The Writer's Life

Mar 09, 2011

The Writer's Life: As you know: Read from the Masters, old and new. For a stunning example of character description read here;

From a 1956 profile of Tennessee Williams by the late Kenneth Tynan, one of the legendary theater critics. “In Spain, where I saw him last, he lookedprofoundly Spanish. He might have passed for one of those confidential streetdealers who earn their living selling spurious Parker pens in the cafes of Malagaor Valencia. Like them, he wore a faded chalk-striped shirt, a coat slung over hisshoulders, a trim dark mustache and a sleazy, fat-cat smile. His walk, like theirs,was a raffish saunter, and everything about him seemed slept in, especially hishair, a nest of small, wet serpents.”

This, and many other such real-life characterizations, can be found in theTynan anthology, Profiles, one of the finest master-classes in how to write non-fiction. As it’s one of my favorite books, expect to see excerpts from it here fromtime to time.

Mar 05, 2011

The Writer's Life: If, under threat of death, I had to choose only one poet of all time, who would it be?

Answer – The sublime and immortal Gerard Manley Hopkins. Born 1844 in England, died 1889 in Ireland, a Jesuit who despaired at what he saw as his own lack of excellence, he wrote some of the most profound poems of all time. His rooms in Dublin are preserved as he left them, and in them you feel the austerity that focused him and made him great. Here (in a timely way) is one of my favorite Hopkins pieces, the sonnet, “See How Spring Opens.”

See how Spring opens with disabling cold,
And hunting winds and the long-lying snow.
Is it a wonder if the buds are slow?
Or where is strength to make the leaf unfold?
Chilling remembrance of my days of old
Afflicts no less, what yet I hope may blow,
That seed which the good sower once did sow,
So loading with obstruction that threshold

Which should ere now have led my feet to the field.
It is the waste done in unreticent youth
Which makes so small the promise of that yield
That I may win with late-learnt skill uncouth
From furrows of the poor and stinting *weald.
Therefore how bitter, and learnt how late, the truth.*
“Weald” – open countryside, sometimes wooded.


Feb 25, 2011

The Writer’s Life: “Re-reading Sylvia Plath: inside all the distress, there’s wonderful writing, as on February 25, 1952:”

Now read what she wrote that day, and in it you can feel the cold heat that grew and grew inside her;  “Can you see, through the strange dark tunnel of cupped hands to the great Cyclops eye, blurred, staring, flecked, with one lightspot that grows and becomes a cloud, shifting, endowed with meaning, imposed upon it. Can you feel, listening with trained ear to heartbeat of the other, the wind shrieking and gasping and singing, as one listens to the vast humming, inside the paradoxical cylinder of the telephone pole?  Such uncharted, wild barrens there are behind the calm or mischievous shell that has learned its name but not its destiny. There is still time to veer, to sally forth, knapsack on back, for unknown hills over which… only the wind knows what lies. Shall she, shall she veer? There will be time, she says, knowing that in her beginning is her end and the seeds of destruction perhaps now dormant may even today begin sprouting malignantly within her. She turns away from action in one direction, to that in another, knowing all the while that some day she must face behind the door of her choosing, perhaps the lady, perhaps the tiger.”

I’ve sometimes wondered whether that moment might mark the opening of her last long pathway through the world she found so fraught. After many attempts, she finally took her life almost eleven years later by putting her head in a gas oven. And left behind some exquisite if often troubling poems. 


Feb 20, 2011

The Writer’s Life: “Best book of all time for the aspiring writer/beginner? Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.”

Thoughtful, kind, encouraging and wise – those are the words by which I characterize Dorothea Brande. Her husband may have been a fascist, but she had a gift of releasing talent in people. Read this, from “Becoming a Writer,” and you’ll see what I mean. 

“Set yourself to discover if you can see any connection between a good morning’s work and the conditions of the evening before. Can you tell whether or not the good writing came after you had spent an active day, or a quiet one? Did you write more easily after going to bed early,  or after a short sleep? Is there any observable connection between seeing certain friends and the vividness or dullness of the next morning’s work? How did you write in the morning after you had been to the theater, to an exhiition of pictures, or to a dance? Notice such things and try to arrange for the type of activity which results in good work. “


Feb 15, 2011

The Writer’s Life: “Current reading: “The Right Stuff “by Tom Wolfe. Here’s a stunning sentence: “A career in flying was like…”

“A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzying progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even – ultimately, God willing, one day – that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.”

