Are you geek enough to watch a TED about typefaces? I am. (Granted, I’m an editor privileged to work with talented graphic designers.) Type designer Matthew Carter (you’ve seen his work) talks about design and the constraints of technology. His words are helpful, I think, whatever your creative endeavor.
“Does a constraint force a compromise?” he asks. “By accepting a constraint are you working to a lower standard?” During Carter’s career, constraints have been imposed by the limitations of printing, screen display, and information technology. But every form of creativity faces constraints of one kind or another. The question is, how do you respond? And can overcoming a particular technical challenge lead to aesthetic discoveries?
Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.
I read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.
Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”
Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new books. People in the Canadian Arctic long ago nicknamed him “Hardly Know It,” but others consider him a national treasure whose artistic license serves a higher purpose of raising environmental awareness and lampooning human arrogance.
Wouldn’t you like to be a conjurer or enchanter? You would be a mysterious figure, feared and respected. People would come to you for help, ask your advice, be in awe of your power.
What is a conjurer anyway? It comes from a Latin word meaning “to swear together.” The original meaning of the English word was (according to Merriam-Webster) “to charge or entreat earnestly or solemnly,” but eventually it came to mean “to summon by invocation or incantation” and to “affect or effect as if by magic,” or even “to summon a devil or evil spirit by invocation or incantation.” Today, when we use the word “conjure” at all, we generally use it metaphorically.
It turns out that a belief in the magical power of words is embedded deeply in the English language, which originated during a time when nearly everyone still believed in magic. Invoke/invocation came from a Latin word meaning “to call.” It meant to petition for help or support, particularly an authority, and it came to imply incantation, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to enchant.” An incantation was a “use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as part of a ritual of magic; also, a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect.” Continue reading →
At Brain Pickings, one of my favorite blogs, Maria Popova has an excellent post about Anne Lamott’s advice from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
Popova, summarizing Lamott, says that in writing,
“there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, ‘Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.’, and David Foster Wallace admonished, ‘If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.’) Lamott cautions: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.’” Continue reading →
Picture This by artist/cartoonist/teacher Lynda Barry (2010) is among the strangest and most intriguing books I’ve ever read. And in this case, by “read,” I mean “looked at the pictures and read the words,” because in this case the images are more important than the words, though each provides the perfect complement to the other.
Loosely structured, many of the book’s pictures are done on throwaway paper — a yellowed dictionary page, phone book pages, old magazines. Recurring story lines include the dysfunctional romance of Mr. Beak and Mr. Trunk, cousins Marlys and Arna and their adventures in art, ads for “Don’t – the imaginary cigarette with controllable smoke,” and especially the Near-Sighted Monkey, a sort of bespectacled trickster figure who is partly the alter ego of Barry herself. Continue reading →
As a child you learn, (1) Play is fun, and, (2) Someday you’ll grow up and work, and that’s no fun. To prepare for this dark future they send you to school. School can be dull and tedious, but that’s good, because school is a preparation for work. It’s sort of mini-job to get you used to sitting quietly at a desk and working on pointless tasks.
This is the scenario with which Paul Graham opens his brilliant essay, “How To Do What You Love.” Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor, and though his essay seems to be directed toward young people, it’s good reading at any age. He presents a way of thinking about what you do and how to do more of what you love. (An excellent summary, along with excerpts from other writers, is at Brain Pickings.)
Here are a few quotes to entice you to read the whole thing. Graham talks about career day presentations in which adults come and tell kids how much they love their jobs — but do they really? Graham says of kids: Continue reading →
My favorite part of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is where he promises the reader the origin of all poems and that you’ll no longer take things at second hand. “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” He’s not going to impart information so much as show us a new way of looking at the world, and then turn us loose to look for ourselves.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. Continue reading →