Posts tagged “writing”

Josh Marshall: Obama on the Hoofbeats of History

Marshall, writing at the Editor’s Blog at TPM, eloquently describes the last month in American life, placing President Obama at its center:

It was a momentous week. I had wanted to write something about it at the time. But I couldn’t quite form my views on it. It seemed more like something to take in than to talk about. In one short string of events so much of the President’s legacy which had been up for grabs, contingent and uncertain, was suddenly confirmed and driven home in ways that allowed little doubt. Not all of these wins were Obama’s of course. He did not even support marriage equality in 2008 let alone run on it. The Court’s decision and the sea change in public opinion which made it possible and perhaps inevitable were the products of decades of activism stretching back into years when no one had ever even heard the President’s name. But we’re talking here not about a single person or political leader but of the aspirations of those who elected him. And judged through this prism, the rush of events in late June come together as a unified picture.

Reminds me of a part of Marc Maron’s interview with President Obama on WTF, when the President spoke of the slow march of change. It also harkens back to the use of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change is Gonna Come”, right?

A fever dream of liberal change, punching through into reality through the tireless work of an administration. An incredible — and uniquely American — month, with incredible progress punctuated by tragedy.

Progress with an escape hatch : "Beer Can" by John Updike

Cleaning up the server and stumbled upon this unpublished draft. Updike, sigh, swoon.

This seems to be an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements. Consider the beer can. It was beautiful — as beautiful as the clothespin, as inevitable as the wine bottle, as dignified and reassuring as the fire hydrant. A tranquil cylinder of delightfully resonant metal, it could be opened in an instant, requiring only the application of a handy gadget freely dispensed by every grocer. Who can forget the small, symmetrical thrill of those two triangular punctures, the dainty pfff, the little crest of suds that foamed eagerly in the exultation of release? Now we are given, instead, a top beetling with an ugly, shmoo-shaped tab, which, after fiercely resisting the tugging, bleeding fingers of the thirsty man, threatens his lips with a dangerous and hideous hole. However, we have discovered a way to thwart Progress, usually so unthwartable. Turn the beer can upside down and open the bottom. The bottom is still the way the top used to be. True, this operation gives the beer an unsettling jolt, and the sight of a consistently inverted beer can might make people edgy, not to say queasy. But the latter difficulty could be eliminated if manufacturers would design cans that looked the same whichever end was up, like playing cards. What we need is Progress with an escape hatch.

On Writing Well Author William Zinsser dies

William Zinsser passed away today at 92. He described the process of writing On Writing Well in detail — and described its legacy:

On Writing Well sold its millionth copy in 2000. (Sales are now approaching 1.5 million.) It was a figure I could hardly believe or even imagine; I’ve never thought of myself as a “best-selling” author, and I’m still surprised to hear that someone knows my name and my books. The numbers that mean the most to me are the hundreds of readers who have written or called just to say how much they like the book and how much it helped them. Surprisingly often they use the phrase “You changed my life.” I don’t take that to mean that they found Buddhist enlightenment or quit smoking. What they mainly mean is that I cleaned out the sludge in their thinking that had paralyzed them from doing writing of any kind—a phobia not unlike the fear of cleaning out the closets or the basement. (The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.) Now, they tell me, I’m at their side whenever they write, exhorting them to cut every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph that isn’t doing necessary work. That, finally, is the life-changing message of On Writing Well: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.

Paul Ford: "How to be Polite"

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Shakespeare's Beehive

Hard to say if this is real or not, but booksellers claim to have found a dictionary used and annotated by Shakespeare. They’ve digitized it and made it available on the internet (requires registration).

In simplest terms it goes as follows: with Baret’s Alvearie we are faced with a book that has not once been reprinted since 1580. A most obscure book. A humble copy. An extensive network of annotations that, through obscurity and a lack of attention, comes to light only now, never previously studied or speculated upon. These are the basic stepping-stones to providing plausibility to the dream that such a monumental discovery is possible. The rest is in the evidence.

Mark Kingwell on the future of the book

My own set of self-serving predictions about the future of reading begins with the belief that long-form reading will be with us as long as there is such a thing as individual human consciousness. That consciousness is a complicated burden. There is stimulation and pleasure in consciousness but also boredom, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and grief. Books are my friends when nobody else can be; they offer a form of intimacy nothing else does. They do not make me a better person, but they give me respite from the incessant noise of existence. That market will never collapse. In the future, some people will be able to make a living as writers, others won’t. But writing will remain among the cheapest forms of cultural production ever, especially relative to its effect.