I ask myself how long Mr. Wolfe worked at that sentence, at its structure, its language, its context in the book ,and I say to everyone who wants to write, “Go thou and do likewise.”


Feb 10, 2011

The Writer's Life: From Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals February 1981 - a pithy comment on President Reagan from Dr. Kissinger

“I get along well with Reagan,” he [Dr. K.] said. “I spent an hour and a half with him only a few days ago. He is a nice man, a decent man.  One odd thing, though. When he talks, all his illustrations are drawn from the movie business. He never says, ‘We had a problem like that in Sacramento,’ never brings up his eight years as governor [of California]. It is always, ‘We had a problem like that in the Screen Actor’s Guild’.” 


Feb 04, 2011

The Writer's Life: “If there’s a verse that keeps echoing in your head write it down; it’s telling you something.” Now read one that haunts me:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest
A handful of gray ashes, long, long ago at rest;
Still are thy gentle voices, thy nightingales awake
For Death, he taketh everything but these he cannot take.”

For many years I had known only the first four lines; then I discovered the second four, all translated from the Greek by a teacher at Eton College, England’s poshest school. The original poem was written by Callimachus, the 3rd century poet and librarian from Alexandria, and the word “Carian” refers to the birthplace of Heraclitus, the famous philosopher whose death is lamented in the two verses; it might as easily have been “Anatolian” but it wouldn’t scan. Speaking of which, the penultimate line doesn’t scan, and that’s why I’ll now never get the damned thing out of my head because I’ll always be trying to write that line in a way that scans.

Bonus extra: William Cory, the Eton schoolmaster who did the translation,wrote to a friend, “Life is short; let us love one another; there is nothing else worth living for.”

Feb 01, 2011

The Writer's Life: Have you heard of a “commonplace book”? These daily tweets, “The Writer’s Life,” are my Commonplace Book."

First, a mea culpa: how often have I said that no matter how well you know something,e.g., a quotation, check it when you’ve typed it? A reader, Ken Fletcher, has pointed out to me that I mixed up the Bronte sisters and their authorships. It’s now corrected and thank you, Ken.

Commonplace Books: They were first a tool of self-education, used by people who had newly learned to write. They kept – often elaborately decorated -notebooks for noting down interesting, arresting and useful phrases, comments, jokes, quotations, proverbs that caught their attention in a commonplace day. Then it developed into something unnecessary but quite stylish, a means for ladies and gentlemen of education to capture words and illuminations that flew in the air abovetheir heads. Writers have always used them, if not necessarily calling them commonplace books; an idea comes to you – write it down. And it’s handy (I’d say essential) to have a notebook where all such write-it-downs appear.

I’ve known more than one person who kept a commonplace book. One or two have even been published; and it stands to reason that from a commonplace book you learn a great deal about the person who keeps it. And, though The Writer’s Lifeis not the first commonplace book on the Internet, it’s cool to think that a private, if not intimate, literary practice that has been in play for a number of centuries is now active in the most modern mass communication tool that we possess.

Jan 28, 2011

The Writer's Life: “When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive.”

Read more: I had the privilege of interviewing Alan Paton at the BBC in London. His wonderful book, “Cry the Beloved Country,” had long mesmerized me with its lyrical beauty and its deep understanding of a people’s collective pain. If it were possible, he proved almost more inspirational in person. Not tall, he radiated modesty and immense kindness – not merely person-to-person, but for humanity in general. When I asked him (as we walked along a corridor) whether he thought his book had launched civil rights movements everywhere, he stopped and said, “Please don’t put that question to me in the interview. It will make me sound important and I only do what I can.” Several times during the broadcast, his eyes shone with tears as he talked about the beauty of his beloved South Africa – as did my eyes when news of his death came in 1988. He was born in January 1903, making (for me, anyway) every January worthwhile.


Jan 27, 2011

The Writer's Life: “Did you know? The origin of the word “sincere” might not be what you think it is. Or it might?.”

