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Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil Gaiman, Albert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
Artwork from Stefanie Posavec’s ‘Writing Without Words,’ visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from ‘Wild,’ one of the best children’s books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from ‘Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds.’ Click image for details.

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, 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.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differ, as would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

BP

John Dewey on War, the Future of Pacifism, and Our Individual Role in Peace

“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.”

Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. His enduring insight on the true purpose of education and the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity resonates today with growing relevance amid our struggle to cultivate wisdom in the age of information. But nowhere was Dewey more prescient than in his reflections on conflict, war, and what is required of us if we are to live up to our hopes for a peaceful world — reflections urgently relevant today, as we face a swelling tide of violence along the vast spectrum from bullying to beheadings.

On July 28, 1917 — exactly 67 years before I was born, and exactly three years after the start of World War I — The New Republic published a poignant piece by Dewey titled “The Future of Pacifism.” The essay is now included in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — that fantastic “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought marking the 100th anniversary of The New Republic, which also gave us George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself. Dewey’s perceptive insight may well have been written about modern attitudes toward war — particularly America’s — and his impassioned case for peace reminds us that conflict is not merely something inflicted between governments but something in which we all, as individuals, are implicit in the small, seemingly imperceptible choices we make daily, the macro-beliefs we subscribe to in our private lives and the micro-actions we take in public.

He writes:

There is no paradox in the fact that the American people is profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists.

He considers “the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance”:

It takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two.

Lamenting the misguided belief that that pacifism is merely a form of “futile gesturing,” Dewey admonishes against the prevalent perception that those who don’t support the war must be pro-enemy at heart. (Nearly a century later, a certain American president would repeatedly suggest that not supporting the war in Iraq — a war his administration started — was not only pro-enemy but also anti-American.) Dewey points to the pioneering American social worker, peace activist, and suffragist Jane Addams as the finest example of doing the pacifist position justice:

She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”

That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion needs not be doubted.

And yet Dewey, never one to oversimplify the complexity of things, is far from advocating for “the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be.” Such preventative methods, he argues, are a matter of “treating symptoms and ignoring the disease.” He writes:

All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air… To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.

To put an end to war and violence, Dewey argues, is not a matter of passive and theoretical protest. (One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s epidemic of online petitions.) It is a matter of acting, here and now:

I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency.

More than that, our individual responsibility is to use whatever “influence” we have — whatever reach, whatever voice, whatever share of the cultural conversation — in dispelling the propaganda of war:

The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.

Illustration from ‘The Ancient Book of Myth and War,’ a Pixar side project. Click image for more.

This task of wedging a stick in the myth-making machinery of war propaganda is undoubtedly of greater — graver, even — importance today. But while the machinery of the media may have become manyfold more industrious since Dewey’s day and a merciless economic driver of commercial culture, it also pays to remember that in many ways, we — you and I and all the unique private individuals of whom the faceless public of citizenry is composed — are the media today. As Sally Kohn elegantly put it, “clicking is a public act” — what is being written determines what we read and what we come to believe, but today more than ever, what we read also very much determines what is being written. We are no longer the passive consumers of those catchwords of which Dewey admonishes but also their propagators, their perpetrators. Seen in this light, Dewey’s closing remarks ring with extraordinary poignancy:

One might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world. The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them… Too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.

Complement with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence on war, peace, and human nature, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s letters on violence and the truth of the human spirit, Mark Twain’s The War Prayer animated, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams on how our choices shape our world.

The whole of Insurrections of the Mind is a trove of timeless, timely thought, featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Andrew Sullivan.

BP

A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.”

“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

In the fourth of the book’s thirteen extraordinary essays, titled “Flight,” Solnit writes:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Solnit recounts how, as a child, she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis’s own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing “for children.” Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis’s point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children’s books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit’s writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars — palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit’s masterful articulation of the universal:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

Of libraries, she writes:

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it.

In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that “one can never be alone enough to write,” Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away — first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, one I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding — unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.

BP

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

“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.

BP

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