Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

29 DECEMBER, 2011

Advice on Writing from Modernity’s Greatest Writers

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What sleep and plagiarism have to do with the poetry of experience and the experience of poetry.

I recently stumbled upon a delightful little book called Advice to Writers, “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights,” originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement. Here are some words of wisdom from some of my favorite writers featured:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” ~ Charles Bukowski

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

A short story must have single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison

The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” ~ Tom Wolfe

You cannot write well without data.” ~ George Higgins

Listen, then make up your own mind.” ~ Gay Talese

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” ~ Mark Twain

And then, of course, there’s the importance of knowing what advice to ignore:

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28 DECEMBER, 2011

Iconic Playwright Harold Pinter on Truth in Drama (and in Life)

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“The real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth.”

In 2005, the influential English playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter (October 10, 1930–December 24, 2008) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His acceptance speech, excellent in its entirety, contains this brilliant meditation on truth in drama — which, if we embrace the life-imitates-art-imitates-life paradigm, is also a brilliant meditation on truth (“truth”) in life.

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.” ~ Harold Pinter

For more on Pinter’s character and spirit, see Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter, the fantastic memoir by renowned biographer Antonia Fraser, who also happened to be Pinter’s partner.

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28 DECEMBER, 2011

Grierson: A Documentary About the Filmmaker Who Coined “Documentary”

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Why reality is a better storytelling tool than fiction and how film can be a conduit of democracy.

Pioneering Scottish filmmaker John Grierson (1898-1972) is often considered the father of documentary film and credited with coining the very term “documentary” in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana in the February 8, 1926, issue of the New York Sun. His 1932 essay “First Principles of Documentary” argued that cinema’s capacity for observing life could be a new art form, wherein the materials “taken from the raw” can be more real than acted fiction and the “original” actor and “original” scene are better lens for interpreting the modern world than their fiction counterparts. Above all, Grierson believed in the social responsibility of the filmmaker and the potential of film in helping society achieve its democratic ideals.

Grierson is a 1973 documentary about the father of documentary by Canadian filmmaker Roger Blais, now free online in its entirety courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. Through archival footage, interviews with people who knew him, and footage of Grierson himself, Blais paints a lively and fascinating portrait of a man who was concerned not only with documentary film as an art form but also as a powerful tool of democracy. (Cue in The Power of Photojournalism.)

The film is also available on DVD from the NFB. For more on Grierson’s vision and legacy, dig around for a used copy of the excellent out-of-print book Grierson on the Movies.

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