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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

10 OCTOBER, 2014

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

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“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.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

The Architecture of Bliss: Artist Anne Truitt on the Perfect Daily Routine and How Parenting Shapes Our Capacity for Savoring Solitude

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“It is heavenly to work until I am tired… [After dinner] I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it.”

I have a longstanding fascination with the daily routines of writers, particularly with the psychology behind them.

Due in no small part to the fact that she was formally trained as a psychologist before becoming one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Anne Truitt speaks to this confluence of fascinations in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the superb record of Truitt’s lifetime of reflections on the creative life, which also gave us her wisdom on compassion, humility, and how to cure our chronic self-righteousness and the difference between doing art and being an artist.

In a diary entry from mid-July of 1974, while living at the Yaddo artists’ community at Saratoga Springs, New York, 53-year-old Truitt writes:

I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad — often a whole head of new lettuce) and thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio.

At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterward I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep.

The sleep habits vs. creative output of famous writers. Click image for details.

But in a culture where we have a painfully hard time savoring solitude, what is more important than Truitt’s routine itself is her articulate awareness of how the formative years of her childhood and upbringing made this capacity for fertile solitude possible. The kind of parenting that fosters secure attachment is perhaps the greatest gift of psychoemotional advantage one could have in life — something psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore in detail in their indispensable book A General Theory of Love. In a diary entry a day later, Truitt reflects on the early freedom her mother gave her, both by personal example and by parenting style:

My mother’s moral force radiated from her like a gentle pulsation. Sensitive people picked it up and found her presence delicately satisfying.

[…]

She was herself only when alone.

[…]

This satisfaction with being solitary was a tremendous source of freedom for me. It implied a delight in self and affirmed my own obsessive sieving of experience. By taking her mind totally off me, she gave me my own autonomy. I knew from experience that she was careful and responsible. I realized that she would have watched me had she not been sure that I was all right. And, if she were sure, I could be sure. Very early in my life, I set out stoutly to look around at everything.

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist is enormously soul-stretching in its entirety. Complement it with the cognitive science of the perfect creative routine, C.S. Lewis on the ideal daily routine, and a stimulating read on why great parenting is about presence rather than praise.

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Three Rules of Writing and Four Elements of Style: Timeless Advice from 1914

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“Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.”

Between 1913 and 1914, British writer, critic, and literary tastemaker Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known under the pseudonym Q, delivered a series of twelve lectures on writing at Cambridge University, where he had been appointed to the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature the previous year. (Fittingly, his rooms in the university’s First Court were known as the “Q-bicle.”) His inaugural lectures, spanning everything from style to ethics and concerned with making “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing” a hallmark of a worthy literary education, were eventually published as On the Art of Writing (public library) — a compendium of some of the most lucid and timeless advice on writing ever put into words, also available as a free ebook, and a fine addition to famous authors’ best advice on the craft.

Playing off a phrase from Francis Bacon’s famous essay on studies“reading maketh a full man” — Quiller-Couch begins by considering the value of reading to young minds:

Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even better than Bacon’s; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for which Heaven designed him. In this conviction, in this hope, public spirited men endow Chairs in our Universities, sure that Literature is a good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds.

Acknowledging that “some doubt does lurk in the public mind” as to whether writing and the art of literature “can, in any ordinary sense, be taught,” Quiller-Couch counters:

That the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged — this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb (Royal Institution of Cornwall)

He goes on to outline three guiding principles that make this quickening and enlargement of vision possible.

1. SURRENDER TO THE WORK ABSOLUTELY

In studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning … and the merest duty of politeness we owe to the great man addressing us. We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.

With a wink to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about education and knowledge, Quiller-Couch makes an aside of remarkable prescience in our present age of lazy and indignant quasi-opinions:

There is no surer sign of intellectual ill-breeding than to speak, even to feel, slightingly of any knowledge oneself does not happen to possess… That understanding of literature which we desire in our … gracefully-minded youth will include knowledge in varying degree, yet is itself something distinct from knowledge.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Returning to his first principle of absolute surrender to a work of art, Quiller-Couch cites Emerson’s famous remark that great writers make us “feel most at home” and, lamenting “the memorizing of much that passes for knowledge,” further considers the true value of a literary education:

As we dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows — men whose minds have, as it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over waste waters of the Ocean.

