Seven Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Stories and Poems

in Literature, Writing | January 12th, 2015


There may be no more a macabrely misogynistic sentence in English literature than Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “the death… of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” (His perhaps ironic observation prompted Sylvia Plath to write, over a hundred years later, “The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”) The sentence comes from Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” and if this work were only known for its literary fetishization of what Elisabeth Bronfen calls “an aesthetically pleasing corpse”—marking deep anxieties about both “female sexuality and decay”—then it would indeed still be of interest to feminists and academics, though not perhaps to the average reader.

But Poe has much more to say that does not involve a romance with dead women. The essay delivers on its title’s promise. It is here that we find Poe’s famous theory of what good literature is and does, achieving what he calls “unity of effect.” This literary “totality” results from a collection of essential elements that the author deems indispensable in “constructing a story,” whether in poetry or prose, that produces a “vivid effect.”

To illustrate what he means, Poe walks us through an analysis of his own work, “The Raven.” We are to take for granted as readers that “The Raven” achieves its desired effect. Poe has no misgivings about that. But how does it do so? Against commonplace ideas that writers “compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition,” Poe has not “the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions”—steps he considers almost “mathematical.” Nor does he consider it a “breach of decorum” to pull aside the curtain and reveal his tricks. Below, in condensed form, we have listed the major points of Poe’s essay, covering the elements he considers most necessary to “effective” literary composition.

  1. Know the ending in advance, before you begin writing.

“Nothing is more clear,” writes Poe, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Once writing commences, the author must keep the ending “constantly in view” in order to “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence” and inevitability.

  1. Keep it short—the “single sitting” rule.

Poe contends that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” Force the reader to take a break, and “the affairs of the world interfere” and break the spell. This “limit of a single sitting” admits of exceptions, of course. It must—or the novel would be disqualified as literature. Poe cites Robinson Crusoe as one example of a work of art “demanding of no unity.” But the single sitting rule applies to all poems, and for this reason, he writes, Milton’s Paradise Lost fails to achieve a sustained effect.

  1. Decide on the desired effect.

The author must decide in advance “the choice of impression” he or she wishes to leave on the reader. Poe assumes here a tremendous amount about the ability of authors to manipulate readers’ emotions. He even has the audacity to claim that the design of the “The Raven” rendered the work “universally appreciable.” It may be so, but perhaps it does not universally inspire an appreciation of Beauty that “excites the sensitive soul to tears”—Poe’s desired effect for the poem.

  1. Choose the tone of the work.

Poe claims the highest ground for his work, though it is debatable whether he was entirely serious. As “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” in general, and “The Raven” in particular, “Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.” Whatever tone one chooses, however, the technique Poe employs, and recommends, likely applies. It is that of the “refrain”—a repeated “key-note” in word, phrase, or image that sustains the mood. In “The Raven,” the word “Nevermore” performs this function, a word Poe chose for its phonetic as much as for its conceptual qualities.

Poe claims that his choice of the Raven to deliver this refrain arose from a desire to reconcile the unthinking “monotony of the exercise” with the reasoning capabilities of a human character. He at first considered putting the word in the beak of a parrot, then settled on a Raven—“the bird of ill omen”—in keeping with the melancholy tone.

  1. Determine the theme and characterization of the work.

Here Poe makes his claim about “the death of a beautiful woman,” and adds, “the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” He chooses these particulars to represent his theme—“the most melancholy,” Death. Contrary to the methods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the concrete, choosing characters as mouthpieces of ideas.

  1. Establish the climax.

In “The Raven,” Poe says, he “had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word ‘Nevermore.’” In bringing them together, he composed the third-to-last stanza first, allowing it to determine the “rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement” of the remainder of the poem. As in the planning stage, Poe recommends that the writing “have its beginning—at the end.”

