Later On

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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

H.L. Mencken Kindle collection for 80¢

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H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), famous Baltimore writer, had a glistening career, arousing both ire and admiration, generally not in the same person You can buy for 80¢ a Kindle collection of seven of his books:

The American Credo
The American Language
The Philosophy Of Friedrich Nietzsche
A Book Of Burlesques
A Book Of Prefaces
Damn! A Book Of Calumny
In Defense Of Women

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 11:13 am

Interpreting Sun Tzu: The Art of Failure?

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John F. Sullivan writes in The Strategy Bridge:

If you now wish to inquire into the Way of [the ancient sages], may I suggest that one can hardly be certain of it? To be certain of it without evidence is foolishness, to appeal to it though unable to be certain of it is fraud.
—Hanfeizi (3rd century BCE)
[1]

“Translation,” an American poet and translator of Dante’s Inferno opined, “is the art of failure.”[2]  In Don Quixote, the eponymous character notes that distortion is often a natural byproduct of the effort: “translation from one language into another…is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side.”[3] The reverse tapestry is an apt metaphor for reading any ancient Chinese text, particularly The Art of War. While the use of logographs to express complex thoughts has been a constant feature throughout China’s recorded history, the written language of thousands of years ago differs significantly from its modern variant. While the original Art of War consists of approximately 6,ooo characters, a modern Chinese version requires more than double that number to convey the same approximate meaning.[4] Even most native Chinese speakers, therefore, read a translation of the original.

While The Art of War is surprisingly short and compact, much remains ambiguous in its received message. As a result, our contemporary interpretations require constant skepticism, debate, and revision. While Sun Tzu’s text is arguably the oldest within the core strategic canon, it has been studied for the least amount of time by Western military theorists, in comparison with Thucydides and Clausewitz, for example. First translated into English only in the early twentieth century, strategists largely ignored The Art of War until the Vietnam War renewed interest in Asian military thinking.

Despite the limited scholarly focus on the text, in his foreword to the 1963 Griffith translation B.H. Liddell Hart confidently proclaimed that The Art of War “has never been surpassed in comprehensiveness and depth of understanding…Sun Tzu has clearer vision, more profound insight, and eternal freshness.” The certitude, though, with which we purport to understand The Art of War’s “clear vision” and “eternal freshness” remains inversely proportional to the collective effort we have put into researching its historical context or subjecting it to harsh philological analysis and extended debate.[5]  Unlike Thucydides’ work, which has been well-served by the commentarial traditions of A.W. Gomme and Simon Hornblower, nothing remotely similar exists in English for contextualizing this Chinese classic. While translations of Sun Tzu vastly outnumber those of Clausewitz, reliable secondary-source references on the latter theorist and his milieu abound, while those on the former remain conspicuously absent.

Given the scarcity of authoritative writings or clarifying analyses on Sun Tzu’s text, how confident should we be that we have correctly grasped “the Way” of this ancient sage? Of particular importance, one of the core ideas we almost universally believe serves as a bedrock to Sun Tzu’s overall military philosophy—that his ideal strategic objective is “to take the enemy whole and intact”—rests on a problematic and potentially untenable textual foundation.[6] Instead, a stronger case favors an interpretation of Sun Tzu prioritizing self-preservation. Whether or not one’s adversary is destroyed or taken non-violently remains a distant secondary concern.

TRANSLATION OR INTERPRETATION: WHICH STATE MUST ONE PRESERVE?

The idea of “taking the enemy whole and intact” comes from the first verse of the third chapter. Lionel Giles’ 1910 English translation proposed the following rendition:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.[7]

Since Giles, almost every subsequent translator of the text produced a similar interpretation. Before comparing with the original Chinese, though, it is helpful to also consider Ralph Sawyer’s version, since his work is more consistent and literal than either the Giles or the Griffith translations:

Preserving the [enemy’s] state capital is best, destroying their state capital is second-best.
Preserving their army is best, destroying their army is second-best.
Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions is second-best.
Preserving their companies is best, destroying their companies is second-best.
Preserving their squads is best, destroying their squads is second-best.[8]

Now looking at its original written form, even without any knowledge of Chinese characters, it is clear that the verse in question is structured as a nearly identical repeating pattern. The only . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2021 at 11:03 am

Yesterday Never Existed: Osip Mandelstam

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Sophie Pinkham writes at Poetry Foundation:

Osip Mandelstam once started a poem with the line, “No, I have never been anyone’s contemporary.” He was born in 1891 but inhabited a poetic world in which he had conversations with Dante and sat at the seaside with Ovid, in which he was as much Greek, Roman, and Florentine as he was Russian. Born in Warsaw to a Jewish leather merchant and his music teacher wife, Mandelstam grew up in St. Petersburg, where French governesses taught him about Napoleon and Joan of Arc; as a teenager, he studied in France, Germany, and Italy, where he experienced the first twinges of what he later called “nostalgia for world culture.” His tender, aching preoccupation with the past set him apart in an era obsessed with the future.

Mandelstam’s poetic career was launched under the aegis of Symbolism, a movement that treated the poet as a medium offering access to the distant world of the real, which could be perceived only through the veil of paraphrase. For Symbolists, language was a mere approximation: a means rather than an end. Like other Russian Symbolists, Mandelstam was much influenced by the 19th-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who wrote highly ambiguous metaphysical poetry devoid of lyric heroes. (One of Tyutchev’s most famous poems begins, “The mind cannot grasp Russia.”)

Around 1912, Mandelstam renounced Symbolism and joined the short-lived but long-remembered Acmeists. Central members included Anna Akhmatova, who became his lifelong friend, and her husband, Nikolai Gumilev. Acmeism sought to use poetry to bring words to the pinnacle—the acme—of their being, encompassing all the cultural history that language carried with it. From that point on, Mandelstam’s aim was not so much to create something new as to achieve heightened perception of what already existed. In “Tristia,” a poem from 1918 named for the verse epistles Ovid wrote in exile on the Black Sea, Mandelstam proclaims, “All has been seen, all will be seen again, / only the moment of recognition is sweet.”

