RIP Paul Auster: Hear the Master of the Postmodern Page-Turner Discuss How He Became a Writer

In the Louisiana Chan­nel inter­view clip from 2017 above, the late Paul Auster tells the sto­ry of how he became a writer. Its first episode had appeared more than twen­ty years ear­li­er, in a New York­er piece titled “Why Write?”: “I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, noth­ing was more impor­tant to me than base­ball.” After the first big-league game he ever went to see, the New York Giants ver­sus the Mil­wau­kee Braves at the Polo Grounds, he came face-to-face with a leg­end-to-be named Willie Mays. “I man­aged to keep my legs mov­ing in his direc­tion and then, mus­ter­ing every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth. ‘Mr. Mays,’ I said, ‘could I please have your auto­graph?’ ”

Mays says yes, but there was a prob­lem: “I didn’t have a pen­cil, so I asked my father if I could bor­row his. He didn’t have one, either. Nor did my moth­er. Nor, as it turned out, did any of the oth­er grownups.” Even­tu­al­ly, the young Auster’s idol “turned to me and shrugged. ‘Sor­ry, kid,’ he said. ‘Ain’t got no pen­cil, can’t give no auto­graph.’ And then he walked out of the ball­park into the night.” From that point on, as the mid­dle-aged Auster tells it, “it became a habit of mine nev­er to leave the house with­out mak­ing sure I had a pen­cil in my pock­et.” Even in this child­hood anec­dote, read­ers will rec­og­nize some of Auster’s sig­na­ture ele­ments: the icons of mid-cen­tu­ry New York, the life-chang­ing chance encounter, the state of bit­ter regret.

But it takes more than a pen­cil to become a writer. “The thing about doing this, which is unlike any oth­er job, is that you have to give max­i­mum effort, all the time,” Auster says. “You have to give every ounce of your being to what you’re doing, and I don’t think there are many jobs that require that. You see lazy lawyers, lazy doc­tors, lazy judges. They can get through things. You even see lazy ath­letes.” But “you can’t be a writer or a painter or a musi­cian unless you make max­i­mum effort.” Even after pro­duc­ing noth­ing usable in one of his usu­al eight-hour writ­ing shifts, “I can at least stand up and say, at the end of the day, I gave it every­thing I had. I tried 100 per­cent. And there’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing about that, just try­ing as hard as you can to do some­thing.”

There’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about these words, as indeed there’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about Auster’s twen­ty post­mod­ern page-turn­ers (to say noth­ing of his many vol­umes of non­fic­tion and poet­ry). Yet he also had one foot in France, where he lived in the ear­ly nine­teen-sev­en­ties, and sev­er­al of whose respect­ed writ­ers — Sartre, Mal­lar­mé, Blan­chot — he trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. He gained his first and most fer­vent fan­base there, becom­ing a beloved écrivain amer­i­can of long stand­ing. The announce­ment of his death on April 30th must have set off some­thing like a nation­al day of mourn­ing, and an occa­sion to remem­ber what he once said to France Inter: just as a writer should always car­ry a pen­cil, “cha­cun doit être prêt à mourir n’im­porte quand.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Paul Auster Read the Entire­ty of The Red Note­book, an Ear­ly Col­lec­tion of Sto­ries

Paul Auster Reads from New Nov­el Sun­set Park

Read and Hear Famous Writ­ers (and Arm­chair Sports­men) J. M. Coet­zee and Paul Auster’s Cor­re­spon­dence

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring, Young Writers (1935)

Here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, a hope­ful young nov­el­ist might choose to enroll in one of a host of post-grad­u­ate pro­grams, and — with luck — there find a will­ing and able men­tor. Back in the nine­teen-thir­ties, things worked a bit dif­fer­ent­ly. “In the spring of 1934, an aspir­ing writer named Arnold Samuel­son hitch­hiked from Min­neso­ta to Flori­da to see if he could land a meet­ing with his favorite author,” says Nicole Bianchi, nar­ra­tor of the InkWell Media video above. “The writer he had picked to be his men­tor? Ernest Hem­ing­way.”

