Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.

NOTES

wood

[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.


Jul 12 2019

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.


Feb 7 2019

On Writing: How to Avoid Materials

Western book stack

Currently I’m working on the first of a series of essays that deal with the idea of tolerating the intolerant. For the first one, I’ll be using some old family stories. I’ve also picked out some recent headlines and current events for it. I plan to weave them in and make it all freshly relevant. Some literary comparisons from Camus and Cervantes will also be used.

And even though Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) (1915) can be read in ways quite relevant to the topic of tolerating the intolerant, I don’t want to use it for this project, and I have refrained from rereading it.

Yes, Kafka’s story is in most English language short story anthologies. It’s often the first story by Kafka that students in the United States are exposed to. Yes, as the story progresses Gregor Samsa’s family grows less and less tolerant as their son changes into an insect. They grow so intolerant that, by the end, they celebrate Gregor’s demise by having a picnic. Yes, Kafka had a tremendous influence on Camus,[1] and Kafka took Cervantes very seriously, yes, yes, yes….

So Kafka’s tale might seem relevant to use.

But I don’t want to. In this particular story–or at least my multiple memories of reading it–Kafka exhausts me in a way Camus and Cervantes do not.

Maybe it’s that drab Prague apartment … and that dry humor … dry like the crust and crunch of salt crystals. Abrasive….

Restoration versus reservation: Perhaps if one leaves Kafka’s story in mental reserve for a while, its relevance will one day be restored and written about.  Or perhaps the tale is musty–like an old rug that’s been in the family for generations. Perhaps Kafka’s story needs to be taken to the yard and beaten with a broomstick until it is properly aired out.

Yet I don’t feel like the one to do the butler’s duties.

wood

[1] Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) (1942), trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1959) pp. 127, 130, 138; LÉtranger (The Stranger) (1942), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Vintage, 1954) pp. 11, 21, 99–100.



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.