what constitutes a cliché have traditionally relied on consensus: if enough people think a form of words is overused, or if a person who is perceived as having some authority about language declares such a thing, then the word or phrase becomes a cliché. The result of this haphazard process is that many phrases are designated clichés without there being evidence of their frequent use. That is, infrequently used words and phrases may be deemed clichés, simply because a large number of people, or a small number of influential people, find them annoying or designate them as clichés for some other reason… But they are never annoying in equal measure, to the same people, in the same contexts, and for the same reasons.

But while human judgments of what constitutes overuse are invariably subjective, lexicographers can turn to artificial intelligence for a more reliable assessment. A corpus — “a collection of natural language in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of linguistic research” — can reveal statistical relationships between words and their usage in specific groupings in natural speech or writing. Hargraves explains:

From these statistics emerge portraits of the life of words, their mating habits, their abuses, their triumphs and failings, in a much clearer and more comprehensive light than can be gleaned from casual reading or listening; it is a portrait that is far more dependable than the one that results from merely consulting your intuition about how often a form of words is used or whether people use it consistently, aptly, or inappropriately. Modern computational lexicography makes it possible to learn at a glance which pairs or groups of words are getting together far more often than their overall frequency in the language suggests that they would. Such pairings of words are called collocations and may include typical combinations representing several different parts of speech, such as adjective + noun (like abject poverty), noun + noun (like software download), or adverb + verb (like virtually guarantee).

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Alistair Reid's 'Ounce Dice Trice,' a children's book that plays with extraordinary names for ordinary things. Click image for details.

Often, however, it is misuse rather than overuse that renders something a cliché. Hargraves offers an illustrative example:

Take the noun phrase best-kept secret. Best-kept, as an adjective, has few uses in English other than to precede the word secret, and discounting the adjective dark, best-kept is the adjective most likely to be found preceding secret in nearly every genre of writing. But as a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are “kept.” This, in effect, makes both parts of this compound expression not very meaningful. It is also the case that the best-kept secret is found preponderantly in journalism, a medium that is by its nature contrary to the idea of “secret.”

Indeed, Hargraves holds journalism particularly accountable for perpetuating clichés — the very tendency, no doubt, that originated the disparaging pun “churnalism.” He writes:

Of all genres … none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché… Many phrases originate in genres outside of journalism and continue to have a specific or technical meaning in their place of origin: matter of fact in law, for example, or exhibit a tendency in scientific writing. Once an expression has made a home in the fertile and supportive soil of journalism, however, it thrives and grows in thick patches, often losing its particular semantic characteristics.

He goes on to bemoan the fact that “journalism contains more clichés per unit of text than any other genre” and later hones the precision of his arrow, making the unambiguous assertion that “journalism is demonstrably the greatest repository of cliché in English,” adding that “this is not a criticism, just a fact.” Curiously, though, Hargraves makes a distinction between “journalism” and “blogging,” chastising them on a sliding scale of “spreading and popularizing (and thus further deadening) clichéd expressions” — a rather dated divide in an era when some of the best independent journalism takes place on “blogs” and every major print publication has an online presence of the “blog” variety. (Blogs, he argues, are “full of unedited writing that is shot through with clichés, which are gobbled up uncritically by the avid perusers of these genres” — a rather ungenerous depiction of online readers, to say nothing of writers.) Journalism, after all, is a genre of cultural commentary and criticism, and a blog is merely a platform for publishing, whatever the genre — comparing a genre to a platform seems, to use the appropriate and thus non-clichéd idiom, an apples-to-oranges proposition.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words,' 1948. Click image for details.

But misplaced distinction aside, Hargraves makes a gravely valid and urgent point about the responsibility of writers today, be they “journalists” or “bloggers,” in an age when writing is considered “content” and treated as the vacant page-filler the term implies; when Emerson and Longfellow’s journal lives on to publish “native advertising” for the Church of Scientology on the web and once-reputable business magazines have reincarnated as listicle-purveyors online. Echoing Schopenhauer’s lament on writing “for the sake of filling up paper,” Hargraves’s words ring with particular poignancy in our present context of formulaic language that borders on content farming:

People who are required to write — whether hastily or not — and those who write without any awareness of what separates good writing from bad, such as poorly educated students or poorly read adults, naturally write in a semiautomatic style… Taken together then, carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print.

[...]

Journalists are required to produce verbiage hastily most of the time. While their work is typically edited, it is not edited for clichés because cliché is a substantial part of the code of journalism, and consumers of journalism accept conventional and stereotyped ways of expressing ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, as part of the diet. Because of the natural tendency of speakers and writers to be influenced by what they read and hear, it is also inescapable that journalists are the greatest vectors of cliché in English.

Therein lies Hargraves’s most important point — a case for the eradication of clichés as a political act, part of our shared civic responsibility as readers, writers, and users of language. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s manifesto for the glory of language, he writes:

There is so much writing and speech that has clearly been done with no clear thought given to the purpose of the words that compose it. If all writing was entirely of this kind, it seems likely that people would be put off reading and clichés would live in a rather small, moribund world that would eventually extinguish itself. But we all must read, whether for entertainment, vital communication, or acquiring new information; and all of the writing we read is bound to contain some portion of cliché. Because of these factors we cannot help exposing ourselves to cliché and being infected by it. Whether we become active vectors of cliché ourselves is a matter of choice. All that is required for clichés to flourish is for good writers to disengage their attention from what they are doing.

[...]

A cliché in itself and by definition has no element of originality and if a cliché is to be used, it places greater demands on a thoughtful writer to justify its use in preference to a more straightforward or succinct expression. Requiring a cliché to do more than it normally does by extending its meaning, application, or reference is one way to do this.

What Penguin publisher Sir Allen Lane memorably said of design, Hargraves asserts about language:

It takes only a little more time, but considerably more effort, to write mindfully than it does to write mindlessly. You have to engage your intellect and examine the requirements of what you mean to express, and the words available to do it for you. But writing mindfully can be developed to become a habit with some effort, just as writing mindlessly becomes a habit with no effort.

In the remainder of It’s Been Said Before, Hargraves draws on corpus data to identify some of the most toxic clichés in the English language and goes on to equip us with the tools and critical thinking necessary for using more imaginative alternatives to them. Complement it with a stimulating examination of another centerpiece of linguistic communication, the magical world of metaphor, then revisit these five excellent books on language.

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