  1. Determine the setting.

Though this aspect of any work seems the obvious place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decided why he wants to place certain characters in place, saying certain things. Only when he has clarified his purpose and broadly sketched in advance how he intends to acheive it does he decide “to place the lover in his chamber… richly furnished.” Arriving at these details last does not mean, however, that they are afterthoughts, but that they are suggested—or inevitably follow from—the work that comes before. In the case of “The Raven,” Poe tells us that in order to carry out his literary scheme, “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.”

Throughout his analysis, Poe continues to stress—with the high degree of repetition he favors in all of his writing—that he keeps “originality always in view.” But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition.” Instead, he writes, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.” In other words, Poe recommends that the writer make full use of familiar conventions and forms, but varying, combining, and adapting them to suit the purpose of the work and make them his or her own.

Though some of Poe’s discussion of technique relates specifically to poetry, as his own prose fiction testifies, these steps can equally apply to the art of the short story. And though he insists that depictions of Beauty and Death—or the melancholy beauty of death—mark the highest of literary aims, one could certainly adapt his formula to less obsessively morbid themes as well.

Related Contents:

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Read by Christopher Walken, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee

H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

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

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How Famous Writers Deal With Writer’s Block: Their Tips & Tricks

in Creativity, Writing | January 6th, 2015

Nearly everyone—from the most minimally educated to the most academically accomplished—has experienced at least once that panicked loss for words colloquially known as “writer’s block.” Faced with the glacial expanse of a blank page, or screen, the fingers fumble, heart races, and the brain seizes up. And, for those who write for a living, for whom writing is a defining characteristic of their very existence, it can seem like one’s very soul becomes imperiled, abandoned by the muses or whatever fickle personification of creative inspiration.

The malady is seemingly universal, even, writes The Independent, among “some of history’s most famous, and prodigiously fluent, authors,” like Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Conrad. One particularly perfectionistic strain of writer’s block—the search for le mot juste—is forever associated with Madame Bovary author Gustave Flaubert, who described the sickness to a friend as “stay[ing] a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.” Clearly, such illustrious names as the above found some sort of cure for the block, or we may not know their names at all.

Some writers deny the very existence of writer’s block. Novelist Kathy Lette belittles the notion as sounding like a “prison wing for authors who make too many puns—a punitentiary,” and she claims that “women writers don’t have time for writer’s block.” Jeffrey Archer says he has never had writer’s block, even though he named his Majorca home “Writer’s Block.” I diagnose these authors with a severe form of psychological repression, perhaps brought on by extreme and traumatic bouts of writer’s block.

From even a cursory survey of those who openly admit to the pain of running out of things to say from time to time, it seems there are as many ways to get going again as there are writers. The Independent quotes novelists like Philip Hensher, who takes “the Tube to the end of the line,” then walks back into central London—a very geographically exclusive fix, to be sure. A Flavorwire list brings us remedies from Maya Angelou, who would “write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat’” until the muse returned to save her from insanity. Neil Gaiman takes an entirely different approach—he gets up and walks away to “do other things.” Though it may seem in moments of severe writer’s block that nothing else could possibly matter, his tactic—research suggests—may be just the thing to get the creative unconscious going again.

Speaking of the unconscious, Anne Lamott recommends to her students that they commit to writing three hundred words on how much they hate writing, then “on bad days and weeks, let things go at that… Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, ‘Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?’” Not helpful. In the videos above, see how popular best-selling novelist Dan Brown deals with a laggardly unconscious. Love, hate, or be indifferent to his work, but you must admit, his is a very novel method: Every hour, Brown gets up and does some pushups and sit-ups to “get the blood moving,” since it’s very hard to write the kind of “fast-paced plots” he does “if your blood pressure’s dropped too far.” Brown also gives his brain a daily supply of fresh blood by hanging upside down each day, either in gravity boots or, as The Telegraph video directly above details, an “inversion table.”

Strange, but no more so than many other writers’ rituals. Laurence Sterne, the eighteenth century author of Tristram Shandy, had what may be my favorite design for conquering writer’s block: he would shave his beard, change his shirt and coat, send for a “better wig,” put on a topaz ring, and dress “after his best fashion.” Mock if you must, but it seems to me that no method of combating writer’s block is too outlandish for those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon turning out the words. We may not always like what we write—some days we may positively hate it—but there may be no worse, more useless, feeling for a writer than being unable to write anything at all.