George Saunders's speech to the Syracuse U class of 2013

This speech slays.

Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf - seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things - travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) - but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality - your soul, if you will - is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Radiolab: Jenny Hollowell reads her short story, "A History of Everything, Including You"

“Life evolved or was created. Cells trembled and divided and gasped and found dry land. Soon they grew legs and fins and hands and antennae and mouths and ears and wings and eyes—eyes that opened wide to take all of it in: the creeping, growing, soaring, swimming, crawling, stampeding universe. Eyes opened and closed and opened again; we called it blinking. Above us shone a star that we called the Sun and we called the ground the Earth. So we named everything, including ourselves. We were man and woman, and when we got lonely we figured out a way to make more of us. We called it sex and most people enjoyed it.”

No excerpt will really do this justice; Hollowell’s reading is funny, poignant, and devastating. Begins around 3 minutes in, though the whole podcast is worth a listen.

Bald Head Island's Generator Society

From Our State magazine, a well-written piece about idyllic Bald Head Island. Sounds pretty nice:

Toward the ends of many afternoons, they all came together, usually gathering on East Beach, for what they took to calling TPP, or Total Population Parties. The kids’ job was to collect a mess of driftwood to make a fire. The women brought hush puppies and coleslaw. The men cooked the fish they caught that day or boiled a big pot of shrimp or made chowder from fresh clams. They ate and told stories and jokes. They played guitar and sang songs. They even shared some coveted “diamonds” for drinks.

The sun set.

Night fell.

Out came the ghost crabs skittering on the sand and the bright white stars in the sky.

At the Dunlaps’ by the beach, where they almost never ran their generator for light, the adults lit the lanterns, probably a dozen or so latched to the walls, 6 or 7 feet off the floor. They played Monopoly or dominoes or checkers or chess. The kids ran up and down the beach, around on the dunes, just enough light from the moon. They clambered up a ladder to the wide, flat deck on the roof of the house. From there, they could see the hulking cargo ships, with their blinking lights, coming in off the Atlantic and approaching the mouth of the river. They went back down in the house and grabbed all the cushions, dragged them back up to the deck, and finally closed their eyes.

Seems like the island’s got some advocates worried about climate change, too.

Bald Head Island Conservancy has developed a comprehensive public outreach campaign to help educate community members about the potential impacts of climate change to the island and individual choices that can help improve the socioecological system’s resilience. Staff work with community members to identify tangible solutions to future problems. The Conservancy has attained funding to build a research and educational facility and is developing a knowledge sharing network, the Coastal Barrier Island Network, with other barrier islands to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and lessons learned as communities begin to adapt to climate change.

Read more here.

David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon

Robert Krulwich, at his blog, points to a dramatization of DFW’s commencement speech to the class of 2005 at Kenyon college. Excerpted below (read the full transcript).

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Happy Birthday, Douglas Adams

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Google marked the birthday of Douglas Adams, raconteur supreme and creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, today with a pretty fun doodle. Beyond his comedic creations, Adams was a technologist-futurist and a conservationist. The doodle’s awesome — a fitting little tribute to DNA.

thanks to Dr. CLK for pointing the doodle out!

Beautiful, devastating, and appropriate: Nora Ephron's Final Act

A moving tribute and farewell from son (Jacob Bernstein) to mother (Nora Ephron).

In the play my mother wrote, there’s a scene toward the end, in which McAlary, sick with cancer, goes to the Poconos to visit his friend Jim Dwyer, then a columnist at The Daily News. It’s a glorious summer day, and McAlary’s 12-year-old son, Ryan, wants to do a flip off the diving board, but he gets scared and can’t do it. So McAlary takes off his shirt, walks to the edge of the diving board and says to him: “When you do these things, you can’t be nervous. If you think about what can go wrong, if you think about the belly flop, that’s what’ll happen.”

And then McAlary does the flip himself and makes a perfect landing.

It’s a metaphor, obviously, for his view about life. And I’ve come to think it might as well have been about my mother. The point is that you don’t let fear invade your psyche. Because then you might as well be dead.

As she saw him, McAlary was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness. In the six years my mother had MDS, she wrote 100 blog posts, two books and two plays and directed a movie. There was nothing she could do about her death but to keep going in the face of it. Work was its own kind of medicine, even if it could not save her when her MDS came roaring back.

Read the whole thing. Keep a box of Kleenex or a towel handy.

Hemingway in the Paris Review

Hemingway, responding to a question about “the function of [his] art” from an interview published in the Paris Review.

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?

Seems true for all creative endeavors. Really enjoying the interviews series at the Paris Review.

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