Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

17 OCTOBER, 2014

Are Writers Born or Made? Jack Kerouac on the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

By:

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work. Mark Twain put it much less mildly in his lively letter of solidarity to Helen Keller: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we as a culture are allergic to originality.

But count on Jack Kerouac to offer a provocative counterpoint in a 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?,” later included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity.”

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo

Kerouac begins with bombast:

Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.

He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:

[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.

Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:

Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.

In a sentiment that Joni Mitchell would later come to echo in asserting that “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Kerouac adds:

Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward… Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that unescapable sorrowful depth that shines through — originality.

But because originality, by definition, requires breaking out of the common canon, “geniuses” — as Kierkegaard so eloquently lamented — are often subjected to ridicule and rejection before they come to be revered. Kerouac returns to Joyce, who endured his share of derogatory attacks:

Joyce was insulted all his life by practically all of Ireland and the world for being a genius. Some Celtic Twilight idiots even conceded he had some talent. What else were they going to say, since they were all going to start imitating him? But five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: he was simply born to do it.

[...]

When the question is therefore asked, “Are writers born or made?” one should first ask, “Do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?” Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just “talents.”

Half a century later, in our age of bringing “genius” to the psychology lab and quantifying the cultivation of talent, Kerouac’s concluding words ring with double poignancy:

The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar…

The main thing to remember is that talent imitates genius, because there’s nothing else to imitate. Since talent can’t originate, it has to imitate, or interpret…

Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night sky can never be seen again… Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.

Speaking to the jealousy behind all mockery, Kerouac signs off with a remark particularly prescient in our age of quick, loud, widely trumpeted judgments, riffing on Sy Oliver and James Young’s famous 1950s jazz tune “Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It)”:

Oftentimes the originator of new language forms is called “pretentious” by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

More of Kerouac’s enduring opinionation can be found in The Portable Jack Kerouac. For a modern-day counterpoint to Kerouac’s counterpoint, see Steven Pinker on how and why great writers can be made, then revisit this growing library of acclaimed writers’ advice on the craft.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 OCTOBER, 2014

Italo Calvino on the Unbearable Lightness of Language, Literature, and Life

By:

“The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well.”

One of the most influential and widely beloved authors of the twentieth century, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) was not only a sage of writing but also a man of piercing insight into such subtleties of existence as the art of asserting oneself with grace, the paradox of America, distraction and procrastination, the trick to lowering one’s “worryability,” and the meaning of life. Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — an annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. (Alas, not unlike the Gifford Lectures, the series has remained a lamentable boys’ club — only three women have held the position since its inception in 1925.)

Calvino died weeks before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver his Norton lectures. But working on them, his wife recalls, was the obsession of his final months. His manuscripts for them, in which Calvino looks back on “the millennium of the book” and peers forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of language and literature, were his last legacy. Eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library) in 1988, his final insights — prescient, profound, immeasurably perceptive — are perhaps even more relevant today, well into the new millennium Calvino didn’t live to see, when some of our gravest fears and some of our greatest hopes for the written word have borne out.

In the foreword, Calvino considers what books alone can give us and writes:

Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. I don’t much feel like indulging in this sort of speculation. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.

He sets out to outline six such things, beginning with Lightness — perhaps the most poetic and delicate of all. Looking back on his own career spanning forty years of writing fiction, Calvino observes:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language… I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect.

Noting that “it is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from the events of everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête,” he points to Milan Kundera’s cult-classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being as an exquisite example of accomplishing this feat with “great clarity and immediacy”:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading oppression that has been the fate of his hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be. For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence — the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.

Calvino examines the value of lightness in shifting our perspective and making life’s burdens bearable:

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…

In a particularly poignant passage — especially in light of today’s renewed efforts to bridge the toxic, unnatural rift between the sciences and the humanities — Calvino extols the imaginative possibilities of science as a muse to literature and a conduit to lightness:

If literature is not enough to assure me that I am not just chasing dreams, I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities, such as the messages of DNA, the impulses of neurons, and quarks, and neutrinos wandering through space since the beginning of time…

Writing in 1985, before most of the seminal ideas that shaped the modern web even existed, Calvino adds:

Then we have computer science. It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with “bits” in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.

But rather than a fanciful aside, Calvino argues that this fascination with science in exploring lightness connects directly “with a very old thread in the history of poetry.” He points to another sublime example of lightness in Lucretius’s seminal Epicurean text The Nature of Things, which Calvino calls “the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile”:

Lucretius set out to write the poem of physical matter, but he warns us at the outset that this matter is made up of invisible particles. He is the poet of physical concreteness, viewed in its permanent and immutable substance, but the first thing he tells us is that emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies. Lucretius’ chief concern is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us. Even while laying down the rigorous mechanical laws that determine every event, he feels the need to allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities — even the poetry of nothingness — issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world.

He finds a parallel example in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

For Ovid, too, everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. And also for him there is an essential parity between everything that exists, as opposed to any sort of hierarchy of powers or values. If the world of Lucretius is composed of immutable atoms, Ovid’s world is made up of the qualities, attributes and forms that define the variety of things, whether plants, animals, or persons. But these are only the outward appearances of a single common substance that—if stirred by profound emotion—may be changed into what most differs from it.

For both of these ancient writers, Calvino argues, “lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science,” but also “something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.” Shakespeare, he later adds, “recognized subtle forces connecting macrocosm and microcosm.” And therein lies the paradoxical yet reconciliatory essence of lightness:

There is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.

