The probability of Walter Benjamin‘s name coming up in your average MFA workshop, or fiction writers’ group of any kind, likely approaches zero. But head over to a name-your-critical-political-literary-theory class and I’d be surprised not to hear it dropped at least once, if not half a dozen times. Benjamin, after all, mentored or befriended the first generation Frankfurt School, Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, Leo Strauss, and nearly every other twentieth-century German intellectual who escaped the Nazis. Tragically, Benjamin himself did not fare so well. It has long been believed that he killed himself rather than face Nazi capture. Another theory speculates that Stalin had him murdered.
Since his death, the legend of Benjamin as a kind of heterodox Marxist prophet—an image he fostered with his embrace of Jewish mysticism—has grown and grown. And yet, despite his rarified academic pedigree, I maintain that writers of all kinds, from the most pedantic to the most visceral, can learn much from him.
Benjamin did not strictly confine himself to the arcane textual analysis and literary-theological hermeneutics for which he’s best known; he spent most of his career working as a freelance critic and journalist, writing almost casual travelogues, personal reminiscences of Weimar Berlin, and approachable essays on a variety of subjects. For a few years, he even wrote and presented popular radio broadcasts for young adults—acting as a kind of “German Ira Glass for teens.”
And, like so many writers before and since, Benjamin once issued a list of “writer’s tips”—or, as he called it, “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, one of only two books published in his lifetime. In Benjamin’s hands, that well-worn, well meaning, but often less than helpful genre becomes a series of oracular pronouncements that can seem, at first read, comical, superstitious, or puzzlingly idiosyncratic. But read them over a few times. Then read them again. Like all of his writing, Benjamin’s suggestions, some of which read like commandments, others like Nietzschean aphorisms, reveal their meanings slowly, illuminating the postures, attitudes, and physical and spiritual disciplines of writing in surprisingly humane and astute ways.
The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses:
- Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
- Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
- In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
- Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
- Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
- Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
- Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
- Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
- Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
- Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
- Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
- Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
- The work is the death mask of its conception.