Tuesday, June 25, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Giving Advice

Earlier this month Jonathan Mayhew somewhat mysteriously withdrew from the "advice business". As someone whose livelihood depends on it, I'm looking forward to hearing what his reasons are. But this passage, which I just came across in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, offers a pretty good take on the issue.

This remains largely theory, but my best guess as to his never dispensing wisdom like other dads is that my father understood that advice—even wise advice—actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path. ... If you begin to get the idea that other people can actually live by the clear, simple principles of good advice, it can make you feel even worse about your own inabilities. It can cause self-pity, which I think my father recognized as the great enemy of life and contributor to nihilism. (208)

Wise words, to be sure. In defense of giving advice I can only say that this is really a criticism of the way people take it, not the way people give it.

In any case, I always tell my seminar participants that they will not learn what I have to teach them by believing what I say, but by doing as I say. While my advice (my approach to writing) is certainly reducible to a few simple principles, this does not mean that I deny "the totally muddled complication of [a writer's] situation and path". Clarity is possible, but only by repeated application of the advice (not repetitions of the advice itself) over weeks and weeks of actually writing. The advisee, perhaps, chooses to see a "wide gap" because he or she despairs over what is really a long road. It is by turning my advice into something you have to do, not just something you have to feel is true, that it becomes sensitive to the complexity of your situation. The advice is not supposed to change you. Your actions are.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Proper Activities

Steven Marcus: Have you ever written to merely improve your writing, practiced your writing as an athlete would work out?
Norman Mailer: No. I don't think it's a proper activity. That's too much like doing a setting-up exercise; any workout which does not involve a certain minimum of danger and responsibility does not improve the body—it just wears it out. ("Craft and Consciousness", reprinted in Pontifications, p. 18)

I have great admiration for Norman Mailer as a writer, even as a thinker. But what he says here seems poorly thought through. For one thing, he forgets the analogy to athletes that Marcus is suggesting. I'm entirely confident that Mailer would not say that Muhammad Ali was engaging in an "improper activity" when he was working out, taking a few rounds with a sparring partner, say, or even just going for a jog. To suggest that a writer's "responsibilities" when writing are somehow more serious than a boxer's when boxing is not just wrong, it's not what Mailer believes. So I'm quite sure he would retract this statement upon reflection.

Then there's the fact he's just plain wrong about working out. It is simply not true that an easy five kilometer run, or some light sparring in the ring, (or practicing your scales on the piano for twenty minutes,) wears the body out. The opposite is true. What wears the body out is to be always engaged in activities characterized by "danger and responsibility". Likewise, it is not good for your style to constantly (or even continuously) weigh it down with the duty or open it up to threats. You can do this for a few hours at most every day, when you struggle to "write for publication". During some periods, you should set this entirely aside and do, yes, some "setting-up exercises", entirely free of consequences.

People who are serious all of the time aren't really serious any of the time.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Errant, I

many pledge allegiance to the "blood god"
I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse
who watches over me as I sleep (K. Silem Mohammad)

My mind is ebbing low these days, at least when it turns to the question of the universities. Now, due to certain peculiarities of my personal history my hope for society as a whole, and my enjoyment of culture in general, passes unavoidably through my thoughts and feelings about the university, much as a priest, I would imagine, is constrained in his enjoyment of life by his attitudes about the church. In my case, of course, for the analogy to hold we'd have to imagine a somewhat rogue or at least errant priest. One who holds no office and is a member of no established order.

In any case, I just reread Adam Kirsch's "A Poet's Warning", about W.H. Auden's "Under Which Lyre" from 1946. He quotes a couple of important stanzas, and then comments:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

This advice is half-joking, but only half. For Auden is reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is extraneous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

I find myself increasingly unable to laugh. It seems to me that since WWII we have been half-jokingly compliant with too many initiatives that deserved, at the very least, our half-hearted recalcitrance. Lately, they aren't getting even that.

We have let the powers that be, or the forces of history, or whoever we've pledged our allegiance to, convince us that the cultivation of the freedom of inwardness (note the important role that privacy plays in this) is an outdated and somewhat quaint affectation, perhaps even a dangerous extravagance. Accordingly, we have slowly undermined the institution that was supposed to give dignity to what happens in the privacy of our own minds, and in the intimacy that can be established between any two of them. By converting education into essentially training in managing projects, passing tests, and holding tenable opinions about world affairs, we have, to use T.S. Eliot's similar formuation "confine[d] knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity." Only that which can be made public appears now to matter.

Monday, June 10, 2013


"...and the living is easy."

My stock advice goes as follows. Plan to work on your research writing in a calm and orderly way for four periods of eight weeks every year. Take about five weeks off from this routine at Christmas time, and about thirteen weeks off during the summer. This will let you fit two eight-week periods, plus a one-week break between them, into the fall and the spring semesters.

When I say you should "take time off" I don't mean that you should just be loafing. I mean take time off from the routine. The routine is simply this: every weekday for those eight weeks (and never on the weekends) write at least half an hour and at most three. Always decide the day before exactly when and what you will write. Never write something you didn't plan to write, and never write when you hadn't planned to. That means for 32 weeks of the year, and for somewhere between 80 and 480 hours in total, you will be in complete control of your writing.

During the remaining 20 weeks, you're free to be in less control. You can, of course, decide not to write at all. But that, too, is a form of control. I definitely recommend such a week of not writing over Christmas and that you take those two mid-semester breaks off completely too. Two or three weeks during summer are probably best spent resting your prose muscles as well. (I say "probably" because people are different and the important thing is to find your own way to write reliably.)

Altogether this leaves maybe 14 weeks to "experiment". Try writing impulsively. Try writing eight hours a day. Try not writing until you feel like it. Try writing whatever comes into your head. Try putting off the writing all day and then writing after dinner.

More moderately, if you've had a semester of "minimal planned writing", i.e., when you've written exactly one paragraph for exactly 27-minutes every day, eighty paragraphs in all, each of which you decided on (i.e., specified the content of) the day before, then you might try writing for two hours a day on a plan that specifies, say, all forty paragraphs of a single paper in advance. Re-writing the paper in this way over two weeks might teach you something important.

This blog is planned around the same calendar. That means that I start blogging regularly again on August 19. I haven't quite decided what the pattern will be, but I think I'll be posting every day at 7:00AM. Monday to Friday. I'll take a one-week break starting on October 14, and then break for Christmas on December 16.

Why think about this now? Well, the knowledge that you're going to be returning to a steady routine after the summer and that this routine will give you a certain amount of time to write a certain amount of prose (roughly: one paragraph every half hour) will help you relax and make you feel good about whatever experiments you decide to run. And that will make it more likely that you'll learn something from it. The goal is to discover the writer that you are.