Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change

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Telepathy would be a wonder. Telekinesis an inestimable power.

Only after acquiring both we’d tackle teaching a stone slab to get up and move (maybe).

Or…

… we can immediately read Henri Michaux’s text The Statue and 1.

In my spare time, I’ve been teaching a statue to walk. Given its exaggeratedly prolonged immobility, it isn’t easy. Not for the statue. Not for me. Great distance separates us, I realize that.

The futility of teaching a statue to walk! The first line presents a paradox heralding a discussion, if not a resolution. The reader is drawn onwards.

The remainder of the paragraph claims the problem is real: this is no metaphorical statue (reserve judgment on that) and the narrator is aware of the difficulties.

A few lines later in the text, the moral of a perennial piece of advice is reversed; instead of reassurance that a journey begins with a single step, implying any first step, just get going, we read:

What matters is that [the statue’s] first step be a good one. Everything depends on that first step.

This is doubly unsettling. Continue reading

Urns as Hearts

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When it was known that the Queen had given birth to a frog there was consternation in the court; the ladies of the palace remained mute, and no one any longer ventured into the high vestibules except with sealed lips and heart-rending gazes that spoke volumes.

Jean Lorrain, The Soul-Drinker (translated by Brian Stableford)

Where can a story go after such a beginning?

Written in the Yellow nineties (1890s), the stories of The Soul-Drinker reflect the French literary trends of the time. They split into two groups: psychological probings of perverse loves (naturalism) and mock-folktales (symbolism). Both feature a heavily ornate style and themes of moral decadence.

The first group of stories has a similar thrust to Barbey’s Diaboliques, although Lorrain doesn’t attempt such a high level of historical realism. He does use framed narratives, but in a more traditional Holmes-Watson setting, where the Watson narrates what shocking discovery Holmes tells him he has made (although the degree of unreliability is substantial).

Lorrain’s women are dissolute—diabolical, even, like Barbey’s—but instead of them striking precisely, daggers-to-hearts, they seem to be striking with such variety they might as well be the embodiment of everyone on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.

Lady Vianes are everywhere; blonde, brunette or red-haired, Lady Viane is woman, the woman, the true woman, the Eve of Genesis, Flaubert’s Ennoïa, the eternal enemy, the dancer who drinks the blood of prophets, Salome, Herodias, the impure beast, Bestia. When she kills us physically, she’s called Debauchery; when she kills us morally, she’s called Hatred, and sometimes Life.

The quote insists on its message to the point of hysteria where any genuine shock becomes grotesque, and then even the grotesque loses its original meaning.

If excessive euphemising is one way to neutralise the unpalatable, excessive exaggeration is the other. Pushed far enough, the mealy-mouthed and the loud-mouthed meet at the ineffective extreme with their backs to each other. The difference lies in their respective wakes: pasty grey versus glossy gold. Neither may be to to your liking, but the scenic diapason is worth reviewing. Continue reading

Leafing Through Shade and Shadow

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I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.

—Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel.

Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?

Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.

shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.

So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.

The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.

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The Nectars of Paradise

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How from that sapphire fount the crispèd brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise …

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (iv. 237–241).

So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?

In 1968, Fowler’s opines:

nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.

So which one won out?

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Euphemism and Euphuism

https://www.wikiart.org/en/konstantin-somov/lady-and-harlequin-1

Konstantin Somov, Lady and Harlequin (1921)

 

“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.

***

She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …

—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.

In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.

Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.

Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.

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Elegant Variation

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Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

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Does It Come off?

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Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?

Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?

Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?

Obsolete or avant-garde?

One question underlies them all:

Does it come off?

If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.

This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.

This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?

Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.

It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.

Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.

Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.

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It Is True That Words Are Cheap

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Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

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Every Chance of Going Wrong

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False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

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Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance

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If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

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Love: Writing Fresh Metaphors

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What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?

So the Sphinx asked many times, devouring those who gave false answers, until Oedipus came along and said: Man. 

The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:

Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.

This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.

(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)

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Life: Writing Extended Metaphors

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Consider life.

What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.

In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Here life (or time) is a rivera common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.

On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):

What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.

(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)

Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.

In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote of about life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)

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Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

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Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.

Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.

Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.

(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)

Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.

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Mule: All Things Emanate From Her

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When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?

Hold that thought.

Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?

Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)

I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.

Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:

In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.