As Mandelstam pondered eternal return, many of his contemporaries sought to cast off what they saw as the shackles of old language. The artistic experiments of this period were largely iconoclastic—throwing the classics from the ship of modernity, as the Futurists’ 1917 manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” put it. Avant-garde writers sought to invent a new kind of language, sometimes quite literally, as in Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh’s transrational language, zaum (sometimes rendered in English as “beyonsense”), which they hoped would achieve a universality that could put an end to all human discord. Neologism thrived. But for Mandelstam, “old” versus “new” was a false dichotomy, and language’s endurance was the source of the power and pleasure of poetry. In his 1921 essay “The Word and Culture,” excerpted in Peter France’s excellent new translation Black Earth (New Directions, 2021), Mandelstam writes

Poetry is a plow, which turns over the earth so that the deep layers of time, the black earth, come to the surface. But there are periods when humanity, not satisfied with the present and nostalgic for the deep layers of time, longs like a plowman for the virgin soil of past ages. Revolution in art leads inevitably to classicism.… You often hear people say: That’s fine, but it belongs to yesterday. But I say: Yesterday has still to be born. It has not yet really existed…. What is true for one poet is true for all. There is no need to set up any schools, no need to invent one’s own poetics.

For Mandelstam, the avant-garde was “calculated suicide out of curiosity.” He likewise rejected the teleological orientation of the Soviet project. The fantasy of conquering time, of arriving in the glorious future ahead of schedule, was central to early Soviet culture—whether in the form of quasi-scientific schemes for human immortality or in “production novels,” such as Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward! (1932)literary accompaniment to the five-year plans that Stakhanovite workers sought to fulfill in record time. As Mandelstam observed, things actually worked the other way round: “Time wants to consume the state.” He was right, too, about revolution leading to classicism. In the 1930s, just a decade after Mandelstam made his claim, Soviet culture beat its great retreat from the avant-garde and embraced socialist realism, a kind of aspirational Marxist-Leninist classicism.

One of Mandelstam’s most famous poems, which France translates beautifully, opens with this stanza:

The thread of golden honey flowed from the jar
so weighty and slow that our hostess had time to declare:
Here in melancholy Tauris, where fate has brought us,
We are not bored at all—and glanced back over her shoulder.

The readerly jaw may drop at the year of composition: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2021 at 1:57 pm

The value of imitation in the arts

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Interesting quotation from David Perell’s newsletter:

I once met a painting coach who tells students to copy their favorite artists.

At first, students resist.

In response, the coach tells them to listen for friction. “Do you hear that resistance? It’s the whisper of your unique style.”

Through imitation, we discover our voice.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2021 at 7:28 pm

“Why I Love Lucy Maud”

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Carol Volkart, a retired Vancouver Sun editor and reporter in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, writes in Berfrois;

When I first met Lucy Maud Montgomery in her journals a few months ago, she was a sparkling flirt of 14 tumbling off sleds in winter snowbanks, losing her hat and laughing, laughing, laughing. When I said goodbye to her recently, she was an anguished woman of 67, full of drugs, with a depressive husband and a heartless son who may have harassed her into the grave. The last entry in the journals she kept from 1889 to 1942 described her last years as “hell, hell, hell. My mind has gone, everything I have lived for has gone – the world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is.”

Like many people the world over, I have known L.M. Montgomery as primarily the author of Anne of Green Gables, a book I adored as a child. I loved its lyrical descriptions of nature in an idyllic island setting, and its seemingly real characters with their foibles and wit and bravery. I suspect it was Anne that first gave me the idea of writing myself; the notion that the ordinary people and places around me held their own interest and potential for drama. Anne, first published in 1908, still holds its charm for youngsters and draws hordes of tourists to Prince Edward Island, but as an adult, I cooled. Dipping into it briefly a few years ago, I grimaced over the purple passages about nature and never got further.

That may have been why I let Montgomery’s five volumes of journals, published between 1985 and 2004, gather dust on our bookshelves until last summer, when Covid isolation opened up more time for reading. Curiously, my partner John, who had never read any of Montgomery’s fiction, was intrigued by the journals. He began buying them for me as gifts as soon as they were published, and went on to buying them for “us,” gobbling them up himself whenever a new one came out.

Now I know why. The journals are far more fascinating than Anne or any of its sequels. They’re a classic tale of a love-starved child overcoming tremendous odds to achieve great success, then toppling to a sad end. Beyond that, they’re a unique look – through the sharp eyes and articulate pen of a rural Canadian woman – at a rapidly changing society, from the late 1800s through the First World War, the Depression and into the Second World War. We learn what it was like to wear puffed sleeves so big that women had to be stuffed into their coats, to travel for hours in a horse-drawn buggy through rain and snowstorms, to wait obsessively for news from the trenches of the war, to watch a best friend die of the 1918 Spanish flu, to first encounter motorized vehicles, wireless, the telephone and even catch the first glimpse of an airplane. But what keeps us hooked are the small details of the daily life of a remarkable woman: Here’s the internationally famous author cleaning out the stables when her husband isn’t up to the job, grinding her way through boring church teas in her role as a minister’s wife, dealing with nosey neighbours, misbehaving sons and covering up for her husband’s dramatic mental breakdowns. As we accompany her step by intimate step, we’re also drawn by a sense of foreboding; clues abound that the path ahead is dark. As in a horror movie, we want, at some points, to yell: “Don’t go down to the cellar, Maud!” For those of us who like to dig into the whys and wherefores of human lives – possibly to better understand our own – Montgomery’s is a feast.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of Montgomery’s life is  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

14 June 2021 at 1:53 pm

Tuning in to a TV/streaming series, with “Ragnarok” as an example.

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I’ve been watching on Netflix a Norwegian series titled “Ragnarok,” which explores Norse mythology in a modern context. Last night I watched Season 2 Episode 5, and by now I’m thorough transfixed. The initial episodes were interesting enough to keep me watching, but now I’m gripped by the drama.

I’ve noticed before how some series get significantly better as they progress, and I wonder whether that’s because the writers and actors better understand the characters and their possibilities (thus the series really does get better), or whether it’s that we the audience are learning the series pace and meaning of the series (“meaning” in the sense of our understanding what the director thought important and what the actors convey). That is, the series had its qualities from the start, but we only gradually become attuned to them and start to get it.

It’s probably a bit of both, plus as the series goes on we by watching know some of the history and backstory and understand the characters’ histories and motivations, so that after a few seasons, a very small incident — say a character refusing a cigarette offered by another character, carries layers of meaning to those who see the incident in the context of all that has come before.

