I’m Not Telling You What I’m Telling You

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Contrary, are you?

Most likely, yes. Brains like to disobey negative orders: don’t think about that stressful meeting tomorrow (you will), don’t worry about that mosquito bite (it’ll prompt start itching), don’t ruminate on all the goals you have failed to achieve recently (a list will promptly appear).

Ouch.

The inability to deliberately shake off a thought through negative command is called Dostoyevski’s white bear problem or the ironic process.

Writing can harness this process to magnify the impressions left by (disconcerting) images. This is another reason why word associations are hard to dispel; in Dangerous Associations the pairing of baby and knife was disturbing because the mind connected the two words via cutting, but also because the image stuck and telling yourself not to think about applying knife to baby may have lead to a mental deepening of the scenario rather than its dispersion. 

(When faced with gloom, it’s worth trying to direct the ironic process towards a positive purpose by trying really hard not to think about, for example, cuddly white teddybears.)

Like with other unbalancing acts, the more stressed you are the more distress persistent, unshakable negative thoughts can cause you. Which is why reading emotionally challenging books during a difficult period at work, for example, can affect you more than reading them during your vacation. Continue reading

Dangerous Word Associations

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Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associated to some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.

And that’s only the colours and their meanings. 

Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by). 

Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:

  • She floated about, giddy with shock.
  • The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
  • Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream. 

Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain). Continue reading

Writing Helplessness

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Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.

As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.

In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.

What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances. Continue reading

The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence

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Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.

The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.

Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre,symphonic poem  from 1874:

Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.

Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.

Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.

Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.

Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.

Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.

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Diabolical Framings

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 Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that if you saw Hell through a small window, it would be far more horrific than if you were able to see the place in its entirety.

Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Diaboliques (translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie)

Boundaries are meaningful when exceptions plant flags on faraway summits.

Conventions love to hate those who break them.

The don’t do that, begs for the what if I do do?

Such questioning of authoritative admonishment leads to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise, to the Faustian deal with the devil, to murder mysteries, to class-breakers like Gatsby, principled men like Atticus Finch, alienated teenagers like Caulfield, contrarian patients like McMurphy, and in general any tension that falls under the I won’t take out the trash because you insist that I do so.

Space sagas defy scientific barriers; the absurdity of Kafka defies reason.

Even walls that protect from valid harm—no matter how noble their cause—inevitably invite curiosity: some want to peek over, some want to vault over. Imagination allows us to do so multiple times, in multiple ways, and still wake up in our own beds, warm. Imagination leads to written fiction, and fiction thrives on probing the transgression: either how it was done or why.

This is why there exist whole literary movements built on investigations of taboos. The merits of reading such fantasies are myriad, from gaining historical and cultural context, to understanding existential issues, to merely expanding your perception of the human condition. For those of us who care about the storytelling technique, such texts exhibit a number of methods for addressing tender topics, eliciting either disgust or empathy, and skirting the sensitivities associated with the “fallen”.

Also fiction can be read because: fun, exposure, and yes, curiosity.

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Holiday Fragment: To Pedestal an Author

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When reading a well-known author, first put them on a pedestal justified by their reputation, by laudatory secondary literature, by personal awe and impersonal envy.

Then study the statue you’ve erected. (Rub your neck occasionally.)

You may take the statue down from the pedestal only when you feel you understand its flaws, and when improving on those flaws haunts your dreams (even if you have little evidence that you are able to do better).

Pedestal a new author.

Repeat.

Repeat until the time that passes between putting up and taking down a statue becomes small enough to be negligible (the duration of reading a magnum opus and sundry). At that point you have become:

  • an objective critic,
  • a supreme author,
  • a blind man (a fool),
  • some or all of the above.

This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: The Softness of Pillows: Quirks and Perks.

Holiday Fragment: Literary Orts

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When my post World Building ballooned, I had to omit a fun little essay I’d prepared: the words in italics are all the literary words from Forsyth’s Horologicon (picked out from around 300 general, old-fashioned words scattered throughout his book) and then fitted into a compressed, sensible-ish narrative. Of course, I do a much poorer job than him at generating coherency and humour, but do give me some credit for effort.

Although, in a week or so, there’ll be a post on effort, so perhaps don’t judge me yet.

For those who didn’t read the previous posts: Surfle is the cutest puppy. He’s imaginary.

 


— deep breath now, this is how Christmas will unravel for you —

On Christmas Eve:

Tacenda are things that ought to be left unsaid (like aspiring secrets), especially if they’re some nifandous atrocity. But if pressed to confess your crime (who ate the Christmas cake early?), you may attempt to obnubilate the details in a bluster of words, or if your confederate is present (Surfle), then the two of you can constult and play at being fools. If that also fails, you may try to discept by differing, disagreeing, debating (it wasn’t my imaginary pet, but yours). Lastly, you can accuse your colloquist of searching for your dirty laundry because they’re secretly a rhyparographer who writes about distasteful topics (how you keep all the wrapping paper from last year labelled with names so you can reuse for a different relative this year).

Don’t forget to interjaculate at every opportunity. Defined as to interject an ejaculation. (Best done at the dinner table with your mouth full.)

On Christmas Day:

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Holiday Fragment: On Communication

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An efficient expression courts silence.

Tacit encodes social axioms. Foreigners bane: Culture is tacit.

Everyone should know how far their tongue bends.

 

 

 


This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Tolkien’s Fox.

On Annotating Books

My annotations on a page from John Banville’s Birchwood.

 

To read, I need a book and a pencil.

I’d like to emphasis that the pencil is as much a conduit of information between book and mind, as are eyes and brain, and as much of a physical necessity, as is my ability to hold a book open or flip a page.

I produce the following anecdotal evidence:

If I sink into a sofa with a book, but without a pencil, I will exhibit all the symptoms of anxiety and discomfort—fidgeting, gazing about, scratching, gazing about, back-and-forth page-flipping because I can’t remember what I just read, and some more gazing about—until I finally get up and acquire that writing implement I’d been gazing about for.

It has to be a pencil (preferably a mechanical pencil so I don’t need to sharpen it), but no erasers are needed.

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Reading implements.

 

Underlining is much maligned; it’s generally useless, it’s for those who can’t think at the time of reading but leave it for later, it produces an appearance of engagement while actually reducing it.

All true.

That is why I mark up the text and take notes.

Marking up a text involves:

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Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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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

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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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To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

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In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

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Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)

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The Way We Swing

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The “radicals”.

E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).

Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976edited by Rebecca M. Dale.

Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?

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Paragraph Packing: A Short Example

Scream When You Burn.

If that were a writing prompt for a short story exercise, what would you write?

Image by Aziz Acharki https://unsplash.com/search/burn?photo=HsXgRlIr4Ls

Don’t actually burn

As it happens, Bukowski already wrote a short story with that title. While preparing Monday’s post featuring a dialogue sample from his Hot Water MusicI came across an excerpt that I’d highlighted in his Scream When You Burn. I thought the excerpt overwritten, and had marked it for analysis; I cite it below, as today’s Quote.

My impressions was that it repeated sentiments, and that not all the sentence were needed to retain meaning and impact. Take a look. What, if anything, do you think is redundant in the Quote?

The Quote also explains the title of his story—if you’d thought of your own story idea to match the prompt, you can compare how he justifies the title with how you would do it.

Quote:
He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way…his language…that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing. In other words, things might as well have been fine. Camus wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and French fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.

(The ellipses in the Quote are present in the original text; I have not omitted anything.)

Quick observations:

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