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Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies

https://www.wikiart.org/en/vincent-van-gogh/a-pair-of-shoes-1886

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886) — Not immaculately polished

 

Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.

They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.

They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.

They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.

Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.

Shoes.

They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.

Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.

Shoes are heroes.

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Idea: A Rugged Rope

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Enough with the sun and the sky. Today, I tackle a scene.

Gasp!

A whole scene description from Martín Adán’s Cardboard House.

If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)

Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.

(Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)

I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speechstill form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.

Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?

If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?

All of them?

The literary scalpel comes out.

The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.

A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.

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Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar

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Look up.

Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.

Sky from Old Norse for cloud.

Welkin from the German for cloud.

The empyrean from the Greek for fire.

Firmament from the Latin for firm.

Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.

Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.

Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.

Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:

  1. Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
  2. Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
  3. Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
  4. Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
  5. State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
  6. Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
  7. List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
  8. Negate the target.

I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.

Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.

Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.

Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.

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Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots

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How would you describe the sun?

Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.

In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.

Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.

Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.

(I once wrote a brief post quoting him.)

Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.

Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.

The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:

  • Like, as if, the way that signal a simile.
  • A to be that identifies things which aren’t the same signals a metaphor; likewise verbs that wouldn’t normally be associated with the subject.
  • Verbs that usually apply to humans or animals signal personification.

Sometimes good writing relies on quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that elevate the ordinary to the interesting.

Here are the quotes; the underlining is mine and indicates what I considered imaginative.

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Holiday Fragment: Opening up Chinks

mark-harpur https://unsplash.com/photos/HUOvKWXEdFY

 

A writer has to open up chinks in the walls of cliché that surround each scene. Sometimes the walls are lead, sometimes they’re paper. Reading good books thins the walls or at least tell you where to look for the hairline fissures.

When stuck, apply books to walls (heads tend to get headaches).

 

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Ad Nauseam.

 

 

Holiday Fragment: The Microcosm of Your Next Story

mark-harpur https://unsplash.com/photos/HUOvKWXEdFY

 

Repeating words in a description indicates a poor vocabulary or a poor imagination. Of the latter: the real world does not repeat itself because it is infinitely rich, this too should be the apparent case of any fabricated world.

Fictional worlds are often found ballooning at the edges of other work. While editing one piece of writing or reading something entirely different, capture those tantalising ideas that pop up—as iridescent and evanescent as foam-bubbles—they could form the microcosm of your next story.

 

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Startled, the Armchair.

 

Holiday Fragment: Motivation

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As an independent unit of life, man faces two limits: that of body and that of mind.

Any instance of human activity ceases either because of a hard biological limit (I broke my arm therefore I cannot paint), or because the discomfort becomes too great (no one is buying the paintings therefore I shall not paint).

The latter is a soft limit that can be stretched through training (perseverance can be learned: maybe I should continue painting anyway?).

However, if the soft limit stretches so far it meets the hard limit, you get the bodily smack-down of madness or illness: you will go no further.

The difference between the soft and the hard limit is measured in effort.

A personal anecdote

A long time ago my high-school sociology teacher delivered a blow to my pride that set me in my place for life. I had asked him for a reference. He wasn’t too worried about keeping what he wrote a secret, indeed, he encouraged me to look at the form, right there, in front of him.

Only one point surprised me: he’d scored me 4 out of 5 on “General Effort”.

Tell me my facts are wrong, tell me my form is poor, but how dare you tell me I didn’t try to the utmost of my ability?

I brought this up in diplomatic tones, and I witnessed the first and so far only instance of someone’s eyes glinting.

Silence.

Then a grin.

Then he said: “Well, if you’re honest with yourself, do you try as hard as you could be trying?”

You only get so many of those self-searching moments where circumstance, mood, and honesty join in a bitter-sweet union. This was one of them.

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Holiday Fragment: New Year’s Resolution

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Welcome to 2018.

May you spend today, and every other day of the year, full of good cheer.

Quiver Quotes resolves to continue diverting its readers and even, occasionally, inciting moments of divergent-thinking. The word continue belies reality: this is no proposal of stasis because each hard-won, minuscule writing improvement in one post incentivises my next post like the head of the ouroboros chasing its own tail. But unlike the ouroboros, I daren’t let one end catch the other, so the circle never completes but instead is a dense, slow, and shallow-inclined spiral that eventually goes up and up and up. (Or so I imagine; do let me imagine.)

What is your New Year’s Resolution?

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks.

