Quote of The Week

“All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and almost none for the disillusions of age.”

Robert Louis Stevenson


The Chronicles of Wasted Time

Every writer has the same complaint – I don’t have enough time to do my work. Yet writers in the past managed to be prolific without the crutch of a computer, or sometimes even a typewriter. How did they do it?

The answer is summed up in a book by Alison Light: Mrs. Woolf and The Servants (2009). It records the sad travails of Virginia Woolf in dealing with the ill-paid people whose job it was to cook for her, clean for her, arrange her clothes, and in general make her life absolutely free of household cares. According to the book Mrs. Woolf hated her servants, although she was as helpless as a child without them. Even that great champion of the working class Karl Marx left all the dreary tasks of daily life to his servants, and treated them badly.

It’s interesting to remember how many distinguished creative careers in the past depended completely on the existence of a servant class. Only the very rich have servants now, so they have plenty of free time to spend playing golf or meeting with their accountants. But the rest of us must be our own servants, slaves to our homes and families. Our time is swallowed up by mindless domestic tasks. No wonder we feel inferior to our more productive ancestors whose time was, quite literally, their own.

Solitude Lite

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.”

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

We humans are a sociable species. That’s how we survive. We have the self-protective herd instinct that tells us to conform, follow the leader, and go with the crowd. This behavior can be seen in its purest form in your local high school, where ‘fitting in’ is practically a religion.

What makes us different from cows or lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.

The moments when we are separated from the swarm, mentally or physically, are precious, potentially creative spaces, when we can actually reflect on what (for want of a better phrase) I have to call the meaning of life. Even though Monty Python made an international joke out of it, the meaning of life is still a pretty important question.

This makes the absence of solitude al the more disturbing. Oddly enough it used to be available in public places like airports or trains, where we had to wait in a kind of limbo. But limbo has been abolished by scientific progress. In any such area today, the whole world is connected with cell phones, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, blueteeth, greenteeth any many other technologies I haven’t even heard of yet. Everyone is talking into thin air, or peering at a tiny screen while trying to press buttons the size of deer ticks. Nobody has the slightest desire to pause for reflection. On the contrary, that kind of solitude has become quite scary.

Normally couples just ignore each one another in public spaces. Now they actively turn their backs, each one absorbed in communication with someone else, somewhere else. The solitude of their togetherness is too much to endure. Or perhaps they are just following the prescription of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Cellphones make it easy to escape the other, but not the millions and billions of others.
We can travel to the ends of the earth, but even the deserts and mountains are crowded. Resorts ironically offer “Relaxation and solitude,” when you and they know that thousands of others will be sharing the same solitary experience. Solitude, when we find it, is all in the mind.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel A Hundred Years of Solitude is not really “about” solitude, except in so far as it follows the pointless and circular lives of the Buendia family, cut off from the wider world and progress. They are solitary in so far as they are ignorant, and their solitude is less a gift than a pathology.

But solitude remains a romantic, poetic notion, especially for creative people. A strange thing happened to me last summer. On a trip abroad I was unable to connect to the Internet for about a week, I had no telephone, and the cell phone failed. We had no TV or radio either. We were cut off from the continuous chatter of the outside world, and achieved a kind of solitude by default.

It was very disturbing at first, but then a profound peace descended. This, I supposed, was the magic of solitude that everyone writes about, but almost nobody finds. I could almost feel my blood pressure going down, I slept better, I was relaxed – and I couldn’t write a word.

This may be what happens to people who hide away in remote writers’ colonies, hoping that peace and quiet will bring the inspiration that everyday life had failed to bring. Thoreau wrote a lot about solitude, but he was constantly involved with people, with nature, and with his own philosophy. He was no more solitary than I am, sitting completely alone in my study, apart from two cats, the birds outside the window, and the radio playing a harp concerto by a composer with a marvelous name – Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf.

Real solitude must be very much like Death Lite. Solitary confinement is one of our cruelest punishments. Not wonder we love to dream about it, but never to practice it on ourselves.

The Comic Sage of Remsenburg

If you are under a certain age you may not be familiar with the comic genius of P.G.Wodehouse. His novels and stories were the consolation of my teenage years, when schoolwork and examinations seemed to fill the whole horizon. For light relief there were always the books of P.G.Wodehouse.

He was the creator, among many other things, of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which an idiotic young man about town is saved from numerous disasters by his suave valet Jeeves. They were splendidly incarnated by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the Masterpiece Theatre series which ran for four seasons in the early 1990s. The running joke in these books – and it’s a joke as old as Shakespeare – is that the servant is smarter than the master, and not just smarter but also more of a gentleman. The plots are chaotic and complicated, but most of them concern the eternal struggle by Bertie Wooster to avoid marrying a succession of ghastly women – notably the appalling Madeline Bassett.