What Hem­ing­way offered Samuel­son was some­thing more than a lit­er­ary men­tor­ship. “This young man had one oth­er obses­sion,” Hem­ing­way writes in a 1935 Esquire piece. “He had always want­ed to go to sea.” And so “we gave him a job as a night watch­man on the boat which fur­nished him a place to sleep and work and gave him two or three hours’ work each day at clean­ing up and a half of each day free to do his writ­ing.” To Hem­ing­way’s irri­ta­tion, Samuel­son proved not just a clum­sy hand on the Pilar, but a fount of ques­tions about how to craft lit­er­a­ture — some­thing Hem­ing­way gives the impres­sion of con­sid­er­ing eas­i­er done than said.

Nev­er­the­less, in the Esquire piece, Hem­ing­way con­dens­es this long back-and-forth with Samuel­son into a dia­logue con­tain­ing lessons that “would have been worth fifty cents to him when he was twen­ty-one.” He first declares that “good writ­ing is true writ­ing,” and that such truth depends on the writer’s con­sci­en­tious­ness and knowl­edge of life. As for the val­ue of imag­i­na­tion, “the more he learns from expe­ri­ence the more tru­ly he can imag­ine.” But even the most world-weary nov­el­ist must “con­vey every­thing, every sen­sa­tion, sight, feel­ing, place and emo­tion to the read­er,” and that requires round after round of revi­sion, so you might as well do the first draft in pen­cil.

As far as the writ­ing itself, Hem­ing­way rec­om­mends read­ing over at least your last two or three chap­ters at the start of each day, and repeats his well-known dic­tum always to leave a lit­tle water in the well at the end so that “your sub­con­scious will work on it all the time.” But all will be for naught if you haven’t read enough great books so as to “write what has­n’t been writ­ten before or beat dead men at what they have done.” Don’t com­pete with liv­ing writ­ers, whom Hem­ing­way saw as propped up by “crit­ics who always need a genius of the sea­son, some­one they under­stand com­plete­ly and feel safe in prais­ing, but when these fab­ri­cat­ed genius­es are dead they will not exist.”

The video focus­es on a series of men­tal exer­cis­es Hem­ing­way explains to Samuel­son. Recall an excit­ing expe­ri­ence, such as that of catch­ing a fish, and “find what gave you the emo­tion, what the action was that gave you the excite­ment. Then write it down mak­ing it clear so the read­er will see it too and have the same feel­ing you had.” Remem­ber con­flicts and try to under­stand all the points of view: “If I bawl you out try to fig­ure out what I’m think­ing about as well as how you feel about it. If Car­los curs­es Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right.” When oth­er peo­ple talk, “lis­ten com­plete­ly. Don’t be think­ing what you’re going to say.”

Under­ly­ing this char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly straight­for­ward advice is the com­mand­ment to find ways out of your own head and into the per­spec­tive of the rest of human­i­ty. The nec­es­sary habits of obser­va­tion can be cul­ti­vat­ed any­where: at sea, yes, but also in the city, where you can “stand out­side the the­atre and see how peo­ple dif­fer in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars.” In the event, Samuel­son nev­er did become a nov­el­ist, though he did write a mem­oir about his year under Hem­ing­way’s tute­lage. What­ev­er the expe­ri­ence taught Samuel­son, it brought Hem­ing­way to a res­o­lu­tion of his own: “If any more aspi­rant writ­ers come on board the Pilar let them be females, let them be very beau­ti­ful and let them bring cham­pagne.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

The (Urban) Leg­end of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Sto­ry: “For sale, Baby shoes, Nev­er worn”

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer (1934)

28 Tips for Writ­ing Sto­ries from Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkn­er, Ernest Hem­ing­way & F. Scott Fitzger­ald

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

How Jane Austen Changed Fiction Forever

Though Jane Austen has­n’t pub­lished a nov­el since 1817 — with her death that same year being a rea­son­able excuse — her appeal as a lit­er­ary brand remains prac­ti­cal­ly unpar­al­leled in its class. This cen­tu­ry has offered its own film and tele­vi­sion ver­sions of all her major nov­els from Sense and Sen­si­bil­i­ty to Per­sua­sion, and even minor ones like San­di­tion and Lady Susan. As for the loos­er adap­ta­tions and Austen-inspired works in oth­er media, it would be dif­fi­cult even to count them. But to under­stand why Austen endures, we must go back to Austen her­self: to nov­els, that is, and to the enter­tain­ing­ly inno­v­a­tive man­ner in which she wrote them.

