Oct 30 2021

Some Newish Advice for Writers, with the Aid of Chris Arnade

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

––Albert Camus, (La Peste (The Plague), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Knopf, 1957), ch. I, pp. 11–12.)

I have previously written about the work of Chris Arnade here and here. I continue to study him. He is teaching me to observe the world, as well as the people around me, better. And I hope, in turn, that that will help make me a better writer.

Arnade is teaching me that, as I writer, I need to walk, watch, write—in other words, stop looking at every occurrence as a “problem” to be solved, resolved, contemplated, pontificated upon; instead, just look and listen. I must learn to apprehend what I can accept and accept what I can apprehend. As Arnade puts it:

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives….

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way….

There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems….

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

(“Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

As a writer seeking to improve his craft, I need to beware of any sense in my soul of squirming at so-called sentimentality, quaintness. Admittedly, no, I don’t like it when callers call-in to my favorite local morning radio show, because they slow down the pace of the show, its ongoing conversation, they try to be funny and fail, or they espouse empty insults. Nonetheless, I need to pay attention to why they make me squirm. It has something to do with what Arnade is getting at:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage.

I as a writer I need to learn to not laugh at sentimentality:

A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

––Quintilian, (Institutio Oratoria Vol. II, trans. H. E. Butler, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920) (VI, ii, 35) p. 457.)

Instead, I need, as Seneca puts it, to start cultivating a relationship with poverty (whether economic or cultural) by writing about and listening to those in need. For:

Hunger will make you find even that bread soft and wheaty. One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands. I shall wait, then, and not eat until I either start getting good bread again or cease to be fussy about bad bread. It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations.

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969) Letter XVIII, p. 69; Letter CXXIII, pp. 226–27.)

Moreover, says Seneca:

You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

(Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVIII, p. 96.)

And instead, as Marcus Aurelius advises, learn to live with those who have learned to live with the gods:

Live with the gods. To live with the gods is to show them at all times a soul contented with their awards, and wholly fulfilling the will of that inward divinity, that particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man for ruler and guide—the mind and the reason…. (V, xxvii)

Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you…. (VI, xxxix)

Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind…. (VI, vii)

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them…. (VIII, lix)

Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours. (VIII, lxi)

(Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962.)

Finally, recall always C. S. Peirce, how: “The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake.” And that part of being a merciful observer and writer means that, with regard to whatever (and whoever) one is writing about, “it is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.”

(The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), “Private Thoughts, March 17, 1888,” p. 9; “Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105], p. 24.)


Oct 23 2020

Is There Any Wisdom in Laughter? One Last Crumb from a What was Once a Work in Progress

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Here is a final crumb removed from what was once a work in progress, but is now a work needing but a final polish before being ready to be submitted. Just one more darling killed and culled and cut from the final draft:

Common sense says it’s often wise to remain silent, but is there any wisdom in laughter? Augustine of Africa mocked the legend of how, instead of crying, the infant Zoroaster of Persia laughed at the moment of his own birth (Confessions 21:16). “It is taught,” moreover, says the Talmud (Kethuboth 103b), that “if one dies laughing, it is a good sign for him.”* Socrates, before drinking deadly hemlock, made some around him cry, others laugh––though Socrates himself refrained from doing either. And though the Talmudic and Socratic approaches seem more akin to Chad’s style, one does suspect he too was the kind of child who would’ve laughed at the moment of his own birth.

*Quoting Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958; 1978) p. 281.


Oct 9 2020

Crumbs Cut from Work in Progress

Here is a crumb I cut from a current work in progress:

It was also immediately evident upon my arrival that this was one of those “high time” moments for local mythology studied by the Romanian polymath Mircea Eliade and mentioned throughout Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s erudite tome A Secular Age (2007): “high” not only in any (and probably every) pharmacological-Dionysian sense, but one of those moments of keeping Austin weird in its original sense: a “high” once in a blue moon moment, where all the stars align so that both the making and retelling of myths are most potent, as in Christian liturgies that, during the holidays, retell the coming of the Messiah, or the secular “high time” moments felt at things like Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic concert in 1973 in Austin.

Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004) 97–98; Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 713.


Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

THE DANGERS OF BEING AN ETERNAL STUDENT:

MEDITATIONS ON BEING A WRITER no. 3

Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

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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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