Walter Benjamin’s 13 Oracular Writing Tips

benjamin writing tips

Image by Wal­ter Ben­jamin Archiv, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The prob­a­bil­i­ty of Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s name com­ing up in your aver­age MFA work­shop, or fic­tion writ­ers’ group of any kind, like­ly approach­es zero. But head over to a name-your-crit­i­cal-polit­i­cal-lit­er­ary-the­o­ry class and I’d be sur­prised not to hear it dropped at least once, if not half a dozen times. Ben­jamin, after all, men­tored or befriend­ed the first gen­er­a­tion Frank­furt School, Han­nah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, Leo Strauss, and near­ly every oth­er twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Ger­man intel­lec­tu­al who escaped the Nazis. Trag­i­cal­ly, Ben­jamin him­self did not fare so well. It has long been believed that he killed him­self rather than face Nazi cap­ture. Anoth­er the­o­ry spec­u­lates that Stal­in had him mur­dered.

Since his death, the leg­end of Ben­jamin as a kind of het­ero­dox Marx­ist prophet—an image he fos­tered with his embrace of Jew­ish mysticism—has grown and grown. And yet, despite his rar­i­fied aca­d­e­m­ic pedi­gree, I main­tain that writ­ers of all kinds, from the most pedan­tic to the most vis­cer­al, can learn much from him.

Ben­jamin did not strict­ly con­fine him­self to the arcane tex­tu­al analy­sis and lit­er­ary-the­o­log­i­cal hermeneu­tics for which he’s best known; he spent most of his career work­ing as a free­lance crit­ic and jour­nal­ist, writ­ing almost casu­al trav­el­ogues, per­son­al rem­i­nis­cences of Weimar Berlin, and approach­able essays on a vari­ety of sub­jects. For a few years, he even wrote and pre­sent­ed pop­u­lar radio broad­casts for young adults—acting as a kind of “Ger­man Ira Glass for teens.”

And, like so many writ­ers before and since, Ben­jamin once issued a list of “writer’s tips”—or, as he called it, “The Writer’s Tech­nique in Thir­teen The­ses,” part of his 1928 trea­tise One-Way Street, one of only two books pub­lished in his life­time. In Ben­jam­in’s hands, that well-worn, well mean­ing, but often less than help­ful genre becomes a series of orac­u­lar pro­nounce­ments that can seem, at first read, com­i­cal, super­sti­tious, or puz­zling­ly idio­syn­crat­ic. But read them over a few times. Then read them again. Like all of his writ­ing, Ben­jam­in’s sug­ges­tions, some of which read like com­mand­ments, oth­ers like Niet­zschean apho­risms, reveal their mean­ings slow­ly, illu­mi­nat­ing the pos­tures, atti­tudes, and phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines of writ­ing in sur­pris­ing­ly humane and astute ways.

The Writer’s Tech­nique in Thir­teen The­ses:

  1. Any­one intend­ing to embark on a major work should be lenient with him­self and, hav­ing com­plet­ed a stint, deny him­self noth­ing that will not prej­u­dice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have writ­ten, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every grat­i­fi­ca­tion pro­cured in this way will slack­en your tem­po. If this regime is fol­lowed, the grow­ing desire to com­mu­ni­cate will become in the end a motor for com­ple­tion.
  3. In your work­ing con­di­tions avoid every­day medi­oc­rity. Semi-relax­ation, to a back­ground of insipid sounds, is degrad­ing. On the oth­er hand, accom­pa­ni­ment by an etude or a cacoph­o­ny of voic­es can become as sig­nif­i­cant for work as the per­cep­ti­ble silence of the night. If the lat­ter sharp­ens the inner ear, the for­mer acts as a touch­stone for a dic­tion ample enough to bury even the most way­ward sounds.
  4. Avoid hap­haz­ard writ­ing mate­ri­als. A pedan­tic adher­ence to cer­tain papers, pens, inks is ben­e­fi­cial. No lux­u­ry, but an abun­dance of these uten­sils is indis­pens­able.
  5. Let no thought pass incog­ni­to, and keep your note­book as strict­ly as the author­i­ties keep their reg­is­ter of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspi­ra­tion, which it will then attract with mag­net­ic pow­er. The more cir­cum­spect­ly you delay writ­ing down an idea, the more mature­ly devel­oped it will be on sur­ren­der­ing itself. Speech con­quers thought, but writ­ing com­mands it.
  7. Nev­er stop writ­ing because you have run out of ideas. Lit­er­ary hon­our requires that one break off only at an appoint­ed moment (a meal­time, a meet­ing) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacu­nae of inspi­ra­tion by tidi­ly copy­ing out what is already writ­ten. Intu­ition will awak­en in the process.
  9. Nul­la dies sine lin­ea [‘No day with­out a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
  10. Con­sid­er no work per­fect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad day­light.
  11. Do not write the con­clu­sion of a work in your famil­iar study. You would not find the nec­es­sary courage there.
  12. Stages of com­po­si­tion: idea — style — writ­ing. The val­ue of the fair copy is that in pro­duc­ing it you con­fine atten­tion to cal­lig­ra­phy. The idea kills inspi­ra­tion, style fet­ters the idea, writ­ing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its con­cep­tion.

via Clar­i­on 18/Brain­Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wal­ter Benjamin’s Radio Plays for Kids (1929–1932)

Umber­to Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspir­ing Writ­ers

David Ogilvy’s 1982 Memo “How to Write” Offers 10 Pieces of Time­less Advice

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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.