At the begin­ning of her very first book says Evan Puschak, Austen “did some­thing that changed fic­tion for­ev­er.” Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, has in his lat­est video cho­sen Sense and Sen­si­bil­i­ty as an exam­ple with which to explain the key tech­nique that set its author’s work apart. When, in the scene in ques­tion, the dying Hen­ry Dash­wood makes his son John promise to take care of his three half-sis­ters, the younger man inward­ly resolves to him­self to give them a thou­sand pounds each. “Yes, he would give them three thou­sand pounds,” Austen writes. “It would be lib­er­al and hand­some! It would be enough to make them com­plete­ly easy. Three thou­sand pounds! He could spare so lit­tle a sum with a lit­tle incon­ve­nience.”

What, exact­ly, is going on here? Before this pas­sage, Puschak explains, “the nar­ra­tor is describ­ing the thoughts and feel­ings of John Dash­wood.” But then, “some­thing changes: it’s sud­den­ly as if we’re inside John’s mind. And yet, the point of view does­n’t change: we’re still in the third per­son.” This is a notable ear­ly exam­ple of what’s called “free indi­rect style,” which lit­er­ary crit­ic D. A. Miller describes as a “tech­nique of close writ­ing that Austen more or less invent­ed for the Eng­lish nov­el.” When she employs it, “the nar­ra­tion’s way of say­ing is con­stant­ly both mim­ic­k­ing, and dis­tanc­ing itself from, the char­ac­ter’s way of see­ing.”

In his book Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, Miller pays a good deal of atten­tion to the lat­er Emma, with its “unprece­dent­ed promi­nence of free indi­rect style.” When, in Austen’s hand, that style “mim­ics Emma’s thoughts and feel­ings, it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inflects them into keen­er obser­va­tions of its own; for our ben­e­fit, if nev­er for hers, it iden­ti­fies, ridicules, cor­rects all the secret van­i­ties and self-decep­tions of which Emma, pleased as Punch, remains com­i­cal­ly uncon­scious. And this is gen­er­al­ly what being a char­ac­ter in Austen means: to be slapped sil­ly by a nar­ra­tion whose con­stant bat­ter­ing; how­ev­er sat­is­fy­ing — or ter­ri­fy­ing — to read­ers, its recip­i­ent is kept from even notic­ing.” Austen may have been a nov­el­ist of great tech­ni­cal pro­fi­cien­cy and social acu­ity, but she also under­stood the eter­nal human plea­sure of shar­ing a laugh at the delu­sion­al behind their back.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Jane Austen

Down­load the Major Works of Jane Austen as Free eBooks & Audio Books

15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satir­i­cal His­to­ry Of Eng­land: Read the Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script Online (1791)

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

Jane Austen Writes a Let­ter to Her Sis­ter While Hung Over: “I Believe I Drank Too Much Wine Last Night”

The Jane Austen Fic­tion Man­u­script Archive Is Online: Explore Hand­writ­ten Drafts of Per­sua­sion, The Wat­sons & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

How to Use Writing to Sharpen Your Thinking: Advice from Tim Ferriss

With the rise of AI tools like Chat­G­PT, which can gen­er­ate essay after essay near-instan­ta­neous­ly from even the sim­plest prompt, sure­ly the skill of writ­ing will soon go the way of arrow­head-sharp­en­ing. That would be easy to believe, any­way, amid the cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal buzz. But ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Paul Gra­ham, a man as well-placed as any to grasp these devel­op­ments and their prospects, sees things dif­fer­ent­ly. “Peo­ple are switch­ing to using Chat­G­PT to write things for them with almost inde­cent haste,” he wrote in a Twit­ter thread last year. “This is going to have unfor­tu­nate con­se­quences, just as switch­ing to liv­ing in sub­ur­bia and dri­ving every­where did. When you lose the abil­i­ty to write, you also lose some of your abil­i­ty to think.”