If you have your own suggestions for getting over writer’s block, please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to try them out.

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

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Kurt Vonnegut Gives Advice to Aspiring Writers in a 1991 TV Interview

in Education, Literature, Television, Writing | December 22nd, 2014

Remember when television was the big gorilla poised to put an end to all reading?

Then along came the miracle of the Internet. Blogs begat blogs, and thusly did the people start to read again!

Of course, many a great newspaper and magazine fell before its mighty engine. So it goes.

So did television in the old fashioned sense. So it goes.

Funny to think that these fast-moving developments weren’t even part of the landscape in 1991, when author Kurt Vonnegut swung by his hometown of Indianapolis to appear on the local program, Across Indiana.

Host Michael Atwood pointed out the irony of a television interviewer asking a writer if television was to blame for the decline in reading and writing. After which he listened politely while his guest answered at length, comparing reading to an acquired skill on par with “ice skating or playing the French horn.”

Gee… irony elicits a more frenetic approach in the age of BuzzFeed, Twitter, and YouTube. (Nailed it!)

Irony and humanity run neck and neck in Vonnegut’s work, but his appreciation for his Hoosier upbringing was never less than sincere:

When I was born in 1922, barely a hundred years after Indiana became the 19th state in the Union, the Middle West already boasted a constellation of cities with symphony orchestras and museums and libraries, and institutions of higher learning, and schools of music and art, reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. One could almost say that Chicago was our Vienna, Indianapolis our Prague, Cincinnati our Budapest and Cleveland our Bucharest.

To grow up in such a city, as I did, was to find cultural institutions as ordinary as police stations or fire houses. So it was reasonable for a young person to daydream of becoming some sort of artist or intellectual, if not a policeman or fireman. So I did. So did many like me.

Such provincial capitals, which is what they would have been called in Europe, were charmingly self-sufficient with respect to the fine arts. We sometimes had the director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to supper, or writers and painters, and architects like my father, of local renown.

I studied clarinet under the first chair clarinetist of our orchestra. I remember the orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, in which the cannons’ roars were supplied by a policeman firing blank cartridges into an empty garbage can. I knew the policeman. He sometimes guarded street crossings used by students on their way to or from School 43, my school, the James Whitcomb Riley School.  

Vonnegut’s views were shaped at Shortridge High School, where he numbered among the many not-yet-renowned writers honing their craft on The Daily Echo. Thought he didn’t bring it up in the video above, the Echo also yielded his nickname: Snarf.

Vonnegut agreed with interviewer Atwood that the daily practice of keeping a journal is an excellent discipline for beginning writers. He also considered journalistic assignments a great training ground. He made a point of mentioning that Mark Twain and Ring Lardner got their starts as newspaper reporters. It may be harder for aspiring writers to find paying work these days, but the Internet is replete with opportunities for those who crave a daily assignment.

It’s also overflowing with bullet pointed lists on how to become a writer, but if you’re like me, you’ll prefer to receive this advice from Vonnegut, himself, on a set festooned with farming implements, quilts, and dipped candles.

The interview continues in the remaining parts:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Like Vonnegut, she’s a native of Indianapolis, and her mother was the editor of the Short Ridge Daily Echo. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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H.P. Lovecraft Highlights the 20 “Types of Mistakes” Young Writers Make

in Literature, Sci Fi, Writing | December 5th, 2014


H.P. Lovecraft is remembered as a brilliant fantasist, a creator of a completely unique universe of horror. He’s also remembered, unfortunately, as a bigot. But the author whose head—to the chagrin of some—provided the model for the World Fantasy Award is not often remembered as a particularly good writer. Or rather, I should say, a particularly good stylist. His writing can sound stiflingly archaic, overstuffed with Victorianisms. “His prose, “writes Scott Malthouse, “can be turgid and adjectives suffocating,” and “his characters tend to be as thin as the paper they’re printed on.”

