The Cork-Lined Bedroom & Writing Room of Marcel Proust, the Original Master of Social Distancing

Many of us now find ourselves stuck at home, doing our part to put a stop to the global coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are taking the opportunity to write the ambitious works of literature we've long intended to. Such an effort of creativity in confinement has no more suitable precedent than the life of Marcel Proust, who wrote much of his seven-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) in bed. The Paris Review's Sadie Stein quotes Proust's biographer Diana Fuss describing him as having written "from a semi-recumbent position, suspended midway between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk."

He did it in a bedroom lined with cork, an addition meant, Stein writes, "not just to soundproof but to prevent pollen and dust from aggravating Proust’s allergies and asthma." Though the Spanish flu did make its way into France during Proust's last years, the writer had been worried about his own frail health since his first asthma attack at the age of nine.




He got the idea of lining his bedroom with cork from his friend Anna de Noailles, "a princess and socialite, a patron of the arts and a novelist in her own right," who also happened to be "plagued with debilitating fears and neuroses." You can visit faithful reconstructions of both of their bedrooms at Paris Musée Carnavalet, an essential stop on any Proust pilgrimage. So is the Hôtel Ritz Paris, which maintains a "Marcel Proust suite."

William Friedkin — yes, that William Friedkin — stayed in the Marcel Proust suite, "formerly a private dining room on the hotel’s second floor, where Proust often hosted small dinner parties," on the Proust pilgrimage he recalls in The New York Times. "I was told by the hotel manager that the room was reserved for Proust to entertain whenever he could venture out from his cork-lined bedroom at 102 Boulevard Haussmann." No doubt Proust "absorbed inspiration from conversations here, ones that made their way into his writing." In the last three years of his life, the writing almost entirely displaced the conversation: Proust spent almost all his time in his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and putting everything he had into his work at night. A contemporary photograph of Proust's cork-lined bedroom appears at the top of the post, as recently included in a tweet by writer Ted Gioia calling Proust the "master of social distancing."

Just above, you can watch a talk on the writer's room and hypersensitivities (of both the aesthetic and physical varieties) that put him into it by Proust scholar William C. Carter, author of Marcel Proust: A Life and Proust in Love. What might Proust's father, the epidemiologist Adrien Proust, have thought about a new epidemic making the people of the 21st century look to his son?  Even if we don't take him as a model for writing life, this is nevertheless an appropriate moment to read his work (now available free online at the Internet Archive's National Emergency Library). "What Proust inspires in us is to see and to appreciate every seemingly insignificant place or object or person in our lives," writes Friedkin, "to realize that life itself is a gift and all the people we’ve come to know have qualities worth considering and celebrating — in time."

via Ted Gioia

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An Introduction to the Literary Philosophy of Marcel Proust, Presented in a Monty Python-Style Animation

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16-Year-Old Marcel Proust Tells His Grandfather About His Misguided Adventures at the Local Brothel

The First Known Footage of Marcel Proust Discovered: Watch It Online

The National Emergency Library Makes 1.5 Million Books Free to Read Right Now

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Kurt Vonnegut has been gone a dozen years now, but in that time his stock in the world of American literature has only risen. Just a few months ago we featured the newly opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library here on Open Culture, and we've also posted about everything from his writing tips to his letters to his drawings. And we've featured his conception of "the shape of all stories" as originally laid out in his master's thesis at the University of Chicago, where between 1945 and 1947 he performed anthropological research into the Native American-inspired Ghost Dance religious movement of the late 19th century. "The fundamental idea," wrote Vonnegut, "is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads."

None of this flew with the anthropology department. In an essay in his book Palm Sunday Vonnegut explains the unanimous rejection of his thesis, "The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks," due to the fact that "it was so simple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too playful." Opting not to have a second go before the committee, the still-young Vonnegut — with his harrowing experience in the Second World War only a couple of years behind him — decided to take a job as a publicist at General Electric instead. In 1950, while still employed at GE, he would first publish a piece of fiction: "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" in Collier's magazine. "Years later," says the University of Chicago Chronicle's obituary for Vonnegut, "the university accepted Cat’s Cradle as Vonnegut’s thesis, awarding him an A.M. in 1971."

