Quote of The Week

“Nolus in verbia (take nobody’s word for it).”

Founding principle of the Royal Society in 1660


Proverbial Wisdom

We have all been victims of proverbial wisdom, particularly when we were young. A large part of the job of parenting is to bombard one’s offspring with warnings and advice in the form of easily remembered clichés posing as absolute truths. They come from everywhere although, in this country, a lot of them are the work of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie, and have an economic flavor: early to bed, early to rise; a penny saved is a penny earned; nothing succeeds like success; When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade; Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves. Well, yes, you feel like saying. Wait a minute, let’s think about this. But it’s too late. Once a proverb has been uttered it has done its deadly work. Thinking is no longer possible, or allowed.

Proverbs are thought by some to contain the essence of wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from making mistakes. So proverbs are the record of numerous past mistakes, distilled to a single phrase, and turned into an example for posterity. Faint heart never won fair lady, good fences make good neighbors. But wisdom condensed usually means commonsense lost. Faint heart quite often wins fair ladies, they like a modest approach, and neighbors fight over fences like street gangs defending their turf.

Few proverbs can stand up to rigorous examination. It never rains but it pours; one swallow doesn’t make a summer; all’s well that ends well; still waters run deep; all is fair in love and war. Modern technology and fashionable cynicism have made most proverbs obsolete. Now we have a space program it’s no longer even guaranteed that what goes up must come down. Just occasionally you come upon a piece of proverbial wisdom that, with a bit of adaptation, makes sense. “Let sleeping cats lie.” But we don’t need a proverb to tell us that.

An aphorism is the opposite of proverb. An aphorism is a clever, original remark that makes you think: “Truths are the illusions that we have misunderstood” (Friedrich Neitzsche) or, on the brighter side from Mae West, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” Proverbs, on the other hand, fall on you like a brick, with a stunning rather than an enlightening effect: Seeing is believing; Virtue is its own reward; you can’t have your cake and eat it; ignorance is bliss.

Globalization has exposed us to the proverbial wisdoms of everyone else on the planet.* We can see how peculiar other people’s proverbs are, which should make us think twice about our own. The Chinese, for example, advise: “Add legs to a snake only after you have finished drawing it.” Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I doubt it. In Ireland everyone knows: “Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot” and in Zululand it is equally obvious that “You should never speak to a rhinoceros unless there is a tree nearby.”

Proverbial wisdoms were always colorful and usually entertaining. We’ll miss them when they fade away, those tiny nuggets of certainty that helped us to navigate through a bewildering world. Maybe we’ll have to invent a whole new set of proverbial wisdoms for the twenty-first century, things like: Never leave your Blackberry in the kitchen when grandmother is baking pies. But that’s a thought for another day.

Obviously I could go on about this till the cows come home, but enough is as good as a feast. All good things must come to an end. Silence is golden.

*The proverbs of the world have been collected in an entertaining book by David Crystal As They Say in Zanzibar.

The Book Crusader

There’s a character in the Peanuts cartoon strip called Pigpen – a boy who attracts dirt like a magnet. I am a Pigpen for books. They fly into my life and they stick to me for years and decades.

I’m not complaining. I love my great unwieldy mass of books, although moving them from place to place over the years has left me with a bad back and an allergy to cardboard boxes. But by my count I have made fourteen major house moves in my lifetime so far. This impending move will be the fifteenth. Each time I have sorted out my books and sold or dumped many of them. But now, mysteriously, I have more books than ever before. They fill every bookshelf in the house, and overflow into boxes in the basement.

This time, I said to myself, I will really sort out these books. There are volumes I haven’t looked at since last time we moved seventeen years ago. Obviously they must go this time. There are hundreds of dull academic books from my former professorial life, relics of the past. Then there are all the paperbacks purchased to read on a plane, and never to be opened again.
It sounds much easier than it is. Every book is a slice of the past – personal or professional. Going through one’s books is like conducting an archaeological dig of one’s own life. There are treasures to be found down there in the dirt, and also a lot of plain rubbish.

My immediate goal is to reduce the number of books that will be moved to the new house by about half. The great classics must stay with us, of course, because you never know when you may be struck by the urge to read a great classic. On the other hand a lot of my research work in the past was concerned with radical social movements, so I have hundreds of books about socialism, anarchism feminism, civil rights and the counter culture. They are all dated now – indeed we are all dated now, along with our naïve 1960s optimism. So I threw them into the trunk of the car and took them to the local public library where they will be sold to benefit the friends of the library.

