An interesting bit from a David Foster Wallace reading circa Infinite Jest:

I would go to halfway houses and just sit there. I lurked a lot. Nice thing about halfway houses is they are real run-down and real sloppy and you can just sit around. And the more you sit around looking uncomfortable and out of place, the more it looks like you belong there. Some of the people knew this [breaking and entering] stuff very well and they loved to talk about it. And nobody is as talkative as a drug addict who just had his drugs taken away.

It’s paired with a decent interview where he predicts the rise of curators and filters in internetland, and also mentions how important an editor is…

I, of course, get all wrapped up. ”I know. I’ll have an allusion to a Russian thing that’s half true and only people who speak Russian will know.” Great, you are now talking to exactly one person on the planet earth.

The last bit from a 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace [pdf] in Whiskey Island Magazine, some advice for young writers:

This is a long haul. Writing is a long haul. I’m hoping that none of the stuff that I’ve done so far is anywhere close to the best stuff I can do. Let’s hope we’re not fifty-five and doing the same thing. I’d say avoid burning out. You can burn out by struggling in privation and neglect for many years, but you can also bum out if you’re given a’ little bit of attention. People come to your hotel room and think you have interesting things to say. You can allow that to make you start to think that you can’t say anything unless it’s interesting. For me, 50% of the stuff I do is bad, and that’s just going to be the way it is, and if I can’t accept that then I’m not cut out for this. The trick is to know what’s bad and not let other people see it.

I wish I could find online Gerald Early’s essay, “Dancing in the Dark: Race, Sex, The South, and Exploitative Cinema”. It was far and away the best thing I read in Best African American Essays: 2009, but it looks like it’s hidden away in Issue 57 of the Oxford American, subscribers only.
In any case, Early talks about self-mythologizing Southern culture, American gothic, blaxploitation and sexual taboo. Case studies include D.W. Griffith films like The Birth of the Nation, His Trust, and His Trust Fulfilled; Gone with the Wind; I Spit on Your Grave; Free, White, and 21; Murder in Missippi; Black Like Me; and To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it if you can find it.

From an interview with Jimmy Carter:

Q: You’ve written memoirs, a historical novel, a children’s book, poetry—all while running the Carter Center. How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?

A: Well, I get up early. (Laughs.) I’m a farmer, still. I get up around 5 o’clock in the morning when I’m home, so I have three hours of good time to think and write before the normal events start happening in Atlanta at the Carter Center.

Is it Art?, an essay on videogames.

A common criticism of video games made by non-gamers is that they are pointless and escapist, but a more valid observation might be that the bulk of games are nowhere near escapist enough. A persuasive recent essay by the games theorist Steven Poole made the strong argument that the majority of games offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for youAs yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne

Turtle, by Kay Ryan:

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
She can ill afford the chances she must take
In rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
A packing-case places, and almost any slope
Defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
She’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
To something edible. With everything optimal,
She skirts the ditch which would convert
Her shell into a serving dish. She lives
Below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
Will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
The sport of truly chastened things.

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

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, via Austin Kleon. That stuff is so good. I remember a couple years ago, at a thrift store, I saw a copy of Poetry Under Oath: From the Testimony of William Jefferson Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky. I wish I’d bought it. This review of Poetry Under Oath has quite a few excerpts and some of them are pure gold. “The Word ‘Is'” is a classic:

It depends on what
the meaning of the word
‘is’ is

If the—
if he—
if ‘is’
means is
and never has been
that is not—

that is one thing

If it means
there is none
that was a


Pocket Poem

If this comes creased and creased again and soiledas if I’d opened it a thousand times
to see if what I’d written here was right,
it’s all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me

That’s from Ted Kooser‘s book Valentines, which I flipped through the other day. The book collects the annual poems he’s been sending out for the past 20-odd years. Kooser read some of the valentines on NPR earlier this year. Most are a bit too ponderous for my taste but there’s some good images and quirky personification in some of them.

Is it harder to write a sonnet than a great hip-hop verse?

The literal rules for writing sonnets, tankas, haikus etc. aren’t particularly hard to follow. It’s following the rules and actually saying something that’s hard. You can write a sonnet that makes no sense, and has no real power in the words. Likewise, you could write a rhyme that’s technically on beat and say nothing at all.

Nice sample at the end. Puff is much, much worse than Biggie.

Something to shoot for:

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “making.”
6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

This reminds me of Auden’s Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict that was featured at Harper’s recently, wherein he dissects whodunits and argues for why they’re escape and not art… “The most curious fact about the detective story is that it makes its greatest appeal precisely to those classes of people who are most immune to other forms of daydream literature.”