Akira Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers: Write, Write, Write and Read

in Film, Writing | September 26th, 2016

We should all learn from the best, and in the domain of cinema, that means studying under masters like Akira Kurosawa. Though now nearly twenty years gone, the Japanese filmmaker known as “the Emperor” left behind not just one of the most impressive bodies of directorial work in existence — RashomonSeven SamuraiThrone of BloodRan, and much else besides — but a generous quantity of words. In addition to the voluminous materials related to the films themselves, he wrote the book Something Like an Autobiography, gave in-depth interviews, and offered filmmaking advice to established colleagues and young aspirants alike.

“If you genuinely want to make films,” Kurosawa tells the next generation of directors in the clip above, “then write screenplays. All you need to write a script is paper and a pencil. It’s only through writing scripts that you learn specifics about the structure of film and what cinema is.”

This brings to mind the story of how, long unable to find funding for Kagemusha, he wrote and re-wrote its screenplay, then, still unable to go into production, painted the entire film, shot by shot. Such persistence requires no little strength of patience and discipline, the very kind one builds through rigorous writing practice. Kurosawa quotes Balzac: “The most essential and necessary thing is the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time.”

Take it one word at a time: apparently creators as ostensibly different as Balzac, Kurosawa, and Stephen King agree on how to handle the writing process. And to write, Kurosawa adds, you must read. “Young people today don’t read books,” he says, echoing an oft-heard complaint. “It’s important that they at least do a certain amount of reading. Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can’t create anything. Memory is the source of your creation. Whether it’s from reading or from your own real-life experience, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.” Or, as Werner Herzog more recently put it: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read… read, read… read.” But per Kurosawa, don’t forget to write — and when the writing gets tough, do anything but give up.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Jorge Luis Borges Creates a List of 16 Ironic Rules for Writing Fiction

in Literature, Writing | September 20th, 2016

borges-personal-art of poetry

“Jorge Luis Borges 1951, by Grete Stern” via Wikimedia Commons.

When we first read the work of Jorge Luis Borges, we may wish to write like him. When we soon discover that nobody but Borges can write like Borges, we may wish instead that we could have collaborated with him. Once, he and his luminary-of-Argentine-literature colleagues, friend and frequent collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares and Bioy Casares’ wife Silvina Ocampo, got together to compose a story about a writer from the French countryside. Though they never did finish it, one piece of its content survives: a list of sixteen rules, drawn up by Borges, for the writing of fiction.

Or at least that’s how Bioy Casares told it to the French magazine L’Herne, which reprinted the list. Instead of sixteen recommendations for what a writer of fiction should do, Borges playfully provided a list of sixteen prohibitions–things writers of fiction should never let slip into their work.

  1. Non-conformist interpretations of famous personalities. For example, describing Don Juan’s misogyny, etc.
  2. Grossly dissimilar or contradictory twosomes like, for example, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
  3. The habit of defining characters by their obsessions; like Dickens does, for example.
  4. In developing the plot, resorting to extravagant games with time and space in the manner of Faulkner, Borges, and Bioy Casares.
  5. In poetry, characters or situations with which the reader can identify.
  6. Characters prone to becoming myths.
  7. Phrases, scenes intentionally linked to a specific time or a specific epoch; in other words, local flavor.
  8. Chaotic enumeration.
  9. Metaphors in general, and visual metaphors in particular. Even more concretely, agricultural, naval or banking metaphors. Absolutely un-advisable example: Proust.
  10. Anthropomorphism
  11. The tailoring of novels with plots that are reminiscent of another book. For example, Ulysses by Joyce and Homer’s Odyssey.
  12. Writing books that resemble menus, albums, itineraries, or concerts.
  13. Anything that can be illustrated. Anything that may suggest the idea that it can be made into a movie.
  14. Critical essays, any historical or biographical reference.  Always avoid allusions to authors’ personalities or private lives. Above all, avoid psychoanalysis.
  15. Domestic scenes in police novels; dramatic scenes in philosophical dialogues. And, finally:
  16. Avoid vanity, modesty, pederasty, lack of pederasty, suicide.