"This was not an honorary degree but an earned one," said Vonnegut in a 1973 interview, "given on the basis of what the faculty committee called the anthropological value of my novels. I snapped it up most cheerfully and I continue to have nothing but friendly feelings for the University." Indeed, Vonnegut called his time as a Phoenix "the most stimulating years of my life." Generations of readers have found in Vonnegut's work — not just Cat’s Cradle, the one that finally got him his academic credentials, but other novels like Mother NightBreakfast of Champions, and of course Slaughterhouse-Five as well — some of the most stimulating writing to come out of postwar America. And yet Vonnegut, as he writes in Palm Sunday, continued to regard his first master's thesis as "my prettiest contribution to my culture." The more successful the creator, it can often seem, the more dear he holds his failures.

Related Content:

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Teaches You to Read Fiction Like a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Disgust with Civilization

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

 

Neil Gaiman Talks Dreamily About Fountain Pens, Notebooks & His Writing Process in His Long Interview with Tim Ferriss

Last February, Neil Gaiman sat down for a 90-minute interview with author, entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferriss. At the 13:30 mark, the conversation turns to Gaiman's writing process, and there begins a long and lovely detour into the world of fountain pens (the Pilot 823, Viscontis, and the New York Fountain Pen Hospital in NYC), notebooks (why he prefers Leuchtturm German notebooks to Moleskines), and how he writes his novels out by hand. It's all carefully thought out:

Tim Ferriss: Are there any other rules or practices that you also hold sacred or important for your writing process?

Neil Gaiman: Some of them are just things for me. For example, most of the time, not always, I will do my first draft in fountain pen, because I actually enjoy the process of writing with a fountain pen. I like the feeling of fountain pen. I like uncapping it. I like the weight of it in my hand. I like that thing, so I’ll have a notebook, I’ll have a fountain pen, and I’ll write. If I’m doing anything long, if I’m working on a novel, for example, I will always have two fountain pens on the go, at least, with two different colored inks, at least, because that way I can see at a glance, how much work I did that day. I can just look down and go, “Look at that! Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day.”

You can just get a sense of are you working, are you making forward progress? What’s actually happening. I also love that because it emphasizes for me that nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Tim Ferriss: Do you edit, then, as you’re looking or translating from the first draft on the page to the computer, or do you get it all down as is in the computer and then edit —

Neil Gaiman: No, that’s my editing process. I figure that’s my second draft is typing into the computer. Also, I love — backing up a bit here. When I was, what was I? 27, 28? In the days when we were still in typewriters and we were just a handful of people with word processors, which were clunky things with disks which didn’t hold very much and stuff, I edited an anthology and enjoyed editing my anthology.

Most of the stories that came in were about 3,000 words long. Move forward in time, not much, five, six, seven years. Mid ‘90s, everybody is now on computer, and I edited another short story anthology. The stories that were coming in tended to be somewhere between six- and 9,000 words long. They didn’t really have much more story than the 3,000 word ones, and I realized that what was happening is it’s a computer-y thing, is if you’re typing, putting stuff down is work. If you’ve got a computer, adding stuff is not work. Choosing is work. It expands a bit, like a gas. If you have two things you could say, you say both of them. If you have the stuff you want to add, you add it, and I thought, “Okay, I have to not do that, because otherwise my stuff is going to balloon and it will become gaseous and thin.”

What I love, if I’ve written something on a computer, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writing in a notebook and I’m typing it up, I can look at something and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treating myself.

I’m just trying to always have in my head the idea that maybe I’m somehow, on some cosmic level, paying somebody by the word in order to be allowed to write, but if they’re there, they should matter, they should mean something. It’s always important to me.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned distraction earlier and your dangerously adorable son, which I certainly agree with. I had read somewhere, actually, before I get to that, this might seem like a very, very mundane question, but what type of notebooks do you prefer? Are they large legal pads or are they leather bound? What type of notebooks?

