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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

04 DECEMBER, 2014

The Art of Quickness: Italo Calvino on Digression as a Hedge Against Death and the Key to Great Writing

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“Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”

When Italo Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry — Harvard’s annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage — he hurried to commit to paper the six lectures he would deliver over the course of the term, exploring “the millennium of the book” that was about to end and peering forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of writing. But as he contemplated this grand cultural precipice, he himself ran out of time.

Calvino — a sage of writing and a man of enduring insight into such subtleties of existence as distraction and procrastination, the art of asserting oneself with grace, and the meaning of life — died shortly before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver the lectures. He had spent his final months laboring over them but had completed only five of the six, eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most poignant of his lectures, both in the context of Calvino’s own fate in the hands of time’s merciless gallop and in his prescience about today’s age of compulsive speediness that he never lived to see, is the second one, titled “Quickness.”

Calvino begins by considering objects and the storytelling mesmerism that they hold, as in real life, in fiction:

The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.

He then turns to the particular magic of quickness, but not before an essential caveat:

I do not wish to say that quickness is a value in itself. Narrative time can also be delaying, cyclic, or motionless. In any case, a story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.

One mode of contracting time, which Calvino points out is particularly common in the folklore traditions of oral storytelling, is repetition — the same strategy that so enchants the brain in music. He writes:

Sicilian storytellers use the formula “lu cuntu nun metti tempu” (time takes no time in a story)… It leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition: for example, when the tale consists of a series of the same obstacles to be overcome by different people. A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas. Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.

Calvino points to folktales and fairy tales as an especially enduring example of masterful quickness, for “the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.” He extols their genius of playing with the elasticity of time and making its relativity their material:

Everything mentioned has a necessary function in the plot. The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression. The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials. There is always a battle against time, against the obstacles that prevent or delay the fulfillment of a desire or the repossession of something cherished but lost. Or time can stop altogether, as in the castle of Sleeping Beauty.

Illustration by the late Yan Nascimbene for Calvino's short stories. Click image for details.

Quickness also matters, Calvino argues, because of “the relationship between physical speed and speed of mind” — something captured in the oft-used metaphor of the horse as a symbol of speed, and of speed of thought, pioneered by Galileo (who, as we know, practically invented modern timekeeping and sparked the tyranny of the clock). Calvino quotes Galileo himself:

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.

Noting that for Galileo “good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples,” Calvino — in a remark wonderfully prescient a quarter century later — considers how this question of quickness illuminates the role of literature in a modern world obsessed with speed in all of its permutations:

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.

The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men and machines. But mental speed cannot be measured and does not allow comparisons or competitions; nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it. A swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for details.

And yet, just as embedded in his tribute to lightness in the first lecture was a deep respect for weight, Calvino is careful to point out that his “apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering.” (Milton Glaser captured this beautifully in asserting that “everything exists at once with its opposite.”) Among literature’s most rewarding techniques for slowing down the course of time and inviting lingering, Calvino argues, is the art of digression. He extols its singular joys:

In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy. In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We do not have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose. Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.

Citing Tristram Shandy as the ultimate example of a novel “completely composed of digressions” — curiously, without mentioning that Laurence Sterne himself memorably called digression “the sunshine of narrative” in a meta-remark inside that very novel — Calvino writes:

The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death, of course.

He quotes a passage by Italian writer Carlo Levi from the introduction to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy:

Death is hidden in clocks… Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows — perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

With a sentiment invariably bittersweet in the context of Calvino’s own death a few weeks later, he echoes Alan Watts on hurrying and delaying as he simultaneously celebrates Levi’s perspective and counters it:

Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly.

Calvino ends with what is effectively the last direct reflection on his own work he ever wrote, folded into which is a broader meditation on the secret of great writing:

My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time. In my love of adventure stories and fairytales, I have always searched for the equivalent of some inner energy, some motion of the mind. I have always aimed at the image and the motion that arises naturally from the image, while still being aware that one cannot speak of a literary result until this stream of imagination has been turned into words. Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.

He takes one last sidewise look at quickness and its necessary counterpoint, one last prophetic glance into the future, as he salutes the power of introverts and the art of stillness as the driving force behind great art:

In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.

[…]

Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words. Certainly my own character corresponds to the traditional features of the guild to which I belong. I too have always been saturnine, whatever other masks I have attempted to wear. My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a revelatory read in its entirety, a worthy last legacy of one of modern history’s most magnificent minds. Sample it further with the first lecture, exploring the unbearable lightness of language, literature, and life, then complement it with Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, and the paradox of America.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

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“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became the psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil Gaiman, Albert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library | IndieBound).

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what it lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Artwork from Stefanie Posavec's 'Writing Without Words,' visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differ, as would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
.
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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