Thursday, December 19, 2013
Writing Con Amore
Nothing great is accomplished without love: Mozart's compositions, Bobby Fischer's checkmates, Michael Jordan's dunks--all of these things are products of love. In a wonderful Spring 1994 Current Books essay ("How Must We Write? Con Amore!"), James J. Kirkpatrick explains, "Great writers must be born, but good writers can be made." The great ones are blessed with the ability to precisely and intensely communicate their passion about a particular idea, concept or story. They not only know what Kirkpatrick terms the first rule of prose composition--"Be clear! Be clear!"--but they understand the magic inherent in word creation:
Words come in textures; words are hard or smooth or squishy soft. Words have colors; they are pastel; they are bold. They are neutral. They are colorless. Words have sounds derived from their meanings; timid is soft, savage is hard, clamor is loud. Words are sharp, words are blunt; words have edges that are keen. There are scalpel words and razor words and words that have a saber's slash. Words are dull, words are sparkling. Words are alive, they are languid. Words fly, sail, drive, race, creep, crawl. So many words! If we are patient--if we will work at the task--we will begin to find the right ones.
The writer's art, of course, lies not in merely collecting words or in distinguishing among them. The art lies in stringing the right words together artfully. Newspaper reporters may begin by covering a luncheon speech at the Rotary Club, but if they are good reporters--reporters who can write con amore--they will aspire to something higher.
Along the way they will discover that to embark upon a love affair with language is to take to heart a fascinating but difficult mistress. She can be frustrating, maddening, stubborn, filled with surly resistance. She can give great pleasure also, but she never can be wholly won. Language always holds something back from the eager writer.
...Our seductive and elusive mistress seldom returns our love, but now and then, as I say, she turns and smiles.
Love, in Kirkpatrick's view, is the driving force behind the best writing. Kirkpatrick believes, "No teacher of the writing art can fiddle with a gene string" and thus greatness is unattainable for most writers but that love of the craft can elevate any writer at least to the status of "good."
In his book The Writer's Voice (Norton Lecture)--excerpted in the January 8/January 9, 2005 issue of the Financial Times under the title "Deep in love with word creation"--Al Alvarez describes his point of view about writing as "that of an endangered species that used to be called a man of letters, one of those unfortunate people who write not because they are Ancient Mariners with stories they are compelled to tell, or lessons they have to teach, still less because they are entranced by the sound of their own voices, but simply because when they were young and impressionable, they fell in love with language as musicians fall in love with sound, and thereafter are doomed to explore this fatal attraction in as many ways as they can."
Such love can be intoxicating and maddening, invigorating and destructive; Alvarez declares, "Freelance writing is a precarious trade and I feel about it much the same as Mayakovsky felt about suicide: 'I don't recommend it to others,' he wrote, and then put a gun to his head."
Alvarez notes that when one is reading purely to "acquire facts efficiently," it is possible to read "diagonally"--to scan the content for key words and pertinent information--but "Real literature is something else entirely and it's immune to speed-reading. That is, it's not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice."
Alvarez sees a parallel between the art of writing and the practice of psychoanalysis, a practice developed by Sigmund Freud, a well-read man who was also, in Alvarez' estimation, someone who "wrote compelling prose." Freud noted that, contrary to what some people claimed, he had not discovered the unconscious--a feat that Freud credited to "the poets and the philosophers"-- but rather "What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied." Psychoanalysis is a form of storytelling; the patient tells his story and the analyst reinterprets that story in a way that is meant to help the patient.
"By comparing writing and psychoanalysis," Alvarez elaborates, "I'm implying that finding your own voice as a writer is like the tricky business of becoming an adult." That voice is what enables a writer to distinctly and uniquely convey his inner vision from his mind to the minds of his readers. No one would confuse Michael Jordan's playing style--his voice, so to speak--with Magic Johnson's, nor would anyone confuse William Faulkner's voice with Franz Kafka's.
Just developing a voice does not make one great but having a unique voice distinguishes a writer from his peers. First, though, as Kirkpatrick indicated, a writer must master the fundamentals, much as Jordan and Johnson relentlessly honed basic basketball techniques before developing and refining skills that few, if any, other players possess. Alvarez describes how this process works for a writer: "To find his voice he must first have mastered style, and style, in this basic sense, is a discipline that is acquired by hard work, like grammar or punctuation."
Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Remarkable David Gelernter
David Gelernter is best known as a pioneering computer scientist and as one of the survivors of an attack by the so-called Unabomber but Gelernter should be defined neither by his chosen profession nor by being a victim of violence; Gelernter is an intellectual in the best, classical sense of the word, in addition to being an eloquent writer, a moral philosopher and a painter.
Gelernter's 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber details his slow, painful recovery from his injuries but it also describes how the Unabomber case--and our society's response to it--reflects a dangerous moral ambiguity that threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. Here is how a fascinating review at BrothersJudd.com describes Gelernter's take on our society's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of evil:
But the real thrust of this book is his disgust with modern culture. There is not much new in his argument--it borrows, wittingly or no, from E. B. White, George Orwell, Jacques Barzun, F. A. Hayek, Paul Johnson, and other conservative critics--as he traces the decline of societal morality back to the surrender by WASP elites and their succession by intellectuals. He understands full well that in many ways it was a good thing to move to a system that is based more on merit than on heredity, that the tolerance which is the central value of intellectuals has been beneficial to society in many regards, and that equality of opportunity for women and minorities has been in most ways a good thing. But he is also quite blunt about the downside inherent in all of these trends.
As he argues, the meritocratic elite has turned the education system from a finishing school for gentlemen into a training ground for intellectuals, that is people who believe in the pure power of ideas to remake humanity and in the special role of intellectuals in making decisions for humanity. Tolerance, an initial good as it opened doors for people and allowed for the free exchange of even unpopular ideas, has degenerated into an ethic of "anything goes." Toleration has removed any standards of behavior and has delegitimized the judgment of ideas and behaviors. What started as a refreshing openness to differences has been pushed to an extreme where we no longer seem to recognize the difference between good ideas and bad ideas or between true good and genuine evil, or if we do recognize it, somehow no longer feel confident in our right to judge between the two.
In several extremely opinionated and politically incorrect passages he tackles questions of gender equity, race, gay rights, etc., in light of this understanding. But the book is brought full circle when he examines the events of his own life: modern attitudes towards crime, the sensationalist press, and the celebrity culture. In perhaps the strongest and most memorable few paragraphs of the book Gelernter considers whether his own religious beliefs should mitigate against his desire to see the Unabomber pay for his crimes with his life:
The crux of the matter is that it is vitally important for both individuals and societies to not only distinguish between good and evil/right and wrong but to vigorously fight for good/right and to vigorously fight against evil/wrong. As Edmund Burke put it, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."I would sentence him to death. And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents, apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men's families, and the whole world--and tells us how he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing clarity that he deserves to die--then and only then I'd commute his sentence...
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