How to Surive a Tough Book: Philosophy

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Different books offer different pleasures and not all of them end in heart-thumping affect.

Some books are initially overwhelming—like, for me, Knut Hamsun’s Hungerand require a modified, laterigrade approach where I half-squint, half-sidle down the page, and whenever it gets too much, I write a comment to release a part of the emotional pressure.

Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.

In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).

When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.

Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.

Most people riot, then get up and leave.

However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.

So don’t leave.

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Dissenting Voices: Quirks and Perks

 

A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.

I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)

I persisted.

The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing. 

Quote: 

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.

Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.

Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.

So things have changed since 1940.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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Writing as Legacy: Quirks and Perks

Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell (1920)

Why write? Answering with soul-scraping honesty may be too difficult, so instead here’s an alternative question from the end of Lukeman’s First Five Pages. It requires a simple yes or no.

Quote: Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.

In the extreme: if you knew your work would never be read by anyone else—would you still write?

That strikes at the heart of writing as a communication medium between people, but it still leaves one reader that you have to sleep with every night: you. Perhaps writing in that case is an extension of the conscience (and consciousness).

Language is an inherently societal legacy that allows every literate person to feel a part of humanity, even if he or she leaves behind no traces for others. That said, I believe that every life has something to contribute to our common heritage. So next time you think your writing isn’t worth keeping, think again. History, too, is a qualified judge of relevance.

 

Three Words: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.

Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.

Let’s start with the verb.

Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.

Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.

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Inspired by the Ordinary: Quirks and Perks

 

Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.

In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.

The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.

Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).

Quote:    
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
(Lines 54–57)

Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).

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Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

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Between Infinity and a Sneeze

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The stars we see when we sneeze

Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.

Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.

Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.

To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.

But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.

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The magic beyond the ordinary

The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.

But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.

To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.

She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.

What makes the (first) Quote quiver?

The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.

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Style: Quirks and Perks

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
E. B. WhiteAn Approach to Style in Strunk & White

White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show their spirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)

White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.

Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.

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How to: Form Opinions (Responsibly)

Where do opinions come from?

I won’t answer that (too complicated).

Is it responsible to form opinions based on fake news? What about news that is marketed as fake, also known as freshly published fiction?

I won’t answer that either (too political).

Let’s stay within the confines of the safe, if old-fashioned, world where books are a source of knowledge, information, and formative experiences.

What happens when you pick up a book about a topic you know nothing about?

That I will answer: you incorporate what you have just read into your general sense of the world. You might also make up your mind about the book, you may—gasp!—form an opinion about the chief topic discussed.

The opinion will be based on your experiences, your background, your imagination, your state of mind at the time, all as a reaction to the book.

I call that opinion seeding. 

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Writing: Quirks and Perks

It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
— E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White

 

bird

Fly free

 

In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.

A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Elements of Style, by William I. Strunk and E. B. White. 
  2.  Essays of E. B. White, by E. B. White.
  3. My other two blog posts on White’s work: Avian Black Humour and Rosebuds Bow Courteously.

Similes and Smiles

Photo by ryan baker

In The Quantum and the Lotus Matthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.

Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.

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Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh

Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.

This is Diane Ackerman describing a night launch of the space shuttle in her wonderful non-fiction book A Natural History of The Senses

Photo by Sugar Bee, sourced from Unsplash.

It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean:  full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.

Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.

The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.

Photo by Garrett Carroll, sourced from Unsplash

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Knowledge: Quirks and Perks

Diversity

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge.”

Luca Turin, quoted by Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent

(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)

Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.

Here is the full quote:

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”

I agree with his viewpoint.

This week’s quotes may have been rather dark, with Richard Morgan’s mass murder, China Miéville’s ambulatory corpse, and the humour of suicidal and homicidal birds from E. B. White’s essay Mr Forbush’s Friends, but perhaps that’s alright.

All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.

PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

Periodic Before Dawn

Dawn. The Greeks gave us rhetoric and the figures of speech.

You have settled down next to a window, a night lamp, or a tablet. You have turned to the first page of a book, and …

 Quote: Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.

This is the opening sentence of John Banville’s The Infinities (2009). Even though the blurb, the book cover, the book reviews, the comments from friends and social media sites and the kitchen sink may have had their say by the time the poor reader reaches this sentence, it is still the starting point of the author’s tale. And what a starting point!

What makes the Quote quiver?

Curiosity and elegance. Continue reading