It was as I did this that I began to get a sense of mission – a feeling that my discarded books might still have a role to play in the human comedy. Many of them promote rather radical ideas, like equality and democracy. Spreading such books through the community might, with luck, become a subversive activity.

One subject is the most subversive of all. Back in 1984 I wrote a book about radical feminism, and the books I used for that project were and are dynamite. They have titles like The Coming Matriarchy, The Battle of the Sexes, Women Rule, The Feminine Mystique and The New Feminist Revolution. These poisoned gifts have been cunningly inserted into the monthly book sale at the library, where the majority of the buyers are women.

I rather like the idea of newly-minted socialists, anarchists and radical feminists raging through the streets of Long Island. If the next popular revolution does start here I will naturally disclaim any legal responsibility. But I will hug to myself the secret that I passed those books and those ideas on to a new generation of readers, who will decide for themselves whether and when to change the world. That’s what books are for.

Literature for Dummies

Winter is on its way, and the pleasures of that grim season are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time to time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe.

These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping.

The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.
So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

On the Road

Some writers thrive on travel. They are stimulated to record their thoughts in trains, in hotel rooms, on the tops of mountains, or in the presence of famous tourist sights. I wish I had this talent, because I love to travel. But, having just returned from three months in Europe, I have confirmed yet again that I am a one-place writer, and the place is right here in my study at home.

Everything distracts me when I am travelling. The room, the desk, and the computer are all different, even the sounds heard through the window are different. My books are not there, and half my mind is engaged with different language and a different culture. Travel is so stimulating, and so packed with new experiences, that the calm and thoughtful frame of mind that encourages writing is elusive, or impossible.

So I take many notes along the way, and return home with a bundle of undigested impressions that will never be quite as sharp and bright as they were at the time. It’s a good thing that I never set out to be a travel writer.

Remembering Vonnegut

I’ve been re-reading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he invented a whole new religion called Bokononism, the basic principle of which was that “all religions are false, including this one.” This offended some people. Vonnegut was a writer who aroused extreme emotions, from hero-worship to revulsion. Most writers are not as lucky, because we are nowhere near as good. When he died ten years ago I felt it as a personal loss, having been a more or less faithful reader for over forty years. Searching my bookshelves I found five of Vonnegut’s eighteen or so books – not exactly a collector’s library but a decent tribute to a writer I admired a lot.

The obituaries were generous. Many of them suggested that Vonnegut was the Mark Twain of the modern age, which was a huge compliment. He was a social critic from the same mold as Mark Twain, and a pessimist about human nature, just as Twain was. But I would go a step higher: Vonnegut was the Jonathan Swift of the modern age. He had an edge, a gift for ferocious fantasy that Mark Twain lacked but that Swift surely had. Gulliver’s Travels, for example, is pure Vonnegut in its sensibility, just as Timequake is pure Swift.

The first of his books I read was Player Piano, a comically awful portrait of a robotic future. It was published in 1952, and has had hundreds of imitators. It’s hard, verging on impossible, to describe Vonnegut’s work to anyone who hasn’t read it. The label science fiction, which puts a lot of people off, is totally wrong. He was first of all a satirist, and then a fantasist. He invented new ways of describing the world, whole new religions, impossible characters, and indispensable words. Where would we be, for example, without the word Granfalloon, a word that describes a group of people who think they have something in common, but don’t?

His best book, in my opinion, is Slaughterhouse Five, about the wartime bombing of Dresden. His most poignant short story is “Harrison Bergeron,” about the doomed search for equality, which I have never been able to get out of my head since I read it decades ago.

Vonnegut was not the kind of writer who captivated you by the style or beauty of his language. His writing was plain and direct, but his grammar and punctuation were often bizarre. He pulled the reader in by the force of his ideas and his wild imagination.

I don’t know what his place was and will be in American literature. I can’t guess what he meant to anyone else. I can only say what he meant to me, through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. He was quite literally a voice crying in the wilderness – a humanistic, sane, funny and angry voice saying what the rest of us didn’t have the wit or the courage to say.

