Gleanings: The Glory of Maximalist Prose, the Shadow of Creative Calling, and Ray Bradbury on the Mystery of Space Travel
Distilled recommendations from reading into the dark
Here are some new reading and viewing recommendations, with accompanying commentary, that I’ve brought back from my recent foragings. Items this time include:
David Bentley Hart on the scourge of modern English prose minimalism and the glory of exuberantly flouting its precepts
podcaster and novelist Rachel Schwartzmann on the sanctity of private writing—journals, diaries, and the like—in our age of always-on public sharing
novelist Ellen Pall on rediscovering authorial drive and direction by blissfully “unbecoming a writer”
novelist and short story writer Sam Lipsyte on abandoning authorial career ideas and simply writing the next sentence
Steven Pressfield on recognizing negative life patterns as metaphoric distortions of your true dream, calling, self
Ray Bradbury on achieving immortality through the scientific and religious rapture of space travel
bonus thoughts on Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas in relation to Bradbury’s
As always, all bold-faced emphases in quoted passages are added by me.
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David Bentley Hart: Become a better writer by resisting the dogma of a denuded prose
Some 15 years ago at The Teeming Brain—and please pardon a brief pause while I blink in wonder at the impossible passage of so many years—I published my strongly felt thoughts, enlivened by some personal history, on the impoverishment of English prose in the modern age of the so-called “styleless style” that had in essence been pioneered, for fiction writers, by Hemingway and then hijacked away from him for commercial publishing purposes. Now comes the inimitable David Bentley Hart and his essay “How to Write English Prose,” which praises prose maximalism with an aplomb so delectable I could read it aloud to myself all day and never feel anything but delight:
I do not know exactly why, in the twentieth century, the dominant fashions in English prose moved relentlessly in the direction of ever greater simplification and aesthetic minimalism. I do not even entirely regret it. Tastes change, and some of the change has been a corrective of certain excesses of the past. But, on the whole, the result has been a kind of official dogma in favor of a prose so denuded of nuance, elegance, intricacy, and originality as to be often little better than infantile, not only in vocabulary but also in artistry and expressive power—a formula, that is, for producing writers whose voices are utterly anonymous in their monotonous ordinariness. Most of the fiction one reads today in literary journals is atrociously written, as are most of the essays, principally because writers have been indoctrinated in a style so rigid, barren, brutal, dry, and idiotically naïve that the best it can elicit from them is competent dullness. And who can tell one author from another? . . .
[I]f you own a copy of The Elements of Style, just destroy the damned thing. It is a pestilential presence in your library. Most of the rules of style it contains are vacuous, arbitrary, or impossible to obey, and you are better off without them in your life. . . .
All these vapidly doctrinaire injunctions—urging you to write only plain declarative sentences stripped of modifiers and composed solely of words familiar to the average ten-year-old and demanding that you always prefer charcoal-gray to sumptuous purple—are expressions of everything spiritually deadening about late modernity and its banausic values. They reflect an epoch in which the mysterious, the evocative, and the beautifully elliptical have been systematically suppressed and nearly extinguished in the name of the efficient, the practical, the mechanical, and the starkly unambiguous—in short, in the name of everything that makes existence uninviting and life boring. They are reflections of an age of bloodless capitalist economism, the reign of brutally common sense, the barbarian triumph of function over form, a spare, Spartan civic architecture of featureless glass and steel and plastic, a consumerist society that lives on the ceaseless production and disposal of intrinsically graceless conveniences. Learn to detest all of these things and you will be a better writer for having done so.
The value of private journaling in a militantly public age
Rachel Schwarztmann hosts the Slow Stories podcast, devoted to exploring the personal and collective value of slowing down to search for ways to “write a new narrative about what it means to live, work, and create in our interconnected age.” In a recent essay for Literary Hub, she offered some rather lovely thoughts on the value of writing solely for oneself, deliberately secluded away from the public gaze and separated from the inner compulsion to share everything, instantly, always. (Irony alert: If you read her entire essay, you’ll see that she specifically mentions Substack and blogging—two areas where I have personally invested a lot of time and self—as participants in the universal online 24/7 writerly share-a-thon. And of course she’s right.)
I need a reprieve from the “always-on” storytelling of the digital landscape.
From childhood to now, journaling has offered that respite and more. . . .
When I open my navy Moleskine notebook, no decorum is necessary. The blank page is there for ranting and reckoning, dreaming and wishing. It doesn’t have to be edited for presentation. It’s one of the rare opportunities when what I share won’t be commodified or applauded. There is no “look at me,” only “look within.” Reconciling the two has proven to be the most challenging part of this process. . . .