Gra­ham is also well-known as an essay­ist, and in recent years the iden­ti­ty of writ­ing and think­ing has become one of his major themes. He opens “Putting Ideas into Words” with the obser­va­tion that “writ­ing about some­thing, even some­thing you know well, usu­al­ly shows you that you did­n’t know it as well as you thought.” And “if writ­ing down your ideas always makes them more pre­cise and more com­plete, then no one who has­n’t writ­ten about a top­ic has ful­ly formed ideas about it.” In the video above, Tim Fer­riss (anoth­er fig­ure, like Gra­ham, well known in the greater Sil­i­con Val­ley uni­verse) offers a few tips on just how to form and improve your own ideas through the process of writ­ing.

“With­out writ­ing, it’s very hard to freeze your think­ing on paper so that you can sharp­en it,” elim­i­nat­ing “words that aren’t well-defined” or “things that don’t need to be said.” The first step to mas­ter­ing the craft is to “write any­thing” reg­u­lar­ly, with­out regard to struc­ture or qual­i­ty, which expos­es “where you are sharp and where you are dull in your think­ing.” From there, you must bear in mind the old saw that “writ­ing is rewrit­ing,” going on to per­form round after round of edits from your own per­spec­tive or dif­fer­ent imag­ined ones. Gra­ham sug­gests mak­ing the effort to read your writ­ing as if you were a com­plete stranger, some­one “who knows noth­ing of what’s in your head, only what you wrote.”

Fer­ris then rec­om­mends ask­ing peo­ple you know to read over your writ­ing. If you don’t have any con­nec­tions to pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, any­one with legal train­ing should be able to bring a keen crit­i­cal eye to the task. Even a non-spe­cial­ist can help by point­ing out the parts they find con­fus­ing. Who­ev­er Fer­ris enlists as a proof­read­er, he employs what he calls the “ten per­cent rule,” request­ing that the read­er of the text indi­cate “the ten per­cent I should keep no mat­ter what.” Even if you have no desire to write pro­fes­sion­al­ly, this prac­tice will keep you in men­tal shape for your cho­sen pur­suit in life, or indeed, for the task of life itself. As Gra­ham tweet­ed last year, “Read­ing won’t be obso­lete till writ­ing is, and writ­ing won’t be obso­lete till think­ing is” — though the aver­age day on social media may con­vince you that the lat­ter has already come to pass.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Craft of Writ­ing Effec­tive­ly: Essen­tial Lessons from the Long­time Direc­tor of UChicago’s Writ­ing Pro­gram

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

10 Writ­ing Tips from Leg­endary Writ­ing Teacher William Zinss­er

Umber­to Eco’s 36 Rules for Writ­ing Well (in Eng­lish or Ital­ian)

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.


The Writing Systems of the World Explained, from the Latin Alphabet to the Abugidas of India

The Kore­an alpha­bet, hangul, is “the most sci­en­tif­ic writ­ing sys­tem.” One often hears that in South Korea, a soci­ety that has tak­en to heart Asia schol­ar Edwin O. Reis­chauer’s descrip­tion of hangul as “per­haps the most sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem of writ­ing in gen­er­al use in any coun­try.” But what­ev­er their sci­en­tif­ic cre­den­tials, all the oth­er writ­ing sys­tems in use (and indeed out of use) have fas­ci­nat­ing qual­i­ties of their own, a range of which are explained in the Use­fulCharts video above on the writ­ing sys­tems of the world — not just the alpha­bets of the world, mind you, but also the abjads, the syl­labaries, the logo-syl­labaries, and the abugi­das.

The sym­bols used in an abjad, like that of Hebrew or Ara­bic (or ancient Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs), rep­re­sent only con­so­nants; as for vow­els, “the read­ers are expect­ed to add them in on their own, based on con­text.” In a syl­labary, like the hira­gana and katakana used in Japan­ese, each char­ac­ter rep­re­sents a syl­la­ble: に for “ni,” ほ for “ho,” ん for “n” (though lin­guists no doubt argue about whether that last should real­ly count as a syl­la­ble).

But most of the Japan­ese writ­ing is adapt­ed from the Chi­nese one, a logo-syl­labary in which “a sin­gle char­ac­ter can stand for a unique syl­la­ble or an entire word or idea,” which results in “thou­sands of char­ac­ters that need to be learned for basic lit­er­a­cy.”