Read more: It used to be thought that “sincere” came from an unscrupulous practice in the world of goldsmiths. If a piece of work emerged from the mold with imperfections, they were smoothed over with wax steeped in gold dust – thus, “sine” – without; “cera” – wax. Likewise, in the marble quarries where Michelangelo worked, if a piece of marble had been hurt in the excavation, the quarrymen rubbed in wax to subdue the gouged scars. These origins have long been challenged by Latin scholars, who say that  “sincere” comes from a medieval Latin word, “sincerus,” meaning clean, unadulterated, pure of composition. But - dah! Couldn’t “sincerus” have come from “sine” and “cera”? We shall never know until we get that book I’ve always wanted to see published – the dictionary that gives us the root of the word-root, and for several generations of origin where necessary.


Re: Joyce, from the beginning:

With Tremendous Sadness

Delay in the Podcast

Re:Joyce Episode 368 – Cavalcades & Comets’ Tails

Re:Joyce Episode 367 – Theatrical Turns & Toxic Gas

Re:Joyce Episode 366 - Gesundheit!

Re:Joyce Episode 365 – Soubrettes & Silken Thomas

Re:Joyce Episode 364 - Be Italian

Re:Joyce Episode 363 - Blond as Blazes

Re:Joyce Episode 362 - Sisters in Time

Re:Joyce Episode 361A - Baker’s Dozen

Re:Joyce Episode 361 – Coins, Licorice & Ice-Cream

Re:Joyce Episode 360 – Courting Couples & Cabbage

R:Joyce Episode 359 – Missionaries & Malahide

Re:Joyce Episode 358 – Kid Gloves & Butter

Re: Joyce Episode 357 – The Dancing Master

Re:Joyce Episode 356 - On the Rocks

Re:Joyce Episode 355 -Last Eddies

Re: Joyce Episode 354 - Rude & Lewd

Re:Joyce Episode 353 – MUMMERS & MYSTERIES

Re:Joyce Episode 352 - Mockery & Belief

Re:Joyce Episode 351 - Kings & Princes

Re:Joyce Episode 350 - Banishment & Catastrophe

Re:Joyce Episode 349 - Fairytales & Lapwings

Re:Joyce Episode 348 - Naming Names

Re:Joyce Episode 347 – Plays & Players

Re:Joyce Episode 346 - Fathers & Sons

Re:Joyce Episode 345A - Plato & Aristotle

Re:Joyce Episode 345 – Feelings of Greed

Re:Joyce Episode 344 - Cornjobbers & Gross Virgins

Re:Joyce Episode 343 - Family Fortunes

Re:Joyce Episode 342 - Giglots & Gombeens

Re:Joyce Episode 341 - Insults and Insinuations

Re:Joyce Episode 340 - Parodies & Pints

Re:Joyce Episode 339 - The Colors of Mockery

Re:Joyce - Episode 338: The Buck Returns

Re:Joyce Episode 337 - Lords of Language

Re:Joyce Episode 336 - Moles & Wild Oats

Re:Joyce Episode 335 - Mummies & Dirty Looks

Re:Joyce Episode 334 - Name-Dropping

Re:Joyce Episode 333 - Hermetists & Tongue-Twisters

Re:Joyce Episode 332 - Errors & Bosh

Re:Joyce Episode 331 - Green Room Gossip

Re:Joyce Episode 330 - Ghostly Stuff

Re:Joyce Episode 329 - Buttocks & Beggars

Re:Joyce Episode 328A - Manuscript Matters

Re:Joyce Episode 328 - Erotic & Esoteric

Re:Joyce Episode 327 - Rocks & Hard Places

Re:Joyce Episode 326 – Flesh and the Fear of Flesh

Re:Joyce Episode 325 - Seeing Eyes & Striplings

Re:Joyce Episode 324 - Tarts & Garters

Re:Joyce Episode 323 - Hiccups & Horse Races

Re:Joyce Episode 322 - Gossip & Grog

Re:Joyce Episode 321 - Bottoms Up!