If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr Johnson defines it) ‘he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with a great increase of sensibility‘; or even if, though the message be unfamiliar, it suggests to us, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to ‘feel that we are greater than we know,’ I submit that we respond to it less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet’s pitch; so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that ‘something,’ a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse.

2. BREAK FREE OF LIMITING RULES AND DOGMAS

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo decades later in the disclaimer to his six rules of writing, Quiller-Couch turns to the second of his three principles — the idea that even though style, “that curiously personal thing,” can’t be “readily brought to rule-of-thumb tests,” we ought to study the elements of its most sublime manifestations without subscribing to any dogmatic rules about those elements. He writes:

[Even though style may be] so easily be suspected of evading all tests, of being mere dilettantism… I rebuke this suspicion by constantly aiming at the concrete, at the study of such definite beauties as we can see presented in print under our eyes; always seeking the author’s intention, but eschewing, for the present at any rate, all general definitions and theories, through the sieve of which the particular achievement of genius is so apt to slip… Definitions, formulae (some would add, creeds) have their use in any society in that they restrain the ordinary unintellectual man from making himself a public nuisance with his private opinions. But they go a very little way in helping the man who has a real sense of prose or verse. In other words, they are good discipline for some thyrsus-bearers, but the initiated have little use for them.

With this, he arrives at the heart of literature:

Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive.

3. HONOR THE ALIVENESS OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE

Quiller-Couch’s third and final principle builds on the second. Admonishing against the human tendency to “treat all innovation as suspect” — a fear frequently channeled through dogmatic rules about right and wrong, and certainly something central to the techno-alarmism to which every age is prone — points to “the courage of the young” as the hopeful antidote to this tendency and writes:

As Literature is an Art and … not to be pondered only, but practiced, so ours is a living language and therefore to be kept alive, supple, active in all honorable use.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment particularly prescient in the context of today’s seemingly unending death tolls for the novel, he adds:

I would warn you against despising any form of art which is alive and pliant in the hands of men… You may or may not deplore the forms that literature is choosing now-a-days; but there is no gainsaying that it is still very much alive… Believe, and be glad that Literature and the English tongue are both alive.

The celebration and preservation of that aliveness, he argues, is our shared responsibility:

Carlyle, in his explosive way, once demanded of his countrymen, ‘Shakespeare or India? If you had to surrender one to retain the other, which would you choose?’ … In English Literature, which, like India, is still in the making, you have at once an Empire and an Emprise. In that alone you have inherited something greater than Sparta. Let us strive, each in his little way, to adorn it.

[…]

English Literature being (as we agreed) an Art, with a living and therefore improvable language for its medium or vehicle, a part — and no small part — of our business is to practice it.

In another lecture, Quiller-Couch considers the best practices of this living art:

The perfection of style is variety in unity, freedom, ease, clearness, the power of saying anything, and of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety… Your gamut needs not to be very wide, to begin with. The point is that within it you learn to play becomingly.

Returning to his original ideal of “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing,” he points out that the desire for Appropriateness is so obvious that it warrants no explanation and turns to the other three epithets, beginning with Perspicuity:

I shall waste no words on the need of this: since the first aim of speech is to be understood. The more clearly you write the more easily and surely you will be understood… Further … the more clearly you write the more clearly you will understand yourself.

He writes of Accuracy:

After all, what are the chief differentiae between man and the brute creation but that he clothes himself, that he cooks his food, that he uses articulate speech? Let us cherish and improve all these distinctions.

By perusing “these twin questions of perspicuity and accuracy,” Quiller-Couch argues, “we may almost reach the philosophic kernel of good writing.” And yet his final ideal, Persuasiveness, is also the one that binds the parts together into the potent totality of great writing:

Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.

But persuasion, Quiller-Couch suggests, is an art rather than an act and it cannot be mastered before coming to terms with its very artness:

Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.

The sense of beauty he speaks of, however, is a disposition of the spirit rather than a concern with superficial ornamentation. In fact, in his final lecture — the source of the oft-cited “murder your darlings” aphorism, often misattributed to William Faulkner — Quiller-Couch admonishes against mistaking the beauty of style for mere decoration:

Style … is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament… If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

A century later, all twelve lectures in On the Art of Writing remain absolutely indispensable. Complement them with this evolving library of notable wisdom on the craft, including George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style.

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