In the case of “Ragnarok,” another factor might be in play for audiences outside Norway. The series is in Norwegian (with English subtitles, thank Odin), and the writer, director, and actors are all Norwegian, so I imagine that they were steeped in Norse mythology from childhood simply as a component of cultural tradition. The gods and giants and heroes and incidents are for them a familiar terrain and easily carry mean and evoke emotional responses. Those memes for them have immediate meaning.

But that US/Canadian audiences are not so immersed in that knowledge, so initially it is more remote. However, as we watch the series, we gradually tune in and start to see and understand the patterns, background, motivations and interplay, and the story becomes deeper and more meaningful.

Some series develop a gripping and coherent story world through the sort of development I describe. “West Wing,” was one, and certainly “The Wire” is like this in spades, as characters develop, move to new jobs, and relationships develop and change. The French series “Spiral” (“Engrenages“) is another example.

Written by Leisureguy

14 June 2021 at 9:55 am

Where Gender-Neutral Pronouns Come From

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Michael Waters writes in the Atlantic:

On a frigid January day, Ella Flagg Young—the first woman to serve as superintendent of the Chicago public-school system—took the stage in front of a room of school principals and announced that she had come up with a new solution to an old problem. “I have simply solved a need that has been long impending,” she said. “The English language is in need of a personal pronoun of the third person, singular number, that will indicate both sexes and will thus eliminate our present awkwardness of speech.” Instead of he or she, or his or her, Young proposed that schools adopt a version that blended the two: he’erhis’er, and him’er.

It was 1912, and Young’s idea drew gasps from the principals, according to newspaper reports from the time. When Young used his’er in a sentence, one shouted, “Wh-what was that? We don’t quite understand what that was you said.”

Young was actually borrowing the pronouns from an insurance broker named Fred S. Pond, who had invented them the year prior. But in the subsequent weeks, her proposal became a national news story, earning baffled write-ups in the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. Some embraced the new pronouns—but many dismissed them as an unnecessary linguistic complication, and others despaired that the introduction of gender-neutral pronouns would precipitate an end to language as they knew it. An editor for Harper’s Weekly, for instance, insisted that “when ‘man’ ceases to include women we shall cease to need a language.”

Today’s gender-neutral English-language pronouns make space not just for two genders, but for many more, serving as a way for people who fall outside the binary of “man” and “woman” to describe themselves. In recent years especially, they’ve become a staple of dating apps, college campuses, and email signatures. In 2020, a Trevor Project survey found that one in four LGBTQ youth uses pronouns other than he/him and she/her, and the American Dialect Society named the singular they its word of the decade.

Meanwhile, commentators have forecast the demise of language once again. A 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed went so far as to claim that using they/them pronouns amounted to “sacrilege,” and an Australian politician said that an effort to celebrate they/them pronouns was “political correctness gone mad.” Last month, after the singer Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary, a conservative commentator called they/them pronouns “poor grammar” and an example of “low academic achievement.” Bundled into these arguments is the idea that gender-neutral pronouns are a new phenomenon, an outgrowth of the internet that is only now spreading into other spheres—suggesting that the gender fluidity they describe is also a fad.

Until relatively recently, gender-neutral pronouns were something people used to describe others—mixed groups, or individuals whose gender was unknown—not something people used to describe themselves. But even though people did not, in Young’s time, personally identify as nonbinary in the way we understand it today (though some identified as “neuter”), neutral pronouns existed—as did an understanding that the language we had to describe gender was insufficient. For more than three centuries, at least, English speakers have yearned for more sophisticated ways to talk about gender.

Likely the oldest gender-neutral pronoun in the English language is the singular they, which was, for centuries, a common way to identify a person whose gender was indefinite. For a time in the 1600s, medical texts even referred to individuals who did not accord with binary gender standards as they/them. The pronoun’s fortunes were reversed only in the 18th century, when the notion that the singular they was grammatically incorrect came into vogue among linguists.

In place of they, though, came a raft of new pronouns. According to Dennis Baron, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who wrote the definitive history of gender-neutral pronouns in his book What’s Your Pronoun?, English speakers have proposed 200 to 250 pronouns since the 1780s. Although most petered out almost immediately after their introduction, a few took on lives of their own.

Thon—short for that one—has resurfaced frequently since an attorney named Charles Converse first introduced it as a more elegant way of writing he or she. Converse claimed to have coined the word as far back as 1858, but it didn’t actually appear publicly in a magazine until 1884. The word made a splash in

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Written by Leisureguy

5 June 2021 at 2:29 pm

Punctuation in novels

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Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right).

Adam J Calhoun has an interesting article in Medium from a few years back:

When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?

Inspired , I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. When placed next to a novel with more simplified prose — Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy — it is a stark difference (see above).

Yes, the contrast is stark. But the wild mix of symbols can be beautiful, too. Look at the array of dots and dashes above! [omitted here; click link to see – LG] This morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful. We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action.

Want to see more? I have a few posters of books up on and . Why not print out all of the punctuation of Pride And Prejudice and cover your walls?

As I mentioned above, the difference between these novels is stark. Look at the contribution of each type of punctuation: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2021 at 9:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

Three groundbreaking journalists saw the Vietnam War differently. It’s no coincidence they were women.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Long Boret, center, meets with war correspondent Elizabeth Becker in Cambodia in 1974. (Elizabeth Becker)

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post:

Frances FitzGerald paid her own way into Vietnam. She was an “on spec” reporter with no editor to guide her, no office to support her, and no promise that anyone would publish what she wrote about the war.

She knocked out her first article on a blue Olivetti portable typewriter she had carried from New York and mailed it the cheap and slow way from a post office in the heart of Saigon’s French quarter to the Village Voice, nearly 9,000 miles away.

It arrived, and on April 21, 1966, the Voice published FitzGerald’s indictment of the chaotic U.S. war policy.

“The result was a highly original piece written in the style of an outsider, someone who asked different questions and admitted when she didn’t have answers,” wrote Elizabeth Becker in her new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” which celebrates the work of FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy.

Becker, a former war correspondent in Cambodia toward the end of the decades-long conflict, wrote about these women in part because she had experienced much of what they did — just a little later, and with appreciation for the paths they’d broken.

“I went through it at the tail end, and they were my role models,” Becker told me last week. She admired them because they had broken gender barriers, endured sexual harassment and been belittled by journalistic peers who thought women had no place near a war zone.