Neil Gaiman: When they came out, I really liked — I’ve used a whole bunch of different ones. I bought big drawing ones, which actually turned out to be a bit too big, though I liked how much I could see on the page. Those are the ones I wrote Stardust and American Gods in, big size, but they weren’t terribly portable. I went over to the Moleskines, and I loved them when they first came out, and then they dropped their paper quality. Dropping paper quality doesn’t matter, unless you’re writing in fountain pen, because all of a sudden it’s bleeding through, and all of a sudden you’re writing on one page, leaving a page blank because it’s bled through and then writing on the next page.

Joe Hill, about six or seven years ago, Joe Hill, the wonderful horror fantasy writer, suggested the Leuchtturm to me. My usual notebook right now is a Leuchtturm, because I really like the way you can paginate stuff in them and the thickness of the paper, and they’re just like Moleskines, but the Porsche of Moleskines. They’re just better.

I also have been writing, I wrote The Graveyard Book and I’m writing the current novel in these beautiful books that I bought in a stationery shop in Venice, built into a bridge. Somewhere in Venice there’s a little stationery shop on a bridge, and they have these beautiful leather-bound blank books that just look like hardback books, but they’re blank pages. I wrote The Graveyard Book in one of those. I bought four of them, and now I’m using the next one on the next novel, and it may well go into another one. I’m not sure.

Then, at home, I say at home, my house in Wisconsin, which is where my stuff is, I’ve got my — we live in Woodstock, but I have an entire life’s worth of stuff still sitting in my house in Wisconsin, and it’s become archives. It’s actually kind of fabulous having a house that is an archive, but waiting for me in that house is a book that I bought for myself about 25 years ago, and before I die, I plan to write a novel in it. It’s an accounts book from the mid-19th century. It’s 500 pages long. Every page is numbered. It’s lined with accounts lines, but really faint so it would be nice to write a book in it, and it is engineered so that every single page lies flat.

It’s huge and it’s heavy and it just looks like a book that Dickens or somebody would’ve written a novel in and I’ve just been waiting until I have an idea that is huge and weird and Dickensian enough, and whether or not I actually get to write it in dip pen, I’m not sure, but I definitely want to write it in an old Victorian, something slightly copper plating. One of those old flex nib pens that they stopped making when carbon paper came in, just so I can get that spidery Victorian handwriting.

Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining you putting pen to the first page. When you finish the first page and what that will feel like. That’s going to be a good day.

Neil Gaiman: It will be either a good day or an incredibly bad day. When you get to the end of the first page, it’s “Oh no! I had this pristine — ” it is the thing that I tell young writers, and by young writers, a young writer can be any age. You just have to be starting out, which is anything you do can be fixed. What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word, and it might be that I’m a little slow moving because I’m from Long Island, but Leuchtturm? What is that word?

Neil Gaiman: L-E-I-C-H, I think it’s T-U-R-M, and then 1917, I think is — their Twitter handle is definitely Leuchtturm1917.

Tim Ferriss: Leuchtturm, and I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find it. Since you gave me — I’m not intending to turn this episode into a shopping list, but I’ve never used fountain pens.

Neil Gaiman: Really?

Tim Ferriss: I have not. My assistant, my dear assistant does. She loves using fountain pens. She enjoys the act. I’ve had a few sloppy false starts and then been rather impatient, but if I wanted to give it a shot, are there any particular fountain pens or criteria that you would use in picking a good pen?

Neil Gaiman: The biggest criteria I would use in picking, if you have the choice, is go somewhere like New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital.

Tim Ferriss: Is that a real place?

Neil Gaiman: It’s a real place. It’s called The Fountain Pen Hospital. They sell lots of new pens, they recondition old pens, they look after pens for you. And try them out, because the lovely thing about fountain pens is they are personal. You go, “No, no, no.” And then you find the one. I tend to suggest to people who are just nervously — “I’ve never used a fountain pen, what should I do?” I will point them at Lamy, L-A-M-Y, who have some fabulous starter pens, and they’re not very expensive, and they’re good. They do a pen called The Safari, but they have a bunch of good starter pens, and they’re just nice to get into the idea of, “Do I like doing this?”

Let’s see, what am I using right now? What have I got in here? This one here is a Pilot. It’s a Namiki, and it’s a flexing nib ever so slightly when you put down weight on it, the nib will spread. It’s a beautiful, beautiful pen. That one’s a Pilot. I think this one here is the Namiki. It’s really weird because Namiki is Pilot, so I don’t quite understand that.

