Tag Archives: writing

Empathy and Escapism — Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

Photo by Michael Pittman CC-BY SA 2.0

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Writing was key to his thinking process, too: a tool for sorting through “a lot of crosscurrents in my own life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.”

At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on how reading and writing helped President Obama to “slow down and get perspective” from novelists, memoirists, and historical figures during the eight years of his presidency.

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Borges and $: The Parable of the Literary Master and the Coin

Image by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens/Kjell Reigstad

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens | Longreads | June 2016 | 31 minutes (7,830 words)

 

Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could even make money seem like mere fantasy. It was precisely the narrative someone like me might want.

Yet, money is real. We live and die by the coin. Money tells us how many children we can raise and what kind of future they can afford, how many of our 78.7 years must be sold off in servitude, and what politics we will have the luxury of voicing. As a college freshman, I still knew none of this, and I had the luxury of not thinking about money. These days, it seems all but inescapable.

I am still full of hope and confusion, but at 35, practically nothing concerns me more than the coin, a metonymic symbol representing my helplessness. The coin represents this desperate need to support myself and my writing when, in the very near future, I start a family. My mind has changed; all my journal entries turn into to-do lists and career strategizing. Money, planning, and money. I think of little else. Read more…

The ‘Airplane!’ Guide to Joke Delivery

Neilsen

We found that it was easier to keep an audience laughing than to start them up all over again.

—David Zucker, in New York magazine, on how he and his co-directors, Jim Abrahams and brother Jerry Zucker, approached comedy and rapid-fire joke delivery with the classic 1980 movie Airplane!. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker broke down the origins of their classic joke “…don’t call me Shirley.”

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In Praise of Public Pitching

From Hunter S. Thompson's correspondence.

I’ve always been fascinated by how narrative journalism gets commissioned, reported, and published–but the most perplexing part of the entire system is the continued power imbalance between writers and publishers.

This imbalance persists in spite of the internet “democratizing” publishing. More digital publishers are embracing feature writing, but the process behind the scenes feels stuck in the past–a time-consuming marathon of unanswered emails and rejection. Read more…

Stories Make Us Human

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

They say language makes us human. That notion is being challenged as we discover that apes have language. Whales have language. I welcome them into our fold. I’m not threatened by them, quite frankly, because I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.
Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.
Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.
Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.
Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.

—Journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. The book’s essays are derived from presentations given at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative JournalismRead more…

Jia Tolentino Remembers the Books She Started and the Books She Shelved

Photo by tuxxilla

At final count, the manuscript was three hundred and six pages and almost seventy-eight thousand words long. There were fifteen chapters, all of which I’d edited several dozen times. In retrospect, that seems sensible—what you’d want to do, when a book was concerned—and also insane, as I don’t remember any of it. Editing is a fugue state; the time self-erases. I’d have forgotten about it altogether except for the fact that the weight of the effort has lifted only gradually, and also, the fact that the evidence is two clicks away: the evolution of an idea from nothing to something to nothing again sits peacefully in a folder named “Novel!” that I dragged off my desktop early in the fall.

At The Awl, Jia Tolentino looks back at the two novels she started but never finished, and what she learned about writing.

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Happy Birthday, Joan Didion

Joan Didion, in a moment from the forthcoming documentary

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

-Joan Didion, who turns 81 on Dec. 5, in a famous quote from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Below is the trailer and Instagram account from We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the documentary of the beloved author, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently in production.

Coexisting With the Void: Simone Gorrindo on Chronic Pain

Pain by iProzac (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Consistent, long-term pain, the kind that (Toni) Morrison suffers in her back—and that keeps her from standing for longer than six minutes—allows for a steady stream of thoughts, a ruthless spinning of the mind.

To our minds, this spinning feels akin to accomplishing something, I think. If we can’t tend to our lives in the physical realm, the mind kicks in double-time, and this weekend, my husband away at an Army training for the month, I’ve spent the hours in my bed accomplishing the task of going over errors big and small. I check them off like items on a to-do list: ways I’ve burdened my husband with impossible expectations; friends I’ve failed to call back; writing assignments I’ve left unfinished; jobs I’ve quit or underperformed at; bad impressions I’ve made; ambitions I’ve curtailed—all the ways I’ve failed to live a life I envisioned. These are the kind of terrifically unhelpful thoughts that surface inside the void, or at the very edge of it. Truly boring stuff, the kind I find too tedious to even bring up to a therapist. But, alone, in the dark, that doesn’t stop me from going there. When our bodies shun us to the back rooms of the world, away from colleagues and lovers and friends, we have only ourselves and our reckless, pulsing imaginations: This is where regret lives. Not big, dramatic regret, not those fatal mistakes for which we seek absolution, but the mundane, everyday regrets that go unnoticed until it’s too late, the ones that make up the unalterable course of our lives. The tiny little messes.

I generally know better than to go down these paths, but the tricky thing about chronic pain is that it blurs your mind, weakening not just your body but also your psyche, leaving it with just enough strength to follow the path of least resistance, to retreat to the most dimly-lit hiding place. There, I find myself clinging to people, dreams I’ve lost, plot lines that didn’t go the way I intended. It’s hard to see sometimes how or why I lost them, whether my health or just the natural course of life was to blame, and whether there is, really, at this point, a decipherable division between the two.”

At Vela, Simone Gorrindo contemplates “the terrible thing that the slowness of pain gives you: time” in this meditation on how chronic illness affects the body and mind.

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On ‘Remaining in the Shadows’: Elena Ferrante on Anonymity and Writing

Photo by Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons

After so many years, are you still sure about your decision to remain in the shadows?

“Remain in the shadows” is not an expression I like. It savors of plots, assassins. Let’s say that, fifteen years ago, I chose to publish books without having to feel obliged to make a career of being a writer. So far, I haven’t been sorry about it. I write and I publish only when the text seems of some value to me and to my publishers. Then the book makes its way, and I go on to occupy myself with something else. That’s it, and I don’t see why I should change my behavior.

How do you feel about the questions that are raised about your identity—are you amused, irritated, or something else?

They are legitimate, but reductive. For those who love reading, the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer. And Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce matter only if a talented person changes them into the subject of an opera, a biography, a brilliant essay, a film, a musical. Otherwise they are names, that is to say labels. Why would anyone be interested in my little personal story if we can do without Homer’s or Shakespeare’s? Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith. The believer knows very well that there is nothing at all at the bureau of vital statistics about the Jesus that truly counts for him.

At Guernica, an early excerpt from Fragments: On Writing, Reading, and Absence, a collection of Elena Ferrante’s letters, and interviews with her, due out in January.

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‘Writing Is Selection’: John McPhee on the Art of Omission

Photo by Jenny Kaczorowski via Flickr

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.

-John McPhee, writing in the The New Yorker, on the art of “greening,” or whittling down your writing, and deciding what to leave out.

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