Abugi­das, pri­mar­i­ly used in Indi­an and south­east Asian lan­guages (but also to write Amhar­ic, the lan­guage of Ethiopia), “have unique char­ac­ters both for vow­els and for con­so­nants. How­ev­er, these vow­el let­ters are gen­er­al­ly only used in sit­u­a­tions where a word begins with a vow­el.” Oth­er­wise, a “small change” made to a con­so­nant char­ac­ter indi­cates which vow­el fol­lows. How­ev­er mechan­i­cal­ly or aes­thet­i­cal­ly diverse they may appear, none of these writ­ing sys­tems (all pic­tured on a poster from Use­fulCharts, avail­able for $19.95 USD) are so fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent that they can’t be mas­tered by a non-native with time and effort. Not that they’re all as easy as hangul, which — as its com­mis­sion­er King Sejong the Great put it, in anoth­er quotable quote — a wise man can learn before the morn­ing is over, and a stu­pid man can learn in ten days.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

How to Read Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs: A British Muse­um Cura­tor Explains

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.


George Bernard Shaw’s Famous Writing Hut, Which Could Be Rotated 360 Degrees to Catch the Sun All Day

Sev­en decades after his death, George Bernard Shaw is remem­bered for his prodi­gious body of work as a play­wright, but also — and at least as much — for his per­son­al eccen­tric­i­ties: the then-unfash­ion­able tee­to­tal­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, the rejec­tion of vac­cines and even the germ the­o­ry of dis­ease, the all-wool wardrobe. Thus, even those casu­al­ly famil­iar with Shaw’s life and work may not be ter­ri­bly sur­prised to learn that he not only had an out­build­ing in which to do his work, but an out­build­ing that could be rotat­ed 360 degrees. “Shaw’s writ­ing refuge was a six-square-meter wood­en sum­mer­house, orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for his wife Char­lotte,” writes Idler’s Alex John­son. “Built on a revolv­ing base that used cas­tors on a cir­cu­lar track,” it was “essen­tial­ly a shed on a lazy Susan.”

The hut became a part of Shaw’s for­mi­da­ble pub­lic image in a peri­od of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry “when there was a grow­ing appre­ci­a­tion of idyl­lic rur­al set­tings — a knock-on effect of which was that peo­ple had gar­den build­ings installed. Shaw made the most of this move­ment, pro­mot­ing him­self as a reclu­sive thinker toil­ing in his rus­tic shel­ter, away from the intru­sions of press and peo­ple alike, while at the same time invit­ing in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and pos­ing for pho­tos.”

In 1929, “Shaw stood in front of his hut for a pho­to for Mod­ern Mechan­ics & Inven­tions mag­a­zine to pro­mote the idea of sun­light as a heal­ing agent.” Hence the impor­tance of rotat­ing to catch its rays all day long through win­dows made of Vita­glass, “a recent inven­tion that allowed UV rays to come through, let­ting, the mak­ers said, ‘health into the build­ing.’ ”

How­ev­er odd some of Shaw’s views and prac­tices, one can’t help but imag­ine that at least some of them con­tributed to his longevi­ty. The 1946 British Pathé news­reel above pays him a vis­it just a few years before his death at the age of 94, find­ing him still writ­ing (he still had the play Buoy­ant Bil­lions ahead of him, as well as sev­er­al oth­er mis­cel­la­neous works), and what’s more, doing so in his hut: “Like G. B. S. him­self,” says the nar­ra­tor, “it pre­tends to be strict­ly prac­ti­cal, with no non­sense about it.” Yet Shaw seems to have had a sense of humor about his the­o­ret­i­cal­ly hum­ble work­space, nam­ing it after the Eng­lish cap­i­tal so that unwant­ed vis­i­tors to his home in the vil­lage of Ayot St Lawrence could be told, not untruth­ful­ly, that he was in Lon­don. But one nat­u­ral­ly won­ders: when he rang up the main house with his in-hut tele­phone (anoth­er of its high­ly advanced fea­tures), did his house­keep­er say it was Lon­don call­ing?