The astute reader will find much more of the counterintuitive about this list than its focus on what not to do. Didn’t Borges himself specialize in non-conformist interpretations, especially of existing literature? Don’t some of his most memorable characters obsess over things, like imagining a human being into existence or creating a map the size of the territory, to the exclusion of all other characteristics? Couldn’t he conjure up the most exotic settings — even when drawing upon memories of his native Buenos Aires — in the fewest words? And who else better used myths, metaphors, and games with time and space for his own, idiosyncratic literary purposes?

But those who’ve spent real time reading Borges know that he also always wrote with a strong, if subtle, sense of humor. He had just the kind of sensibility that would produce an ironic, self-parodying list such as this, though history hasn’t recorded whether his, Bioy Casares’, and Ocampo’s young provincial writer would have perceived it in that way or piously honored its dictates. Borges does, however, seem to have followed the bit about never writing “anything that may suggest the idea that it can be made into a movie” to the letter. I yield to none in my appreciation for Alex Cox’s cinematic interpretation of Death and the Compass, but I enjoy even more the fact that Borges’ imagination has kept Hollywood stumped.

via lasesana/faena

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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New Archive Presents The Chicagoan, Chicago’s Jazz-Age Answer to The New Yorker (1926 to 1935)

in History, Magazines, Writing | September 9th, 2016

Chicagoan April 12

Copyright The Quigley Publishing Company, a Division of QP Media, Inc.

Chicago’s famed “second city complex” didn’t spring from organic feelings of inferiority, but rather from the poisonous pen of visiting New Yorker writer, A.J. Liebling:

Seen from the taxi, on the long ride in from the airport, the place looked slower, shabbier, and, in defiance of all chronology, older than New York… the low buildings, the industrial plants, and the railroad crossings at grade produced less the feeling of being in a great city than of riding through an endless succession of factory-town main streets. 

– A.J. Liebling, Chicago: The Second City, 1952

The Manhattan born journalist’s observations about the toddlin’ town are plainly those formed by an outsider, albeit one who harbored no designs on becoming an insider.

The Chicagoan, a homegrown publication that intentionally mimicked The New Yorker in both design and content, offers a different take. From 1926 to 1935, it strove to counteract the city’s thuggish reputation (Al Capone, anyone?) by drawing attention to its cultural offerings and high society doings.

Outside of Chicago, no one cared much. Having failed to replicate The New Yorker’s national success, it folded, leaving behind very few surviving copies.

Neil Harris, a University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of History, has righted that wrong by arranging for the university library’s near complete collection of Chicagoans to be uploaded to a searchable online database.

The covers have a Jazz Age vibrancy, as do articles, advertisements, and cartoons aimed at Chicago’s smart set. There’s even a Helen Hokinson cartoon, in the form of a Borden cheese ad.

A search for Lieblings yielded but two:

Chicagoan December

Copyright The Quigley Publishing Company, a Division of QP Media, Inc.

One from December 1, 1934, above, name checks pianist Emil Liebling in an article revisiting the 1897 Christmas issue of another bygone Chicago paper, the Saturday Evening Herald.

Chicagoan April 26

Copyright The Quigley Publishing Company, a Division of QP Media, Inc.

Four years earlier, in Vol. 9, No. 3, Robert Pollack’s Musical Notes column made mention of Leonard Liebling, a critic for the New York American… (I can hear A.J. beyond-the-grave snickering even now).

You can browse the pages of The Chicagoan here. For further reading, see Professor Harris’ book, The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age.

via Messy N Chic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest script, Fawnbook, is available in a digital edition from Indie Theater Now.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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8 Writers on How to Face Writer’s Block and the Blank Page: Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates & More

in Writing | August 18th, 2016

For those who write for a living, the issue of writer’s block doesn’t come up as often as television and movies may have others believe. Sure, there’s plenty of times where the words don’t flow like they should. Or a writer may find they’ve written drivel and start again. Or the beginning proves elusive. Or the end proves tricky. But that cliché of the harried writer, sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper (maybe with the daunting “Chapter One” hovering at the top)? Maybe not so much.

