Writer’s Desk: RBG and Professor Nabakov

Since Supreme Court justices communicate primarily through words on a page, not surprisingly writing is almost as important to them as making legal arguments.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was frequently cited for the clarity and strength of her writing. She often credited her teachers for instilling in her the proper discipline. In an interview collected in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, she pointed to her professor of European literature at Cornell:

His name was Vladimir Nabokov. He was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write.

She also said about Nabokov:

Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.

Ginsburg and Nabokov knew that this in some way, this is what writing is all about: convincing the reader. On some level, art is argument. That is true whether it is in the pages of a novel or proclaimed from the Supreme Court.

Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

In 1991, comedic legend and sometime albatross vendor John Cleese gave a lecture on creativity, a topic he’s been somewhat obsessed with over the years (and in fact just published a short book about it). In that lecture, he gave examples of how to create what he called the “open mood” that allows ideas to come.

One example came from Alfred Hitchcock:

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays. He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’ And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.”

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you have to keep to your writing schedule. Otherwise nothing gets done. On the other hand, pressing against a closed door rarely works.

When nothing is coming to you, sit back, take a breath, go for a walk, and think about something else. The muse is still there, you may just have to wait for her to circle back around to you.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

From novelist Yu Hua (To Live, Brothers), one of the great chroniclers of modern China, some advice about perseverance:

I’ve never considered giving up. Before becoming a writer, I was a dentist, spending all my days staring into people’s open mouths. Unhealthy mouths, too – healthy mouths wouldn’t come to the dentist. Maybe there’s a better job than being a writer, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is being a writer is better than being a dentist…

Take it from him. Don’t be a dentist. Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Limit Yourself

Best known for his titanic five-novels-in-one omnibus 2666, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was prolific enough that even after his death in 2003, his bibliography continues to grow.

In “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” he suggested one reason for that prodigious output. Never stick to just one piece at a time:

Never approach short stories one at a time. If one approaches short stories one at a time, one can quite honestly be writing the same short story until the day one dies.

Of course, Bolaño also warns to be careful:

The temptation to write short stories two at a time is just as dangerous as attempting to write them one at a time.

But it seems clear which approach he followed.

Writer’s Desk: Get Away from Yourself

Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.

Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.

Why does she do it this way, traveling around the world to meet with people and listen to them for hours? Not just for verisimilitude, though that is part of it:

I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.

The further away you get away from yourself, the more clearly you can see everybody else. Go and find that which is not you.

Screening Room: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

Bright, sleek, and shiny, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield revisits Charles Dickens at a time when the Victorian novelist’s work should have new relevance. While the book’s themes of betrayal, identity, class, and survival-of-the-fittest economics are fairly perennial, they align all too neatly with the current moment. But while David Copperfield’s drive to escape the “shame” of his poverty-stricken past and refashion himself as a gentleman of means has a glint of society-climbing desperation to it, Iannucci’s version emphasizes the author’s entertaining side almost to a fault…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Make a Schedule

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg

The great and highly prolific sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer (best known for his eco-apocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy) gave an interview to the Chicago Review of Books a couple years back which was just packed with fantastically clear, actionable writing tips.

One of my favorites had to do with timing and productivity, two of the great obstacles for writers who have to juggle schedules:

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in two distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with…

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns.

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention

If writing were just stringing words together, literally anybody could do it. Because there is more to it, would-be writers spend many thousands of hours pondering how to do it better, and even read books and take classes to learn how to do something that seemingly anyone can do once they’re in elementary school.

In his superb guide First You Write a Sentence, English professor Joe Moran did his best to illuminate all the “intangible” ways that a sentence becomes more than the sum of its parts, and how he imparted that understanding to his students. His insight is simple but profound:

What I have learned is that trainee writers do not need to be able to parse every sentence into its parts. They just have to learn to care. Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote that ‘what is done in love is well done.’ The purest form of love is just caring…. The purest form of praise is to pay attention. This is how we offer up the simplest of blessings to the world around us and to the lives of others. ‘Attention,’ wrote the French thinker Simone Weil, ‘is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ Give your sentences that courtesy and they will repay you.