Here’s a quote from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie Wooster’s perpetual dilemma.

“Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, had long been under the impression that I was hopelessly in love with her and had given me to understand that if she ever had the occasion to return her betrothed, Gussie Fink-Nottle, to store, she would marry me. Which wouldn’t have fit with my plans at all, she, though physically in the pin-up class, being as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. The last thing, as you can well imagine, one would want about the home.”

Nobody else wrote (or writes) like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he was affectionately known by his friends, created a fictional world in which a giant pig called the Empress of Blandings, a passion for newts, or the correct arrangement of a white tie were infinitely more important than death or taxes, or even school examinations. It wasn’t a fantasy world on the lines of Harry Potter, but a wildly exaggerated version of a real world that had existed once upon a time, when Wodehouse was young – a world of idle young gentlemen and flighty women, suave servants and eccentric aunts. As a teenager, I badly wanted to enter that world. In particular, I wanted to be an idle young gentleman with a valet.

I was lucky to grow up with Wodehouse. Some critics say that he was the finest English comic writer since Shakespeare. He had splendid timing, just the right amount of erudition, and a marvelous way with words. He was also enormously prolific, producing 126 books with titles like The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood and A Pelican at Blandings Castle, plus over fifty plays and musical comedies, and hundreds of short stories. He was still busily writing in the year of his death at the age of 94.

Although his stories and settings are so quintessentially English, P.G. made his reputation and his fortune in the United States. He came here in 1946 and lived in New York and Hollywood until 1955, when he and his wife Ethel settled just down the road from us in Remsenburg, Long Island, on a twelve acre estate by the sea. There he lived happily for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by dogs and cats and still spinning his wonderful stories. He was belatedly knighted and became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1975.

He never lost his sense of humor. even when he was interned in Germany in the Second World War. Wodehouse’s subject was the human comedy – the endlessly entertaining contrast between what we pretend to be and what we are. He helped me to get life in perspective, to “see the joke,” which isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The sad and pedestrian books now sold as “Young Adult” novels – full of family and school problems and facile solutions – are a poor substitute for the inspired satire of a writer like P.G. Wodehouse.

I think the evidence for P.G.s quality is that he still has fan clubs all over the world – the biggest in India, Russia and Japan, and of course in England. Millions and millions of people must have laughed out loud at his wonderful comic inventions. Come back Plum, we really need you.

Read it out loud

I read somewhere that the habit of reading aloud to children at bedtime is slowly fading away. Busy or lazy parents prefer to let their little darlings settle down with a video. As the beneficiary of untold hundreds of hours of reading aloud by my parents, this seems like a shame to me. Not only was it a very warm and companionable thing, but it made me see my parents as magical storytellers, so I have admired storytellers ever since. My father was a particularly good reader, having a resonant voice, good timing, and a gift for imitation. The family myth is that, at a very young age, I learned all my favorite stories by heart, so they could never get away with skipping a page, or even a single line.

The human voice is a marvelous instrument. Growing up with (British) radio instead of television I listened to stories and plays all the time. Voice actors, with the aid of a few sound effects, can create world that are even more vivid than those in TV or movies. When talking books started to be popular I was skeptical at first, but then I found that those talented actors had migrated to the recorded book business. Now I can get someone to tell me a story anywhere, anytime, and it gives me the same warm feeling that I used to get when my parents read to me.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was normal for literate families to read aloud to each other, just as it was normal for them to play music together. Now recording technologies have made those sociable habits largely redundant, just as they have made domestic music-making redundant. Most of us, if called upon to read from Shakespeare, or even from the morning paper, will make a sad hash of it. We just don’t have the skills that come from having the habit.

If you work in radio, of course, you get the habit. I’ve had the pleasure of reading essays and music program scripts for our local public radio stations for more than twenty years. But it has never become effortless. Sometimes a single sentence needs four or five takes before it sounds right. But in the process of reading aloud the writing is always improved.

This is what I always tell students in writing workshops: Read It Out Loud. The advice is not original. I read it myself many years ago in a textbook whose author I have now forgotten. But my bad memory doesn’t change the fact that this is great advice: Read It Out Loud. All the repetitions, clunky phrases, and awkward transitions will jump out of you once you put your writing into audio mode. Poets know this, of course, but if you have never thought of reading your own prose out loud, try it.

Another benefit of reading aloud for writers is that so many of us are lousy speakers. Arthur Krystal wrote an entertaining essay in The New York Times Book Review (September 22, 2009) about the curious gap that often exists between writing and speaking skills. Writers who are fluent at the keyboard may be tongue tied when it comes to public speaking, or even social conversation. He mentions Nabokov as one example, but we all know that the most engaging and amusing writers can be very boring to meet. Talking is just not their (or my) thing – at least not talking without a script.

