Umberto Eco on “How I Write”

umberto at emory university
This year, Emory University’s Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature are delivered by Umberto Eco. I didn’t know much about him before, but he kind of blew my mind. This afternoon I stopped by to hear him talk about “How I Write”. I was *really* impressed with how much he plans out his worlds beforehand, even making maps, blueprints, and sketches of his characters. I would love to see some of his doodles. These are mine:

Here are some notes deciphered from my handwriting:

  • He describes himself at age 76 as “a young and promising novelist”—he’s only been doing novels for 30 years or so.
  • When he was a kid, he would start with an image. He drew his stories from end to end, only later going back to put the text in juvenile block letters.
  • “At 16 I started to write poems like everybody else.”
  • Most of his fictional works start with an image: “I wanted to poison a monk in his study,” a pendulum, a trumpet, Constantinople in flames.
  • When he first does research he starts with collecting documents, travel, drawing maps, and even sketching the faces of his characters. When doing the travel research, he walks around with a recorder to describe everything he sees, hears, smells, street names, etc.
  • “The structure of the world is fundamental to the writing.” Though the writer may choose to withhold information about the fictional world and bamboozle the reader, “You have to take account of the reaction and collaboration of the reader.”
  • One *very* cool anecdote: a movie director loved the dialogue Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, saying that it was the perfect length. Eco knew it was the perfect length because he had mapped out the monastery so completely that he knew the length of time it would take his characters to walk from one place to another. (!!!)
  • Connected with this idea of world-building is the ancient practice of ecphrasis. Ecphrasis is the genre of “complete description”—retelling another work so vividly that the audience can know it without directly experiencing it. Eco says it’s a good tool for writers because it “gives us more ideas than actually witnessing the thing itself.”
  • Some “postmodern” characteristics of his writing: intertextual irony (e.g. quoting real-life works in works of fiction), metanarrative (commentary on the tale in progress) and double-coding (speaking to multiple audiences, like a Pixar movie). It “establishes a smart complicity with some readers, and also provokes other readers to read twice.”
  • These postmodern intricacies “are not an aristocratic tic, but a way of respecting the brightness and curiosity of the audience.”

And some aphorisms:

  • “Constraints are fundamental to any artistic endeavor.”
  • “For novels, stick to the subject, and the words will follow. For poetry, stick to the words, and the subject will follow.”
  • He has an interesting take on making engaging academic work: “Literary research must be narrated. Scientific papers should be written like a whodunit.” (Scott McCloud made a parallel comment when I heard him a couple weeks ago. His statement was about the shared challenge of teaching and writing non-fiction: “After you explain it, is it still interesting?”)

The event was followed by a reception with wine and cookies (and some other things, but I had my priorities).

notes on umberto eco's lecture

11 thoughts on “Umberto Eco on “How I Write”

  1. Hello from ISRAELI stumbled upon your interesting site. As an Ecoholic (= obssessive fan of Umberto Eco) I collect his writings,almost everything related to him. I met him in Jerusalem 3 years ago.I am looking now for drawings and sketches of him like you did. Have your sketches been published? Is there a book with your drawings? May I ask if your sketches for sale???Thank you very muchMOSHEHAIFA, ISRAEL

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