Oct 31 2018

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03: the Writer as Victim and Victor

Mark Twain in Athens

Scribblings and Droppings no. 03:
the Writer as Victim and Victor

Have you ever been involved in a creative project over a long period of time?

Did you reach a point where you felt the project was kicking your ass? Maybe you had to put it aside, like Goethe did with Faust Part II and Coleridge with Christabel?

This kind of thing happened to me when I was trying to prune an essay from 10,000+ words to under 4,000.

Was there a moment after having endured strife when you finally started to feel like you were kicking the project’s ass? Was there a moment when you realize you’d reached the apex and had overcome the obstacle?

It’s like Stephen King says: writers have to kill their darlings. (In a sick sense, you’ve got to be like Frau Goebbels.) You gotta figure out how to detox your own text, purge it of its poisons.

Now that the essay is done, I feel older, exhausted, and sore. But there’s no time for self-sympathy. Gotta get up and do all again, like the Chairman says:


Oct 28 2018

Scribblings and Droppings no. 02: On Editing, Empathy, Words, and Wars

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Scribblings and Droppings no. 02:
On Editing, Empathy, Words, and Wars

Some more thoughts on editing the thoughts of others in order to understand one’s own:

Do you remember the corny, WASPy nostalgia that is Dead Poets Society (1989)?

Do you remember how its exordium and dénouement are constructed around the act of standing on classroom desks while literally invocating Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” to gain a new perspective on things?

No, the movie hasn’t aged well. Nonetheless, that’s what editing and proofreading the works of others is: getting, imagining a new perspective on things.

All editing (and self-editing) requires empathy. Editing is empathy.

But self-editing doesn’t mean empathizing with yourself. It means the level of quality you reach in editing your own words is measured in your capacity to empathize with your potential readership.

In other words, how well can you the writer put yourself in the shoes of a would-be reader you have never met?

This discussion of empathy reminds me of its importance in a different context: Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003), a documentary about Robert McNamara (1916–2009), who was Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

In discussing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara says (I can’t find a clip of it):

 In [former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn E.] Thompson’s mind was this thought: Khrushchev’s gotten himself in a hell of a fix. He would then think to himself, “My God, if I can get out of this with a deal that I can say to the Russian people: ‘Kennedy was going to destroy Castro and I prevented it.'” Thompson, knowing Khrushchev as he did, thought Khrushchev will accept that. And Thompson was right. That’s what I call empathy. We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.

This clip follows up on the above quotation:

Empathy can prevent nuclear war. (If only editing could be so powerful!)

 
 
 
 
 
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Oct 25 2018

Scribblings and Droppings no. 01: Building Community by Reading and Writing (and Rereading and Rewriting)

pencil shavings

Scribblings and Droppings no. 01:
Building Community by Reading and Writing
(and Rereading and Rewriting)

I’ve been working on a major book review/philosophical essay for at least six months.

I’m done now (I think), but for a lot of those months I was stuck in a rut. 

It was more fatigue than “writer’s block.”

I think part of what dislodged me from that rut was doing some proofreading and editing for some friends and family.

One was a two-page essay for a musical appreciation undergraduate course.

The other was an eight-page essay/writing sample for a graduate school application.

There is nothing novel in the observation that composition classes in high school and college often assign students to critique each other’s work.

And when you’re stuck in the tunnel-vision of your own writing project, it’s wise to get perspectives from other readers (if you can find them).

But it’s also wise to get better, more diverse perspectives by reading what others are working on, that is, via proofreading and editing.

The results: my essay is done, submitted for publication, and now I await a reply.

The student with the two-page essay (from Austin) got a grade of 100%, and the graduate school applicant (from Lubbock) was accepted.

So my local community is now stronger, my state community is stronger, and hopefully my writing will get stronger.

Read Scribbings and Droppings no. 02 here.

 
 
 
 
 
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Sep 11 2018

Good Writers Need Tough Readers

London - Georgian Apartments

Good Writers Need Tough Readers

Susan Sontag once observed:

Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself—albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony—the clearer and explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the job.

“Against Interpretation,” (1964) in Against Interpretationand Other Essays, (New York: Delta Books, 1966). p. 8.

And, more recently, from writer James Wade has confessed:

I once received a rejection that said one of my sentences was too long. This was new to me because never have I ever (drink) been criticised for long sentences– at least not since grammar class in high school. Other decent writers who employ long sentences as a literary device include Faulkner, Dickens, Hemingway, McCarthy, O’Connor, Lewis Carroll, Salinger, Tim O’Brien, Bukowski, Audrey Niffenegger, and we could go on forever. The point is, I would be a fool to let this rejection letter influence my writing style. But that doesn’t mean all criticism is without merit.