But “I wanted to write more than a ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ book,” said Becker, who has broken a few of her own: It’s likely that, as a stringer in Cambodia in the early 1970s, she was the first woman to regularly report from a war zone for The Washington Post. Later, she became the senior foreign editor at NPR and a New York Times correspondent.

What struck Becker about her subjects went far beyond gender. It was the women’s approach to their work. They were more interested in people than in battlefields, quicker to see the terrible cost of violence to the Vietnamese as well as to Westerners, less likely than many of their male colleagues to swallow the government’s party line.

“They brought this common humanity and an originality to their work,” Becker said.

Remarkably early, FitzGerald clearly described what American officials didn’t want the public to see: the chaos, the lack of sensible purpose.

“For the Embassy here the problem has not been how to deal with the crisis — there is no way to deal with it under U.S. Standard Operating Procedures — but rather how to explain what is happening in any coherent terms,” she wrote in that 1966 article for the Voice. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

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28 March 2021 at 6:22 pm

Kevin Drum muses on why blog audiences declined

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Kevin Drum has a post on the decline of blog audiences over the past decade, and it’s interesting — particularly the likelihood that capitalism (aka the need to monetize everything) bears part of the blame.

My own blog audience is relatively small in number (though I like to think high in quality), and that’s fine with me. I have negative interest in being an “influencer,” in the monetizing sense of the term. I do like to be helpful, but that’s not the same thing (as you know).

Mainly I blog because I enjoy it, and I hope that what interests me interests others enough to become readers. I don’t pursue a particular theme or restrict myself to particular topics. As it says above, this is a blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Still, Drum’s post is interesting.

I notice that he uses Newsblur as his reader; I use Inoreader. They’re much the same. And there are others — for example, Feedly. For a good list, see “The 10 Best Free RSS Reader Apps.”

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23 March 2021 at 7:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Writing

Why Biden’s Inaugural Address Succeeded: View of a one-time chief presidential speechwriter

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Political speeches follow a surprisingly simple set of rules—or at least the successful ones do. Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden observed them all in his inaugural address. Although his 20 minutes at the lectern are not likely to be parsed and studied for rhetorical flourishes, with this speech Biden accomplished something more important: He signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.

The first rule in political rhetoric is authenticity. Does the essence of the speech—its vocabulary, its rhythms, its cadences, its tendencies toward “plain” versus “fancy” tone—match the essence of the speaker? Does the rhetoric call attention to itself? Or does it mainly serve to transmit the mood, intention, and ideas the speaker hopes to convey?

Martin Luther King Jr. was modern America’s greatest rhetorician. But the very words and cadences of his speeches that have gone down in history—“I’ve been to the mountaintop …  I’ve seen the promised land”—would have sounded forced and stagey from most other prominent Americans. They would not have rung true even from the first Black president, Barack Obama, whose single greatest speech—his “Amazing Grace” elegy for the victims of the racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina—was delivered at the historic Mother Emanuel Church, where King himself once spoke.

Obama’s eloquence, as I once argued here, is in the paragraph-scale development of ideas, rather than the sentence-by-sentence coinage of standalone phrases. The American politician I can most imagine presenting a Martin Luther King speech and sounding authentic would have been Barbara Jordan, the late Democratic Representative from Texas—who indeed gave a very King-like speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.

When it comes to rhetoric, many politicians would love to be considered another King, another FDR, another Jordan, another Churchill. But the wisest of them aspire to sound like the best possible version of themselves. (And the wisest of speechwriters aspire to make their own work invisible—to serve, in essence, as glaziers, creating transparent panes through which the speaker’s intent can be most clearly seen.)

Joe Biden sounded like the best version of himself on Inauguration Day. Few if any of the sentences he uttered will be chiseled into marble. The exception illustrating the rule was Biden’s summary statement about foreign policy: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” This line, which he has used in other speeches (and which Bill Clinton also used in his speech nominating Obama back in 2008), was both a distillation of a swing away from Trumpism (as Fred Kaplan observed) and a handy case study of the rhetorical technique called chiasmus, or reversing terms. (Homely example: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s …” High-flown example: “Ask not what your country can do for you …”)

But the speech in its entirety was admirably plain and direct, and therefore plausible. It sounded not like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any other Democratic president, but like Joe Biden. It sounded like the vice president who served loyally for eight years under Obama, like the candidate who struck and stayed true to a “Can’t we just get along?” tone from the start of his 2020 campaign, like the president-elect who would not rise to the bait of Donald Trump’s taunts or sink to the depths of his discourse but instead calmly reasserted his plans to address the nation’s crises. (But it also sounded like the person who had learned from the bitter fights Obama had when trying to get his legislation and nominees approved, and from the assault on the democratic process itself launched by Trump and many of his allies.) The speech’s tone matched the speaker, and thus the tone was right.

The second rule in political rhetoric is  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

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23 January 2021 at 6:37 pm

Quentin Tarantino’s movie-making at three budget levels

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This brief look at the technical work-a-day aspect of making movies I found fascinating. There’s more in the Open Culture post that brought it to my attention. Here’s the summary:

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23 January 2021 at 12:39 pm

Queen of suspense – the art of Patricia Highsmith

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The Far Away Melody (1945), Rolf Tietgens. Courtesy Keith de Lellis Gallery, New York

Matthew Sperling writes in Apollo:

Patricia Highsmith, who was born 100 years ago this month, was already known as a giant of suspense fiction at her death in 1995. Since then, while the stock of some of her literary contemporaries has gone down (think of Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, or Norman Mailer), her reputation as a writer of serious artistic and philosophical achievement has increased. The 21st century – when imposture is at the heart of online life, when self-identification precedes authenticity – seems more and more like the age of Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s greatest creation.