I never met Vonnegut, although I saw him once at a book fair in the Hamptons. But what I learned from him as a writer was this: take chances. It’s a valuable lesson.

And now he’s long gone, fading into the past. Humanists don’t believe in life after death. Kurt Vonnegut has serious reservations about life before it – he attempted suicide at least once. But his sense of humor never completely deserted him. In his last book, an eclectic and very funny collection of odds and ends called Man Without A Country, he recalls speaking at a memorial service for the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was himself a prominent humanist.

“Isaac is up in heaven now,” said Vonnegut, and it brought the house down. The humanists were rolling in the aisles.

If Kurt is up in heaven now, I hope he appreciates that the joke is now on him.

Finding Your Own Voice

“Style is knowing who you are, what
You want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Gore Vidal

We all begin, inevitably, as imitators. I can clearly remember, at a young age, trying and failing to write like P.G.Wodehouse, W.W.Jacobs and (more ambitiously) like Somerset Maugham.

Imitation fails almost every time because every writer has a unique style or “voice.” Finding your very own personal writing voice is one of the most difficult learning tasks and (when you succeed) one of the most rewarding. If you’re already happy with your writing voice, leave it alone. But, if you feel frustrated because your real style and personality aren’t making it on to the page, consider of the tips below – some of which I discovered from experience, and others that are passed on from other sources.

Your own writing voice is not the stream of consciousness chatter of everyday talk. Most talk is chaotic, undigested nonsense. If you don’t believe me listen to other people’s cell phone conversations, or use a small pocket voice recorder to discover how you and other people talk in ordinary social situations. You will be amazed, and probably depressed when you listen to the results! For comparison, read some passages out loud from one of your favorite writers.

Your own writing voice is not the manic inner chatter of the mind. Writing is thinking in full dress, or thinking plus.

Plus what?

The first plus is a minus: get rid of the linguistic baggage of the past. This means all the stylistic quirks and habits you picked up by imitation, or from teachers or anyone else who has tried to shape the way you write. Special kinds of writing you have done in the past may have played havoc with your natural style. In my own life I’ve been influenced by newspaper journalism, technical writing and (worst of all) academic writing. The latter is a deadly form of verbose non-communication, and it may take years to shake off its baneful affects! Your goal is to get down to a spare, clean, economical prose. George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” is as good a way as any to find out what that means.
Next, resist the natural temptation to dress up your new plain style with fancy words, phrases, metaphors and images you found somewhere else.
Then relax at the keyboard. Write in a way that comes easily and naturally, without the heavy breathing. Some people actually find yoga-style breathing exercises helpful. The goal here is to dissolve the barriers between you and your writing. The biggest barrier for many of us is the mere act of writing, and especially the dreaded IASW syndrome (“I am a serious writer…”).

Practice to develop confidence. This means writing for no other reason than to develop your voice, just as a musician searches for a personal interpretation of a piece of music by rehearsing it over and over. Write with the intention of throwing your writing away. It’s amazingly liberating!

On no account write first drafts with a market in mind. This will kill the authenticity of your voice stone dead before you start. At this stage, don’t even think about markets and audiences.

Write what you know and care most about in your life and in your mind. This always brings out the most honest and revealing style. It’s important to discover your real feelings towards your subject, and not just to reproduce the “correct” or “conventional” feelings. A little self-analysis may be needed here, but don’t worry. Until you launch your words into print they belong to you absolutely. Write exactly what you want, no matter how outrageous. That’s what the delete key is for.

Finally, try to discover the tone that comes most naturally to you. This is probably the same as your everyday personality. Are you normally humorous, ironic, analytical, gloomy, subtle, angry, or anxious? It’s hard to cover up a deep personality trait. Your best writing will reflect your personality, whether you like it or not.

Norman Mailer, in The Spooky Art, argues that personal style is essentially a matter of maturity. First you learn how to write, then you learn who you are.

“One has arrived at a personal philosophy…At that juncture, everything one writes come out of one’s own fundamental mood.”

In these ways – by thinking and practicing and just by living and developing character – we find our own writing voice the same way we learned to walk and talk, naturally and inevitably. Some forms make it easier than others. Memoir and personal essay bring out the personality of the writer fairly easily. Fiction writing is more likely to throw up barriers between the authentic voice of the writer and the invented voices of the characters. After all, it’s the essence of the fiction writer’s art to be somebody else. But in the process he can forget to be himself.