In this short video made for the Louisiana Channel (a YouTube channel for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark), the blank page is anything but terrifying for the eight authors interviewed.

“I don’t think writer’s block actually exists,” says Philipp Meyer. “It’s basically insecurity. It’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment…The point is to get something down on paper.”

Alaa Al-Aswany makes the most philosophical point, calling writing the “conflict between what you want to say and what you could say.”

Many of the authors interviewed, like Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and Joyce Carol Oates agree on a similar point: the writer’s mind must have prepped and written and researched long before the body sits and the hands write. “By the time I come to the blank page I have many things to say,” Oates says.

For other writers, the blank page is a symbol of potential. For David Mitchell it’s a door that opens onto infinity. For Margaret Atwood, the page “beckons you in to write something on it. It must be filled.”

Daniel Kehlmann fills his in longhand and calls it “deeply satisfying” even though writing that first draft is the “least joyful part of writing.”

In the final minute, David Mitchell does tackle the idea of a writer’s block, but his suggestion is not worth spoiling, so go ahead and watch the whole thing. And if you’re a writer watching this video because you’re procrastinating…get back to work!

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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In the Only Surviving Recording of Her Voice, Virginia Woolf Explains Why Writing Isn’t a “Craft” (1937)

in Literature, Writing | August 9th, 2016

The literary voice of Virginia Woolf comes to us from a life lived fully in the service of literature, a life devoted, we might say, to the “craft of writing.” That earnest expression gets tossed around innocently enough in various grammatical forms. Writers craft sentences and paragraphs and set about crafting worlds for characters to inhabit. Describing writing as a craft seems a corollary to our current utilitarian thinking that literature should serve us, not we it; that we should justify our time spent reading and writing by talking about the use-value of these activities. Virginia Woolf had little use for these sentiments.

In an essay offering guidance on how to read literature, for example, she asks rhetorically whether there are “not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final?” Is not reading among these? Just as she decries reading as a professional task, Woolf critiques the idea of writing as a form of “Craftsmanship” in an essay with that title that she delivered as a talk on BBC radio in 1937 as part of a series called “Words Fail Me.” In the excerpt above, the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice, she reads the opening paragraphs of her essay, stating upfront that she finds “something incongruous, unfitting, about the term ‘craftsmanship’ when applied to words.”

“Craft,” ways Woolf, applies to “making useful objects out of solid matter,” and it also stands as a synonym for “cajolery, cunning, deceit.” In either usage, the word mischaracterizes the act of writing. “Words,” Woolf says, echoing her contemporary Oscar Wilde, “never make anything that is useful.” She offers us many colorful examples to make the point, and argues also that words cannot be deceitful since “they are the truest” of all things and “seem to live forever.” These qualities of language, it’s uselessness and truthfulness, make the practice of writing as “craft” impossible, since writers do not work by “finding the right words and putting them in the right order,” like one would build a house.

Words do not cooperate in neat and tidy ways. Indeed, “to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless,” says Woolf, “A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them.” Rather than thinking of words as raw material we assemble by rote, or as incantatory symbols in magical formulae, we should think of words as sentient entities who “like people to think and feel before they use them.” Words, says Woolf in her mellifluous voice, “are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious” and “highly democratic, too.”

Against modern conceptions of writing as a practical craft, in her time and ours, Woolf tells us that words “hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is in their nature to change.” At best, she suggests, we can change with them, but we cannot control them or shape and bend them to our ends.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Stephen King on the Magic Moment When a Young Writer Reads a Published Book and Says: “This Sucks. I Can Do Better.”

in Books, Creativity, Literature, Writing | July 29th, 2016

Go to a bookstore.

Tell the clerk you’re an aspiring writer.

You’ll be directed to a shelf—possibly an entire section—brimming with prompts, exercises, formulae, and Jedi mind tricks. Round out your purchase with a journal, a fancy pen, or an inspirational quote in bookmark form.