Re:Joyce Episode 320 - Seafood & Stuff

Re:Joyce Episode 319 - Blushing & Boxing

Re:Joyce Episode 318 - Cheese & Wine

Re:Joyce Episode 317 - Street Eating

Re:Joyce Episode 316 - Swillings & Smells

Re:Joyce Episode 315 - Pincushions & Pantaloons

Re:Joyce Episode 314 - Parallax & Poetry

Re:Joyce Episode 313 - A Two-Headed Octopus

Re:Joyce Episode 312A - The Dancing Soul

Re:Joyce Episode 312 - Mooching Loonies

Re:Joyce Episode 311 - The Hidden Hand

Re:Joyce Episode 310 - Plumpness & Pigeons

Re:Joyce Episode 309 - Different Women

Re:Joyce Episode 308 - Character Driven

Re:Joyce Episode 307 - Pastry & Pregnancy

Re:Joyce Episode 306 - Wide Eyes & New Moons

Re:Joyce Episode 305 - Frogs & Stays

Re:Joyce Episode 304 Fun in High Hats

Re:Joyce Episode 303 - Wit & Social Disease

Re:Joyce Episode 302 - Gulls & Guinness

Re:Joyce Episode 301 - Lestrygonians

Re:Joyce Episode 300 - Falling Winds

Re:Joyce Episode 299 - Plum Lines

Re-Joyce Episode 298 - Fundamental Osculation

Re:Joyce Episode 297 - Dubliners Redux

Re:Joyce Episode 296A - The Blooming Year

Re:Joyce Episode 296 - Tara to Troy

Re:Joyce Episode 295 - Ancient Orators

Re:Joyce Episode 294 - Mastermystics & Morale

Re:Joyce Episode 293 - Paradise & Powerful Men

Re:Joyce Episode 292 - Silver Tongues & Skin-the-Goat

Re:Joyce Episode 291 - A Murder Story

Re:Joyce Episode 290 - Lists & Limericks

Re:Joyce Episode 289 - Of Soup & Sin

Re:Joyce Episode 288 - Tobacco & Tweeds

Re:Joyce Episode 287 - A Little Mazurka

Re:Joyce Episode 286 - Flossing & Fretting

Re:Joyce Episode 285 - Part Two

Re:Joyce Episode 285 Part One - Welsh Combs & Feathery Hair

Re:Joyce Episode 285

Re:Joyce Episode 284 - Barristers & Bosky Groves

Re:Joyce - Episode 283: Pensive Bosoms & Purple Prose

Re:Joyce Episode 282 - Stories & Soap

Re:Joyce Episode 281 - Spellingbees & Slithery Sounds

Re:Joyce Episode 280A - The Mysterious Mr. Macintosh

Re:Joyce Episode 280 - Keys & Clankings

Re:Joyce Episode 279 - Flatulence & Debt Collecting

Re:Joyce Episode 278 - A Stately Savior

Re: Joyce, Episode 277: Blow Ye Breezes

Re:Joyce Episode 276 - Dented Hats & Dislikes

Re:Joyce Episode 275 - GreatGrandfather Rat

Re:Joyce Episode 274 - A Touch of the Immortal

Re:Joyce Episode 273 - What’s in a Name?

Re: Joyce, Episode 272 - Frying Pans & Fires

Re:Joyce Episode 271 - Trestles & Tweed Suits

Re:Joyce Episode 270 - The Mysterious Man in the Macintosh

Re: Joyce Episode 269 - Ageing & Fertilizing

Re: Joyce, Episode 268: Jealousy and Diplomacy

Re:Joyce Episode 267 Of Boats and Pumps

Re:Joyce- Episode 266: Lilting Sepulchres

Re:Joyce Episode 265 - It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas!