If American English is not your first language, things get a bit more complicated. In this sense alone writing in your “own” voice is problematic. A spoken accent may be charming, but it doesn’t translate into writing. Nor does the grammar of another language. German speakers, for example, sometimes write English in a Germanic way that sounds heavy and awkward. Even those of us from old England have trouble with colloquial American English which seems (to us) to omit a great many words, misspell others, mistake the meaning of still more (e.g. “hopefully”) and ignore most rules of grammar that we were taught at school.

We benighted foreign-born writers have no choice except to find a voice that is acceptably American, or endearingly ethnic. We don’t all have to write like MFAs from Iowa, but we must fit in to some recognizable linguistic-American format, or nobody will read us. And if we don’t like it, as any right-wing pundit would be happy to tell us, we can go back to where we came from.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Teachers should be more careful. I might have become an artist or an astronaut, but an indulgent fourth grade teacher praised one of my essays, and essays became my fate. My diaries turned into collections of tiny essays, designed to fit the two-inch space allocated for each day, and I wrote overbaked sketches of anything and everything from a visit to the dentist to collecting tadpoles. Soon I became the most overpraised little writer in my school. Obviously, I wasn’t much good at anything else. Many years later I came upon the correct diagnosis of my situation in Kurt Vonnegut’s eccentric memoir Palm Sunday.

“Writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it, but it takes time.”

Vonnegut was a creative genius, and knew it. But a non-fiction writer who keeps to regular deadlines cannot afford to wait for the brilliant inspiration that may never come. We must keep pumping, grab ideas straight out of the mess of reality, and try to make sense of life in the process of writing about it. A fiction writer is limited only by imagination. An essayist is trapped in the real world, which is nothing if not repetitive.

Ideas are like events: they keep coming back in different disguises. Georges Simenon, the extraordinarily prolific author of five hundred novels, as well as countless articles and reviews, wrote in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually face the awful choice between silence and self-repetition.

History really does move in circles, as the Greeks believed. The same things keep on happening, and there are remarkably few surprises. There is always a war, an election, a summer heatwave or a winter deep freeze, a corruption scandal, a holiday season, an economic crisis, or a new invention that scientists predict will change the world. It takes a kind of perverse creativity to write something different about these cyclical themes every time they come around. At any given moment, certain ideas are “in the air”, and everyone is talking and writing about them: the addictive use of smart phones, Donald Trump, taxes, weddings, or interesting new diseases. A regular commentator must find something to say about them, and it is hard to avoid repeating what everyone else is saying and hearing in the media echo chamber. Failure to be original is always an option, and eventually it becomes inevitable.

It’s true that even the greatest writers and philosophers in history were limited by what they knew. Marx did not branch out into romantic stories or Virginia Woolf into economic theory. They stuck to their one big idea. But essays are not novels or treatises on political economy. Essays, as Montaigne demonstrated five hundred years ago, are about everything. An essayist who stays awake and alive can never, ever, run out of ideas. This is, in fact, the essayist’s job description.

Essayists, therefore, are forced to be original. If the world refuses to gratify our desire for novelty there is no alternative but to re-describe the world’s repetitions in a novel way.

Contemporary writing is often dreary and depressing because so many writers feel the urge to pass on their adolescent discovery that life is a sad business. It is a valid discovery. The problem is that it has no novelty. You’d never guess how funny and strange life is from reading most modern books – a toxic tide of thinly-disguised victim memoirs, miserable family stories, failed love affairs and terminal illnesses. Too many writers are taking themselves far too seriously. They seem to be writing to take revenge on life, or to stick it to their families or their ex-lovers. Or perhaps they are just following the example of their equally depressive professors in the MFA program, whose basic writing rule seems to be: “If it’s not gloomy, it’s not serious.”

Humor has always been the salvation of the human race, especially at its most grandiose and serious moments. The ancient Greeks and Romans, at the height of their civilizations, had plenty of jokers willing to point out that the emperor had no clothes. So did the British in Victorian times, when they ruled half the world. Nations and writers need humor most when they feel most serious and self-important.
To be fair, writers who wallow in gloom and doom may be simply responding to the current market, where bad news is extraordinarily popular (check out the bestseller lists). For some strange reason, the bringer of bad news also has higher status. The prophet of doom has always been more respected (although less welcome) than the clown.