Tim Ferriss: Maybe it’s a Toyota/Lexus thing?

Neil Gaiman: I think it is. It’s that kinda thing. This one here is called a Falcon, and again, you put a little bit of weight on it, and the line will just spread and thicken, which is part of the fun of fountain pens. I’ll go and play. There’s a lovely Italian one. I’ve got my agent, I did a thing some years ago when I realized that I was losing a lot of actual writing time to signing foreign contracts.

Tim Ferriss: This is for books?

Neil Gaiman: This is for books, or occasionally for stories or things being reprinted around the world. The contracts would come in and there would be big sheaves of them because they get printed all around the world, and foreign contracts, a lot of them you have to sign a lot. You have to do a lot of initialing and I would sit there going, “I have just spent 90 minutes signing a pile of contracts, and I love that I got to sign it, but —” I contacted my agent. I said, “Can I give you power of attorney? Would you mind? Would you just sign these things for me?”

She was like, “Absolutely!” Great. I got her — she’d never used a fountain pen and I got her a fountain pen. I actually went to The New York Fountain Pen Hospital with her, and did the thing of showing her pens, “What do you like?” I got her a Visconti, which are just these lovely Italian pens. Mostly I love, there’s a slightly fetishistic bit of having bottles of beautifully colored ink. When you start talking to fountain pen people, they really — they pretend to be interested in what pen you like, but they don’t care, because they’ve found their own pens that they love.

They say, “What do you use?”

I use Pilot 823s for signing. Actually now, I’ve got a Pilot 823, ’cause it’s just a fantastic signing pen. It’s a workhorse, it keeps going, and I got one in 2012 and it was my signing pen. I signed through Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before the book had come out, I had already pre-signed, written my signature 20,000 times with this pen.

Tim Ferriss: I have some footage of you icing your hand after said signings.

Neil Gaiman: That was a signing tour that I really got into icing my hand and wrist and arm. I did the numbers, and as far as I can tell, I’ve signed about one and a half million signatures with that pen, which remained, and I had to send it off to Pilot at one point, not because the nib was in trouble, because the plunger mechanism was starting to stick, and they fixed it for me and sent it back. Then my three-year-old son found a place behind a cast iron fireplace in our house in Woodstock where if you just insert your father’s Pilot 823 pen, which you have found on the table, just to see if it would go in there, you can actually guarantee that without disassembling the house, we actually have to take the entire house apart to uninstall a cast iron fireplace from 1913 to get at the pen. That pen now has been given as a sacrifice to the house gods, so I need to get a new one.

Tim Ferriss: Its strikes me, at least it seems as we’re talking that many of the decisions you’ve made, the tools you’ve found and enlisted, act to make not writing unappealing, or at least boring after five minutes, and to enhance the act of writing to make it something that is enjoyable. I don’t know if that’s true.

Neil Gaiman: That is true, but they also exist for another reason, which is kind of weird, which is to try and trivialize what I’m doing and not make it important and freighted down with weight, because that paralyzes me. When I started writing I had a typewriter. It was a manual typewriter. When I sold my first book, I had the money to buy an electric typewriter.

Tim Ferriss: What was that first book?

Neil Gaiman: Gosh. I actually don’t remember whether I bought the electric typewriter with the money from a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, a book of science fiction and fantasy quotations I did with Kim Newman, or whether it was for the Duran Duran biography that I did. Either way, I was just 23. What I would do back then is I would do my rough draft on scrap paper, single spaced so that it couldn’t be used, and also so that I could get as many words on. Paper was expensive. I could always do that. I remember the joy of getting my first computer, and just the idea that I wasn’t making paper dirty. Nothing mattered until I pressed print, and that was absolutely and utterly liberating.

And then, a decade on, picking up a notebook, it was for Stardust, which I’d decided that I wanted the rhythms of Stardust to be very antiquated rhythms, and I thought there’s probably a difference to the way that one writes with a fountain pen. 17 century writing, 17th, 18th century writing, you notice tends to go in very, very long sentences and long paragraphs. My theory about this is that one reason why you get this is because you’’re using dip pens, and if you pause, they dry up. You just have to keep going. It forces you to do a kind of writing where you’re going for a very long sentence and you’re going to go for a long paragraph and you’re going to keep moving in this thing, and you’re thinking ahead.

