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Some books on writing

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 07 Sep 2022 03:39
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    • Writers՚ writings on writing. The books below all try, in very different ways, to reframe the act of writing in order to make it work better, to make it a better tool for thought and expression, to help the writer find and shape their voice.
    • Writing without Teachers, Peter Elbow

      • Peter Elbow is a writing teacher and one of the early popularizers of the practice of freewriting, where you reel off a stream of words for five or ten minutes, without stopping to edit or critique. This is a pretty well-known technique by now, but this book may have been the original source of it. Looking into it again (it’s been decades) I see it had other wisdom that I’ve incorporated without remembering where it came from:
      • The commonsense, conventional understanding of writing is as follows. Writing is a two-step process. First you figure out your meaning, then you put it into language…First try to figure out what you want to say; don’t start writing till you do; make a plan; use an outline; begin writing only afterward. Central to this model is the idea of keeping control, keeping things in hand. Don’t let things wander into a mess….
      • This idea of writing is backwards. That’s why it causes so much trouble. Instead of a two-step transaction of meaning-into-language, think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning – before you know your meaning at all – and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve. Only at the end will you know what you wnt to say or the words you want to say it with…Think of writing then not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message.
      • I am 100% in sympathy with this. Writing should be a process of figuring out, not the mere transcription of an already-formed idea into language.
      • The book includes a final essay which attempts to paint a big picture view of the intellectual enterprise in general as composed of a “doubting game” and a “believing game”, or of “math charache
      • The monopoly of the doubting game makes people think the doubting muscle – the sensitivity to dissonance – is the only muscle in their heads, and that belief is nothing but the absence of doubt: the activity of believing something consists of refraining from doubting it; or better yet, trying to doubt it but not succeeding.
      • But there is a believing muscle and it is different. It puts the self into something. (p162)
      • The individual is tending to allow words to mean anything – just as he allows dream images to mean whatever he builds in….but the speech community is constantly curbing this looseness…The history of meaning in a language is the history of this power struggle between dream characteristics and math characteristics.
      • This too gets a hearty endorsement from me. I՚d say I have a somewhat personal and peculiar take on the “math characteristics” of language and I՚m interested in exploring the “power struggle” between formal precision and human meaning (something like this may explain how I was both attracted and repelled by AI, which may be considered as a series of attempts to solve this power struggle).
    • Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg

      • I stumbled accidently on this book in City Lights Bookstore (a pilgramage site for writers) and it totally changed my view of writing, at least for awhile. Klinkenborg instructs us to focus on sentences, and to make each one polished and capable of standing on its own. One key bit of advice that seemed quite actionable to me was to not worry about transitions between sentences. This was something I have always agonized over, laboriously trying to make explicit how one thought followed the previous. Klinkenborg says instead to trust the reader to follow your thoughts without having to have every connection spelled out. Part of the power and delight of language is that it can jump around; anything can follow anything; the reader is quite capable of jumping along with you.
      • One by one, each sentence takes the stage. It says the very thing it comes into existence to say. Then it leaves the stage. It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one down. It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded. It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying. It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.
      • Klinkenborg՚s method is diametrically opposed to Elbow՚s:
      • Revise at the point of composition. Compose at the point of revision. Accept no provisional sentences. Make no drafts. And no draft sentences. Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can. Before you write it down and after. Do the same for the next sentence. And right on through to the end.
      • How to make sense of these drastically opposed styles of writing? Both seem to offer an improvement on the usual agonizing uncertainty of writing, of trying to talk to a vacuum. Writing is this peculiar solitary act where the audience is not present and could be anyone, anywhere, anytime. To maintain a coherent voice, a writer must know how to imagine their own audience. Elbow and Klinkenborg՚s methods, as different as they may be, are both in service of that goal.
    • David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

      • This one is less of a how-to book and more of an artistic manifesto for the author՚s rather idiosyncratic view of what writing should be. He wants to erase the border between fiction and non-fiction, or at the very least, explore the borderlands where they blend into each other. He՚s also very much into cultural appropriation (eg hiphop artists copying and looping licks from earlier musicians) and in fact large parts of this book are mostly-unacknowledged clips from other sources – it՚s a collage technique, and so embodies its own thesis.
      • In keeping with that, I think I will just clip passages. Most of these texts can be found here. I will use blockquote although I guess the point is to not explicitly do that.
      • 297: You՚ll notice that he doesn՚t assert ownership over his ideas. He՚s in some kind of Artaudian condition where all the ideas are unoriginated and unsourced; that՚s how he can claim anybody else՚s ideas as his own. Really all he wants to do is acquire everyone՚s inner life.
      • 215: A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not think of even your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it, fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf – your book, your romanced autobiography.
      • 307: There՚s no longer any such thing as fiction or non-fiction, there՚s only narrative (is there even narrative?)
      • 311: Forms serve the culture; when they die; they die for a good reason: they՚re no longer embodying what it՚s like to be alive.
      • 315: While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they՚re actually chaotic and opaque. There՚s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.
        • (When I read that one, I was taken aback by how closely it matched my own thinking. Then I looked at the back where the acknowledgements are grudgingly placed, and found it was written by Daniel Dennett, which would explain that.)
      • 319-321 Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though–standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night–flies at us in bright splinters…Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, __No it doesn՚t__.
      • 515: Renata Adler's Speedboat, George W. S. Trow's Within the Context of No Context, Ross McElwee's Sherman's March… Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, Denis Leary's No Cure for Cancer, Rick Reynolds's Only the Truth Is Funny, Chris Rock's Bring the Pain, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Anne Carson's "Essay on the Difference between Men and Women." What is it about these works I liked and like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators' use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling states; the antilinearity; the simultaneous bypassing and stalking of artifice-making machinery; the absolute seriousness, phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices.
      • The topic of the book is not exactly writing, but David Shields՚ playful obsession with David Shields, and his search for an artistic medium in which to express it. Of course he still writes books; I would argue that blogs and other online writing is the real frontier of the kind of experimentation he is talking about.