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

Roald Dahl Gives a Tour of the Small Back­yard Hut Where He Wrote All of His Beloved Children’s Books

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

Clas­sic Mon­ty Python: Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw Engage in a Hilar­i­ous Bat­tle of Wits

Who Wrote at Stand­ing Desks? Kierkegaard, Dick­ens and Ernest Hem­ing­way Too

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

When the Indi­ana Bell Build­ing Was Rotat­ed 90° While Every­one Worked Inside in 1930 (by Kurt Vonnegut’s Archi­tect Dad)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Three Punctuation Rules of Cormac McCarthy (RIP), and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Note: Today nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy (All the Pret­ty Hors­es, The Road and No Coun­try for Old Men) passed away at the age of 89. Below, we’re revis­it­ing a favorite post from our archive that focus­es on punc­tu­a­tion, a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of McCarthy’s writ­ing.

Cor­mac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 review­er of his first nov­el, The Orchard Keep­er, dubbed him—a “dis­ci­ple of William Faulkn­er.” He makes admirable use of Faulkner­ian traits in his prose, and I’d always assumed he inher­it­ed his punc­tu­a­tion style from Faulkn­er as well. But in his very rare 2008 tele­vised inter­view with Oprah Win­frey, McCarthy cites two oth­er antecedents: James Joyce and for­got­ten nov­el­ist MacKin­lay Kan­tor, whose Ander­son­ville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Joyce’s influ­ence dom­i­nates, and in dis­cus­sion of punc­tu­a­tion, McCarthy stress­es that his min­i­mal­ist approach works in the inter­est of max­i­mum clar­i­ty. Speak­ing of Joyce, he says,

James Joyce is a good mod­el for punc­tu­a­tion. He keeps it to an absolute min­i­mum. There’s no rea­son to blot the page up with weird lit­tle marks. I mean, if you write prop­er­ly you shouldn’t have to punc­tu­ate.

So what “weird lit­tle marks” does McCarthy allow, or not, and why? Below is a brief sum­ma­ry of his stat­ed rules for punc­tu­a­tion:

1. Quo­ta­tion Marks:

McCarthy does­n’t use ’em. In his Oprah inter­view, he says MacKin­lay Kan­tor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stress­es that this way of writ­ing dia­logue requires par­tic­u­lar delib­er­a­tion. Speak­ing of writ­ers who have imi­tat­ed him, he says, “You real­ly have to be aware that there are no quo­ta­tion marks, and write in such a way as to guide peo­ple as to who’s speak­ing.” Oth­er­wise, con­fu­sion reigns.

2. Colons and semi­colons:

Care­ful McCarthy read­er Oprah says she “saw a colon once” in McCarthy’s prose, but she nev­er encoun­tered a semi­colon. McCarthy con­firms: “No semi­colons.”

Of the colon, he says: “You can use a colon, if you’re get­ting ready to give a list of some­thing that fol­lows from what you just said. Like, these are the rea­sons.” This is a spe­cif­ic occa­sion that does not present itself often. The colon, one might say, gen­u­flects to a very spe­cif­ic log­i­cal devel­op­ment, enu­mer­a­tion. McCarthy deems most oth­er punc­tu­a­tion uses need­less.

3. All oth­er punc­tu­a­tion:

Aside from his restric­tive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his styl­is­tic con­vic­tions with sim­plic­i­ty: “I believe in peri­ods, in cap­i­tals, in the occa­sion­al com­ma, and that’s it.” It’s a dis­ci­pline he learned first in a col­lege Eng­lish class, where he worked to sim­pli­fy 18th cen­tu­ry essays for a text­book the pro­fes­sor was edit­ing. Ear­ly mod­ern Eng­lish is noto­ri­ous­ly clut­tered with con­found­ing punc­tu­a­tion, which did not become stan­dard­ized until com­par­a­tive­ly recent­ly.

