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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

20 MARCH, 2014

Schopenhauer on Style

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“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”

What does it mean to write with style? For Kurt Vonnegut, it was about keeping it simple yet interesting. For Herbert Spencer, about harnessing the economy of attention. For E.B. White, about mastering brevity without sacrificing beauty. One of the most timeless meditations on style comes from 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In “On Style,” found in The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer’s prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he considers why style, far from the mere ornamentation of writing, is the essential conduit of thought.

Schopenhauer writes:

Style is the physiognomy of the mind. It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body. To imitate another person’s style is like wearing a mask. However fine the mask, it soon becomes insipid and intolerable because it is without life; so that even the ugliest living face is better.

He issues an especially eloquent admonition against intellectual posturing in writing:

There is nothing an author should guard against more than the apparent endeavor to show more intellect than he has; because this rouses the suspicion in the reader that he has very little, since a man always affects something, be its nature what it may, that he does not really possess. And this is why it is praise to an author to call him naïve, for it signifies that he may show himself as he is. In general, naïveté attracts, while anything that is unnatural everywhere repels. We also find that every true thinker endeavors to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius. Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

He adds (with the era’s characteristic gender-pronoun bias):

If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not fail to produce the right effect. A man who makes use of such artifices as have been alluded to betrays his poverty of ideas, mind, and knowledge.

[…]

Obscurity and vagueness of expression are at all times and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they arise from vagueness of thought, which, in its turn, is almost always fundamentally discordant, inconsistent, and therefore wrong. When a right thought springs up in the mind it strives after clearness of expression, and it soon attains it, for clear thought easily finds its appropriate expression. A man who is capable of thinking can express himself at all times in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those writers who construct difficult, obscure, involved, and ambiguous phrases most certainly do not rightly know what it is they wish to say: they have only a dull consciousness of it, which is still struggling to put itself into thought; they also often wish to conceal from themselves and other people that in reality they have nothing to say.

Affirming the notion that non-reading is as much a critical choice as reading, Schopenhauer urges authors to have compassion for the reader — a sort of self-interested compassion recognizing that a reader’s attention is a privilege, not a right:

All prolixity and all binding together of unmeaning observations that are not worth reading should be avoided. A writer must be sparing with the reader’s time, concentration, and patience; in this way he makes him believe that what he has before him is worth his careful reading, and will repay the trouble he has spent upon it. It is always better to leave out something that is good than to write down something that is not worth saying. . . .

Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes; this is partly because it gets unobstructed hold of the hearer’s mind without his being distracted by secondary thoughts, and partly because he feels that here he is not being corrupted or deceived by the arts of rhetoric, but that the whole effect is got from the thing itself.

[…]

Just as neglect of dress betrays contempt for the society in which a man moves, so does a hasty, careless, and bad style show shocking disrespect for the reader, who then rightly punishes it by not reading the book.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile.' Click image for details.

A century before Strunk and White, Schopenhauer advocates for “chastity of style,” while also admonishing, as E.B. White did, that brevity should never be accomplished at the expense of impoverished expression:

An author should guard against using all unnecessary rhetorical adornment, all useless amplification, and in general, just as in architecture he should guard against an excess of decoration, all superfluity of expression — in other words, he must aim at chastity of style. Everything that is redundant has a harmful effect. The law of simplicity and naïveté applies to all fine art, for it is compatible with what is most sublime.

[…]

True brevity of expression consists in a man only saying what is worth saying, while avoiding all diffuse explanations of things which every one can think out for himself; that is, it consists in his correctly distinguishing between what is necessary and what is superfluous. On the other hand, one should never sacrifice clearness, to say nothing of grammar, for the sake of being brief. To impoverish the expression of a thought, or to obscure or spoil the meaning of a period for the sake of using fewer words shows a lamentable want of judgment.

Above all, however, Schopenhauer argues that an author’s style should be a reflection of his or her mind and vehicle of the thought process itself, which is what sets “classics” apart from inferior writing:

A man who writes carelessly at once proves that he himself puts no great value on his own thoughts. For it is only by being convinced of the truth and importance of our thoughts that there arises in us the inspiration necessary for the inexhaustible patience to discover the clearest, finest, and most powerful expression for them; just as one puts holy relics or priceless works of art in silvern or golden receptacles. It was for this reason that the old writers — whose thoughts, expressed in their own words, have lasted for thousands of years and hence bear the honored title of classics — wrote with universal care.