Ideas are like events: they keep coming back in different disguises. Georges Simenon, the extraordinarily prolific author of five hundred novels, as well as countless articles and reviews, wrote in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually face the awful choice between silence and self-repetition.

Intellectualism for Dummies

One of the unique features of Paris is the permanent open-air book sale along the banks of the Seine. It’s so famous that it is actually listed as a World Heritage site. But the bouquinistes as the booksellers are called, are in trouble with the mayor. They are selling too few antique books and too many tourist souvenirs. The rising tide of plastic Eiffel Towers threatens to swamp this ancient literary marketplace. I’ve never really understood the appeal of plastic Eiffel Towers, or plastic Empire State Buildings or Leaning Towers of Pisa for that matter. But they sell much better than books, so I seem to be out of step with the rest of humanity as usual.

There are still many fine bookstores in Paris, but the stock is not as highbrow as you might imagine. Les Nuls have invaded the bookstores in a big way. Nul means essentially “useless” or “stupid.” In other words the French have their own range of instruction books on everything for dummies, including one with the grandiose title Culture for Dummies, which presumably covers everything, like Diderot’s famous Encyclopaedia.

I find these “Dummies” books as puzzling as the plastic Eiffel Towers. I suppose the ironic titles help to diminish the fear of failure. Years ago there was a splendid collection of books, also with yellow covers, called the “Teach Yourself” series. They offered just about every subject from languages to aeronautical engineering, and they weren’t embarrassing to read in public. Teaching yourself is an active, praiseworthy activity. Being a passive Dummy, an Idiot, or a Nul, it seems to me, is not.

French movies are another clue that our preconceptions about Gallic culture need to be adjusted. My wife was doing some research on French popular movies so I saw more than a hundred of them, under protest. These were the films that have been big box office hits in France but never make it to the United States, and they were dreadful. If movies are anything to go by the French are attracted by really (really, really) silly comedies, sentimental tales of family life, and excruciating coming of age sagas, plus the usual fantasies of sex and extreme violence. If you imagine, as I did, that the French spend their evenings watching ultra-sophisticated New Wave movies, think again. The average French movie makes Batman look like a work of high culture.

So where do we get the idea that inside every Frenchman is a Jean Paul Sartre or Jean-Luc Godard, or that inside every French woman a Simone de Beauvoir or Marguerite Duras? It may be the black clothes and long scarves that make so many passersby look like creative artists, or it may simply be the result of several centuries of propaganda claiming that the French are smarter than anyone else. Either way it’s an illusion, although an enjoyable one.

Genuine French intellectuals do exist, of course, and they make the rest of us feel like dummies. Just try to read a book by Michel Houellebecq, or dabble in the philosophical world of Jacques Derrida. A migraine is guaranteed, probably with a stomach upset into the bargain. But that’s fine because their work isn’t meant for us, it’s meant for them. These are the secrets of their tribe, and outsiders have no business trying to understand them. As for the rest of the French, I hate to tell you this but they are almost exactly as intellectual as us.

What do I Know?

There are few things more pleasing than discovering the expression of a latent thought – that is a thought that has been lurking in the back of your mind for years or decades, but has never quite come into focus. Margaret Attwood just provided me with this pleasure in the following quotation.

“Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but that is wrong. They know less. That’s why they write. Trying to find out what everyone else takes for granted.”

These few words lit up a dark corner that has disturbed me for years. There are many plausible answers to the question: “Why do we write?” I’ve used most of them in my lifetime. But, as Attwood implies, the real reason I write is that I don’t understand anything about other human beings, and I’m trying to find out.

The human world is awash with enthusiasms and manias, all of which are incomprehensible to me: sports, religion, and war are three of the big ones. I just can’t understand what anybody sees in any of them, yet they seem to be as basic to human happiness as food or sex.

It’s disappointing that forty years or more of writing haven’t brought me any closer to answers, but at least I tried. In the end, I’m happy to relax into the bemused acquiescence of the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne. In middle age he became skeptical about the possibility of any true knowledge, and adopted the motto: “Que sais-je?” – What do I know?

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. Recently 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.