I am full of genuine admiration for those who can chatter on cell phones all day, or keep up lively conversations on the steps of the post office, or with the man who came to fix the gas furnace. How do they find things to talk about?

The good news, for writers, is that reading out loud can help with the problem of inarticulacy. It may not make you a brilliant conversationalist, but it will make you much better at the essential tasks of talking about and reading your own work in public. Accents are improved, blurred speech becomes clear, and you can learn how to express feelings more convincingly. Listening to recorded books is good training too. We all have this incomparable instrument, the human voice: why not use it?

Talk, talk, talk

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Jessamyn West

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability. During the last few months I’ve been involved in several events where I’ve met and talked to a lot of people. ’Tried to talk’ would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my conversational skills, if I ever had any. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of speech.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

People of the Books

From an early age I always felt that writing (especially when printed) had special power, and was more important than talk or pictures. In this I was unconsciously following the ancient belief of “the people of the book” down the ages, who found absolute truth in some written document. Last December I read a marvelous book called The Written World by Martin Pulchner, which brought this home to me much more vividly than before. The written word is (or has been) social dynamite, and often just as destructive.

The strange fixation on the belief that the written word (or a particular set of written words) contain absolute truth has been the bane of the human race, from the earliest religious texts down to the American Constitution and the works of Marx and Mao. A piece of writing is nothing but a piece of writing, done by an ordinary human hand.

This is more important than we can easily imagine. Read this book! Don’t worry, I don’t believe it is a message from the gods – Mr. Pulchner is the man responsible, and I honor him for it.

It’s the Thought That Counts

Here’s a book worth reading, although it was published back in 2011 which now almost seems like an age of innocence – Except When I Write by Arthur Krystal. He is a well-known essayist and critic (New Yorker, Harpers, etc.) and has collected together twelve of his best essays and critical reviews from 2005 to 2009.

The first essay alone is worth the price – “When Writers Speak.” In it Krystal offers a quotation that Edgar Allan Poe attributed to Montaigne.
“People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.”

This mild but disturbing aperçu brought me up short. It had the same effect on Krystal, and perhaps on you. How true it is – at least for my mental habit. Most of the time I live and talk on automatic pilot, using the same stock repertoire of actions and phrases that I’ve been using all my life. Thought is not necessary, unless I try to solve a crossword or puzzle out some new outrage committed by my computer.

It’s the same for most of us. Yesterday I took a two-hour train trip to and from New York, during which I was surrounded by people who talked loudly and incessantly to each other or (more often) to some disembodied entity hiding inside a cell phone. I must have been an unwilling listener to eight or ten conversations on that train, and none of them made any sense whatsoever. They were (to use a good old-fashioned word) just blather, empty words, ungrammatical stream of consciousness noise. No communication was taking place, except the kind of communication that occurs when one monkey chatters to another – a kind of verbal grooming or exchange of recognition signals.

It was depressing to realize that I often do exactly the same thing. Faced with a social situation, or an unexpected phone call or an encounter in the post office, I can blather as well as anyone. Not a single thought enters my head while I am doing it.

But when I sit down to write, as Montaigne said, I begin to think. The rusty gears of my brain grind into action and (as has often been pointed out to me by my nearest and dearest) I disappear into a state of abstraction where I don’t want to talk to anybody. This is exactly why writing is so hard. It’s not the writing it’s the thinking that produces keyboard avoidance and writer’s block.

The reverse side of this phenomenon, as Krystal points out, is that writers are often poor speakers. Our literary skills don’t always translate into verbal skills, perhaps because the thinking part of our brains is reserved for or used up by the first.

As someone who works in radio, where speech and writing (and, occasionally, thought) come together, I found Krystal’s speculations fascinating. But you have to read the whole of Krystal’s essay – if I describe it in any more detail here I will probably be guilty of copyright infringement. The rest of his book is excellent too, especially if you are interested in Hazlitt, Poe, Barzun, or Scott Fitzgerald (some of his favorite subjects). His essays are models of complex yet completely friendly writing, and they must have required a lot of thought.

Personal Archaeology

A few writers catch the scribbling habit late in life but most of us started young, tempted by the low initial investment and the illusion of status. This means that, by the time we enter the Valhalla of senior citizenship, we have a lot old writings behind us. Attitudes to these vary: some of us shred, delete or otherwise dispose of all our unpublished and/or immature creations, while others keep every golden word. I am one of the pack rats.

Most of my old manuscripts are rubbish, except in so far as they jog my memory and may constitute a kind of disorganized memoir. But occasionally I get the idea that something from the past could be revived, rewritten, and given a second chance.