Few of author Stephen King’s books would be at home in this section, but his 2000 memoir, On Writing, a combination of personal history and practical advice, certainly is. The writing rules listed therein are numerous enough to yield a top 20. He makes no bones about reading being a mandatory activity:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Not surprisingly, given his prodigious output, he also believes that writers must write daily. Practice helps shape a writer’s voice. Daily practice keeps him or her on intimate terms with characters and plot.

Got that?

Nose to the grindstone, young writer! Quit looking for fairy godmothers and making excuses! Though you might be able to fast track to the magical moment King revealed in a 2003 speech at Yale, above.

Go back to the bookstore.

Ask the clerk to point you toward the shelves of whatever genre has traditionally made your flesh crawl. Chick litvampire eroticamanly airplane reads. Select the most odious seeming title. Buy it. Read it. And heed the words of King:

There’s a magic moment, a really magic moment if you read enough, it will always come to you if you want to be a writer, when you put down some book and say, This really sucks. I can do better than this, and this got published!

(It’s really more of a spontaneously occurring rite of passage than magic moment, but who are we to fault Stephen King for giving it a crowd-pleasing supernatural spin?)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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How to Jumpstart Your Creative Process with William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

in Writing | July 18th, 2016

The inner critic creates writer’s block and stifles adventurous writing, hems it in with safe clichés and overthinking. Every writer has to find his or her own way to get free of that sourpuss rationalist who insists on strangling each thought with logical analysis and fitting each idea into an oppressive predetermined scheme or ideology. William S. Burroughs, one of the most adventurous writers to emerge from the mid-20th century, famously employed what he called the cut-up method.

Developed by Burroughs and painter Brion Gysin, this literary take on the collage technique used by avant-garde artists like Georges Braque originated with Surrealist Tristan Tzara, who “proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat.” The suggestion was so provocative, Burroughs claims in his essay “The Cut-Up Method,” that cut-ups were thereafter “grounded… on the Freudian couch.” Since Burroughs and Gysin’s literary redeployment of the method in 1959, it has proved useful not only for poets and novelists, but for songwriters like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. And any frustrated novelist, poet, or songwriter may use it to shake off the habitual thought patterns that cage creativity or choke it off entirely. How so?

Well, it’s best at this point to defer to the authority, Burroughs himself, who explains the cut-up technique thus:

The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise)–in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.

Burroughs gives us “one way” to do it. There may be infinite others, and it’s up to you to find what works. I myself have pushed through a creative funk by making montages from scraps of ancient poetry and phrases of modern pop, clichés ripped from the headlines and esoteric quotes from obscure religious texts—pieced together more or less at random, then edited to fit the form of a song, poem, or whatever. Virtual cut-and-paste makes scissors unnecessary, but the physical act may precipitate epiphanies. “Images shift sense under the scissors,” Burroughs writes; then he hints at a synesthesia experience: “smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic.”

Who is this method for? Everyone, Burroughs asserts. “Cuts ups are for everyone,” just as Tzara remarked that “poetry is for everyone.” No need to have established some experimental art world bona fides, or even call oneself an artist at all; the method is “experimental in the sense of being something to do.” In the short video at the top, you can hear Burroughs explain the technique further, adding his occult spin on things by noting that many cut-ups “seem to refer to future events.” On that account, we may suspend belief.

As Jennie Skerl notes in her essay on Burroughs, cut-up theory “parallels avant-garde literary theory” like Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction. “All writing is in fact cut ups,” writes Burroughs, meaning not that all writing is pieced together with scissors and glue, but that it’s all “a collage of words read heard overheard.” This theory should liberate us from onerous notions of originality and authenticity, tied to ideas of the author as a sui generis, all-knowing god and the text as an expression of cosmically ordered meaning. (Another surrealist writing method, the game of Exquisite Corpse, makes the point literal.) All that metaphysical baggage weighs us down. Everything’s been done—both well and badly—before, Burroughs writes. Follow his methods and his insistent creative maxim and you cannot make a mistake—“Assume that the worst has happened,” he writes, “and act accordingly.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing & The Social Network) to Teach Online Course on Screenwriting This Summer