Put another way, you have rarely written a sentence that would not be improved by another pass. Pay attention.

Writer’s Desk: What Hamill Said

When Pete Hamill died last Wednesday, we lost one of the greats. Once called “a two-fingered typist with miraculous powers,” he knocked out poetic tabloid prose for pretty much all the newspapers worth working for in New York, even editing a couple of them. He wrote novels, a killer memoir, and was old enough to have attended the funeral of Diego Rivera (who he wrote about) and to remember early Sinatra (you know, before the really good stuff).

A complicated Irish guy from Brooklyn who tilted toward but didn’t abandon himself to either of those cliches, he embodied that old city progressive spirit but still knew when to draw out his stiletto. Read his 1969 piece, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” for everything you need to know about the country’s “ethnics” and their curdled embrace of conservatism over the past half-century.

In the end, though, Hamill’s rule for writing was short and sweet. A couple years back, at an NYU event with James McBride, he said you needed to do the following:

Imitate, emulate, equal, surpass…

Do as the man says. Go forth.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Your Pandemic Book … Yet

Writers are already a solitary lot. Even when there is not a pandemic. Those of us who pay the bills through teaching or other gigs that require contact with people have been even more isolated than usual. We also tend to respond to what is around us. So it’s more than likely than many of us have that COVID-related project that we have been tinkering around with.

However, Bill Morris warned in The Millions that we should maybe think about holding off. Not just because the market is about to be flooded with similar books, but because it’s probably better to let it sit for a while:

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective…

There is no rush. Let it sit. Get it right.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Caste’ and the Other American Exceptionalism

In the newest book from Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), she brings a sweeping narrative scope and pointillist detail to her argument that three societies in modern human history have established strict caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States. It’s a bracing stance and one that is likely to cause some heated debate.

Caste will be published next week. My review is at PopMatters:

…as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid”, she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India.” For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior “to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt here.

Nota Bene: Patricia Highsmith and Stan Lee

During World War II, Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee was working as an in-house writer for the U.S. Army (training movies about organizing your footlocker or field-stripping your rifle). He was still moonlighting for Marvel (then called Timely Comics), where the editor who replaced him, Vince Fago, was intrigued by another of their writers: Patricia Highsmith.

According to Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar:

Vince Fago took Lee up to Pat’s apartment “near Sutton Place,” hoping to make a “match” between Pat and Stan Lee. But the future creator of the talented Mr. Ripley was not fated to go out on a date with the future facilitator of Spider-Man. “Stan Lee,” said Vince Fago, “was only interested in Stan Lee,” and Pat wasn’t exactly admitting where her real sexual interests lay…

Which raises the question: Who would win in a showdown: Captain America or Tom Ripley? Discuss.

Screening Room: ‘Kiss Me Deadly’

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My article on Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was published at Eyes Wide Open:

For sheer brazen strange, it’s hard to top Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir adaptation of the skull-busting Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a mystery that never gets solved and a thriller that creeps more than excites. The closest that it gets to an explanation is a cynical, tired reference by the hero’s gal Friday to “nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.” All this confusion very likely derives from Aldrich clearly holding Spillane’s book in some contempt (as he did most things). But then it’s hard to say that a greater fidelity to the source material would have cleared matters up much…

Here’s the trailer for the Criterion release:

Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Reader’s Corner: John Lewis and Thomas Merton

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, the late civil rights icon John Lewis (who passed away last Friday) was marching with other voting-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when they were attacked by a mob of police and vigilantes. Many marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

Lewis had planned to be arrested, so he had a backup with a few essentials: fruit and some books. One of the books was The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer whose work Lewis studied during the civil rights movement.

Later, Lewis said the books were never recovered:

I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.