Little Lessons from the Masters (1)

Long ago, it was common for those seeking to acquire wisdom to keep a copybook – a blank book meant only for copying out bits of wisdom or beauty gleaned from writing.  I suppose that nowadays these are kept digitally, and frequently shared with the world as soon as gathered.  I actually kept, for a couple of years, an actual blank book in which I wrote things in my reading that struck me, and since in those far dim days I was learning (or attempting to learn) how to be a writer.   I recently rediscovered that copybook, and herewith share the quotes having direct (or indirect) application to the arts and crafts of writing.  Meanwhile other sources have yielded up other statements on the same subjects. Some I have further identified, and on some I offer further thoughts.  Maybe they will be useful to you.  I think they were to me, though it may be that I mostly just admired them, or nodded at how true they seemed; some, on the contrary, are unfollowable or useless (to me).

This post is labeled number one — there may be others.

¶ The first is from Edith Wharton, prolific and hardworking author (The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth) writing at the end of her career, in 1934:

What is writing a novel like?
           1.  The beginning:  A ride through a spring wood.
           2.  The middle:  The Gobi Desert.
           3.  The End:  A night with a lover.

¶ Then there is Richard Hughes, whose first novel was far and away his best, and stands among the finest novels in English in this century: it was called A High Wind in Jamaica and was published in 1929 when Hughes was twenty-nine.  This is a remark (technically a remark in the gnomic present addressed to the reader), from that book: 

Of course it is not really so cut-and-dried as all this; but often the only way of attempting to express the truth is to build it up, like a card-house, out of a pack of lies.

¶ This one’s inarguable, though perhaps not useful:

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.  — Walter Benjamin

¶  A quote from Emerson that the critic and scholar Harold Bloom copied into one of his own books:

If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men. We seem to be touched by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily, like children. We are like persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense, and found within their world, another world, or nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop…   [W]hen Orpheus speaks of hoariness as “that white flower which marks extreme old age;” when Proclus calls the universe the statue of the intellect; when Chaucer, in his praise of ‘Gentilesse,’ compares good blood in mean condition to fire, which, though carried to the darkest house betwixt this and the mount of Caucasus, will yet hold its natural office, and burn as bright as if twenty thousand men did it behold; when John saw, in the Apocalypse, the ruin of the world through evil, and the stars fall from heaven, as the figtree casteth her untimely fruit; when Aesop reports the whole catalogue of common daily relations through the masquerade of birds and beasts; — we take the cheerful hint of the immortality of our essence, and its versatile habit and escapes, as when the gypsies say, “it is in vain to hang them, they cannot die.”

¶ From the journals of John Cheever:

I think that the task of the American writer is not ot describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain, but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball.  This is ceremony.  The umpires in clericals, sifting out the souls of the players; the faint thunder as ten thousand people, at the bottom of the eighth, head for the exits.  The sense of moral judgments embodied in migratory vastness.

This and the quote above from Emerson seem somehow to be about the same thing.  Maybe the following is too, from the now nearly forgotten novelist Peter DeVries, a onetime favorite of mine:

There is nothing for fiction to do but to return to narrative, as there is nothing for a drunk to do but go home.

¶ I copied this next from – I believe – Molly Lefebure’s marvelous biography Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium.   It’s from a notebook; he’s addressing himself:

My dear fellow!  never be ashamed of scheming! — you can’t think of living less than 4,000 years, and that would nearly suffice for your present schemes.  To be sure, if they go on in the same ratio to the performance, then a small difficulty arises; but never mind! look on the bright side always and die in a dream!

¶ Another from Coleridge, from a journal:

The common end of all narrative, nay, of all, poems is to convert a series into a whole:  to make those events, which in real or imagined History, move in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a circular motion — the snake with it’s tail in it’s mouth.

(Note: Embracing Number 1 of these two thoughts makes Number 2 impossible. )

¶ Henry Fielding, in the introduction to Tom Jones, discovers the E=MC2 of fiction:

My reader then is not to be surprized if, in the course of this work, he shall find some chapters very short, and others altogether as long; some that contain only the time of a single day, and others that comprise years; in a word, if my history seems sometimes to stand still, and sometimes to fly.  For all which I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever:  for I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, and so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.

Fielding is indeed the founder of a new province of writing, the novel, and has isolated here exactly the central mode of that new form —  that is, the management of time: the sucession of  “showing” and “telling” by which the representation of time is made in novels.  Perhaps earlier candidates for this invention can be found in the literature of other languages, but it’s interesting to see it self-consciously propounded as a new liberty, a new means, in English.

¶ George Gissing, in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, his bitter novel about a reclusive and mostly failed writer:

And why should any man who writes, even if he write things immortal, nurse anger at the world’s neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots and I, in some mood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it?

Taken (as I remember) from an article in the New York Review of Books.

¶ So was this:

“You must—do you hear me, young man?—you must work harder,” Flaubert told Maupassant in 1878. “Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that’s right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe.”

For Flaubert, keeping fit was a frivolous waste of time and energy:  What you lack are principles. Say what you like, you can’t do without principles. The only question is: which ones? For an artist, there is only one: sacrifice everything to art. Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more. 

The series will continue, or at least have a second instance.




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