People have not yet learned that every work of art is a game played out at the worktable. Nothing is more harmful to creativity than the passion of inspiration. It’s the fable of bad romantics that fascinates bad poets and bad narrators. Art is a serious matter. Manzoni and Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal wrote at the worktable. That means to construct, like an architect plans a building. Yet we prefer to believe that a novelist invents because he has a genius whispering into his ear.

Umberto Eco. I’ve collected some other good Umberto Eco quotes, but never read any of his works. Open to suggestions…

There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one of several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text.

SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

And also:

I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco

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