Less well known, however, is that the final publication Highsmith oversaw was not about murder or secrecy or guilt, but about drawing. In perhaps the last piece of writing that she ever completed, the foreword published in German in Patricia Highsmith: Zeichnungen (Diogenes), the book of her drawings and paintings that appeared posthumously in 1995, Highsmith argued for the unity of writing and visual art:

Why should it be surprising that many writers enjoy drawing or sculpting? Perhaps some of them also have a go at composing here and there. All arts are one, and all art – ballet too – is a means of telling stories. A picture also tells a story. [author’s translation]

While Highsmith claims not to take her own art very seriously (‘I enjoy it when I succeed in a picture; and if a friend likes it, I say, “If you like, you can have it”’), she also has a keen sense of what writing and drawing shared, and how they differed:

Drawing, painting, modelling – in my case also making tables or other things out of wood – means that you live in another element for a while. For the writer, the art of the painter is something totally other, and wonderful: a picture can be seen and grasped and understood in an instant, whereas it takes much longer with a book or a short story…

Part of the value of making images and objects, then, is that it allows you to become absorbed in another element. In 1989, unwell and beset by worries, Highsmith reminded herself in her diary to ‘put more variation in my life, such as drawing & carpentering’. Throughout her life she was attracted to making as a way of imposing order on her surroundings, whether it was in her tool-shed or in her contributions to the design of ‘Casa Highsmith’, the almost windowless house in Tegna, Switzerland, that she helped to design for herself. (‘Hitler’s bunker’, a friend called it.)

But the painter also has one advantage over the writer, in the immediacy with which their creations can tell a story. For a novelist who was so dedicated to the careful elaboration of plot, it must have sometimes seemed an enviable position. As well as putting fictional painters into her novels on a number of occasions, bringing one form of storytelling into another, Highsmith produced drawings, watercolours and gouaches throughout her life. The 106 images chosen for Zeichnungen, none of which had been exhibited or published before, are taken from many hundreds, spread between dozens of sketchbooks, that now reside in her archive in Switzerland. In the best of them, Highsmith demonstrates a spontaneous facility for seeing and shaping the truth of an image, which makes her drawings something more than just a sideline to her writing life.

Throughout Highsmith’s life, she had close ties to the visual arts. Her mother, biological father and step-father were all commercial artists, and her first job in New York was writing for a comic-book publisher. She was divided between pursuing a career in writing or in art for several years. ‘I was on the fence ’till I was 23 as to whether I wanted to do drawing or painting or writing’, she recalled in 1991. Naturally left-handed but forced by schoolteachers to write with her right, she continued to draw with her left hand. Wherever she went, even after her novels and stories had become her life’s work, she turned out landscapes, window views, drawings of her pet cats and snails, and sketches of her friends and lovers of the time. In 1958, she even provided the drawings for a children’s book, in collaboration with her lover, Doris Sanders, who came up with the text. As the captions in Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda go from ‘A veil on a snail’ to ‘A monk and a skunk and some junk on an elephant’s trunk’, Highsmith’s jaunty drawings rise to the challenge each time, maintaining a poised and decisive line as the subjects grow more and more absurd.

Living in Greenwich Village throughout the 1940s brought Highsmith into contact with a varied circle of friends, acquaintances and lovers from the art world. They included the collector Peggy Guggenheim, the gallerist Betty Parsons, the critic Rosalind Constable, and painters including Buffie Johnson, Lil Picard, and Allela Cornell. Highsmith and Cornell had a brief relationship in 1943, during which Highsmith sketched her new lover as a goggle-eyed tomboy with her nose in a book, and Cornell painted the oil portrait of Highsmith which the novelist would carry with her wherever she lived for the rest of her life. In that picture, the young Highsmith already resembles the older, gloomier figure she would become; her complexion seems tinted with green, and her large, dark eyes stare intensely back at the viewer.

A different view of Highsmith emerges from the photographs by two other friends, Ruth Bernhard and Rolf Tietgens, for whom she posed in the 1940s. Both German émigrés, the two were sharing a studio when Highsmith met them. In Bernhard’s portrait from 1948, we find Highsmith clasping her arms around a knee that is drawn up in front of her in a gesture of girlish self-protection, yet the look on her face seems one of steady purpose and confidence. It is the image which most bears out Bernhard’s opinion that ‘Pat was a very attractive person, a wonderful-looking woman, and people were drawn to her’.

Tietgens, meanwhile – one of the gay men with whom Highsmith attempted what she described as a ‘not quite successful’ sexual relationship – took nude photographs of Highsmith (he saw her as ‘really a boy’), and used her as a model in several striking surrealist photocollages. In one, The Far Away Melody (1945), she is superimposed in double exposure on a deserted rural landscape, appearing wistful and ghostly as she tilts her head upwards, eyes closed. In another from 1942, her disembodied head, with eyes again closed and hair spread out above her, floats in front of a cloudy sky. And in the weirdest of them, also from 1942, the same head has been superimposed on a crumpled sheet of paper, burnt around the edges, giving Highsmith the appearance of Christ on Saint Veronica’s veil, while scraps of burnt paper, a doll’s-house chair and window frame, and a large shell stand next to her on the stage set. Since Highsmith is a writer whose own works are so good at creating the sensation of dread and the uncanny in the reader while never departing from the grammar of realism, it is striking to find her image at the centre of a work which summons its own sense of poetry through surreal juxtaposition . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including more images.

Written by Leisureguy

15 January 2021 at 11:06 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Writing

A template for a good email message

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Via Reddit:

Dear Person I am Writing To,

This is an optional sentence introducing who I am and work for, included if the addressee has never corresponded with me before. The second optional sentence reminds the person where we met, if relevant. This sentence states the purpose of the email.

This optional paragraph describes in more detail what’s needed. This sentence discusses relevant information like how soon an answer is needed, what kind of answer is needed, and any information that the other person might find useful. If there’s a lot of information, it’s a good idea to separate this paragraph into two or three paragraphs to avoid having a Wall of Text.

If a description paragraph was used, close with a restatement of the initial request, in case the addressee ignored the opening paragraph.

This sentence is just a platitude (usually thanking them for their time) because people think I am standoffish, unreasonably demanding, or cold if it’s not included.

Closing salutation, Signature

The person who created this notes:

“People always ask me how I can fire off work emails so quickly. Nobody has figured out yet that it’s the same email with the details change as needed.”—Anonymous on the Internet.

Written by Leisureguy

3 January 2021 at 11:36 am

J.G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction

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J.G. Ballard was one of the great science-fiction writers, and he also achieved excellence in other fiction. His 1984 novel Empire of the Sun is based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese takeover in WWII, and in 1987 that novel was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Christian Bale (playing the boy), John Malkovitch, and Miranda Richardson.

