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Beloved Film Critic Roger Ebert on Writing, Life, and Mortality

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

What a cultural loss to bid farewell to beloved critic Roger Ebert at the age of 70, after a long battle with the cancer that first claimed his jaw and, now, his life. Though I’d followed Ebert’s writing for some time, with the sort of detached appreciation one directs at cultural commentators, it wasn’t until I encountered him in the flesh at TED 2011, where he delivered his brave and stirring talk about learning to speak again, that I found myself in sheer awe of his spirit. A few months later, his memoir, Life Itself (public library), was released and I absorbed it voraciously. Today, some of its most resonant parts come back to mind, a bittersweet reminder of the incredible mind we’ve lost.

Roger Ebert (photograph by Anne Ryan, USA Today)

Ebert begins with an apt and beautiful metaphor for his existence:

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

In recalling the mismatch between his memory of his childhood home and the reality of the house once he returned as an adult, he captures that ineffable feeling of questioning the very fabric of reality:

I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely. I doubt I’ve experienced it ten times in my life. I felt it at Smith Drugs when I was seven or eight and opened a nudist magazine and discovered that all women had breasts. I felt it when my father told me he had cancer. I felt it when I proposed marriage. Yes, and I felt it in the old Palais des Festivals at Cannes, when the Ride of the Valkyries played during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

The shape-shifting quality of memory is something Ebert returns to again and again:

One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. … In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. … You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you. In high school I fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe: ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.’ Now I feel all the faces returning to memory.

[…]

I remember everything. All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since.

Thomas Wolfe was, in fact, a big part of how fell in love with reading shortly after his high school graduation:

I read endlessly, often in class, always late at night. There was no pattern; one book led randomly to another. The great influence was Thomas Wolfe, who burned with the need to be a great novelist, and I burned in sympathy. I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn. I began to ride my bike over to campus and steal quietly into the bookstores.

Roger Ebert

Echoing E. B. White’s famous admonition that “writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” and Isabel Allende’s counsel to “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Ebert shares some invaluable advice:

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Much like his ability to summon memories without deliberate effort, Ebert’s mastery of the writing process is largely an unconscious act, a state of mesmerism experienced in finding your purpose and doing what you love:

When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.

He marvels at how the social web, despite his initial skepticism, liberated his impulse for self-expression as his writing took on an autobiographical life of its own:

My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

Roger Ebert and wife Chaz, 2011 (photograph by Fred Thornhill/Reuters via The New York Times)

He captures the diverse spectrum of what we call “journalism,” sharply aware of where he plants his own stake:

I used journalism to stay at one remove from my convictions: I wouldn’t risk arrest but would bravely report about those who did. My life has followed that pattern. I observe and describe at a prudent reserve.

At the heart of cinema, Ebert sees a deep resonance with the human condition:

If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.

On the art of the interview:

My secret as an interviewer was that I was actually impressed by the people I interviewed … I am beneath everything else a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who take the risks of performance. I become their advocate and find myself in sympathy.

On writing as a substitute for the human pleasures that were taken from him by his illness:

What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

On our relationship with mortality, at once rather complex and rather simple:

We’re all dying in increments.

Complement Life Itself with Ebert’s unforgettable TED talk:

BP

E. E. Cummings Reads “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” (Harvard, 1953)

“…and noone stooped to kiss his face…”

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Hemingway observed in his short and stirring 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag sighed. “Learn to be alone,” Tarkovsky advised young people. And yet the art of being alone comes with a dark side, the loneliness of a nonconformist amidst the herd mentality of society — something e. e. cummings captures poignantly in his poem “[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” originally published in the 1940 edition of Poetry Magazine and later included in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962 (public library). Tucked inside it is one of the most beautiful poetry lines of all time: “down they forgot as up they grew.”

On May 28, 1953, while lecturing as a visiting professor at Harvard, cummings recorded this mesmerizing reading of the poem — let his voice sweep you away:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

The recording appears on Essential E.E. Cummings CD, which is altogether sublime. Complement it with the poetry of cummings set to song.

Thanks, Tom

BP

The Art of Living: A 1924 Guide

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts.”

The art of living has occupied such celebrated minds as Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Ray Bradbury, Anaïs Nin, Viktor Frankl, Montaigne, and Steve Jobs. That’s precisely what Karl De Schweinitz explores in the first chapter of The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble (public library) — an early manifesto for social case work, originally published in 1924:

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts. Being born and growing up are such common experiences that people seldom consider what they involve. As most readers of books pass from cover to cover, realizing not at all that the letters which form the words are the product of painstaking craftsmanship and that the imposition of the type upon the page, the composition of the title-piece, the binding of the volume, are the result of centuries of study and design, so also we take as a matter of course the miracle of being alive, and the comings and goings of the men and women about us.