Writers love him, Malthouse argues, because he was such an original “world builder,” not because he was a fine artist. Elizabeth Bear at Tor echoes the sentiment, writing that Lovecraft’s work is “criticized for its style, for its purpleness and density and failures of structure,” yet still evokes such a potent response that “the Lovecraftian universe must be considered a collaborative effort at this point,” since so many writers have furthered his “appealingly bleak” vision. You can download a good part of his collected works in ebook and audiobook formats here.

So perhaps he isn’t such a bad writer after all? In any case, he’s certainly a very distinctive one whose style, like Joseph Conrad’s, say, or even William Faulkner’s, endears readers precisely for its feverish excesses. Lovecraft himself was very self-conscious about his craft and took writing very seriously—enough to have published a lengthy, highly detailed essay called “Literary Composition” which tackles in several paragraphs a host of issues the writer must contend with: grammar, “reading,” vocabulary, “elemental phrases,” description, narration, “fictional narration,” “unity, mass, coherence,” and “forms of composition.” We won’t recite the whole of his advice here—you can read the whole thing for yourself. But to give you some of the flavor of Lovecraft’s pedagogy, we bring you his list of twenty “types of mistakes” young writers make.

See his complete list below.

  1. Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
  2. Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  3. Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved
  4. Ambiguous use of pronouns.
  5. Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
  6. Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
  7. Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
  8. Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest,”
  9. Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise”, or “He said the earth was
  10. The split infinitive, as “to calmly ”
  11. The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met
  12. False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
  13. Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  14. Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
  15. The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
  16. Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me”, “Leave me take this”, “He was obsessed with the idea”, or “He is a meticulous
  17. Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena”, or “two stratas of clouds”.
  18. Use of false or unauthorised words, as burglarise or supremest.
  19. Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
  20. Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Most of this is solid, common sense writing advice. Some of it isn’t. As with all things Lovecraft, you would be wise to use your discretion. A full read of Lovecraft’s treatise on composition will give you some sense of how to begin writing your own Lovecraft pastiche. For even more of his advice on the writing of fiction—particularly, as he called it, “weird fiction,” see his list of five tips for horror writing, which we featured in October.

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

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Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus & Homework Assignments from Her UW-Madison Class, “The Unthinkable Mind”

in Art, Comics/Cartoons, Creativity, Life, Writing | November 28th, 2014

Lynda Barry Syllabus

Our reverence for cartoonist Lynda Barry, aka Professor Chewbacca, aka The Near Sighted Monkey is no secret. We hope someday to experience the pleasure of her live teachings. ’Til then, we creep on her Tumblr page, following with homework assignments, writing exercises and lesson plans intended for students who take her class, “The Unthinkable Mind,” at the University of Wisconsin.

And now, those course materials have been collected as Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, an old fashioned, tangible book. It’s like a paper MOOC!

(Yes, we know, MOOCs are free. This will be too, if you add it to your holiday wish list, or insist that your local library orders a copy.)

Barry 2

Barry’s marching orders are always to be executed on paper, even when they have been retrieved on smartphones, tablets, and a variety of other screens. They are the antithesis of dry. A less accidental professor might have dispensed with the doodle encrusted, lined yellow legal paper, after privately outlining her game plan. Barry’s choice to preserve and share the method behind her madness is a gift to students, and to herself.

barry homework

As Hillary L. Chute notes in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics:

 The decontextualization of cheap, common, or utilitarian paper (which also harkens back to the historical avant-garde) may be understood as a transvaluation of the idea of working on “waste” –a knowing, ironic acknowledgment on Barry’s part that her life narrative, itself perhaps considered insignificant, is visualized in an accessible popular medium, comics, that is still largely viewed as “garbage.”