McCarthy, enam­ored of the prose style of the Neo­clas­si­cal Eng­lish writ­ers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semi­colons, remem­bers par­ing down an essay “by Swift or some­thing” and hear­ing his pro­fes­sor say, “this is very good, this is exact­ly what’s need­ed.” Encour­aged, he con­tin­ued to sim­pli­fy, work­ing, he says to Oprah, “to make it eas­i­er, not to make it hard­er” to deci­pher his prose. For those who find McCarthy some­times mad­den­ing­ly opaque, this state­ment of intent may not help clar­i­fy things much. But lovers of his work may find renewed appre­ci­a­tion for his stream­lined syn­tax.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Wern­er Her­zog Reads From Cor­mac McCarthy’s All the Pret­ty Hors­es

Cor­mac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Work­ing: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Lim­it Your Cre­ative Poten­tial

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

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

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Behold the Microscopically Tiny Handwriting of Novelist Robert Walser, Which Took Four Decades to Decipher

Robert Walser’s last nov­el, Der Räu­ber or The Rob­ber, came out in 1972. Walser him­self had died fif­teen years ear­li­er, hav­ing spent near­ly three sol­id decades in a sana­to­ri­um. He’d been a fair­ly suc­cess­ful fig­ure in the Berlin lit­er­ary scene of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, but dur­ing his long  insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in his home­land of Switzer­land — from which he refused to return to nor­mal life, despite his out­ward appear­ance of men­tal health — he claimed to have put let­ters behind him. As J. M. Coet­zee writes in the New York Review of Books, “Walser’s so-called mad­ness, his lone­ly death, and the posthu­mous­ly dis­cov­ered cache of his secret writ­ings were the pil­lars on which a leg­end of Walser as a scan­dalous­ly neglect­ed genius was erect­ed.”

This cache con­sist­ed of “some five hun­dred sheets of paper cov­ered in a micro­scop­ic pen­cil script so dif­fi­cult to read that his execu­tor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is sim­ply hand­writ­ing with so many idio­syn­crat­ic abbre­vi­a­tions that, even for edi­tors famil­iar with it, unam­bigu­ous deci­pher­ment is not always pos­si­ble.”

He devised this extreme short­hand as a kind of cure for writer’s block: “In a 1927 let­ter to a Swiss edi­tor, Walser claimed that his writ­ing was over­come with ‘a swoon, a cramp, a stu­por’ that was both ‘phys­i­cal and men­tal’ and brought on by the use of a pen,” writes the New York­er’s Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopt­ing his strange ‘pen­cil method’ enabled him to ‘play,’ to ‘scrib­ble, fid­dle about.’ ”

“Like an artist with a stick of char­coal between his fin­gers,” Coet­zee writes, “Walser need­ed to get a steady, rhyth­mic hand move­ment going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which rever­ie, com­po­si­tion, and the flow of the writ­ing tool became much the same thing.” This process facil­i­tat­ed the trans­fer of Walser’s thoughts straight to the page, with the result that his late works read — and have been belat­ed­ly rec­og­nized as read­ing — like no oth­er lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in his time. As Brett Bak­er at Painter’s table sees it,” Walser’s com­pressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) con­structs full nar­ra­tives than can be con­sumed rapid­ly – near­ly ‘at a glance,’ as it were. Their short length allows the read­er to revis­it the work in detail, focus­ing on sen­tences, phras­es, or words as one might exam­ine the paint­ed pas­sages or marks on a can­vas.”

These ultra-com­pressed works from the Bleis­tift­ge­bi­et, or “pen­cil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “estab­lish Walser as a mod­ernist of sorts: the recy­cling of mate­ri­als can make the texts look like col­lages, mod­ernist mashups toe­ing the line between mechan­i­cal and per­son­al pro­duc­tion.” But they also make him look like the fore­run­ner of anoth­er, lat­er vari­ety of exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture: in a longer New York­er piece on Walser, Ben­jamin Kunkel pro­pos­es 1972 as a cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate year to pub­lish The Rob­ber, “a fit­ting date for a beau­ti­ful, unsum­ma­riz­able work every bit as self-reflex­ive as any­thing pro­duced by the metafic­tion­ists of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.” The pub­li­ca­tion of his “micro­scripts,” in Ger­man as well as in trans­la­tion, has ensured him an influ­ence on writ­ers of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry — and not just their choice of font size.

For any­one inter­est­ed in see­ing a pub­lished ver­sion of Walser’s writ­ing, see the book Micro­scripts, which fea­tures full-col­or illus­tra­tions by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

Font Based on Sig­mund Freud’s Hand­writ­ing Com­ing Cour­tesy of Suc­cess­ful Kick­starter Cam­paign

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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