At the crux of the art of living De Schweinitz places the skill of nimbleness and adaptation to circumstances, or what he calls “the fundamental question of adjustment”:

For man is not born into a world made to fit him like a custom tailored suit of clothes, or a house built to order. He enters a universe that was eons old before his appearance, and that in all likelihood will continue for eons after his departure an infinitely complex, eternally changing universe that evolves its processes unmindful of his presence. It sets the conditions. It is man who must do the fitting.

He offers a metaphor for the art of navigating life:

Man is like a canoeist directing his course through waves. One after another he meets them. They may be heavy and powerful or they may be light ruffles of a sunshiny day in midsummer. He must ride them all. To each one he must slant his craft, dipping his paddle at just the right moment, giving it just the right twist, putting just the right amount of force into the stroke. Each wave requires a decision. Let him fail in judgment, or in skill an d strength, and his canoe may ship water until it fills, or, in the lift of some great breaker, overturn immediately.

He goes on to consider various challenging adjustments across the different stages of life — from childhood to young adulthood, from health to illness — including a particularly prescient meditation on the evolution of marriage:

The adjustment to marriage involves an institution that, ever changing, is yet ever the same. It varies as human beings vary. In the homes of neighbors it may exist in the tradition of one hundred years ago and as a prophecy of what it may be to-morrow.

[…]

Marriage is the most complicated of adjustments. … Two individuals, two sets of likes and dislikes … two products of different inheritance and experience, must combine to give expression to a new entity, the family. It is the most intimate of relationships. In it there is no such thing as the impersonality which simplifies association with human beings in other situations. Always there is the intangible emotional factor, capable of thwarting every attempt at adjustment or of making easy the adaptation of personalities whose union would otherwise be impossible. Analyze it though one may, marriage will continue to escape definition.

De Schweinitz also considers women’s growing “adjustment” to single living — bear in mind, in 1924:

To chart a straight course through the shoals and reefs of single life, to attain to the happiness of dignified and affectionate friendships, to keep a sense of proportion and balance, to maintain a tolerance of temperament an attitude is truly an achievement. Yet women are making this adjustment, developing in the process richer personalities, and sounding new depths of understanding and appreciation.

He then goes on to explore work, making an eloquent case for avoiding work-work by finding your purpose and doing what you love:

Work is one of the most important of adjustments because it is chief among the mediums through which a man expresses his personality.

He illustrates the height of vocational bliss by citing Colas Breugnon, a character in a Dmitry Kabalevsky novel-turned-opera:

There is one old chum that never goes back on me, my other self, my friend — my work. How good it is to stand before the bench with a tool in my hand and then saw and cut, plane, shave, carve, put in a peg, file, twist and turn the strong fine stuff, which resists yet yields — soft smooth walnut, as soft to my fingers as fairy flesh; the rosy bodies or brown limbs of our wood-nymphs which the hatchet has stripped of their robe. There is no pleasure like the accurate hand, the clever big fingers which can turn out the most fragile works of art, no pleasure like the thought which rules over the forces of the world, and writes the ordered caprices of its rich imagination on wood, iron, and stone. … To serve my art the elves of sap push out the fair limbs of the trees, lengthen and fatten them until they are polished fit for my caresses. My hands are docile workmen, directed by their foreman, my old brain here, and he plays the game as I like it, for is he not my servant too? Was ever man better served than I?

De Schweinitz remarks:

Here was a well-adjusted workman. He had what every one needs: an employment in which his faculties had the freest possible play. Happy is that person who finds this in his pursuit of a livelihood. A man cannot expend too great pains in the search for appropriate employment. Sometimes it is a quest of years, involving many trials. The more encouragement, therefore, should we offer the youth who, after leaving school or college, experiments with a number of different occupations. Instead of being reminded of the dismal proverb about the rolling stone, he should be received with sympathy and with interest and should be helped to discover the best channel for self-expression and service.

But not all can enjoy the freedom Breugnon extols. To those confined to restrictive occupations, De Schweinitz offers a loophole:

Sometimes this means creating in [your] present employment the desired opportunity. Imagination and invention can often delve into their own environment and find the seeds of growth. There are, however, many jobs that are so mechanical, so limited in scope, and so monotonous in the activities which they require, that there is little hope for self-expression in them. Those who earn their living in such ways, if they cannot change their work, would seek place for the play of their faculties in an avocation. There are many examples of this. Hawthorne’s interest was writing, but he supported himself for years by clerkship in a customs house. A man may be an operative in a factory and yet may make the art of photography his work.

“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller famously wrote and, indeed, De Schweinitz concludes the chapter with an affirmation:

Event succeeds event; accidents, people, happenings, one after another come toward us. Each must be met and dealt with, and upon the manner of our ealing depends the issue of our lives. If successful, men say that we are happy. If unsuccessful, they say we are in trouble. For this process of adjustment is life, and the mastery of it is the art of living which, who that considers the stakes, will deny to be the greatest of all the arts.

Complement The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble with the 1949 gem How to Avoid Work, then wash down with the modern-day handbook for living, How To Stay Sane.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

BP

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