The lesson here is that good writers strive to never be too cooperative nor confrontational with their readers.


Jul 20 2018

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

For about the past month, I’ve been lagging on blogging. Part of it is trying to find a better balance of time spent reading versus time spent writing (things that may be blog-worthy or more for outside publications).

Prepping (in terms of reading literature) for a trip to Germany this winter is also part of the mix.

In other words, I’m trying to find a balance between:

  • Reading general stuff: daily news, blogs, online magazines, etc. on random topics I may be interested in (publishing, politics, etc.),
  • Reading specific stuff: with regard to whatever the specific writing project at hand is,
  • Writing for this Bookbread blog,
  • Writing for publications to “get my work out there,”
  • Writing for long-term book projects.

I’d been having some worries (though not anxiety proper) about all of the above, but in the last two weeks, I see that two very successful writers whom I follow closely are dealing with (somewhat) similar issues.

See, for example, Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor University, and his recent thoughts on the stresses of writing: first here, then follow up here and here.

Now today comes word that Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving The Atlantic to reflect and regroup.

These guys can basically write about whatever topic they want and find a way to get it published. Sounds like a dreamy position for those of us trying to make a name for ourselves as writers–yet, for different, complex reasons–they are both struggling to satisfy themselves without leaving their readers hanging out to dry.

So I say: Godspeed ye writerly gentlemen, and let your days of scribbling be merry.

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Nov 27 2017

My Article from the “Fortnightly Review”

London - Georgian Apartments

My Article from the Fortnighly Review

It took a while, but after many years I’m quite happy to call myself an “international writer,” after having a piece published by the Fortnightly Review of England-France. In my essay, “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas,” I explore the differences between history and myth with regard to the Confederate statue removal on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Looking back, I don’t feel I lived through an important moment in the history of the United States but rather an important moment in mythmaking for the state of Texas….


Aug 18 2017

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

I was fortunate enough to have something published this week by Real Clear News, of Chicago, under their subdivision of Real Clear Religion.

My piece responds to Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) and its 67 instances of using the word culture.

I point out the modern substitution of the word culture for what used to be called custom to ask: if it is true that the medium is the message, what has been lost by replacing the word custom with culture? Was anything gained by substituting one word for the other?

Read the whole thing here.


Apr 27 2017

Farm Noises (a poetic attempt)

Farm Noises

Some chickens scratch, and

The pebbles mumble,

Afore a rumble

Of Santa Fe train.

 

The highway hisses

Beyond the horizon,

Telling me, tempting me

To ignore this one

Moment teetering

Between night and day.

 

Barnyard ragamuffins #chickens #guineas

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Apr 14 2017

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Like Swift does, I need to get outside my own point-of-view (and socioeconomic context) and ridicule it with a fictional character. To use writers whom I detest, and use them in a favorable light to make whatever-it-is point I’m making—that is what Walter Kaufmann does!

“It grieved me to the heart when I saw my labours, which had cost me so much thought and watching, bawled about by the common hawkers of Grub Street, which I only intended for the weighty consideration of the gravest persons. This prejudiced the world so much at first, that several of my friends had the assurance to ask me whether I were in jest; to which I only answered coldly, ‘that the event would show’. But it is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”[1]

“‘Now, therefore, I began to associate with none but disappointed authors, like myself, who praised, deplored, and despised each other. The satisfaction we found in every celebrated writer’s attempts, was inversely as their merits. I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort. I could neither read nor write with satisfaction; for excellence in another was my aversion, and writing was my trade.”[2]

“We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”[3]

Don’t go beyond your doorway, your threshold:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.” [R6] [4]

But if you must go beyond your doorway:

“There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of a censorious world. To despise it; to return the like; or to endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended; the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is the second.”[29] [5]

A little superstition goes a long way:

“There is a portion of enthusiasm assigned to every nation, which, if it hath not proper objects to work on, will burst out and set all into a flame. If the quiet of a state can be bought by only flinging men a few ceremonies to devour, it is a purchase no wise man would refuse. Let the mastiffs amuse themselves about a sheepskin stuffed with hay, provided it will keep them from worrying the flock.”[6]

A little superstition quells the motives:

“fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”[7]

NOTES

[1] Swift, “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 216.

[2] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing context.”

[3] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. [‘Various Thoughts Moral and Diverting’, in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 1711] [1] 181.

[4] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 185.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 181.

[6] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 224.

[7] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 383.


Mar 14 2017

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 5 of 7

steeple

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 5 of 7

From Laurence Sterne (1713-1768):

I HAVE a strong propensity in me to begin this chapter very nonsensically, and I will not balk my fancy.

––Accordingly I set off thus.

Tristram Shandy (1760) I, xxiii

See also “Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 4 0f 7” and

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 6 of 7.”