Working on “garbage” must come as a relief for someone like Barry, who has talked about growing up under a hostile mother who saw her daughter’s creative impulses as a “waste” of paper:

I got screamed at a lot for using up paper. The only blank paper in the house was hers, and if she found out I touched it she’d go crazy. I sometimes stole paper from school and even that made her mad. I think it’s why I hoard paper to this day. I have so much blank paper everywhere, in every drawer, on every shelf, and still when I need a sheet I look in the garbage first. I agonize over using a “good” sheet of paper for anything. I have good drawing paper I’ve been dragging around for twenty years because I’m not good enough to use it yet. Yes, I know this is insane.

Sample assignments from “The Unthinkable Mind” are above and below, and you will find many more in Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Let us know if Professor Chewbacca’s neurological assumptions are correct. Does drawing and writing by hand release the monsters from the id and squelch the internal editor who is the enemy of art?

Barry 1

Barry 3

Barry 4

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

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Naropa Archive Presents 5,000 Hours of Audio Recordings of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs & Other Beat Writers

in Poetry, Writing | November 19th, 2014

Schools like Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne surely have qualities to recommend them, but to my mind, nothing would feel quite as cool as saying your degree comes from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. If you aspire to say it yourself, you’ll have to apply to Naropa University, which Tibetan Buddhist teacher (and, incidentally, Oxford scholar) Chögyam Trungpa established in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. This rare, accredited, “Buddhist-inspired” American school has many unusual qualities, as you’d expect, but, as many of us remember from our teenage years, your choice of university has as much to do with who has passed through its halls before as what you think you’ll find when you pass through them. Naropa, besides naming a school after the late Kerouac has hosted the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

But you don’t actually have to attend Naropa to partake of its Beat legacy. At the Naropa Poetics Audio Archives, freely browsable at the Internet Archive, you can hear over 5000 hours of readings, lectures, performances, seminars, panels, and workshops recorded at the school and featuring the aforementioned luminaries and many others. “The Beat writers had intervened on the culture,” says Waldman in an interview about her book Beats at Naropa. “It wasn’t just a matter of simply offering the usual kind of writing workshops, but reading and thinking lectures, panels, presentations as well. The Beat writers have been exceptional as political and cultural activists, investigative workers, translators, Buddhists, environmental activists, feminists, seers. There’s so much legendary history here.” Emphasis — I repeat, 5000 hours — on so much.

To help you dive into this legendary history, we’ve rounded up today some previously featured highlights from Naropa. Begin here, and if you keep going, you’ll discover varieties of Beat experience even we’ve never had — and maybe you’ll even consider putting in a Kerouac School application, and doing some cultural intervention of your own.

Enter the Naropa Audio Archive here.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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David Foster Wallace’s Syllabus for His 2008 Creative Nonfiction Course: Includes Reading List & Footnotes

in Literature, Writing | November 13th, 2014


Photo courtesy of Claudia Sherman.

The term “creative nonfiction” has picked up a great deal of traction over the past decade — perhaps too much, depending upon how valid or invalid you find it. Meaningful or not, the label has come into its current popularity in part thanks to the essays of novelist David Foster Wallace: whether writing nonfictionally about the Illinois State Fair, David Lynch, professional tennis, or a seven-night Caribbean cruise, he did it in a way unlike any other man or woman of letters. While nobody can learn to write quite like him — this we’ve seen when Wallace-imitators write pastiches of their own — he did spend time teaching the art of creative nonfiction as he saw it,

a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on. The term’s constituent words suggest a conceptual axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As nonfiction, the works are connected to actual states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reliable extent. If, for example, a certain event is alleged to have occurred, it must really have occurred; if a proposition is asserted, the reader expects some proof of (or argument for) its accuracy. At the same time, the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these.