With this lens, Calvino gazes into the new millennium — our millennium — in which such thoughtful lightness appears all the more urgently needed, all the more singularly capable of quenching a deep longing for meaning. Calvino writes:

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times — noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.

[...]

A theme by no means “light,” such as the sufferings of love, is dissolved into impalpable entities that move between sensitive soul and intellective soul, between heart and mind, between eyes and voice.

A masterful application of lightness, Calvino adds, is marked by three key characteristics:

  1. it is to the highest degree light;
  2. it is in motion;
  3. it is a vector of information.

With this, he offers an eloquent and enchanting formulation of how the artful application of lightness ennobles language, literature, and human life:

The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.

We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations.

Noting that the concept “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard,” he enumerates the three important senses of lightness:

  1. There is a lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency…
  2. There is the narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction…
  3. There is a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value… Some literary inventions are impressed on our memories by their verbal implications rather than by their actual words.

Calvino concludes by considering the ultimate value of lightness, not only in literature but in making sense of the existential:

Literature [is] an existential function, the search for lightness [is] a reaction to the weight of living.

[...]

I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge. In order to move onto existential ground, I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life — drought, sickness, evil influences — the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality. In centuries and civilizations closer to us, in villages where the women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks or even on lighter vehicles such as ears of wheat or pieces of straw. Before being codified by the Inquisition, these visions were part of the folk imagination, or we might even say of lived experience. I find it a steady feature in anthropology, this link between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered. It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates.

[...]

I think that the deepest rationality behind every literary operation has to be sought out in the anthropological needs to which it corresponds.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a wonderful read in its entirety and Calvino’s exploration of the remaining subjects — Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity, as Calvino died before completing the sixth lecture — are equally elevating. Complement it with Calvino on writing, Hemingway, and the two types of writers.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

10 OCTOBER, 2014

The Sense of Style: Psycholinguist Steven Pinker on the Art and Science of Beautiful Writing

By:

“Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.”

“Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” While baking and brewing undoubtedly have their place in culture, it is writing that has emerged as the defining record of our civilization — our most enduring and expansive catalog of thought, of discourse, of human imagination. And yet our insatiable hunger for advice on writing suggests that it remains an unnatural act — even legendary Mad Man David Ogilvy knew this when he penned his ten commandments of writing a century after Darwin, prefacing them with this simple statement: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

But even as we master this rather unnatural human application, the difference between good writing and great writing is vast, bridged only by the miraculous mastery of style. “Style is the physiognomy of the mind,” wrote Schopenhauer. “It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body.”

Nearly a century after Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — a book of such legendary status that it has even germinated a rap — Harvard’s Steven Pinker steps in to alleviate Darwin’s lament with The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (public library).

Pinker writes in the prologue:

I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind? It’s all the more captivating to someone who seeks to explain these fields to a wide readership. I think about how language works so that I can best explain how language works.

Indeed, Pinker — arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist — approaches the question of style not only as an aesthete who cherishes the written word, but also as a scientist, applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding, blindly followed dogmas about writing:

We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.

Pinker’s broader point echoes the caveat John Steinbeck issued alongside his six rules of writing, as well as Virginia Woolf’s admonition about honoring the aliveness of language — an assurance that language is not a set of static doctrines but a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, speaker and listener, and as such renders any rigid rules limiting and unnecessary:

Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.

To that, Pinker adds a gladdening aside about “the illusion of the good old days” and writes:

Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.

[...]

You remember those days, don’t you? Back in the 1980s, when teenagers spoke in fluent paragraphs, bureaucrats wrote in plain English, and every academic paper was a masterpiece in the art of the essay? (Or was it the 1970s?) The problem with the Internet-is-making-us-illiterate theory, of course, is that bad prose has burdened readers in every era.

His own intention, then, is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence,” so that we can learn to apply these insights mindfully rather than robotically and begin to counter the mindless momentum of language George Orwell lamented. He enumerates the three main reasons style matters, and matters today:

First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.

Contrary to Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,” Pinker believes that one can learn to write beautifully — by instruction, yes, but mostly by absorption of example. Like Susan Sontag, who became a writer by becoming a reader, and like David Foster Wallace, who urged his writing students to read a lot and read attentively, Pinker advocates for the immeasurable value of reading in learning to write:

Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash… The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.

He offers some words of assurance to those entering the craft:

An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.

A significant part of that excellence, Pinker suggests, is learning to resist the siren call of clichés:

Every writer faces the challenge of finding a superlative in the English word-hoard that has not been inflated by hyperbole and overuse… Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.

In championing the importance of honoring such a dedication to finding the perfect word, Pinker offers some witty and wise advice on the best use of the dictionary:

Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again. (You can probably do without maieutic, propaedeutic, and subdoxastic.) I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.”

Donning his psycholinguist hat, Pinker considers the difference between speaking and writing, and what that reveals about the secret of style:

Speaking and writing involve very different kinds of human relationship, and only the one associated with speech comes naturally to us. Spoken conversation is instinctive because social interaction is instinctive: we speak to those with whom we are on speaking terms.

[...]

We enjoy none of this give-and-take when we cast our bread upon the waters by sending a written missive out into the world. The recipients are invisible and inscrutable, and we have to get through to them without knowing much about them or seeing their reactions. At the time that we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualize ourselves in some kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy, and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.

The Sense of Style is not only a thoughtful and illuminating guide to the grace of the written word, but also an elegant paragon of its own advice and thus an immeasurably pleasurable read. Complement it with some first-hand wisdom on the art and craft of language from celebrated authors, 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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.