Thomas Frick interviewed J.G. Ballard for Paris Review in 1984. The interview will be available outside the paywall for only a short time, so read it soon if you’re interested (or clip it to Evernote or Pocket, both free). It begins:

The son of an English businessman, J. G. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. For the past twenty-odd years, he has lived more or less anonymously in Shepperton, a dingy, nondescript suburb of London lying under the approach to Heathrow Airport. Ballard’s writing is so often situated within the erotic, technical, postholocaust landscape, and so often concerned with the further reaches of postmodern consciousness, that it is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself. On first meeting, Ballard is standing somewhat shyly in the doorway of a modest two-story dwelling similar to all the others on the block; one would take him as a typical suburban lord of the manor. He is wearing a brown sweater over his shirt, protected against the faint chill of a summer afternoon.

Inside, two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminum lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household. Until a few years ago, Ballard, a widower, raised his three children here as a single parent.

We sit down in his study, which appears to have once been the living room. Ballard works at an old dining table against the wall, upon which sits his middle-aged typewriter, surrounded by fairly tidy stacks of letters, books, and papers. The bookshelves are overflowing, packed every which way with an odd collection, including a thick, illustrated anatomy text called Crash Injuries, the complete Warren Commission Report, the collected works of Shakespeare, and many books on surrealism, dadaism, futurism, and pop art.

An extremely articulate and wide-ranging conversationalist, Ballard expresses his ideas, speculations, and concerns with considerable force. A serious sense of humor is also evident, and one often has the feeling that he is continually amused, or at least bemused, by the sheer fact of existence.

At the time of this interview, Ballard had just finished the first draft of his latest novel, Empire of the Sun, which was published in October 1984 to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s my first good review in the States in fifteen years,” comments Ballard, referring to the generally indifferent reception his books have received here to date. This is a situation which has long been puzzling to Ballard, who consciously draws on specifically American iconography in much of his work. Yet, within just a few weeks of publication, Empire of the Sun has already become his most commercially successful work. This “nonfiction” novel—a great departure in subject matter for Ballard—details his own adolescent experiences, first in war-formed Shanghai as the son of a British merchant, then, after Pearl Harbor, as a fugitive-then-prisoner-of-war in the Lunghua Assembly Center. “I assume that it took me a long time to forget, and then a long time to remember,” Ballard recently told an interviewer who asked why he had only now attempted this reconstruction.

After an hour or so of talk, Teacher’s Scotch and sodas are served, and Ballard discourses briefly on the virtues of Shepperton water (several low-lying reservoirs are nearby). While the sun is setting in the shady green backyard, visible through French windows, a moment of suburban quiet prevails. “I don’t know why I ended up here, really . . .” Ballard comments. “Actually, the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom. It needn’t be much; kicking the dog will do.”

INTERVIEWER: Are you ready to risk the fate of the centipede, who, when asked exactly how he crawled, shot himself?

J. G. BALLARD: I’ll do my best to examine my hands in the mirror.

INTERVIEWER: So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD: Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan . . .

BALLARD: I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes.

INTERVIEWER: So you rely on the magnetism of an obsession as a way of proceeding?

BALLARD: Yes, so the unity of the enterprise is forever there. A whole universe can be bounded in a nutshell. Of course, why one chooses certain topics as the subject for one’s obsessions is a different matter. Why was I obsessed by car crashes? It’s such a peculiar idea.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, why were you?

BALLARD: Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

INTERVIEWER: Your work does at times seem to possess a sort of prophetic quality. Are you aware of this as you write?

BALLARD: It’s true that I have very little idea what I shall be writing next, but at the same time I have a powerful premonition of everything that lies ahead of me, even ten years ahead. I don’t mean anything too portentous by this. I suppose people—certainly imaginative writers—who consciously exploit their own obsessions do so in part because those obsessions lie like stepping-stones in front of them, and their feet are drawn towards them. At any given time, I’m aware that my mind and imagination are setting towards a particular compass point, that the whole edifice is preparing itself to lean in one way, like a great ramshackle barn.

INTERVIEWER: Has this manipulation of your obsessions come to feel at all mechanical over the years?

BALLARD: I do exploit myself in a calculated way, but there again one has to remember the old joke about the laboratory rat who said, “I have this scientist trained—every time I press this lever he gives me a pellet of food.”

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship.

BALLARD: I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality, just as actors need to act all the time to make up for some deficiency in their sense of themselves. Years ago, sitting at the café outside the American Express building in Athens, I watched the British actor Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa) cross the street in the lunchtime crowd, buy Time at a magazine kiosk, indulge in brief banter with the owner, sit down, order a drink, then get up and walk away—every moment of which, every gesture, was clearly acted, that is, stressed and exaggerated in a self-conscious way, although he obviously thought that no one was aware who he was, and he didn’t think that anyone was watching him. I take it that the same process works for the writer, except that the writer is assigning himself his own roles. I have a sense of certain gathering obsessions and roles, certain corners of the field where the next stage of the hunt will be carried on. I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.

INTERVIEWER: I believe I once read—perhaps it was in connection with the Vermilion Sands collection—that you actually enjoyed the notion of cultural decadence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

The long history of *

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The site Shady Characters has an interesting post that begins:

The as­ter­isk is old. Really old. Gran­ted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bring­hurst claims in the oth­er­wise im­pec­cable Ele­ments of Ty­po­graphic Style1 (Bring­hurst con­fuses it with a star-like cunei­form mark that rep­res­ents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two mil­len­nia un­der its belt non­ethe­less. I go into greater de­tail in the Shady Char­ac­ters book, but the abridged ver­sion of the as­ter­isk’s ori­gin story goes something like this.


.
In the third cen­tury bce, at Al­ex­an­dria in Egypt, a lib­rar­ian named Zen­odotus was was strug­gling to edit the works of Homer into something ap­proach­ing their ori­ginal form. I say a lib­rar­ian, but really Zen­odotus was the lib­rar­ian, the first in a long line to be em­ployed at Al­ex­an­dria by the Ptole­maic pharaohs.3 Many spuri­ous ad­di­tions, de­le­tions and al­ter­a­tions had been made to the Odys­sey and Iliad since the time of their com­pos­i­tion, but Zen­odotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he star­ted draw­ing a short dash (—) in the mar­gin be­side each line he con­sidered to be su­per­flu­ous, and, in do­ing so, in­aug­ur­ated the field of lit­er­ary cri­ti­cism.4 Named the ob­elos, or “roast­ing spit”, in the sev­enth cen­tury Isidore of Seville cap­tured the es­sence of Zen­odotus’s mark when he wrote that “like an ar­row, it slays the su­per­flu­ous and pierces the false”.5

The as­ter­isk, in turn, was cre­ated by one of Zen­odotus’s suc­cessors. In the second cen­tury bce, Aristarchus of Sam­o­thrace in­tro­duced an ar­ray of new crit­ical sym­bols: the diple (>) called out note­worthy fea­tures in the text; the diple per­iestig­mene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus dis­agreed with Zen­odotus’s ed­its; and, fi­nally, the as­ter­iskos (※), or “little star”, de­noted du­plic­ate lines.6,7 Oc­ca­sion­ally, Aristarchus paired an as­ter­isk and ob­elus to in­dic­ate lines that be­longed else­where in the poem.8

Thus the as­ter­isk was born. And right from the be­gin­ning, it came with a warn­ing: a text with an as­ter­isk at­tached to it is not the whole story.