The Essays of Schopenhauer is a treasure trove of wisdom. Complement it with this evolving reading list of history’s best advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings, and Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips.

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04 MARCH, 2014

The Distracted Public: Saul Bellow on How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time

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“The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.”

In 1990, fourteen years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize, and two years after being awarded the National Medal of Arts, Saul Bellow delivered a lecture at Oxford University titled “The Distracted Public.” Eventually included in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (public library), Bellow’s talk laments the “moronic inferno” — a phrase he borrowed from Wyndham Lewis — produced by the “contemporary crisis” of distraction, “the apocalypse of our times,” calling on artists and writers to raise their voices in countering that “massive and worldwide” “hostile condition” of humanity.

Bellow begins by considering the role of the artist — the writer — in society, and in societies of various regimes:

The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions. He [or she] does this by opening another world. “Another world,” I am fully aware, carries suggestions of never-never land, and people will be asking themselves how seriously any man can be taken who still believes that the moronic inferno can be put behind us, bypassed or quarantined by art. It isn’t as though the champions of art had won any great victories. Madame Bovary dies of arsenic, and Flaubert the artist-chronicler is dangerously wounded too. Tales of love and death can be mortal to the teller. Yet for many people … the abandonment of art cannot happen. Dictatorships did not succeed in frightening artists to death, nor has democracy done them in altogether, although some observers consider democracy to be by far the greater threat. In the West, Stalinism is sometimes seen as a political disaster but, to artists, a blessing in disguise. It kept them serious. They died, leaving us great works. With us, the arts sink into the great, soft, permissive bosom of basically indifferent and deadly free societies…

And yet all is not lost. Bellow goes on to add, obliquely yet brilliantly, to history’s finest definitions of art:

If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists.

He echoes Tolstoy’s definition of art as “emotional infectiousness” between creator and audience — be that artist and viewer or writer and reader — and observes:

When you open a novel — and I mean of course the real thing — you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.

How poignant to consider Bellow’s remarks in our age where people seem to “hunger for” cat videos and where the writer’s voice is being increasingly muffled by the “content”-producer’s agenda — and yet, and yet, when we do encounter those ever-rarer “essences” today, those oases of absolute intimacy with another mind, how transcendent our “emotional completeness” then. Bellow writes:

In our times, those essences are forced to endure strange torments and privations. There are moments when they appear to be lost beyond recovery. But then we hear or read something that exhumes them, even gives them a soiled, tattered resurrection. The proof of this is quite simple, and everyone will recognize it at once. A small cue will suffice to remind us that when we hear certain words — “all is but toys,” “absent thee from felicity,” “a wilderness of monkeys,” “green pastures,” “still waters,” or even the single word “relume” — they revive for us moments of emotional completeness and overflowing comprehension, they unearth buried essences. Our present experience of anarchy does not destroy this knowledge of essences, for somehow we find ways to maintain an equilibrium between these contradictories, and others as well.

But this is why the artist competes with other claimants to attention. He [or she] cannot compete in the athletic sense of the word, as if his objects were to drive his rivals from the field. He [or she] will never win a clear victory. Nothing will ever be clear; the elements are too mixed for that. The opposing powers are too great to overcome. They are the powers of an electrified world and of a transformation of human life the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.

It seems, then, that our only hope for salvaging those “essences” of the soul amidst our “electrified world” of “distraction and fragmentation” is to nurture what Oscar Wilde identified as the heart of the creative spirit — the “temperament of receptivity,” which seems to be the only true custodian of Bellow’s “emotional completeness and overflowing comprehension.”

It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with the collected wisdom of great writers.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Six Motives of Creativity: Mary Gaitskill on Why Writers Write

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The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.

Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.

But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library) — an altogether fantastic collection, featuring David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “The Nature of the Fun” and other notable reflections on writing from Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rick Bass, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, and more.

1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

Mary Gaitskill by Ben Handzo

Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:

2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…

Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:

Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.

Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:

3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.

But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:

The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.

Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:

4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…

That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.

Gaitskill moves on to her fifth reason, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous emphasis on receptivity and reflecting on the osmosis of reading and writing:

5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.

Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:

It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.

In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:

6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.

Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:

When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.

Why I Write, while out of print, is still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with its contemporary counterpart, one of 2013′s best books on writing, then revisit famous writers’ advice on writing.

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