If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.

You write that, and then you pause and then you write the next one. At least that was the way that I hypothesized that I might be writing, and I wanted Stardust to feel like it had been written in the late 1920s. I thought to do that I should probably get myself a fountain pen and a book, so that was how I started writing that. Again, what I loved was suddenly feeling liberated. Saying, “Ah, I’m not actually making words that are not going down in phosphor on a computer screen.”

Watch the full interview above. Stream it as a podcast. Or read the complete transcript here.

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David Sedaris Teaches Storytelling & Humor His New Masterclass

For more than 25 years, the holiday season has brought to the radio not just Christmas carols but a diaristic monologue by a writer with, in every sense, a distinctive voice. When it first aired on Morning Edition, "Santaland Diaries" made David Sedaris' name, not that he holds the piece in esteem as high as some of his fans do. "People will say, 'Oh, I loved that Santaland thing,'" Sedaris said in a recent interview, but "that thing is so clunkily written. I mean, it’s just horribly written, and people can’t even see it." Most are "listening to the story, but they’re not paying attention to how it’s constructed, or they’re not paying attention to the words that you used. They’re not hearing the craft of it." Sedaris fans who do hear the craft of it may well be in the target audience for a new Masterclass taught by the man himself.

Here on Open Culture we've previously featured Masterclasses by writers as intellectually and stylistically various as Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. But we've never conducted investigations into any of their writing processes in the same way we have into Sedaris' writing process, his own view of which constitutes the core of his Masterclass' content. "If you write about people, you have to be interested in people," he says in the trailer above. For him that means asking unexpected questions, like "Do your children shower?" or "Who's the drunkest customer you've had today?" It also means keeping a diary in which to record the answers, and with which, even more importantly, to maintain a daily writing habit.




Even now, with a full schedule of readings to give around the world, Sedaris writes every day without fail. But he also did it for fifteen years before "The Santaland Diaries" brought him the attention that got his first book published. "I meet a lot of young writers and I say, 'Do you write every day?'" he mentions in one lesson. "They say, 'No, but just — you know, I write when it strikes me.' I don't know. I suppose that might work for some people." But it certainly wouldn't work for him, nor would doing fewer than his customary twelve to eighteen rewrites of each piece. In other lessons he covers such aspects of the craft as "observing the world," "connecting with the reader," "ending with weight," and "writing about loved ones."

For that last lesson Sedaris brings in a special guest: his sister Lisa, there to talk about what it feels like to be written about by her famously observant brother. That will come as a special treat for anyone who recognizes her from all her appearances in Sedaris' family stories, but each lesson seems to play to Sedaris' strengths as a writer as well as a performer: he gives readings of diary entries and published pieces, but also gives his students advice on how to handle readings of their own in the future. As with every Masterclass, you can take this one for a one-time fee of $90 USD or with an all-access pass to every course on the site for $180. Sedaris makes no promises that the course will bestow upon all who take it a worldview as distinctive as his, to say nothing of a fan base as lucrative as his, but it will surely make them better at "hearing the craft of it," a skill as worthy of cultivation as it is rare.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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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 Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

As we pointed out back in 2017, Cormac McCarthy, author of such gritty, blood-drenched novels as Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Road, and No Country for Old Men, prefers the company of scientists to fellow writers. Since the mid-nineties, he has maintained a desk at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific think tank, and has served as a volunteer copy-editor for several scientists, including Lisa Randall, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, and physicist Geoffrey West, author of the popular science book Scale.

One of McCarthy's first such academic collaborations came after a friend, economist W. Brian Arthur, mailed him an article in 1996. McCarthy helped Arthur completely revise it, which sent the editor of the Harvard Business Review into a “slight panic,” the economist remembers. I can’t imagine why, but then I’d rather read any of McCarthy’s novels than most academic papers. Not that I don’t love to be exposed to new ideas, but it’s all about the quality of the writing.




