5 January 2022, around 4.52.
…for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light.
—Ambrose Bierce, Write It Right
In an effort to pay more attention to my work and to think more clearly about composition as such, I have been reading books on writing, which strike me (sitting outside the congregation) as banners of a faith that is hopeful about ideas, thinking, communication, sociality.1 The dicta in books on writing, like other forms of advice, are more honor’d in the breach than the observance – and like much advice, are probably more useful thus honored.2 By which I mean to dance around the notion that books on writing are not particularly helpful for writing as such (at least I have not found them so), although they can be helpful for thinking about writing, as Emily Post is helpful for thinking about which fork to choose to stab into your neighbor’s wandering hand at a dinner party.
Architecture as metaphor for writing.3 Mapping as metaphor for writing. Both engage in an uncomfortable teleology – the focus on product rather than process – that does not acknowledge most writing has the permanence of a hunter’s blind, tree-fort, or cardboard box, suited to a narrow and particular purpose or moment, but ultimately perishable and discarded; rare is the student whose term paper is written as ‘an everlasting possession’ and rarer still the remarkable symptoms that call for remembrance two hundred years later.4 The structures of persuasion cobble a path toward obedience, not understanding; they are tricks for working in the system – the master’s tools.5 Despite the implicit promise that you have only to meander, spiral, explode enough to makes some form of meaning, sometimes it’s just a mess – a jumble of blocks fallen from your own private babble.6
- In this, they tend to preach to the quire, as it were. [↩]
- As in the tough love scattered throughout Deirdre Nansen McCloskey’s Economical Writing (3rd ed., 2019) – learn the rules of capitalization and use them in emails or you’ll ‘look like a self-indulgent little idiot’ (108) – which is charming until it isn’t. [↩]
- A memory palace in which it is sometimes the reader and sometimes the author and sometimes the subject who was seated next to Simonides at the banquet. [↩]
- Thus one ends up with tract-house articles, the abstract foyer leading to a spacious open floor plan marked out by an introduction and ending in the mud-room of limitations and conclusions. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is as well not to be precious about building McMansions. [↩]
- Most writing is, at best, the grit in the mortar. [↩]
- From the triangles routinely used to illuminate Aristotle to the measured loops and arrows and lines in William Germano’s On Revision (2021) or Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style (2014), the imposition of diagrams onto prose is a temptation difficult to escape (to say nothing of calligrams). You must admire my restraint in not including an image of Sterne’s plot outlines. Let it not be said I do not suffer for my art. [↩]
14 January 2022, around 5.41.
Christmas day. Light snow overnight, everything looking somewhat magical – clear and fresh. We plan a walk to the river, because it is a challenge getting the dog to cross the highway, but later she can run off-leash without the likelihood of encountering anybody (though who would one expect to encounter at just after sunup on Christmas day – aside from the unsociable individual who has had just enough of family time, thanks).
We cross the highway and walk down the gravel road, following the steps of the unsociable through the snow (at a respectful distance) and quibble about how to manage the dog in the presence of people (a person); we are grateful when the unsociable turns down a side road so we can continue the planned walk to the river. We reach the river and turn down our favorite path; there are a pair of trees that mark, as we think, a boundary to the wilderness, the edge of the developed lots – a gateway. That is where we let the dog off the leash. She stops and sniffs the snow and ferns and moss.
You try to capture the moment that changes things, when a choice or action (your own, another’s) sets you on a course that you would not select if all options were placed before you. It’s hard to recognize. But, noticed or not, the gate latches shut behind you, and you keep moving forward.
Walking along the river, clearing through the snow on the path, we talk; it’s a good path for talking – more or less flat, with some twists and turns, small landmarks: a small stretch of sandy beach, a nurse stump, a turn along a meander, fallen trees, a twist through the brambles, and then the crossroads (time to turn around). As we walk along the river, we call the dog back occasionally, so she doesn’t get into anything, doesn’t get lost, doesn’t fall into the river which is cold and high and fast this time of year. Normally she scouts along ahead, coming back to beg for treats, then pursuing her research, which may someday become part of a formidable dissertation on the odors of ferns. We reach the crossroads.
We are talking, I think, about Coriolanus and Shakespeare’s villains, although we have walked along there so often that I might be misremembering. We reach where the brambles would be, if they had not been cleared before the snow. We look around. And realize it has been some time since we had seen the dog. We call her name, but do not hear her crash through the underbrush or leap through the snow. Hear nothing but the sound of the river. ‘I guess,’ I said, ‘we don’t have a dog any more.’
We continue walking and calling, a bit louder, more strident – but moving towards home, because when the dog has chosen not to respond to her name, she has still been worried about being left behind and generally comes running when we are out of sight. This time she did not. So we turned around and started to head back, stern now – and finally she ran up out of the woods, not from the river, but from the south. She grinned, satisfied and smelling of fish.
We scold and walk home, talking about animal attacks and mountain lions and bears and how bears don’t like dogs and dogs don’t like bears. At the gateway, we clip on her leash.
I look back. The gaze of the forest feels heavy. Futurity watching from the trees. It is silent. Except for the river.1
- A week later the dog was unwell. We got her to the animal hospital in time, where she was treated for salmon poisoning. After a week – during which the petty pace of day to day stretched out, as when one travels to a foreign land – in the ICU, the dog is home again. It was a hard week. [↩]
17 January 2022, around 7.05.
For the final element in his characteristic form is that the underlying crime is always old, lying half-forgotten in the pasts of the characters before the book begins. This is the principal reason why the reader’s attention is diverted from it: he assumes it to be part of the dimension of the present, of the events going on before him in the immediacy of his narrated universe. Instead, it is buried in that world’s past, in time, among the dead evoked in the memorable closing page of The Big Sleep.
And suddenly the purely intellectual effect of Chandler’s construction formula is metamorphized into a result of unmistakable aesthetic intensity. From the point of view of abstract curiosity we might expect the reader to have a reaction not altogether unmixed: satisfaction at the solution of the puzzle, irritation at having been misled through so much extraneous material which had no real bearing on it. And on the aesthetic level the irritation remains, but transfigured.
—Fredric Jameson (Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality, p. 86f.)