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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

30 JULY, 2015

Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

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“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from 'Whitman Illuminated' by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

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16 JULY, 2015

Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

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“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (b. January 5, 1932) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

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09 JULY, 2015

Flannery O’Connor on Art, Integrity, and the Writer’s Responsibility to His or Her Talent

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“Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

Four years before E.B. White counseled in his advice on how to write for children that “you have to write up, not down” — a reflection of his general conviction that the writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down” — another literary titan made an even more piercing case for the writer’s duty to society and what true art should aim to do for its audience.

That’s what Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) explores in a meditation triply timely today, found in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library) — the same compendium that gave us her enduring insight on why the grotesque appeals to us.

Flannery O'Connor by De Casseres

Writing a few months before her untimely death, O’Connor considers the responsibility that comes with the gift of natural talent:

It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has.

She shines a sidewise gleam of admonition, as if peering across time into our present era where intelligent people pour their talent into optimizing cat listicles:

Every day we see people who are busy distorting their talents in order to enhance their popularity or to make money that they could do without.

Three decades before Jeanette Winterson’s elegant opprobrium of “the arrogance of the audience,” O’Connor arrives at her central, searing point about the artist’s responsibility to uphold the integrity of his or her art above the demands of his or her audience:

There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards… Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed.

Complement Mystery and Manners with O’Connor on the difference between belief and faith, her little-known cartoons, and this rare recording of her reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” then revisit JFK on the artist’s role in society and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to culture.

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06 JULY, 2015

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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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.