This comes straight from the syllabus of English 183D, a workshop Wallace taught at Pomona College in the spring of 2008, which you can read in its entirety at Salon (reprinted from The David Foster Wallace Reader). As you may remember from the previous Wallace syllabus we featured, from a 1994 semester of English 102 – Literary Analysis I: Prose Fiction at Illinois State University, the man could really assemble a reading list. For his creative nonfiction course, he had students read Jo Ann Beard’s “Werner,” Stephen Elliott’s “Where I Slept,” George Orwell’s classic “Politics and the English Language,” Donna Steiner’s “Cold,” David Gessner’s “Learning to Surf,” Kathryn Harrison’s “The Forest of Memory,” Hester Kaplan’s “The Private Life of Skin,” and George Saunders’s “The Braindead Megaphone.”

In some ways, Wallace syllabi themselves count as pieces of creative nonfiction. What other professor ever had the prose chops to make you actually want to read anything under the “Class Rules & Procedures” heading? In the ninth of its thirteen points, he lays out the workshop’s operative belief:

that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writing a lot and receiving detailed criticism but also by becoming a more sophisticated and articulate critic of other writers’ work. You are thus required to read each of your colleagues’ essays at least twice, making helpful and specific comments on the manuscript copy wherever appropriate. You will then compose a one-to-three-page letter to the essay’s author, communicating your sense of the draft’s strengths and weaknesses and making clear, specific suggestions for revision.

But whatever the rigors of English 183D, Wallace would have succeeded, to my mind, if he’d instilled nothing more than this in the minds of his departing students:

In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you.

True to form, DFW’s syllabus comes complete with footnotes.

1 (A good dictionary and usage dictionary are strongly recommended. You’re insane if you don’t own these already.)

You can read the Creative Nonfiction syllabus in full here.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Kurt Vonnegut Explains “How to Write With Style”

in Writing | November 10th, 2014


If you feel the need for tips on developing a writing style, you probably don’t look right to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications. You certainly don’t open such a publication expecting such tips from novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with a style of his own if ever there was one. But in a 1980 issue, the author of Slaughterhouse-FiveJailbird, and Cat’s Cradle does indeed appear with advice on “how to put your style and personality into everything you write.” What’s more, he does it in an ad, part of a series from the International Paper Company called “The Power of the Printed Word,” ostensibly meant to address the need, now that “the printed word is more vital than ever,” for “all of us to read better, write better, and communicate better.”

This arguably holds much truer now, given the explosion of textual communication over the internet, than it did in 1980. And so which of Vonnegut’s words of wisdom can still help us convey our words of wisdom? You can read the full PDF of this two-page piece of ad-ucation here, but some excerpted points follow:

  • Find a subject you care about. “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”
  • Keep it simple. “As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline‘ is this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.”
  • Sound like yourself. “English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. [ … ] No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?”
  • Say what you mean. “My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.”

While easy to remember, Vonnegut’s plainspoken rules could well take an entire career to master. I’ll certainly keep writing on the subjects I care most about — many of them on display right here on Open Culture — keeping it as simple as I can bear, saying what I mean, and sounding like… well, a rootless west-coaster, I suppose, but one question sticks in my mind: which corporation will step up today to turn out writing advice from our most esteemed men and women of letters?

via Biblioklept

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

in Literature, Writing | October 29th, 2014

lovecraft tips

Though the term “weird fiction” came into being in the 19th century—originally used by Irish gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu—it was picked up by H.P. Lovecraft in the 20th century as a way, primarily, of describing his own work. Lovecraft produced copious amounts of the stuff, as you can see from our post highlighting online collections of nearly his entire corpus. He also wrote in depth about writing itself. He did so in generally prescriptive ways, as in his 1920 essay “Literary Composition,” and in ways specific to his chosen mode—as in the 1927 “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in which he defined weird fiction very differently than Le Fanu or modern authors like China Miéville. For Lovecraft,

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Here we have, broadly, the template for a very Lovecraftian tale indeed. Ten years later, in a 1937 essay titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft would return to the theme and elaborate more fully on how to produce such an artifact.