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Hav­ing sur­vived the in­ter­ven­ing mil­len­nia with its visual form largely in­tact, by the me­di­eval period the as­ter­isk had moved into a new role as an “an­chor” for read­ers’ notes: where a reader wanted to link a note scribbled in the mar­gin to a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage in the text, a pair of as­ter­isks would do the trick. Later, in prin­ted books, au­thors used the as­ter­isk to call out their own asides.9

By the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the as­ter­isk had be­come the de facto leader of the foot­note clan. In 1953, a lex­ico­grapher named Eric Part­ridge ex­plained that “the fol­low­ing are of­ten used”: ‘*’, ‘†’, ‘**’, ‘‡’ or ‘††’, ‘***’ or ‘⁂’ or ‘⁂’, and fi­nally ‘†††’.10 Things have calmed down a little since Part­ridge’s time, but ‘*’, ‘†’, and ‘‡’ are still re­l­at­ively com­mon and even ‘§’, ‘||’ and ‘¶’ ap­pear on oc­ca­sion. Should a writer’s pen­chant for foot­notes ex­tend past five or six per page, lettered or numbered notes may be a bet­ter op­tion and, in­deed, the fre­quency of ty­po­graphic foot­note mark­ers does seem to have waned over the past few dec­ades.


.
Yet even as the as­ter­isk is used less of­ten as a foot­note marker, its im­plied mean­ing — that there is more here than meets the eye — is as strong as ever. For Amer­ican news­pa­pers, merely to use the word “as­ter­isk” is to tar­nish its sub­ject by as­so­ci­ation; for Amer­ican sports writers, doubly so.

It all goes back to 1961, and a base­ball es­tab­lish­ment un­will­ing to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 7:22 am

Posted in Daily life, History, Writing

Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction: A Paris Review interview

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This interview from 1990 is available outside Paris Review‘s paywall for one week only, so read it quickly (or save it to Evernote or Pocket). The interview begins:

The manuscript of “Frogless,” a poem that appears in this issue, by Margaret Atwood. Ms. Atwood wrote the poem on an SAS Hotel’s bedside notepad while she was in Gothenburg, Sweden last September for the Nordic Book Fair. “I’ve written quite a lot under those circumstances. Perhaps it’s being in a hotel room or a plane with no ringing phone and no supervision. Also, there’s something about jet lag that breaks down the barriers.”

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1939. As a child, she lived in the wilderness of northern Quebec and also spent time in Ottawa, Sault Sainte Marie, and Toronto. She was eleven before she attended a full year of school. In high school Atwood began to write poetry inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, and at sixteen she committed herself to a writing career, publishing a collection of poems, Double Persephone, six years later.

Her second book of poetry, The Circle Game, earned her the Governor General’s Award—Canada’s highest literary honor—and from that time forward she has been a dominant figure in Canadian letters. In 1972 Atwood sparked a hot debate when she published a controversial critical study of Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. In it she claimed that Canadian literature reflects the submissive as well as survivalist tendencies of the country, born from its being a subordinate ally to the United States, a former colony, and a country with vast stretches of untamed land. Following the publication of this volume, Atwood retreated from Toronto, where she had been working as an editor at the publishing house Anansi, to a farm in Alliston, Ontario, where she began to write full time.

Atwood has published nineteen collections of poetry—including The Circle Game (1964), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), True Stories (1981) and Interlunar (1984)—but she is best known for her novels, which include Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), and Cat’s Eye (1988). Her most widely read novel is The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a chilling account of a puritanical theocracy that won Atwood a second Governor General’s Award and was recently made into a motion picture. She is also the author of two children’s books, Up in the Tree (1978) and Anna’s Pet (1980) and two collections of short stories, Dancing Girls (1977) and Bluebeard’s Egg (1983). She has edited Oxford anthologies of Canadian verse and Canadian short stories and, with Shannon Ravenel, the 1989 volume of The Best American Short Stories.

The question of the status of women has frequently been an issue in Atwood’s work, and feminists have seized upon her writing as a product of the movement. Atwood has also made other political and philosophical issues themes in her work, such as Canada’s struggle to create an identity and, in recent years, her concern for human rights.

This interview was conducted in a house near Princeton University, where Atwood had gone to give some readings and lectures. In person, Atwood is much as one might expect from reading her work—incisive. For many hours over a period of two days, while teenage boys bounced basketballs and played music outside, people walked in and out, and football games played on the television in the next room, Atwood sat, attentive, answering each question without hesitation. She never strayed from her point, never seemed to tire, and remained, like a narrator from any one of her books, unflappable.

INTERVIEWER: Has the theme of survival always been intrinsic to your work?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I grew up in the north woods of Canada. You had to know certain things about survival. Wilderness survival courses weren’t very formalized when I was growing up, but I was taught certain things about what to do if I got lost in the woods. Things were immediate in that way and therefore quite simple. It was part of my life from the beginning.

INTERVIEWER: When did you make the leap from considering survival to be a physical battle to considering it to be an intellectual or political struggle?

ATWOOD: When I started thinking about Canada as a country it became quite evident to me that survival was a national obsession. When I came to the States in the sixties, I felt that nobody knew where Canada was. Their brother may have gone there to fish or something. When I was at Harvard, I was invited as a “foreign student” to a woman’s house for an evening for which I was asked to wear “native costume.” Unfortunately I’d left my native costume at home and had no snowshoes. So there I was, without native costume with this poor woman and all this food, sitting around waiting for the really exotic foreign students in their native costumes to turn up—which they never did because, as everybody knew, foreign students didn’t go out at night.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve written about the theme of foreignness a good deal.