in Film, Online Courses, Television, Writing | July 14th, 2016

Sports NightThe West WingThe American PresidentThe Social Network — hardly shameful items to appear on anyone’s résumé. Sure, people disagree about the likes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, but we’ve all got to admit that when Aaron Sorkin writes, he hits more than he misses, and even the supposed misses have more of interest about them than many others’ hits. How does this master of the modern American scene — its concerns, its personalities, its conversations, its politics — do it? You can find out in his Screenwriting course on MasterClass, the new platform for online instruction as given by big-name doers of high-profile work.

Back in May, we featured MasterClass’s offering of Werner Herzog on filmmaking, and though most everyone can enjoy hearing the man behind Aguirre, the Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man talk for five hours, not everyone can summon the will to make movies like those. Sorkin, by contrast, uses his also considerable creative vitality to a different end entirely, writing snappy scripts that bring his own compelling idiosyncrasies to mainstream film and television. But he started, according to MasterClass, by writing his first screenplay on the humble medium of cocktail napkins — cocktail napkins that became A Few Good Men. Since then, he’s come up with “rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell,” now ready to share with his online students.

In fact, he gives one away for free in the trailer above: “No one in real life starts a sentence with, ‘Damn it.'” That alone may get you writing your own Oscar-winning screenplay, thus saving you the $90 fee for the whole five-hour course, but Sorkin goes on to tease his methods for breaking through his “constant state of writer’s block” to craft dialogue as he conceives of that process: “Taking something someone has just said, holding them in your hand, and then punching them in the face with it.” He also makes reference to Aristotle’s Poetics, making his own lecturing sound like the very same high-and-low, intellectual and visceral cocktail that his fans so enjoy in the dialogue he writes. “The worst crime you can commit,” he warns, “is telling the audience something they already know,” and it sounds as if, in teacher mode to his audience of aspiring screenwriters, he plans on following his own advice.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Walt Whitman Gives Advice to Aspiring Young Writers: “Don’t Write Poetry” & Other Practical Tips (1888)

in Literature, Poetry, Writing | July 13th, 2016

whitman advice

Some of the best, most succinct writing advice I ever received came from the great John McPhee, via one of his former students: “Writing is paying attention.” What do you see, hear, taste, etc.? Questions of style, syntax, and punctuation come later. Obsess over them before you’ve learned to pay attention, and you’ll have nothing of interest to write about. And in order to notice what you’re noticing, you’ve got to record it; so keep a notebook with you at all times to jot down overheard expressions, thrilling sights and insights, dramatic chance encounters… hoarding material, all the time.

Amongst the tidal wave of advice you’ll encounter when you first begin to write—much of it contradictory and some of little practical benefit—you’d have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with McPhee. Not even Walt Whitman, who embraced contrariness and contradiction like no other American writer, thus becoming all the more an honest reflection of the nation. Few writers spent more time noticing than Whitman, who seemingly recorded everything he saw and heard on his travels. “I heard what the talkers were talking,” he proclaimed, “I perceive after all so many uttering tongues.” Whitman—as a project called HarvardX Neuroscience dubs him—was a “poet of perception.”

But he was also a hard-headed realist with a bent toward the utilitarian and a scrappy resourcefulness that made him an artistic survivor. Whitman contained multitudes, not only in his poetry but in his writing advice. When editors of The Signal, newspaper of The College of New Jersey, asked the poet in 1888 to advise young scholars on the “literary life,” he obliged, giving the paper a brief interview in which the “gray-haired, handsome, aged poet of Camden” proffered the following (condensed in list form below):

1. Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life—mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the ‘case’, learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation.

2. To young literateurs I want to give three bits of advice: First, don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto. You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped.