Weird Fiction, wrote Lovecraft in that later essay, is “obviously a special and perhaps a narrow” kind of “story-writing,” a form in which “horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected,” and one that “frequently emphasize[s] the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion.” Although Lovecraft self-deprecatingly calls himself an “insignificant amateur,” he nonetheless situates himself in the company of “great authors” who mastered horror writing of one kind or another: “[Lord] Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.” Even if you only know the name of Poe, it’s weighty company indeed.

But be not intimidated—Lovecraft wasn’t. As our traditional holiday celebration of fear approaches, perhaps you’d be so inclined to try your hand at a little weird fiction of your own. You should certainly, Lovecraft would stress, spend some time reading these writers’ works. But he goes further, and offers us a very concise, five point “set of rules” for writing a weird fiction story that he says might be “deduced… if the history of all my tales were analyzed.” See an abridged version below:

  1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence—not the order of their narrations.

This is a practice adhered to by writers from J.K. Rowling and William Faulkner to Norman Mailer. It seems a an excellent general piece of advice for any kind of fiction.

  1. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fullness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax.
  1. Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design.

It may be that the second rule is made just to be broken, but it provides the weird fiction practitioner with a beginning. The third stage here brings us back to a process every writer on writing, such as Stephen King, will highlight as key—free, unfettered drafting, followed by…

  1. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness of transitions…

And finally….

  1. Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.

You will notice right away that these five “rules” tell us nothing about what to put in our weird fiction, and could apply to any sort of fiction at all, really. This part of the admirably comprehensive quality of the otherwise succinct essay. Lovecraft tells us why he writes, why he writes what he writes, and how he goes about it. The content of his fictional universe is entirely his own, a method of visualizing “vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions.” Your mileage, and your method, will indeed vary.

Lovecraft goes on to describe “four distinct types of weird story” that fit “into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connection with a bizarre condition or phenonmenon.” If this doesn’t clear things up for you, then perhaps a careful reading of Lovecraft’s complete “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” will. Ultimately, however, “there is no one way” to write a story. But with some practice—and no small amount of imagination—you may find yourself joining the company of Poe, Lovecraft, and a host of contemporary writers who continue to push the boundaries of weird fiction past the sometimes parochial, often profoundly bigoted, limits that Lovecraft  set out.

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

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Steven Pinker Identifies 10 Breakable Grammatical Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dangling Modifiers & More

in Writing | October 20th, 2014

The sense of style

We’ve previously featured Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker discussing writing at a Harvard conference on the subject. In that case, the focus was narrowly on academic writing, which, he has uncontroversially claimed, “stinks.” Now—“not content with just poaching” in the land of the scribes, writes Charles McGrath at The New York Times Sunday Book Review—Pinker has dared to “set himself up as a gamekeeper” with a new book—The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The grandiose title suggests to McGrath that the scientist intends to supplant that most venerable, and most dated, classic writer’s text by Strunk and White. He’s gone from chiding his fellow scholars to writing prescriptions for us all.

But if this seems out of bounds, wait until you hear what he suggests. Instead of issuing even more seemingly arbitrary, burdensome commands, Pinker aims to free us from the tyranny of the senseless in grammar—or, as he calls it in an article at The Guardian, from “folklore and superstition.” Below are five of the ten “common issues of grammar” Pinker selects “from those that repeatedly turn up in style guides, pet-peeve lists, newspaper language columns and irate letters to the editor.” In each case, he explains the absurdity of strict adherence and offers several perfectly reasonable exceptions that require no correction to clarify their meaning.

  1. Beginning sentences with conjunctions

We have almost certainly all been taught in some fashion or another that this is a no-no. “That’s because teachers need a simple way” to teach children “how to break sentences.” The “rule,” Pinker says, is “misinformation” and “inappropriate for adults.” He cites only two examples here, both using the conjunction “because”: Johnny Cash’s “Because you’re mine, I walk the line,” and the stock parental non-answer, “Because I said so.” And yet (see what I did?), other conjunctions, like “and,” “but,” “yet,” and “so” may also “be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence.”