Scholarly writing has, after all, a reputation for obscurity, and obfuscation for a reason, and not only in postmodern philosophy. Scientific papers also rely heavily on jargon, overly long, incomprehensible sentences, and disciplinary formalities that can feel cold and alienating to the non-specialist. McCarthy identified these problems in the work of associates like biologist and ecologist Van Savage, who has “received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy,” notes Nature, “on several science papers published over the past 20 years.”

During “lively weekly lunches” with the author during the winter of 2018, Savage discussed the finer points of McCarthy’s editing advice. Then Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh presented the condensed version at Nature for a wider audience. Below, we’ve excerpted some of the most striking of “McCarthy’s words of wisdom.” Find the complete compilation of McCarthy’s advice over at Nature.

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity…. Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message.
  • Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct.
  • Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly—it’s boring.
  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant…. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section.
  • Choose concrete language and examples.
  • When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work.
  • Finally, try to write the best version of your paper—the one that you like. You can’t please an anonymous reader, but you should be able to please yourself.
  • When you make your writing more lively and easier to understand, people will want to invest their time in reading your work.

As Kottke points out, “most of this is good advice for writing in general.” This is hardly a surprise given the source, though, as McCarthy’s primary body of work demonstrates, literary writers are free to tread all over these guidelines as long as they can get away with it. Still, his straightforward advice is an invitation for writers of all kinds—academic, popular, aspiring, and professional—to remind themselves of the fundamental principles of clear, compelling communicative prose.

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

Charles Bukowski Explains What Good Writing and the Good Life Have in Common

I have no politics, I observe. I have no sides except the side of the human spirit, which after all does sound rather shallow, like a pitchman, but which means mostly my spirit, which means yours too, for if I am not truly alive, how can I see you?

—Charles Bukowski, Notes of. Dirty Old Man

In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, his weekly column for the underground L.A. newspaper Open City, Charles Bukowski became the common man’s philosopher, issuing profundities amidst wild vulgarities and proving that he did, in fact, have a politics, as much as he had theories and contrarian half-thoughts and opinions aplenty. He took sides when it came to literature, at least—the side of Celine, Dostoevsky, and Camus, for example, against Faulkner, Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw (“the most overblown fantasy of the Ages”).

Bukowski had no room for cool appreciation or mild preference. With him, as with Catullus, life was love and hate. Get him talking on any subject and those loves and hates would emerge, as would his ideas about matters of most consequence: life, death, drinking, sex, and, of course, writing. In the interview clip above, for example, Bukowski is asked if he fears death. He answers, “No, in fact, I almost feel good at the approach of death.” This becomes a meditation on repetition and dullness, and on the “juice” that a good life—and good writing—requires.

…. You see, as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You understand? You keep seeing the same thing over and over again… so you get a little bit tired of life. So as death comes, you almost say, okay, baby, it’s time, it’s good.

The answer puts the interviewer in mind of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which sends Bukowski on one of his signature cranky critiques, also an introduction to his theory of prose, which can be summed up in just three syllables, “BIM BIM BIM!”—the sound he makes to show the “quickness” of a well-written line. Good writing needs “pace,” “life,” and “sunlight.” “Each line,” he says, “must be full of a delicious little juice, they must be full of power, they must make you like to turn a page, bim bim bim!” Writing like Lowry’s, he says, is “too leisurely.” There’s too much setup, too little payoff.

He may seem unfair to Lowry, but most writers bore Bukowski. After pages of tedious buildup, “when they get to the grand emotion, there isn’t any,” he says. Bukowski has never been one for subtlety, but no one can say his writing lacks  “juice” or grand emotion. On the contrary, he endears himself to so many aspiring writers (or aspiring male writers, in any case) because his poetry and prose are so electrifyingly alive. He had a limited range of subjects, mostly confined to his own thoughts, feelings, and drunken misadventures. Yet the voice that carries us through his violently funny tales and reveries, wicked and maudlin and tender by turns, seems capable of limitless invention.

“Writing must never be boring,” says Bukowski. He set a high bar, and he met it. As writers, we need not live his life to do the same. But we must each be “truly alive" in our own way to make our lines go bim bim bim. "Each line," he says, "must be an entity unto itself."

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

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