ATWOOD: Foreignness is all around. Only in the heart of the heart of the country, namely the heart of the United States, can you avoid such a thing. In the center of an empire, you can think of your experience as universal. Outside the empire or on the fringes of the empire, you cannot.

INTERVIEWER: In your afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie you write that if the mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia. Could you say something more about that?

ATWOOD: The United States is big and powerful; Canada is divided and threatened. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “illness.” Maybe I should have said “state of mind.” Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation. Equivalently, the United States’s feeling that it is big and powerful is not a delusion. It is big and powerful. Possibly, its wish to be even bigger and more powerful is the mentally ill part. Every Canadian has a complicated relationship with the United States, whereas Americans think of Canada as the place where the weather comes from. Complication is a matter of how you perceive yourself in an unequal power relationship.

INTERVIEWER: How do you view Canada and its literature within this political relationship? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 November 2020 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

The peril of pursuing perfection

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I have written about the difficulty faced by adult beginners in playing piano: they are hyperconscious of the mistakes they make, and they don’t want to play until they can play without making such mistakes. But studying our mistakes is how we learn.

I just came across this story from Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Update: Cf. Linus Pauling: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2020 at 3:42 pm

Feeling Lots Of….Feelings? Overwhelmed and/or Confused? Journaling Can Help

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Andrew Limbong and Audrey Nguyen report in NPR:

The term “journaling” encompasses a lot of different things: the list of birds you’ve seen in your neighborhood; the descriptions of sights you saw on your last vacation; the notes you jotted down about the dream you had last night. But the general, tried and true everything is a bit much in my life right now, and I have to write it down type of journaling can really help when, well, everything is a bit much.

James Pennebaker, a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent decades studying “expressive writing.” Basically, Pennebaker says, if you find yourself ruminating on something, “set aside some time to write about it for anywhere from five to 20 minutes a day, for one day, two days, maybe as many as five days.”

Expressive writing is associated with improvements in physical healthimprovements in markers of mental health, and improvements in immune function. It’s also been shown to improve working memory in college students, says Pennebaker.

Don’t worry if you’re not exactly sure where to start. Journaling is actually perfect for those times when you can’t pin down what you’re feeling.

“It’s that great first step to opening up and learning who you are and what you believe in and how you feel and how you see and understand the world,” says Rashawnda James, a licensed therapist, YouTuber and a big advocate of journaling.

These four tips will help you get started: . . .

Continue reading.

And by all means let me recommend the 12-week morning pages program set out in The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. For that I found that handwriting worked best (better than a keyboard). I used this sort of notebook. At 3 pages per day, you’ll need three of them, so getting a pack of six is not a bad idea, particularly if two of you are going to take on the project. The book itself offers very good guidance.

Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2020 at 11:00 am

Kurt Vonnegut on The Art of Fiction: A Paris Review interview

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Paris Review is opening its archives for a few things, and this one is interesting for us Kurt Vonnegut fans. The interview begins:

This interview with Kurt Vonnegut was originally a composite of four interviews done with the author over the past decade. The composite has gone through an extensive working over by the subject himself, who looks upon his own spoken words on the page with considerable misgivings . . . indeed, what follows can be considered an interview conducted with himself, by himself.

The introduction to the first of the incorporated interviews (done in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, when Vonnegut was forty-four) reads: “He is a veteran and a family man, large-boned, loose-jointed, at ease. He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge gray flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He shells the interview with explosive coughs and sneezes, windages of an autumn cold and a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking. His voice is a resonant baritone, Midwestern, wry in its inflections. From time to time he issues the open, alert smile of a man who has seen and reserved within himself almost everything: depression, war, the possibility of violent death, the inanities of corporate public relations, six children, an irregular income, long-delayed recognition.

The last of the interviews that made up the composite was conducted during the summer of 1976, years after the first. The description of him at this time reads: “ . . . he moves with the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general, his appearance is tousled: the long curly hair, mustache, and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him. He has rented the Gerald Murphy house for the summer. He works in the little bedroom at the end of a hall where Murphy, artist, bon vivant, and friend to the artistic great, died in 1964. From his desk Vonnegut can look out onto the front lawn through a small window; behind him is a large, white canopy bed. On the desk next to the typewriter is a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Clancy Sigal’s Zone of the Interior, and several discarded cigarette packs.

“Vonnegut has chain-smoked Pall Malls since 1936 and during the course of the interview he smokes the better part of one pack. His voice is low and gravelly, and as he speaks, the incessant procedure of lighting the cigarettes and exhaling smoke is like punctuation in his conversation. Other distractions, such as the jangle of the telephone and the barking of a small, shaggy dog named Pumpkin, do not detract from Vonnegut’s good-natured disposition. Indeed, as Dan Wakefield once said of his fellow Shortridge High School alumnus, ‘He laughed a lot and was kind to everyone.’“

INTERVIEWER: You are a veteran of the Second World War?

VONNEGUT: Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.

INTERVIEWER: Why?

VONNEGUT: It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.

INTERVIEWER: Which is—?

VONNEGUT: The unqualified approval of my community.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t feel that you have that now?

VONNEGUT: My relatives say that they are glad I’m rich, but that they simply cannot read me.

INTERVIEWER: You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?

VONNEGUT: Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.

INTERVIEWER: A rather large weapon.

VONNEGUT: The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.

INTERVIEWER: It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.

VONNEGUT: Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

INTERVIEWER: The ultimate terror weapon.

VONNEGUT: Of the Franco-Prussian War.

INTERVIEWER: But you were ultimately sent overseas not with this instrument but with the 106th Infantry Division—

VONNEGUT: “The Bag Lunch Division.” They used to feed us a lot of bag lunches. Salami sandwiches. An orange.

INTERVIEWER: In combat?

VONNEGUT: When we were still in the States.

INTERVIEWER: While they trained you for the infantry?

VONNEGUT: I was never trained for the infantry. Battalion scouts were elite troops, see. There were only six in each battalion, and nobody was very sure about what they were supposed to do. So we would march over to the rec room every morning, and play Ping-Pong and fill out applications for Officer Candidate School.

INTERVIEWER: During your basic training, though, you must have been familiarized with weapons other than the howitzer. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

8 November 2020 at 6:57 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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