  1. Dangling modifiers

Having taught English composition for several years, and thus having read several hundred scrambled student essays, I find this one difficult to concede. The dangling modifier—an especially easy error to make when writing quickly—too easily creates confusion or downright unintelligibility. Pinker does admit since the subjects of dangling modifiers “are inherently ambiguous,” they might sometimes “inadvertently attract a reader to the wrong choice, as in ‘When a small boy, a girl is of little interest.’” But, he says, this is not a grammatical error. Here are a few “danglers” he suggests as “perfectly acceptable”:

“Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, the area was sealed off.”

  1. Who and Whom

I once had a student ask me if “whom” was an archaic affectation that would make her writing sound forced and unnatural. I had to admit she had an excellent point, no matter what our overpriced textbook said. In most cases, even if correctly used, whom can indeed sound “formal verging on pompous.” Though they seem straightforward enough, “the rules for its proper use,” writes Pinker, “are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop ‘whom’ into their speech whenever they want to sound posh,” and to generally use the word incorrectly. Despite “a century of nagging by prescriptive grammarians,” the distinction between “who” and “whom” seems anything but simple, and so one’s use of it—as with any tricky word or usage—should be carefully calibrated “to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality” the writing calls for. Put plainly, know how you’re using “whom” and why, or stick with the unobjectionable “who.”

  1. Very unique

Oftentimes we find the most innocuous-sounding, common sense usages called out by uptight pedants as ungrammatical when there’s no seeming reason why they should be. The phrase “very unique,” a description that may not strike you as excessively weird or backward, happens to be “one of the commonest insults to the sensibility of the purist.” This is because, such narrow thinkers claim, as with other categorical expressions like “absolute” or “incomparable,” something either is or it isn’t, in the same way that one either is or isn’t pregnant: “referring to degrees of uniqueness is meaningless,” says the logic, in the case of absolute adjectives. Of course, it seems to me that one can absolutely refer to degrees of pregnancy. In any case, writes Pinker, “uniqueness is not like pregnancy […]; it must be defined relative to some scale of measurement.” Hence, “very unique,” makes sense, he says. But you should avoid it on aesthetic grounds. “’Very,’” he says, “is a soggy modifier in the best of circumstances.” How about “rather unique?” Too posh-sounding?

  1. That and which

I breathed an audible sigh on encountering this one, because it’s a rule I find particularly irksome. Of note is that Pinker, an American, is writing in The Guardian, a British publication, where things are much more relaxed for these two relative pronouns. In U.S. usage, “which” is reserved for nonrestrictive—or optional clauses: “The pair of shoes, which cost five thousand dollars, was hideous.” For restrictive clauses, those “essential to the meaning of the sentence,” we use “that.” Pinker takes the example of a sentence in a documentary on “Imelda Marcos’s vast shoe collection.” In such a case, of course, we would need that bit about the price; hence, “The pair of shoes that cost £5,000 was hideous.”

It’s a reasonable enough distinction, and “one part of the rule,” Pinker says, “is correct.” We would rarely find someone writing “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000…” after all. It probably looks awkward to our eyes (though I’ve seen it often enough). But there’s simply no good reason, he says, why we can’t use “which” freely, as the Brits already do, to refer to things both essential and non-. “Great writers have been using it for centuries,” Pinker points out, citing whoever (or “whomever”) translated that “render unto Caesar” bit in the King James Bible and Franklin Roosevelt’s “a day which will live in infamy.” QED, I’d say. And anyway, “which” is so much lovelier a word than “that.”

See Pinker’s Guardian piece for his other five anti-rules and free yourself up to write in a more natural, less stilted way. That is, if you already have some mastery of basic English. As Pinker rightly observes, “anyone who has read an inept student paper [um-hm], a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W. Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many areas of communication.” How do we know when a rule is useful and when it impedes “clear and graceful prose?” It’s really no mystery, Pinker says. “Look it up.” It sounds like his book might help put things into better perspective than most writing guides, however. You can also hear him discuss his accessible and intuitive writing advice in the KQED interview with Michael Krasny above.

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

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