Re:Joyce - Episode 264A: Weaver’s Work

Re:Joyce Episode 264 - Boots, Beds & Bald Heads

Re:Joyce - Episode 263.1 - Stiffness and Mutes

Re: Joyce Episode 263 - Cemetery Thoughts

Re: Joyce Episode 262 - A Little Murder

Re:Joyce Episode 261: Canal Water Preferably

re:Joyce Episode 260 - Deadly Thoughts

Re:Joyce Episode 259 - The Fifth Quarter

Re: Joyce, Episode 258: Kellys & Cattle

Re: Joyce, Episode 257: Fast Cars & Hairy Ears

Re: Joyce, Episode 256: Malice Aforethought

Re: Joyce, Episode 255: Re: Hearses 

Re: Joyce, Episode 254: Street Smarts

Re: Joyce, Episode 253: Vino & Veritas

Re: Joyce, Episode 252A: A Baker's Dozen Special Edition

Re: Joyce, Episode 252: Tales of the Riverbank 

Re: Joyce, Episode 251: Moneylenders & Mirth

Re: Joyce, Episode 250: Sombre Pedestals

Re: Joyce, Episode 249: Silent Ripostes

Re: Joyce, Episode 248: Second Thoughts

Re: Joyce, Episode 247: Art Versus Life

Re: Joyce, Episode 246: Bleak As Blazes 

Re: Joyce, Episode 245: Points of Interest  

Re: Joyce, Episode 244: Sadness & Woe

Re: Joyce, Episode 243: Pecking Orders & Pomposity

Re: Joyce, Episode 242: Dogs’ Homes & Gasworks

Re: Joyce, Episode 241: Carriage Trade

Re: Joyce, Episode 240A: Reading Joyce

Re: Joyce, Episode 240: Cease to do Evil

Re: Joyce, Episode 239: Breadcrumbs & Bastards

Re: Joyce, Episode 238: Fidus Achates

Re: Joyce, Episode 237: The Road to Hell

Re: Joyce, Episode 236: Funeral Pace

Re: Joyce, Episode 235: Farewell the Lotus

Re: Joyce, Episode 234: Lingering Lotus-Eaters

Re: Joyce, Episode 233: Sports & Porters

Re: Joyce, Episode 232: The Throwaway Factor

Re: Joyce, Episode 231: Waxes & Warts

Re: Joyce, Episode 230: Skinfood

Re: Joyce, Episode 229: Poppysyrups & Poisons 

Re: Joyce, Episode 228: Pestle and Mortar

Re: Joyce, Episode 227: Furtive Hands

Re: Joyce, Episode 226: Browbeatings & Buzz

Re: Joyce, Episode 225: Whispers of Remorse

Re: Joyce, Episode 224A: Throwing the Book at Him  

Re: Joyce, Episode 224: Eunuchs & Liqueurs

Re: Joyce, Episode 223: Mozart or Muller?

Re: Joyce, Episode 222: Beer, Wine & Spirits

Re: Joyce, Episode 221: Character & Assassination

Re: Joyce, Episode 220: Bread & Bleeding Statues

Re: Joyce, Episode 219: Cannibals and Corpses

Re: Joyce, Episode 218: Swimmers & Sodalities

Re: Joyce, Episode 217: Jesuits & Jossticks

Re: Joyce, Episode 216A: The Birth of Dubliners

Re: Joyce, Episode 216: Pools and Swirls

Re: Joyce, Episode 215: Stout Fun

Re: Joyce, Episode 214: Cool Waters

Re: Joyce, Episode 213: Martha & Mary

Re: Joyce, Episode 212: Pinpoints

Re: Joyce, Episode 211: The Flowers That Bloom

Re: Joyce, Episode 210: Matters of Correction

Re: Joyce, Episode 209: Petals & Pussycats

Re: Joyce, Episode 208: Taws & Dobbers

Re: Joyce, Episode 207: Nags & Nosebags

Re: Joyce, Episode 206: Stage Stars & Sadness

Re: Joyce, Episode 205: Soft Soap & Smallpox

Re: Joyce, Episode 204 A: Location, Location, Location

Re: Joyce, Episode 204: Funeral Tricks  

Re: Joyce, Episode 203: Portmanteaus & Potted Meat

Re: Joyce, Episode 202: Silk Stockings & Esprit de Corps

Re: Joyce, Episode 201: Foosterings & Fallbacks

Re: Joyce, Episode 200: Rich Fantasy

Re: Joyce, Episode 199: The Real McCoy

Re: Joyce, Episode 198: Soldiering On

Re: Joyce, Episode 197: The Language of Flowers

Re: Joyce, Episode 196: A Touch of Eureka

Re: Joyce, Episode 195: Leaves of Life

Re: Joyce, Episode 194: Hatbands & Heat

Re: Joyce, Episode 193: Funeral Music

Re: Joyce, Episode 192A: Love & Ulysses

Re: Joyce, Episode 192: Hitting the Streets

Re: Joyce, Episode 191: Bowels & Bells

Re: Joyce, Episode 190: Mona Lisa Molly

Re: Joyce, Episode 189: Of Cabbages & Combs

Re: Joyce, Episode 188: Take it Easy, Mr. B.

Re: Joyce, Episode 187: Bath Times & Braces