Right now I’m working on a series of essays under the general title Lost Causes, and it occurred to me that I had written about some of these subjects before. Back in the 1990s I finished about half of a planned book called Pre Millennial Syndrome about the anxieties surrounding the Year 2000 (PMS, get it? Very cute). No publisher thought it was cute, and the finished chapters dropped into some dusty files in the basement.

Now I think can use some of those chapters in my essay collection. They will have to be much revised, but a lot of work went into them ten years ago and I hate to see it all wasted. The only catch was that the chapters were not on my computer. They were on old 5¼ inch floppy disks that had deteriorated a long time ago, and don’t fit any modern computer. But I did have the printouts.

How to avoid the tedium of a vast amount of retyping, or the cost of hiring someone to do it? It was time to learn the mysteries of OCR or Optical Character Reading. After consulting some technical wizards I installed a program which (not without some calls to Bombay) allowed me to scan the old pages into a word processing program, and so recover them for easy editing and rewriting (and deletion, if that proves to be the sensible thing).

Now my eyes turn towards the dubious treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in the basement. Using this new technology I could bring any of them back to life. Perhaps I could post my historic science fiction stories on the Internet – a blast from the past of the future, so to speak?

But no, it’s like revisiting old love affairs: the untouched, unedited memories are more than enough.

Love’s Letters Lost

I received a real letter from a real person, written by hand on paper and enclosed in an envelope with a stamp. This was an event. In fact the letter was such an unexpected object that it was almost thrown out with the daily heap of junk mail from corporations and fundraisers. What a nostalgic pleasure it was to slit open the envelope, unfold the sheets, and just read the message without having to plug anything in or enter a password.

The dying art of letter writing received a fine elegy in the form of a book by Thomas Mallon called Yours Ever, in which he introduced us to many of the great letter writers of the past: Flaubert, Freud, the Mitfords, Thomas Jefferson, and many more. “Past” is the operative word. We don’t do letters any more. This is a disaster for future historians because letters are our long-term memory, and it’s a sad loss for all of us. Letters brought news from the family, stories from travelers, ideas and opinions from friends, and best of all love messages. Every delivery was precious, and potentially exciting.

Letters were precious because they were so personal. The mere fact of writing a letter implied that you cared enough to spend the time, and that you had something more meaningful on your mind than a greeting card message. At this romantic time of year love letters should be flying thick and fast. Instead we send pre-printed mass-produced Valentines with messages like this: to my wife: “You pick up after me/And arrange things in their place/You turn my frown upside down/And put a smile on my face.” Verse like this could and should precipitate instant divorce, with a hefty settlement for mental cruelty. Love is made ridiculous by these pitiless purveyors of bad verse. Why verse, anyway, when most of us speak in prose whether we are in love or not?

Many of the great love affairs of history and literature are preserved in correspondence. Hundreds of romantic plots depend on love letters lost, letters found, letters mailed in the wrong envelope, or letters like Emma Bovary’s, lying like a time bomb in some forgotten drawer. Now romance writers have to depend on malfunctioning Blackberries and network outages to separate their heroes and heroines, and bring them together again.

Love itself was different when people conducted their affairs by letter. For separated lovers in America’s early days, correspondence was the central fact of their relationship, allowing the couple to learn each other’s minds and characters more deeply than they could by hanging out at the mall and texting. Lovers would correspond constantly when they were apart, and the whole process induced a delicious state of suspense.

When everybody gets a Valentine, including the children and the cat, there’s not much suspense and no surprises. Whatever the message we’ve probably seen it already in the card store. If you want to stand out from the crowd on Valentine’s Day consider this: forget the cards, the heart shaped chocolates, and the plush bears. Get some notepaper, a pen, and perhaps some purple ink (these are still available from specialty shops) and compose a real, extravagant, romantic love letter. Surprise somebody. She or he may love you for it, or they may move to another state leaving no forwarding address. Either way, it’s a great compatibility test.

I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In
theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could
we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or
adjectives like “supersize”? But many new terms simply push out the old without
raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of
our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,”
stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts
mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all
before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we
will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is
insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision.
Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us
from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to
buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains
were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although
they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word of the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult,
or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh,
he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referetially,
as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move
ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out,
or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing
or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute.
I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into
nonsense by people who talk about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President
Trump and Nancy Pelosi have issues, Serbs and Bosnians have issues. Most of us
don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints
and grumbles about modern life, but none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never
satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this
topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant
than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and
struggle: divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern
life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever.
Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten
nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have
been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved
issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the
whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge
of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints,
pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories,
gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant,
peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English
language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to
anybody. We don’t need “issues.”