Today in better writing than mine: Ralph Waldo Emerson on originality of expression

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A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not: a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made.

from “Nature

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Today in better writing than mine: Mark Slouka thinks you work too much

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Mark Slouka wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called “Quitting the Paint Factory,” and to my mind its everything an essay should be: beautiful, impassioned prose with a solid argument to boot. It’s about the culture of work that dominates American culture today, and it’s a lament for the forgotten value of idleness.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. I read it here, so that’s where I’ll send you to read it. But here’s a taste to pique your interest:

A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demonizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, rendered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but. Thus have we succeeded in transforming even ourselves into bipedal products, paying richly for seminars that teach us how to market the self so it may be sold to the highest bidder. Or perhaps “down the river” is the phrase.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.”

[ . . . ]

Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don’t. Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren’t. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that “end in itself” nonsense) because it will presumably lead to work. Thus playing the piano or swimming the 100-yard backstroke are good things for a fifteen-year-old to do not because they might give her some pleasure but because rumor has it that Princeton is interested in students who can play Chopin or swim quickly on their backs (and a degree from Princeton, as any fool knows, can be readily converted to work).

[ . . . ]

Time may be money (though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce), but one thing seems certain: Money eats time. Forget the visions of sanctioned leisure: the view from the deck in St. Moritz, the wafer-thin TV. Consider the price.

Sometimes, I want to say, money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities – and yet we can’t stop ourselves. Worse, we don’t want to.

Seen from the right vantage point, there’s something wonderfully animistic about it. The god must be fed; he’s hungry for our hours, craves our days and years. And we oblige. Every morning (unlike the good citizens of Tenochtitlan, who at least had the good sense to sacrifice others on the slab) we rush up the steps of the ziggurat to lay ourselves down. It’s not a pretty sight.

Calvin gets it, as always

Today in better writing than mine: Phil Jourdan on feminism, breast size, and Haruki Murakami

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This one’s for the writers in the audience. Today’s article comes from LitReactor. It’s called “Her Breasts Were Too Small: Why a Dose of Feminism is Good for Writers,” and it’s a surprisingly astute meditation on the quintessential nature of the feminine and the masculine, on the widely touted idea that men can’t write female characters, and on a lot of other intriguing topics. Oh, and there’s a hilarious selection of cringe-worthy breast references from Murakami’s 1Q84 (which I have yet to read, so I don’t know if Jourdan’s critique is totally fair or not). Here’s a sneak peak to entice you to click the link:

What does it mean for a male writer to “create” a female character, a patchwork of concepts and behaviors quilted together by the word “woman”? To be crude: characters don’t have “real” vaginas or penises. You can’t scientifically distinguish between men and women in fiction by asking the characters to show you their genitals. And that’s a problem, intellectually, in the craft of writing. Every time you create a male character, you are, however subtly and however consciously, telling us that he is not a female character. And in all likelihood, since you can’t just give him a penis, you’re going to have to try to show his masculinity, his “typically male” behavior, through his actions. You may end up following the commonsense advice that everyone loves to give: show, don’t tell. Show us your character, John, being a man among all the other things he is meant to be. At this point, you’ve already made a commitment.

You often hear about men who “just can’t do female characters” — for whatever reason, the argument often goes, these female characters don’t ring true. They rely too much on stereotypes, on the bitterness or the idealism of their creators, on how horny the author happened to be while writing the book.

[ . . . ]

[I]f I’m a man, and I want to write fiction of a certain quality involving female characters, shouldn’t I keep these questions in mind at least some of the time? Take the suspense genre. Shouldn’t I ask myself, when I introduce my third femme fatale into a hardboiled novel, why I still need to make her both dangerous and gorgeous? Is there a reason I need a femme fatale at all? Does the fact that James Bond gets all the hot babes reflect something more than his effortless charm? If I created a female James Bond-type character and she slept with a couple of hot dangerous guys in every story — would I think less of her? Would I want to tell the story from the perspective of one of the hot dangerous guys instead? Why?

I once created tension (without wanting to) among a group of otherwise quite progressive people by asserting, very seriously, that I would love to see a black James Bond. The responses you get from declaring something like that are telling. Someone will make a face and say, “That’s… interesting.” Someone else will say, “I just can’t imagine a black Bond.” Why not? What makes Bond a great character are his qualities as a human being, right? He’s brave, he’s smooth, he’s attractive to all the ladies, he’s funny, he’s strong, he’s so dizzyingly “masculine” in general that young men look up to him as a role model. Where does his race come into it? It doesn’t, in the qualities I’ve described. Race, here, is merely incidental.

Check it out, if it’s your sort of thing. And while we’re on the subject of a “black James Bond,” I once heard a rumor of Idris Elba being cast as the next Bond. Alas, it’s probably too good to be true.

Today in better writing than mine: a poem about men by Bob Hicok

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The poem is called “O my pa-pa.” I was turned on to it by a friend of a friend (thanks, Stephen). I lifted the text from the Poetry Foundation, here. (Your browser may do weird things with the line breaks. Sorry about that. Read it at the link if it concerns you)

Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop.
They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs
and wives. We thought they didn’t read our stuff,
whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,
or those that end, and he was silent as a carp,
or those with middles which, if you think
of the right side as a sketch, look like a paunch
of beer and worry, but secretly, with flashlights
in the woods, they’ve read every word and noticed
that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex
and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello
from the top of a hill at dusk. Theirs
is the revenge school of poetry, with titles like
“My Yellow Sheet Lad” and “Given Your Mother’s Taste
for Vodka, I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Mine.”
They’re not trying to make the poems better
so much as sharper or louder, more like a fishhook
or electrocution, as a group
they overcome their individual senilities,
their complete distaste for language, how cloying
it is, how like tears it can be, and remember
every mention of their long hours at the office
or how tired they were when they came home,
when they were dragged through the door
by their shadows. I don’t know why it’s so hard
to write a simple and kind poem to my father, who worked,
not like a dog, dogs sleep most of the day in a ball
of wanting to chase something, but like a man, a man
with seven kids and a house to feed, whose absence
was his presence, his present, the Cheerios,
the PF Flyers, who taught me things about trees,
that they’re the most intricate version of standing up,
who built a grandfather clock with me so I would know
that time is a constructed thing, a passing, ticking fancy.
A bomb. A bomb that’ll go off soon for him, for me,
and I notice in our fathers’ poems a reciprocal dwelling
on absence, that they wonder why we disappeared
as soon as we got our licenses, why we wanted
the rocket cars, as if running away from them
to kiss girls who looked like mirrors of our mothers
wasn’t fast enough, and it turns out they did
start to say something, to form the words hey
or stay, but we’d turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leave, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.