3. It is a good plan for every young man or woman having literary aspirations to carry a pencil and a piece of paper and constantly jot down striking events in daily life. They thus acquire a vast fund of information. One of the best things you know is habit. Again, the best of reading is not so much in the information it conveys as the thoughts it suggests. Remember this above all. There is no royal road to learning.

Whitman’s advice contains sound, practical tips on what we might today call “professionalization.” Should we take his admonishment against writing poetry seriously? Why not? For a good portion of his life, Whitman earned a living “whacking away,” as he liked to say often, at more utilitarian forms of writing, from reportage to an advice column. Whitman took seriously his role as a voice of working people and perhaps saw this interview as an occasion to address them.

Whitman’s “seething rejection of poetry,” writes Nicole Kukawski in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, should not surprise us; it is “simply part of his attack on conventionality in all respects… poetry can never be ‘utilitarian’—in no way can it reach the masses for their benefit.” Unlike our day, poetry was ubiquitous in late nineteenth century America, part of an entrenched, highly conventional polite discourse. Who knows, maybe a Whitman of the early 21st century would feel very differently on this point. Surely we could use a great deal more “poetic expression” these days.

Whitman’s final piece of advice accords fully with John McPhee’s—and several hundred other writers and teachers. But in Whitman’s estimation, noticing, and acquiring “a vast fund of information,” was not only essential to the literary life but also key to pursuing an “individualistic,” real-world self-education. “One subject about which Whitman did not contradict himself,” writes Kukawski, “was his consistent belief that the scholar should learn by encountering life instead of reading books alone.” There may be no better exemplar of that philosophy in American letters than Walt Whitman himself.

via Austin Kleon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Bertrand Russell Lists His 20 Favorite Words in 1958 (and What Are Some of Yours?)

in English Language, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Writing | June 13th, 2016


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Is it possible to fully separate a word’s sound from its meaning—to value words solely for their music? Some poets come close: Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery. Rare phonetic metaphysicians. Surely we all do this when we hear words in a language we do not know. When I first encountered the Spanish word entonces, I thought it was the most beautiful three syllables I’d ever heard.

I still thought so, despite some disappointment, when I learned it was a commonplace adverb meaning “then,” not the rarified name of some magical being. My reverence for entonces will not impress a native Spanish speaker. Since I do not think in Spanish and struggle to find the right words when I speak it—always translating—the sound and sense of the language run on two different tracks in my mind.

An example from my native tongue: the word obdurate, which I adore, became an instant favorite for its sound the first time I said it aloud, before I’d ever used it in a sentence or parsed its meaning. It’s not a common English word, however, and maybe that makes it special. A word like always, which has a pretty sound, rarely strikes me as musical or interesting, though non-English speakers may find it so.

Every writer has favorite words. Some of those words are ordinary, some of them not so much. David Foster Wallace’s lists of favorite words consist of obscurities and archaisms unlikely to ever feature in the average conversation. “James Joyce thought cuspidor the most beautiful word in the English language,” writes the blog Futility Closet,” Arnold Bennet chose pavement. J.R.R. Tolkien felt the phrase cellar door had an especially beautiful sound.”

Who’s to say how much these authors could separate sound from sense? Futility Closet illustrates the problem with a humorous anecdote about Max Beerbohm, and brings us the list below of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 20 favorite words, offered in response to a reader’s question in 1958. Though Russell himself had a fascinating theory about how we make words mean things, he supposedly made this list without regard for these words’ meanings.

  1. wind
  2. heath
  3. golden
  4. begrime
  5. pilgrim
  6. quagmire
  7. diapason
  8. alabaster
  9. chrysoprase
  10. astrolabe
  11. apocalyptic
  12. ineluctable
  13. terraqueous
  14. inspissated
  15. incarnadine
  16. sublunary
  17. chorasmean
  18. alembic
  19. fulminate
  20. ecstasy

So, what about you, reader? What are some of your favorite words in English—or whatever your native language happens to be? And do you, can you, choose them for their sound alone? Please let us know in the comments below.

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5 Wonderfully Long Literary Sentences by Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Other Masters of the Run-On

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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