Some people say they write to be read—noticed. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t buoyed by this idea. But in this next chapter of my life, I’m mainly writing to notice: the little things worth sharing beyond the confines of a screen, opportunities for friendship, the changing colors in the trees, a kind gesture from a stranger, all of the changes roiling deep within myself. In doing so, the act of writing to notice changes my relationship with the world most fruitfully: it slows me down in a way nothing else can.
On rediscovering your writer’s drive by embracing not-writing
Many people want to write. There’s plenty of encouragement for that from various quarters. Books, videos, essays, and articles on how to get ideas and turn them into finished writing are plentiful. But it’s rare to find a writer talking about the bliss of not writing. Ellen Pall is one of those rare creatures. And I totally grok what she’s saying.
I picked up my journal—I’ve always kept journals—and started to retrace the arc of my writing life. Even as a very little girl, I’d lived most vividly inside my imagination, carrying on long conversations with my stuffed animals, or the tiny people who lived in my flowered wallpaper, or my reflection in the mirror, and making up stories about being held captive by an evil witch (I had a stepmother) who forced me to do all manner of impossible chores (I had read Rumpelstiltskin) and the like. These childish acts of imagination had been completely innocent, entirely devoid of agenda. How had I come from that Edenic beginning to a place where I wouldn’t think of writing anything unless there was a market for it?
A couple days after the dream, out doing errands, I ran into an acquaintance. We said hello, how are you, how are you, and then she asked what I was doing. I thought for a moment. “I’m talking to you.”
She looked puzzled, and we parted after a few more words. I went on my way, thunderstruck. Oh my God, that was what I’d been doing! That was all I’d been doing! I understood that what she’d meant was, “What are you writing?” But I wasn’t writing. I was not-writing. My mind was nowhere else. I wasn’t pondering how I might restructure a story I’d started and gotten stuck in. I wasn’t noting her curious, cat-covered scarf and filing it away for future use. I wasn’t figuring out what to write next. I was there. Then. With her. I had been here now.
A few weeks later, I took out a fresh spiral notebook and titled it Unbecoming a Writer.
Forget about a writing career. Think only of the next sentence.
In an interview for Literary Hub, Sam Lipsyte shares a perspective that aligns perfectly with the “living into the dark” attitude that is my guiding principle in both this newsletter and life at large. I’m sure some of you, my readers, can likewise attest to its liberating power.
I will say to myself—and I think this helps—stop thinking about your career. Don’t think about a career.
Just think about the next sentence in this book. This could be the last thing you write: this sentence, this story, this novel, this could be the last thing. And so you’re kind of holding two ideas in your head at once. Yes, you’re trying to create a life where you can have the space and time to make a body of work. But you’re also understanding that every sentence you write might be your last.
To know your creative calling, recognize its shadow
Steven Pressfield’s explorations of the creative life are always sharp. A recent entry at his blog, part of a post series on the mythic “wilderness passage” that creative artists inevitably go through, is particularly so.
Our dream/calling/true self is percolating inside us. We sense this on some unconscious level and it scares the crap out of us. We don’t want to face it. So we deny it, suppress it, push it deeper into the shadows.
But our dream/calling/true self will not be dismissed so easily. It finds a path to daylight, perhaps in the form of “acting out” in the psychiatric sense, i.e. bursting forth as a negative—an addiction, a breakup, a wild-and-crazy stunt that gets us ejected from our Ordinary World. . . .
The wilderness passage that we find ourselves on—for me it was blue-collar jobs in far-flung corners of the country—is a metaphor for our dream/calling/true self. It is that Self manifesting as a crypto- or shadow version of itself. . . .
If we examine it as a metaphor, we will find, hiding in plain sight, the authentic dream/calling/self that we have been so terrified to bring forth into material being.
MORE: Wilderness = Metaphor
Ray Bradbury: Everything ends in mystery
I have always loved Ray Bradbury's poetic-ecstatic effusions on the grand purpose and deep meaning of space travel. This interview clip, unearthed by Benjamin Carlson, is a prime illustration of why.
Note that Ray's thoughts pair well with Robert Anton Wilson's admittedly zanier ones on the same. See, for instance, the lovely image Wilson paints in his Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy of humans as cosmic “homing pigeons” who are destined to find the ultimate source, meaning, and purpose of our lives elsewhere, away from Planet Earth, in the depths of the deep galactic and universal Elsewhere.
Also see Wilson’s thoughts on space migration as described and discussed in the 2014 BoingBoing essay “Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, and the Psychedelic Interstellar Future We Need.”